Content Notes on Course Syllabi

A lot of people have been writing about (not) including content notes/trigger warnings on their class syllabi. An inordinately large number of writers have come out against the idea, and the issue has reached headlines as student groups have pushed for their use and administrations grapple with whether or not to implement such guidelines. This hubbub, and the pushback, was surprising to me – especially given how small the request is. I’m amenable to their use, and I see no reason to not use them – they don’t have to impinge on academic freedom, change course material, or feature prominently – but they could help students deal with sensitive material.

That’s why I was very happy to see Angus Johnston’s piece in Inside Higher Ed address how he plans to use content notes in his courses from now on. I appreciated not only his direct demonstration of how he planned to use them, but his effort to move beyond merely avoiding triggering post-traumatic episodes and towards creating a safer space for learning – something all educators should want to do. He writes:

These warnings prepare the reader for what’s coming, so their attention isn’t hijacked when it arrives. Even a pleasant surprise can be distracting, and if the surprise is unpleasant the distraction will be that much more severe.

Shortly after reading this, I wrote on social media about my own miniature experience with this type of warning. When I was student teaching a few years ago, I showed my students Atomic Cafe, a documentary about the nuclear age. It includes a scene showing footage of victims of the atomic bombings in Japan, and I had forgotten how graphic it was. Some students in my first class were caught off-guard by the footage, and I don’t think they got much out of the rest of the film. I gave my subsequent classes notice, both at the beginning of the video and right before the scene, and I think that helped prepare them.

This is a small example, but is exactly the kind of thing that can help make students aware of the course material without constraining the curriculum at all. Be sure to read all of Johnston’s piece, as I think it’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate, as well this follow-up post from his friend on disability and access in education.

Yale Tries to Sneak Kissinger on Campus

Yale’s Jackson Institute of International Affairs is hosting Henry Kissinger on campus Friday for a ‘private,’ ‘invite-only’ address. Students in select departments received invitations via email that explicitly stated that the event would not be publicized and asked that the invitees keep the event confidential. (I was not invited, c’est la vie).

Kissinger is, of course, everyone’s favorite combination Nobel Peace Prize laureate and war criminal. His presence in campus is itself all sorts of disappointing. No institution that seeks to improve the world should be giving such a person a platform from which to speak. But it is even more disappointing that the event is to be exclusive and therefore limit any sort of protest or honest dialog about Kissinger’s record.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a sudden misstep of Yale’s. The monstrosity that is the Jackson Institute is the current employer of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man behind JSOC during much of the GWOT. So, really, this is just more Yale being Yale.

Are Grad Students “Doing What They Love”?

A few weeks ago I was in a room in which people were debating the pros and cons of forming a graduate student union. News of NYU’s victory vote was still fairly fresh, and many Yale students were eager to step up the push for union recognition. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale has been spending recent months on laying the groundwork: recruiting more graduate student members, promoting the idea of a union as a worthy goal, etc. but hasn’t gone much into what it will do with such status.

I’m for a graduate student union. Scores of public universities have them, and private universities should have them too. Obviously, Yale is one of the more better off universities when it comes to graduate student wages and working conditions, but there’s always room for improvement. On a more fundamental level, it would be great if graduate student labor was acknowledged as labor – especially since graduate students teach the discussion sections, writing-intensive sections, and some full courses as well as conduct research and undertake all sorts of other projects as a part of their time at the university.

But the conversation I heard wasn’t even about the nitty-gritty stuff. Some had mentioned questions about tax issues that arise from calling grad student work “work.” Others had talked about the importance of a union for bargaining, while others were skeptical of what a union could do that student government or department-level organizing could not. All fine points, I suppose. But one person asked how similar a graduate student contract would be to the unions already operating on campus (technical and clerical workers, for example), and whether that was a good thing or not. Another fair point, but then the speaker ended it with this:

Presumably I’m a graduate student and I love what I do, and would be doing it regardless of the money if financially possible, while a janitor is not really interested in his job.

I was struck by such a framing. I was struck even more by the response, which was circuitous and ended with:

I would say that that maybe that custodian does love his work.

What.

Labor is labor. There’s not really any way around it, but work in the classroom is work in the factory is work in the call center. There are different types of labor, but they are still labor. The idea that loving your work means that that work is suddenly priceless in some way just doesn’t make sense. If you love your work, you fight for your work. You protect it for all it’s worth – demanding that its worth be acknowledged. At the same time, judging what you love based on what the market says it’s worth gets at a whole other issue. Either way, I couldn’t believe my ears when both the critic and the proponent of unionization decided to couch labor in terms of loving what you do.

It just so happened that Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra had just been published a couple of weeks prior to this discussion. In it, Tokumitsu explains that such a motto creates a divide between “that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” She turns her pen to academia, writing that:

There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL [‘Do What You Love’] doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

There might be a debate to be had over unionization. But that debate shouldn’t be about how much we love our discipline versus how much others love their jobs. It should be about how, if we love our work, we’ll fight for it. The adjunctification of higher education, the shrinking budgets of colleges, and the eagerness of universities to push out graduate students demand more of emerging scholars. Those scholars should demand more in return.

Who is Funding African Studies Research?

Aili Mari Tripp, political scientist and former president of the African Studies Association, has drafted a report on funding challenges and opportunities in African Studies research. In the report she sheds on the recent changes that international (and specifically African) research support has encountered as sources of funding shift. She starts by looking at the nearly nonexistent support for international research by private foundations (which used to provide large amounts of support) and the drastic reduction in funding from the federal government. Title VI and Fulbright-Hayes were both cut nearly in half, which has and will continue to completely reshape area studies as a field. Tripp quotes one report that found that cuts in 2011 led to

 a reduction or cancellation of over 400 less commonly-taught language and area studies classes, affecting over 6,300 students; reductions in international business programs with 10,000 fewer business professionals trained; and reductions in language resources and research, which has resulted in over 5,900 fewer language teachers trained, involving 29 languages.  It is not clear that the universities are stepping in to fill the gaps.

Indeed, most are either unable to unwilling to. When I looked into Yale’s African Studies program it was made clear that federal budget cuts played a central role in the program’s downsizing, but that the university was also either failing to step in or was proactively tightening belts in anticipation of more cuts (or in the interest of shuttling money towards other focuses). But that’s just one case – across the country international and area studies are shrinking at an alarming rate as they lose financial and academic support. As current ASA President James A. Pritchett, anthropologist at Michigan State and director of that school’s African Studies Center, has said that funding cuts are “are unraveling, brick-by-brick, the national African studies edifice that it took 50 years to build up.”

The biggest shift we’re seeing today as Department of Education funds dry up is the arrival of State and Defense Departments’ renewed (and fairly robust) interest in international and area studies. Things like the Critical Languages program and the Minerva Project aim to train scholars to do work that supports and reinforces U.S. goals abroad. Although Tripp says some Africa-focused scholars involved with Minerva say that they feel independent in their work, I know Southeast Asia-focused work at Arizona State was centered on Muslim discourse and identifying “good” Muslims in the region to spread moderate Islam over extremism (yes, I’m simplifying).

This shift isn’t an accident. DoE’s Title VI foreign language funding is being reduced while DoD’s language programs and institutes get bigger and bigger.  As Pritchett says, “The Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, California receives nearly $345 million annually, over four times the funding provided to the 125 Title VI Centers combined.” Study of the world around us is becoming increasingly directed by the military, and this is something scholars should be aware or and worried about.

It’s important to note (and Tripp gives it a passing mention) that the ASA has long stood against DoD funding, passing several resolutions against it in the past.  These resolutions were passed specifically to reject U.S. policy in Africa, which supported apartheid and oppressed revolutionaries in decolonization struggles at the time. Today, U.S. policy in Africa centers on counter-terrorism efforts that have resulted in militarization and Islamophobia across the continent. I wrote a little about that African Studies’ refusal to work with the military here, but I think David Wiley’s recent work [gated, ASR] addresses the biggest worry:

In this time of austerity, especially at public universities, there is a growing sense that civilian agency funding is collapsing and military and intelligence funding increasingly is the “only game in town.” As a result, two university African centers and linguists in two other universities that have Title VI Africa centers (with the dissent of their African center faculty), have taken funding for African language instruction programs from the DOD’s NSEP [National Security Education Program].

The other increase in funding is from the State Department, concentrated mostly on aid and development or the promotion of democracy and human rights. These also come with lots of baggage, although probably less so than military funding.

The bright side of the story is Tripp’s focus on private foundation funding for African higher education through grants, scholarships, fellowships, and collaborations with universities. This is much-needed, greatly impacting news for higher education across Africa.

Both Tripp’s and Pritchett’s posts are worth reading in full. The takeaway is that area studies in general is losing big. Both of them offer ways forwards, engaging with Africa directly, departing from government support in favor of foundation or corporation support, etc. The key will be to continue forwards with a heightened consciousness. There are a lot of ways forwards, we just need to ensure that we navigate properly as Africanists.

Shameless Self-Promotion: On Yale African Studies

Another brief interlude to link you to an article I wrote for Yale Daily News‘ magazine edition, entitled “Looking for Africa.” It’s perhaps the biggest piece I’ll write on the subject, but I don’t expect it to be the last. It’s only a part of a larger conversation which the Yale community has been having, which I’ve linked to before. I hope you’ll take a look, and of course I’ll continue to write about the issue, as it’s important directly to me but also to the conversation about Africanist scholarship (and area studies) in U.S. universities.

 

Cover art, courtesy YDN Magazine

The Yale Africa Project (as it is now known) can and probably will do a lot for Africanist scholarship at the university, but that’s not difficult given the small and narrow focus of the university’s Africa focus now, but many of us are hoping it will do more. After recent faculty departures and downsizing across the area studies, it is good to see a focus specifically on Africa, but I’m not yet convinced it will fulfill its potential. Unfortunately, a lot of this is dependent on donors rather than university governance, largely because Yale hasn’t committed as much to the campaign as it could. My hope is that, in a couple of years, I’ll be able to say that I was wrong.

I interviewed about a dozen people – professors, former professors, alumni, and students – and sent an e-mail survey to about a dozen African Studies students. I also worked tirelessly with two editors who took a 6,000 word statistic- and quote-ridden article and made it legible. The design team also put together a wonderful graphic for the magazine’s cover that essentially sums up why the piece needed to be written. I want to thank everybody involved for helping make it what it is, because they seriously deserve it. I also want to encourage everybody interested to continue to think about how Yale (or any university) can engage with the scholarship it promotes, and what it means to focus on Africa as a university.

Arizona Universities Increased In-State Tuition More Than Any Other State

Remember this post I wrote in March about Arizona universities and their recent trend of tuition hikes? A decade a go tuition at all three four-year universities in Arizona hovered around $3,000, but since then it has risen dramatically – I was paying around $5,000 from 2007-2011, and this year’s freshmen class are paying $10,000.

I was upset by the trend that Arizona universities were following, but I had no idea that they far out-paced the rest of the country’s public universities. An article in the State Press highlighted a recent report from College Board, stating:

Arizona’s four-year public universities had the nation’s largest in-state tuition and fees increase over the past five years, according the nonprofit organization that oversees the SAT.

The College Board’s report said in-state tuition and fees in Arizona increased 70 percent when adjusted for inflation from academic year 2008-09 to 2013-14. The national average was 27 percent.

Out-of-state tuition and fees in Arizona increased 28 percent during the same period, 11th highest in the nation. Louisiana, which had a 69 percent increase, was highest. The national average was 19 percent.

When the state gutted public funding to the state universities, the burden of funding education fell on Arizonans – people whose families had already contributed to the universities through taxes. And, as usually happens when I comment on Arizona’s tuition woes, I want to remind everyone that the state constitution says that higher education is supposed to be as free as possible.  Just this week, friends of the blog Aaron Bady and Angus Johnston both wrote about the prospect of free higher education. This shouldn’t be a fantasy – higher education was once affordable to most, and it can be again.

More on Yale-Africa

Pardon the absence, folks. Hopefully this blog will be back up to speed soon, but in the mean time I thought I’d share news on the Yale-Africa front, in the form of two other op-eds in the college daily.

First, the editorial board at the Yale Daily News published an editorial which urges Yale to hire more faculty, which meshes with what most students have been saying:

If the University is to attract students and faculty passionate about engaging with Africa, its core program cannot remain in shambles. Before reaching out to African institutions, Yale must ensure that students have adequate resources to study the continent.

The most significant step is to increase faculty hiring. As a program, African Studies cannot formally hire professors and must lobby departments, such as History, for Africanist scholars. While two Africanist professors will begin at Yale next year, the program will still be reeling from last year’s losses.

Currently, many departments only hire one or two Africanists. Each should have multiple experts on Africa — ensuring that an entire field of scholarship will not be neglected due to the natural ebb and flow of faculty.

To ensure that Africanist faculty will be retained, Salovey should endeavor to find donors for endowed professorships devoted to African scholarship. An endowed chair would allow Yale to transition in new distinguished faculty whenever a position is left vacant.

A week after that, an undergraduate penned this op-ed, highlighting the exclusiveness of some Yale events. She also highlights problems with language study, which has been touched on before, but this bears quoting:

During my freshman year, I was shocked but excited to find a course in Igbo, my parents’ mother tongue and one of Nigeria’s three most widely spoken languages. I took the class, enjoyed it and left for the summer looking forward to continuing my study of Igbo in the fall. Over the summer, I received an email asking me whether I planned to take a course in Igbo my sophomore year. I responded that I did. The next thing I heard was that the Igbo class had been cancelled. I didn’t receive any explanation. I applied to take Igbo through the Directed Independent Language Study program. DILS rejected my application each time, citing the Selection Committee’s challenge of “limited funding.”

As I mentioned a while ago, we’re in the very, very early stages of the Yale Africa Initiative. These are just some of the voices that are chiming in, and we’re all eagerly waiting what else the university will announce.

Yale Looks to Africa, With Blinders On

In his inaugural address last weekend, Yale’s new president, Peter Salovey, talked about Africa at length when he discussed Yale’s educational mission:

 Eleven of the world’s twenty fastest-growing economies are African.3 With the growing influence of the African continent on the world economy, as well as increased migration to, from, and within Africa, this is the moment to bring scholarship and teaching about Africa at Yale into sharper focus. Working collaboratively, we can foster new directions in research on Africa, identify new partnerships with those on the continent, and strengthen our recruitment efforts, all while emphasizing teaching and learning. Our current scholarship on Africa already draws on many disciplines throughout the university — from African language, history, and cultural traditions to global health research, to field experiments in development economics, to issues of sustainability, to research on emerging democracies, to theater projects with Tanzanian artists. For many years, my laboratory collaborated on HIV/AIDS prevention research in South Africa, and Marta is helping with an environmental and public health project involving the Masai.

A greater focus on Africa is just one example of how we aspire to unite research with teaching and learning, how in our research laboratories and our classrooms we can effect change beyond them, and how we can bring the world to Yale and Yale to the world.

This statement wasn’t completely unexpected, to those of us watching Yale’s Africa program closely. Over the summer several administrators have been putting things in motion, and this fall the gradual roll-out of the new Yale Africa Initiative has been ongoing. The Initiative, still in its very nascent stages, aims to be a university-wide shift to focus on Africa. It’s an idea I’m supportive of, but the vision being put forth is less than satisfactory. The vision for a new African focus doesn’t seem to include new faculty, improved language study, or increased course offerings, among other things. I won’t be nearly as in depth on it right now as I will be in the future, mostly because several students (myself included) are working together to draw attention to the pros and cons of the Initiative. This has already begun, in the form of my colleague Akinyi Ochieng’s column at the Yale Daily News, in which she highlights the importance of language study, student recruitment, and career service focus. The middle item seems to be the primary focus of the Initiative, including a recent $1 million gift from a Liberian Yale alum that will go towards financial aid for African applicants, the latter has been talked about to a lesser extent and the former not at all.

This blog will track the goings-on of Yale’s relationship with Africa, African students, and Africanist scholarship. As I anticipate this being a long process, I’m starting a new tag for it. Hopefully the Initiative expands and addresses all the major aspects of African(ist) studies at Yale as it develops. Fingers crossed.

On Gender in Language

As I often do at this blog, I’m going to write about something that I know virtually nothing about. Keep that in mind – and feel free to comment – if you have anything to add. But I’d like to take a brief moment to talk about language, because I find linguistics fascinating despite my amateur experience with it. I speak a couple of languages at a fluent or near fluent level, and I speak a couple at a very, very basic level, and every once in a while I notice differences between them.

In Through the Language Glass, my first (and only) foray into linguistics – and a very introductory one at that – Guy Deutscher gives a broad overview of culture’s influence on language and language’s influence on culture. I read the book a couple of years ago, and every once in a while I think back to the studies that Deutscher mentions when I notice differences between the languages I speak or study. Recently, I’ve been learning Swahili, and it reminded me of something that Deutscher wrote about German, the language I learned in high school and college. In the book Deutscher quotes anthropologist Franz Boas as writing that “[Grammar] determines those aspects of each experience that must be expressed.” He then goes on to quote linguist Roman Jakobson: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” Deutscher continues:

If I say in English, “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor,” you may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we are speaking French or German or Russian, I don’t have the privilege to equivocate, because I am obliged by the language to choose between voisin or voisineNachbar or Nachbarinsosed or sossedka. So French, German, and Russian would compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I felt it was your business. [151-2]

I found this really interesting, as I had never seen the constrictions of some languages from the gendered point of view. In Mandarin Chinese, I have very specific words for family members: my mother’s older brother has a different name than my mother’s younger brother, and their names differ from my father’s older and younger brother as well. Chinese is particularly specific when it comes to kinship terms, but broader nouns don’t carry such specificity. All neighbors are neighbors, in other words.

Fast forward a year and a half, and read this wonderful piece by Angus Johnston about the time he was asked his preferred gender pronoun at a party:

[I]t was actually a great question that I was asked that night. It was an exciting question. I’m a “he.” I’ve always thought of myself as a he, and I expect I always will. I’m a man, I’m a guy, I’m a dad, I’m a son, I’m a brother.

But in that moment, I got to choose. I was asked to choose, asked to pick whether for the duration of that conversation I wanted to be approached as a he or as something else. And I knew that whatever answer I gave, it would be honored, respected, taken seriously. And that recognition, far more than any of the rote rounds of he/she/they/ze responses I’ve seen given at the start of workshops, opened something up in me. It wasn’t a door — at least not a door I was tempted to walk through — but it was a window.

And I liked the view.

I attended a conference in February that was dominated by English graduate students, many of whom worked on queer theory. (Jack Halberstam gave the keynote, if that’s any indication of the audience). There were some situations in which I awkwardly didn’t know how to refer to people because I didn’t know what their preferred gender pronoun was. One of my hosts with whom I spent a lot of time tended to use “they” to refer to a person, and I picked up on that when I needed something to default to. At the time, though, I also reflected on how other languages deal with gender pronouns.

In Swahili, there is no “he,” no “she,” no “it.” There is only yeye. There are plenty of nouns that carry gender: there are men and women, brides and grooms. But both waiters and waitresses are wanunuzi. Your neighbor is a jirani. And you don’t have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you have a mpenzi. And using that language everyday for fifty minutes is a window into a life under a different gender system. Obviously this doesn’t mean that it’s easier being trans* or queer in a Swahili-speaking society, but it means that living in that type of setting might be in some ways different. In Mandarin Chinese there is no difference between the third person pronouns. Whether you mean he, she, or it, you say ta. But, oddly enough, when you tried to write about him, her, and it, you would be compelled to write 他, 她, and 它. And so, in a way, talking about people may give you more privacy than writing about them if you’re interacting in Mandarin.

There’s not an argument that I’m building to, I suppose. I’m just processing how the different languages I know use gender, and how they allow speakers some freedom or privacy, but also how they constrict.

You Only Take Standardized Tests Once or Thrice a Year

Fresh off of my soap box from last night’s long rant on Teach for America, I came home today to see that a high school student was suspended for scrawling “YOLO :)” on the essay portion of the STAAR, one of Texas’s standardized tests, and tweeting it to school officials. First off, this dude is awesome and I wish I could give him a high five. The test he was taking was completely unnecessary for him to take, a separate standardized test was his high-stakes test, yet he was forced to take the STAAR to help calibrate it for future test-takers. The same thing happened when I was in high school – freshmen took the Terra Nova (seriously, who names these things) which was merely a metric for comparisons to other schools, while sophomores took AIMS (and upperclassmen retook AIMS as needed) in order to meet the requirements for graduation.

Secondly, here’s Natalia Cecire:

Kyron Birdine’s exceedingly mild rebellion and its consequences suggest, too, that if anything they are even more rigidly policed than they were in the 90s. I remember how each student was interpellated into the role of a potential cheater, a potential violator. Make sure you have the right kind of pencils, make sure you have extra, eyes on your own paper, also cover your paper in case someone else might look over because if someone else cheats off your paper you are then a cheater too. I don’t know about cell phones; in Virginia in the 90s they were considered evidence of dealing drugs and banned from public schools.

But the testing is also as arbitrary as it is compulsory. From the Gawker article linked above:

As the Dallas Observer notes, Kyron are being forced to take both the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and the old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, even though only the TAKS will count.

“He and any other Texas students who entered ninth grade before the 2011-12 school year are still evaluated on the TAKS test,” the Observer explains. “They’re still required to take the STAAR, but mainly so the state can get data they can use to tweak the test before it really matters.”

“It wasn’t for a grade,” Kyron told WFAA’s News 8. “Colleges don’t see it. It didn’t benefit my personal life at all.”

Students in Birdine’s year were, in other words, being used as a data source to help calibrate the new test. I know I had to do this too, on the SAT–I took an analytical reasoning section, but the scores didn’t count for anything because it was new; they just collected the data and used it to calibrate the scoring. I’m sure that’s a standard procedure now as in the 90s. It disturbs me a little, though, that it’s never occurred to me before that standardized testing companies shouldn’t get to waste students’ time and collect their data for free—let alone compulsorily.

Cecire identifies a serious problem here. Students are being forced to take tests that do nothing but provide testing companies with information. And they aren’t compensated, save for a late start in subsequent years, or maybe a longer lunch before periods 1-3 start in the afternoon on weird-testing-schedule-day. On top of the fact that teachers are taking more and more time away from actual instruction to dedicate to test preparation, and on top of the funding set aside for implementing these tests that don’t really serve a purpose (high stakes or not), we’re unfairly roping the students into serving as data points. With six different classes, each with their own assignments, and lives outside of school, I can think of a myriad better ways that youth could be spending this time rather than bullshitting through a test that has no effect on their lives.

In closing, here’s a bubble answer sheet one of my high school students handed in last spring. It was either the back of the final or a spare sheet, I can’t recall, but in light of this latest incident it’s pretty perfect.

#YOLO~~~~

#YOLO~~~~