Post-MLA Reflections

The largest gathering of scholars in the humanities took place at the Vancouver Convention Centre last week. Hours of sunshine alternated with hours of fog and rain. I learned two things at the 2015 convention of the Modern Languages Association (MLA): That there is a world in which academia could be vastly different from what it is today; and that we are far, far away from this world. Much credit must be given to those who try to politicize the professoriat, by unionizing adjuncts and addressing issues of unfairness in the academe. By now, everyone is familiar with the untenable and exploitative working conditions of many part-time faculty members. At a panel for ‘Contingent Academic Labor and Unionization’, there was an impassioned call for solidarity between the adjunct and tenured staff at post-secondary institutions. To arrive at workplace democracy, we must establish collegiality and assume social responsibility. Academics, too, are waving a banner.

According to some surveys, adjuncts make up 50% of all faculty at American institutions. We are the precariat, incessantly walking on tiptoes across an unstable bridge that stretches from one side of the bottomless chasm to the other. But perhaps the image of linear progression across a bridge is misleading, for there is very little sense of arriving on the other side. Instead, a member of the precariat engages in a circular loop of applications, teaching, rejections, more applications, until the motions become almost mechanical, and the enthusiasm once felt towards something like the MLA has dwindled to curiosity at best. Regardless of the social status that comes with being a ‘college professor’, at times I long for a stable 9-5 job, without weekend obligations or forever elusive goals. Perhaps the lifestyle of the salaried bourgeoisie brings to mind Nietzsche’s Last Men, who lack passion and commitment, whose lives are sparsely filled with ‘little pleasures’. But having been on the wobbly bridge for so long does make me envy those who are able to relax their weary limbs and set up camp for the night on secure, solid grounds.

I like the word ‘contingent’, for it brings to mind ideas about free will and fate; permanency and ephemerality; the possibility of catastrophe; it also connotes the physical touch (from the Latin tangere), or the act of bringing together. Google shows that the use of the word ‘contingent’ has increased in recent decades; we are living in the age of chance, or hazards and precariousness.

I wonder if academia itself is contingent, an accidental formation created at a particular time, under particular historical circumstances. Those circumstances changed, and another chance formation might occur, replacing the current one. Since the start of the debate on the ‘value of the humanities’, there have been countless articles extolling the benefits of deep reading and complex writing. Centres for the humanities popped up all throughout North America and the UK, and scholarship has gradually shifted towards interdisciplinarity. All this is to avert disaster. But during a panel on Romanticism (my supposed speciality), while I listened to convoluted prose that produced trailing sentences filled with too many adjectives and arguments-within-arguments too tiring to disentangle, I wondered if the effort to make ourselves unique, valuable, irreplaceable has ironically contributed to the devaluing of the humanities and the alienation of academia.

A curious event occurred on the second day of the Convention: A group of young people walked through the building holding up banners and shouting ‘From Ferguson to MLA, Black Lives Matter’. Most people looked on in bafflement and went about their business. This was curious – Did the protesters assume that scholars of the humanities would think black lives did not matter? Most scholars are probably liberals who would, at least in their research, fight for the underdogs, the disenfranchised, the oppressed. This kind of scholarship is a form of empathy, surely. Given this fact, it is curious how talks about empathy or ethics are often frowned upon in academia. I failed to get a job because I used the word ‘ethics’ in the teaching statement (not connoting a form of indoctrination, as was assumed, but a way of living and being in the Aristotelian sense); and on another occasion, I was told that a project on disaster has nothing to do with ethics or empathy. How can we approach catastrophe and its aftermath without thinking about the ethics of social response and collective responsibility? Not everything is about the sublime, or about perfectly crafted sentences.

All the talk about workplace democracy, about fairness and positive change comes down to one thing – the importance of empathy. On a panel about Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, there was much talk about the importance of compassion – I greatly respected these scholars of German literature, because such talks are rare and perhaps even unwelcome in some scholarly circles. They discussed how some texts invite the reader to respond empathically, and how scholars, as serious readers of serious literature, can mediate that response. There was a subtle call for the ‘moralization of literary criticism’, to borrow the title of one of the talks.

How can the humanities carve out a space for reflection and intellectual inquiry in the age of neoliberalism and technological advancement? By bringing out the true value of the humanities – which is the same ideal upheld by many of the writers whose works we teach and analyze. Yeats wrote that literature is the ‘principal voice of the conscience’, and that a great writer will devote many years to the study of moral issues. Even though the university has become a profit-driven corporation, and academic publishing is primarily about career advancement, there is still a chance that literary criticism can also be ‘a voice of conscience’. And unless we can practice empathy in the workplace, unionization will not yield the desired results. Until we can see that the value of what we teach and write does not reside in grants, publications, academic celebrity, or tenure, academia will remain in a state of contingency.

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An Account of Formosa

In 1703, a fair-skinned, golden-haired young man arrived in London, and announced himself to be a native of the island of Formosa, or modern-day Taiwan. Adopting the name of George Psalmanazar (c. 1680-1763), the man was the author of an elaborate hoax that beguiled the British public and baffled Royal Society experts. For three years, Psalmanazar was accepted as a Formosan aristocrat, an eater of twigs and raw meat from the capital city of Xternetsa, his fair skin accounted for by the fact that Formosan aristocrats lived in subterranean caves, their complexion protected from the glare of sunlight. Psalmanazar’s popular but false ethnographic study, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan (1704), described in great and fantastical detail Formosan customs such as weddings, funerals and religious rites, supplemented with maps and engravings.

psalmanazar3

On the one hand, Psalmanazar depicted the fictional Formosans as a skilful and industrious people, capable of art such as porcelain ware. On the other hand, he catered to popular conceptions of the savage Other, and described cannibalistic rituals and sacrifices of infants to an ox-shaped god. One of the most remarkable facets of Description of Formosa was the imaginary Formosan language, invented by Psalmanazar, using an elaborate system of alphabets that showcased his linguistic ingenuity (in spite of the fact that he had no knowledge of any Asian languages). Psalamanazar was eventually forced to reveal his deception in 1706. Biographical details about his life remain scarce, though scholars speculate that he was originally from France, and had previously posed as a native of Japan.

Books have been written about Psalmanazar’s exploits, and the relation between his false representation (of himself and of Formosa) and the complex mapping of Asia in the European imagination. Psalmanazar’s story demonstrates that there is a great deal of mythmaking when it comes to imagining other cultures and other languages; we are no less guilty of this in the age of globalization. I would like to jump from eighteenth-century Formosa to present-day Taiwan, which now engages – ironically – in its own practice of mythmaking.

I worked at a Taiwanese university for 1.5 years (as Assistant Professor in English), motivated mostly by the bleak state of the academic job market. A few months after my PhD was submitted, an opportunity arose in Taiwan; I took it, hesitantly at first, but later more enthusiastically, spurred on by articles exploring the benefits of working and teaching in Asia. However, my experience was far from ideal.

At a time when the academic job market in the Anglo-American world motivates new graduates to seek employment outside their usual geographic or cultural boundary, I feel it is important to present a more sobering view of working in Asia. There are always potential difficulties with working in a different culture, but what concern me here are the difficulties that result from racial politics. Upon my initial arrival in Taiwan, I was fully prepared to try my best at Chinese, while lecturing and writing mainly in English. However, during my first week at work, I was told that I would have to teach fully in Chinese, because, in short, I am ethnically Asian and therefore cannot be trusted to teach accurate English to the students (though English is my primary language, and I have always lived in English-speaking countries, not to mention the three degrees in English literature). The mixed cultural background that I had supposed to be an asset was instead a major obstacle in my professional development in Taiwan.

I failed to persuade my superiors that my reading knowledge of Chinese did not extend far beyond restaurant menus; that I am not able to write academic prose in Chinese; or that an Asian person does not automatically speak English with an Asian accent. Those statements rang hollow because they destabilized the existing ideology in Taiwan, which insists that native proficiency in English is possible only for those of Anglo-American or European descent – or to put it more crudely, those who are white-skinned. (In Taiwan, I found there is rarely acknowledgement of the fact that English is but one of the twenty-four official languages spoken in Europe, and that most people of European descent do not consider English their mother tongue).

With a mixture of shock and indignation, I lectured using Google Translate projected onto a big screen; when I accidentally used English words for which I could not find the Chinese equivalent, I would be scolded by the departmental administrator (who had asked students to report such instances of slippage to him; and the administrative staff at the university held tremendous power). I was also derided for my inability to understand much of the complex Chinese used in meetings; at one point I was publicly labelled ‘an embarrassment to the department’, and that was considered polite. I got along well with my European colleagues, and had no problems with them, though it made me uncomfortable to learn that they were given the opportunity to teach fully in English, and were not expected to complete any administrative tasks. The picture is complicated by the fact that some Taiwanese colleagues lectured partially in English, but they were educated at the National Taiwan University, the top institution in the country, and were therefore judged differently.

To equate skin color with linguistic or literary capability is to assert racist ideology. It also presents an instance of mythmaking. As Psalmanazar’s forgery proved, the boundary between fiction and truth is easily blurred at times. If Psalmanazar’s account appears shot through with eighteenth-century misconceptions about the East, then the Taiwanese construction of the ideal English speaker is equally laden with prejudice and intolerance, upholding spurious claims about authenticity.

For 1.5 years, I spoke broken Chinese from Monday to Friday, faced verbal abuse from administrative staff, and experienced Taiwan as a place that fluctuated wildly between civility and cruelty – Psalmanazar was ironically accurate in his suggestion of that binarism. My Chinese improved, though my English deteriorated and my knowledge of English language and literature was continually questioned. Eventually, I resigned. The racial issue was not the only reason for my resignation – there were plenty of other problems such as sexual politics, lack of resources, pedagogical difficulties, unfair evaluation processes etc., but I won’t go into those. It was not easy giving up a tenure-track position with good benefits, but in the end, I could not shake the sense that all the years I had spent studying English literature had boiled down to nothing – or rather, nothing but my skin color.

While this is a personal experience, it is by no means confined to the personal context. According to Annie Chen, founder of Teachers Against Discrimination in Taiwan (TADIT), non-Caucasians frequently face racial discrimination in their job hunts, particularly in the education sector. The discussion board hosted by TADIT is filled with stories of the victimization endured by non-Caucasians, who are usually offered lower pay than their Caucasian co-workers (regardless of education or experience), or turned down for jobs due to the assumption that their language ability would be below standard. The ESL (or EFL) education market in Asia is notorious for hiring based on skin color (frequently, though not always)  without checking credentials; this has resulted in many under-qualified instructors gaining steady work in the education sector (usually in tutorial schools). While Taiwanese hospitality is a commonly observed fact, it is sometimes not extended to those who do not fit into crudely formed preconceptions about race and identity. Discrimination is, of course, a complex issue, extending far beyond Taiwan, and non-Caucasians are not the only ones who face potential victimization. The equation of skin color with language proficiency is also implicated in the complex politics of Asian identity and self-representation. Moreover, discrimination raises broader questions about the limits of cross-cultural interaction, and the fight for equality is an on-going struggle in the progress towards global inhabitation.

As the job market becomes international, nomadic scholars might encounter such racial issues more and more. The fictions perpetuated by racial prejudice obfuscate certain truths – that language skills have nothing to do with skin color or ethnicity; that there are cosmopolitan citizens of the world who speak multiple languages and know multiple cultures; that racial discrimination is a corrosive form of social violence that disseminate falsehoods as outrageous as those of Psalmanazar’s Formosa. Any sense of cohesion we might hope to build as a world relies, in part, on the recognition of these truths.

 

Beyond the Ivory Tower

During an 8-hour meeting at my previous job, at a university in Asia, it dawned on me that it had been almost a year since I read any ‘literature’, as in primary texts that inspired me to pursue a life of thought in the first place. Instead, what I had been doing for 1.5 years included attending meetings, filing endless piles of paperwork, reading the most mind-numbing books on language education, and regurgitating the same banal teaching material week after week to students who could probably care less. Of course, I was grateful for a job with a steady income, at a time when most of my peers did not have stable jobs, but when the brain becomes feverish after enough meetings, money no longer seemed like an attractive lure. A month later, I submitted my resignation.

This initial experience with academic life (albeit in a particularly hostile environment) led me to rethink my decision to become an academic. The life of deep contemplation, reading, writing, and engaging discussions is, alas, a fantasy that is increasingly unlikely in a world of contingent positions and suffocating tenure pressures. I began to wonder more and more about what lies beyond the formidable walls in which I have enclosed my life. Nowadays, it is no longer controversial to speak of the post-academic life. Informative websites such as Beyond Academe, Alternative PhD, and How to Leave Academia, all indicate a growing trend towards ‘post-ac’ jobs. After spending a few months collecting information about alternatives, I realized I was not alone, and that many PhD graduates are becoming discontent with the ivory tower. The article in Forbes, which argued that professors have the least stressful jobs in the world, is outrageously inaccurate (and Forbes has since then admitted the potential unreliability of their research). The academy brings a whirlwind of stress, anxiety and insecurity that makes leaving seem like a logical solution. This brilliant Manifesto says it all:

“Because I am tired of being made to feel like a failure because I have been failed by a flawed system…Because participating in a system that degrades, demeans, and disempowers you is masochism…Because obfuscation, elitism, arrogance, and self-righteousness should not be rewarded…Because I refuse to believe that a system that does not value me is the only one in which I can have worth…Because life is short…Because I am prevented from doing the work I was trained and prepared to do…I am leaving the academy.”

Many of the reasons listed are the reasons why I left my old job, and are now reasons why I am contemplating a post-ac life. Considering the harrowing state of crisis that has besieged the academic job market (endless applications followed by endless rejections, coupled with poverty and despair), it is only logical to be open to other options. Yet the academic world has always frowned upon those who ‘sell out’. The elitist attitude of academic culture means that most academics do not acknowledge – or are at least skeptical of – the idea of an intellectually-engaging career elsewhere. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues, such an attitude ‘only shows that academia’s conception of the life of the mind is narrower than it should be’. This narrowness is damaging to new graduates. The truth is that many PhD graduates pursue a career outside academia, which turns out to be just as engaging as academic work, if not more. Instead of pushing PhDs into the narrow tunnel of academic positions, departments should inform PhD candidates, from the beginning of their studies, that there are alternatives to an academic position, and that these alternatives are not ‘second best’. As Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman write:

‘A first step toward adjusting graduate education to occupational realities would be to change our attitudes and our language, to make clear to students entering programs […] that we are offering them education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.’

Academic elitism – or snobbery – has cultivated a system of shame that deludes us into thinking we must be professors in order for our education to have been worthwhile. But the real-life examples of many who have had fulfilling careers outside the academy tell a very different story. We need to redefine ‘success’. There is also a certain disdain for money and a misguided belief that careers in the ‘real world’ are solely about profit, not about the mind – as if competition for tenure has absolutely nothing to do with higher pay and power! Liberal-minded academics have always upheld the academy as a place of egalitarian ideals and humanitarian goals, but this ignores the steeply hierarchical structure of the university system (just look at the miseries suffered by adjunct faculty) and the narrowness that it perpetuates. Many academics are, in fact, conformist and conservative, and in many ways, radicalism has never been as far from campuses as they are today.

Choosing to leave the academy, then, can be an act of rebellion. But there is positive change at the end of the strife – or at least I hope so. A life of the mind and career-building outside the ivory tower are not mutually exclusive things; I plan to continue doing research and writing, regardless of what I do. There will undoubtedly be a sharp learning curve, as I try to convince potential employers that my expertise in 19th-century literature and culture might be useful outside a niche field. There is also the additional difficulty of leaving the sense of familiarity felt in the academic world, and ditching the prestigious title of ‘Doctor’. More importantly, I believe that while universities are undervaluing the arts and humanities, such disciplines still play a significant role in our society – in places such as non-profit organizations, in community reading groups, in the ever-changing publishing industry and in creative work, where literature can move beyond theoretical play and into ‘the realm of emotional significance’ (Jonathan Franzen). Leaving academia is not about selling out – it’s about finding a more fulfilling life for oneself and pursuing meaning beyond the bounds of education. And when the day comes, when I’m comfortable thriving in the ‘world outside’, then I will once again be able to read Romantic poetry with an unfettered mind.

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More articles on post-academic life:

1. Out of Academia

2. Doctor Outsider

3. The Repurposed PhD

4. Leaving Academia

5. I Quit Academia

More on MOOCs

The discussion on MOOCs and their implications has continued unabated, with universities outside the UK and the US joining the so-called ‘democratization of higher education’. In spite of numerous problems such as a high drop-out rate – and in spite of prophesies about the death of the MOOCs – these online courses have opened up a dialogue about change in the higher education sector. The MOOC phenomenon, in many ways, consists of two divides. As Bonnie Stewart outlines expertly, there is a perceived binary of privatization (market-driven education based on a business model devised by giant corporations in Silicon Valley) vs. the public status quo, upheld by those who vehemently defend the traditional boundaries of academic institutions. Of course, one problem with this binary view is that universities are already privatized or run like for-profit corporations, with or without MOOCs, and market forces have always influenced academe (an influence evident in the dire funding situation). In that light, the more plausible argument is the one put forth by Stewart – namely that ‘MOOCs are a symptom of change in higher education, not its source’.

Another divide in the MOOC phenomenon is the rift that might be created between elite universities that produce MOOCs and the less prestigious institutions that buy license to use those MOOCs in their classrooms. The recent debate started by professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University highlights the worrying possibility that online courses would damage the credibility of smaller institutions and their faculty, and worse, ‘replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.’ (NB: San Jose State has recently announced that it would put the MOOC project with Udacity on hold, so perhaps the philosophy professors’ criticisms have helped to instigate change.) The emphasis on prestige is no doubt a part of an intricate marketing scheme. According to Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, ‘Most people today will never get to take a U of T class or a Caltech class. But I would love to see a future where the University of Toronto is teaching not just thousands of students but millions. And the world will be a much better place for it.’ His claim is questionable – to link progress and improvement to enrollment at U of T seems tenuous at best, for it is not so much attendance at elite universities that would transform the world, but rather a dedication to learning and self-improvement. Further, Coursera, the largest of the online providers of MOOCs, are now offering courses by less well-known universities (there are even courses in different languages), so hopefully the divide can be bridged gradually, and the global student population will be exposed to more diverse teaching methods and intellectual approaches.

In June this year, I started taking an MOOC offered by Coursera – it is a module on photography and its cultural implications, taught at Royal Holloway, University of London. The course thus far has been fascinating, the lectures engaging, and the materials easy to access, so as far as user experience is concerned, I am pretty content. Of course, due to the demands of my own job, I have not been the most diligent student, and have not participated in the online forum with thousands of other students. But this MOOC experience has been remarkably insightful in two regards. 1. Teaching an MOOC is probably an effective way to practice adjusting pedagogical approach according to the needs of the students, since the global classroom would include students who do not come from an English-speaking, Anglo-American background; such adjustments might then trickle back into the physical lecture hall, thus improving the learning experience of students who are enrolled in the institution.

2. MOOCs are arguably good for the humanities (especially since a virtual space would not make sense for the sciences that need physical facilities). It is no longer controversial to say out loud that the study of literature, philosophy, art and history is in decline, or in a crisis. But as Rosanna Warren argues, academics are partly responsible for this decline. Warren provides a sobering reminder about how specialized jargon, narrowing reading lists and pedantic approaches have, to a certain extent, alienated the students and the wider public, and obscured the values of the humanities. Many literature departments in Asia, for example, train their students to read theoretical texts only, and one could graduate with a PhD in English literature without having read much of Shakespeare (though one might be well versed in Derrida). This is not to undermine the importance of theory, nor am I arguing for the so-called ‘canon’ to the exclusion of all other works, but something must be said about why we do the humanities. Judith Butler, in a commencement address at McGill University, remarked that ‘[The humanities allow us] to learn to read carefully, with appreciation and a critical eye; to find ourselves, unexpectedly, in the middle of the ancient texts we read…The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?’

The question, then, is one of community, to which writers and commentators on the value of the humanities continually return. The MOOCs might offer the humanities a chance to reach a larger audience, to rigorously demonstrate its persistent relevance to our world, and perhaps to instigate change. Maybe these online courses, which create a different kind of community, can provide a space for the humanities to thrive outside the traditional, research-based academe. So the problem is not really about privatization vs. status quo, but about how we can innovate education so that it yields something other than monetary profit. Now is indeed the time to talk about engagement and impact, though probably not in the sense that administrative authorities think. The MOOCs do remind me a bit of the pamphlets published in nineteenth-century England by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. We now need to talk about ‘universal schooling’ in a new sense. If MOOCs are indeed a symptom of change in higher education, then I hope they will help disseminate meaningful knowledge, and help us think about what being together means in the face of the cruelties, mass disillusionment and relentless volatility of our times.

The University of Life

About a month ago, BBC Future posted a part of a forum on the idea of the University of Life. Philosopher Alain de Botton (who founded the School of Life in Bloomsbury) argued that while schools and universities are good at teaching quantifiable skills such as maths and sciences, they have failed to instruct students on ‘how to live life’ – how to maintain relationships,  accept oneself, deal with anxieties etc. The arts and humanities (or the liberal arts), de Botton, argues, can be used as ‘conduits’ to explore the larger questions in life. Others on the panel were either skeptical or downright critical; someone even called the idea ‘fascist’, since it would be too forceful a curriculum if students had to study only the works that ‘made them good’.

De Botton makes a reasonable defense of his position and argues that the only way to combat the pernicious propaganda that bombards us everyday is to focus on the positive propaganda that we find in the arts. While I have often found de Botton’s arguments unsatisfactory or unconvincing, in this instance, I do see the point. If we view literature from the point of view not of the academic but the writer, then it becomes evident that writers do frequently write with some sort of moral agenda in mind, albeit a subtle one. Tolstoy once compiled a florilegium, or commonplace book, of quotes that could teach the reader about ‘the meaning of life’, vague though that phrase may be:

‘I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.’

For seventeen years, Tolstoy collected fragments for his project, which he later organized into A Wise Thought for Every Day. The quotes affirm, enrich or correspond to Tolstoy’s ideas about wisdom and the value of learning. His own aphoristic passages are interspersed between other quotes; for example: ‘A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.’

A liberal arts education does indeed resemble the collecting of quotes, narratives, ideas and images that all amount to some bright message – for the sake of argument, we need to simplify the idea of education. The point is not that we should stop studying historical context, literary techniques, publication processes or the other values of a literary work, but that an overarching sense of purpose would not only help with the selection of works, but would facilitate the entire reading process. Most importantly, I think literature addresses how we can improve human community, how we can live with others. Education should be about training the future citizens of the world – responsible citizens who would not only contribute to their nation but also the global community. Reading – and writing – after all, is about imagining the lives of others, regardless of how dark those lives might be. As Ian McEwan writes, ‘Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.’ Do not texts as diverse as King Lear, Frankenstein and Les Miserables impart something about how to treat others, how to recognize sincerity, fragility and the need for affection?

Location, Location

Location-Image

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.

1968-Abel-Smith-Lecture-Theatre

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.

 

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