A few random thoughts on Cecil, @bittman, and chickens

I got into a mini-debate on the Twitters with @TrabiMechanic this morning about an article Mark Bittman wrote for Vox, “Eating Chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion.”  So I thought I’d write a blog post with a few more details and/or random thoughts about all this, and I thought I’d do it in the form of a blog post since, you know, 140 characters isn’t very much.

I’ll start off by quoting from the first couple paragraphs of Bittman:

If the outcry over the killing of Cecil the lion tells us anything, it’s that people are capable of genuine moral outrage at the needless killing of animals. And good for them. Animals are conscious beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain, and we have an obligation to make their lives as good as possible.

But in a given year, the typical American will cause the death of 30 land animals, and 28 chickens, by eating meat. And these animals aren’t just killed, they effectively live lives of constant torture and suffering — not directly at the hands of the people who eat them, but at the hands of the meat producers who sell them.

And then it goes on from there to talk about the evils of factory farming generally, etc.

Okay, a few thoughts as they occur to me:

  • That Vox article that is linked to in the Bittman piece, “Cecil the lion: The killing that’s enraged the internet, explained” gives a pretty good run-down of what happened and the debate around it, including (apparently) the debate as to whether or not regulated big game hunting is potentially a useful tool in the conservation of these animals. I don’t know enough about conservation to weigh in on that debate, though I heard a joke on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show that has a ring of truthiness to me that went sort of like this: If the number of a certain species in the wild does not exceed the number of seats in a large sports arena– say at least 50,000– then you shouldn’t be able to hunt it.
  • Two other rules of thumb: first, it’s probably a bad idea to hunt an animal that has a name, and it’s also probably a bad idea to hunt an animal that is (as described in that Vox article) sort of a beloved mascot. Maybe trophy hunter dentist Walter James Palmer didn’t know about all that, but I’ll bet his guides knew which lion he was shooting. I’ll come back to this issue in a moment.
  • Not that I have a problem with hunting generally– you know, deer, ducks, fishing, other things that people commonly kill for both sport and food. I eat meat so while I don’t think a whole lot of people in this country hunt only for food (for example, while the people I know who hunt deer typically have the animal butchered and made into tasty sausage and the like, I know that a lot of the reason they hunt is because “it’s fun”), I feel like it’s a little “holier than thou” for me to condemn hunters while I’m eating a porterhouse steak.
  • Speaking of eating meat:

Which is to say that not only do I eat meat, I also follow a lot of Mark Bittman’s recipes– which obviously include a variety of meats, including chicken. Granted, Bittman has also advocated pretty strongly for a “vegan before 6” sort of diet, which (when I can and when I’m paying attention) I try to follow as much as I can. Maybe more vegetarian before 6 than vegan, and hey, I just had some leftover chicken parmesan for lunch today, but still. And really, Bittman’s main complaint is factory farming, which is a legitimate problem that is hard for the average middle American consumer to avoid in any food product, including vegetables.

  • All of which is to say that I think the claim that eating chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion is specious at best. There are lots of things morally worse than killing Cecil the lion– to reference Godwin’s law for a moment, let me suggest that actions of the Nazis generally and Hitler in particular– and I think the connection between big game hunting and eating chicken is pretty non-existent. We could more easily talk about how this incident illustrates the problems of ongoing colonialism in Africa, about eco-tourism run amok, and about American/rich white guy privilege. And we could also talk a bit more about the demographics of the people on the Internets who are as or more upset about the killing of this lion than the murder of far too many African-Americans by police recently: that is, is it moral for people to be as or more outraged at the killing of this lion than Michael Brown?
  • Rhetorically, I find this an interesting exigency because of how it has been spread via social media and the like. For me, a lot of this has to do with rhetorical situation and my (long long ago) dissertation project on Immediacy, but it’s more than that too. I’m reading (and maybe teaching some of) Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which tells the story of several folks who have been shamed in different ways on social media. One of the more (in)famous stories is of Justine Sacco, who made a bad and insensitive joke on Twitter– “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”– and who was so ferociously attacked on social media that she really did pretty much have her life ruined. As far as I can tell, Ronson’s argument is that in the age of the internet, when such a public shaming can spread like a meme and frequently go way too far, there should be some kind of space or opportunity to forgive people for one bad mistake. Mostly, I agree with that, though there’s a big difference between Sacco and Palmer is that while she might have been stupid and insensitive, he might have broken the law, which is why Zimbabwe wants him back.
  • Anyway, if anything good comes out of this, I hope it’s more awareness that these two unrelated things, big game hunting and factory farmed chickens, are kinda bad.

I am not sure what Kevin Carey is imagining here….

I started this on Sunday night while a bunch of folks were at my house playing a very very involved board game called Civilization. I did not play along. It is a long story, but the short version is I instead cooked what turned out to be a pretty good and more elaborate than I was planning dinner, and when it comes to playing games generally, I really have to be in the right mood and with the right game. I like game theory a lot more than actual games.

Anyway, late in the night while they were playing (the game went on for about 10 hours and still hadn’t finished), I got around to reading Kevin Carey’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.” I came to it via a commentary from a response Cathy Davidson had on HASTAC, “Universities are No More Illusory Than Journalists: Rsp to Kevin Cary and NYT,”  and also on Facebook.

Carey opens with the story of an athletic scandal at UNC where student athletes were taking classes that were technically legitimate classes but where the lack of recognizable requirements (like not having to attend) helped the less scholarly of student athletes to stay eligible for sports. It seems to me that stories like this cheating scandal pop up every few years, but that’s a problem of college sports and not “college” generally, and probably a different post. Then Carey writes:

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

Let’s try to walk through that logic for a moment:

  • Big-time college sports tempt coaches, students, and even sympathetic professors/fans to create “in-house credit mills.”
  • While most colleges (presumably) don’t have a lot of this kind of problem, the design, value, and operation of most other colleges are “no different” from the school where these fake courses happened.
  • Therefore (I guess?), colleges/universities are “not coherent” when it comes to consistency, standards, classroom excellence, and influencing teaching and learning practices.

So for me, part of this is “well, duh,” that there is cheating in big-time college athletics. Obviously. As Davidson points out in her post, what Carey’s example demonstrates is a problem with college sports rather than college. But why would Carey (or anyone else) think that from this example it logically follows that the colleges across the board have no consistency/standards/oversight when it comes to teaching and learning practices? I know op-ed commentators are fond of the hasty generalization fallacy, but this seems a bit of a reach even for Carey.

Having read Carey’s book The End of College (and one of these days, I’ll blog a more extensive review of that), I think I know where he’s trying to go here. In his book, one of the main problems Carey has with higher education are the damn professors because professors are too independent, too lazy, too focused on their research, too indifferent to teaching, too petty, etc. So in Carey’s view, there’s no coherence or standards in higher education– that’s why it’s an illusion– in large part because professors get away with doing whatever it is they want to do. More on that in a moment.

But at the same time, Carey argues here that the college experience doesn’t vary much between schools. Carey wants to make this argument because one of the other points he hammers on in The End of College is that college rankings are way out of control. He cites Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, authors of How College Affects Students, which appears to be a giant and long-standing study on the question of (duh) how college affects students.  Carey writes:

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

And a little later:

 People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

If it’s true that at the level of big data that there isn’t much difference between different four year colleges– that is, you put all the undergraduate students attending “traditional” universities that grant bachelors degrees and those students come out statistically close to the same– then that means that there actually is a lot of consistency and coherence in higher education. And broadly speaking, I think this is true: that is, I believe that the experiences that EMU graduates have in terms of personal growth, subject knowledge, and academic skills are similar to those of University of Michigan graduates (though of course, individual results vary quite a bit). In other words, because the best available research suggests that there is a lot consistency, coherence, and statistical similarity between between different universities, there is no need for the mandated standardization and regulation Carey implies is necessary to make the college a less “illusionary.” Indeed, it isn’t an illusion at all.

But I want to dwell on that second paragraph I quote here because it demonstrates the problems I see with Carey’s “logic” generally. He begins with a claim that I think most people in higher education would actually agree with, that most people learn a lot in college regardless of what college they attend. Then he slips into a claim that the differences that exist within higher ed are a result of the “autonomy” and “academic freedom” of individual professors, and those professors are not “guided by a shared sense of educational excellence” at all. Rather, these damn individual professors are all just a bunch selfish entrepreneurs who bitch and complain about parking. Jeesh.

As Davidson points out in her post, if we’ve learned anything from the “No Child Left Behind” nonsense forced on to K-12 in this country, the absolute last thing we need is more regulation to curtail individual approaches to teaching, autonomy, and academic freedom. As she writes, “We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.”

But beyond that, who are these “professors?” Depending on how you define permanent work and the “tenure track” in higher education, at least 70% (maybe more) of the folks doing the teaching aren’t professors at all; rather, they are graduate students, part-timers, and full-time instructors who might enjoy job security through renewable contracts (or not– some full-timers are on contracts that are not renewable after 3-5 years). These folks are not professors in that they are not usually required to do the research and service/administrative work of professors (that’s certainly the case at EMU), and, for better or worse, they don’t enjoy the level of autonomy and academic freedom of professors. Take our first year writing program, for example, one that is similar to a lot of first year writing programs in that almost everyone teaching classes in it are not professors (full disclosure: I’m the interim associate director of that program right now). We have specific outcomes we expect everyone teaching the class to get their students to meet, and we have a curriculum that offers teachers options but only within the expectations of the course. We wouldn’t hire (or rehire) folks who weren’t willing or able to teach within those expectations. I can’t claim that this level of “programming” and “control” exists across the board in other disciplines, but I’m certain it isn’t “anything goes” for most of the non-professors doing most of the teaching in universities nowadays.

Further, Carey’s assumption about the level of autonomy professors (as in the 30% or so of us who are on the tenure-track) have in their teaching is wrong too. Davidson wrote a LONG comment on her own blog post outlining the steps that are pretty typical for getting a new course approved at a university, a process that more or less squares with my experiences here at EMU. The same kind of bureaucracy is in place for degree programs and any significant change to a course or a degree program. I wish I worked in the environment Carey imagines for me.

I guess what bothers me the most about Carey’s views here and in other places, notably in The End of College, is the amount of airtime it gets in places in the mainstream media like The New York Times. He purposefully sets up the most visible part of higher education– professors– as the sole problem, conveniently skipping past the bloated administrations and edu-entrepreneurs that are profiting the most from out of control tuition. He is a self-described education policy wonk who (surprise, surprise!) thinks that the problems in higher education can be solved with more strident and controlling policies and regulations.   He’s tapping into the lizard brain general public “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” sentiment that always exists since things are always getting worse, and he does this by making sweeping generalizations that have truthiness to them but that are demonstrably wrong. The problem is it’s very difficult to change people’s lizard brain minds with actual logic and evidence.

Though Carey is right about one thing: the complaint that unites all of academia has to do with parking.

A short vacation post about academics on Twitter, @saragoldrickrab, and what our students don’t know

I’m on a vacation/family trip right now, and even while “away,” I tend to get up early and I’m currently enjoying a bit of peace and quiet. Almost all of the other 17 or so people sharing this giant vacation house are still asleep. So I thought I’d take a little time– just a little– to offer a few more thoughts about the Twitter conversation I had this morning. And let me apologize up front for not having all the details of this particular dust-up, for typing quickly (and thus with typos and bad sentences), etc.:

The latest installment of academics gone wild and/or “getting in trouble” on Twitter comes from CHE, “U. of Wisconsin Professor’s Tweets Draw Criticism From Her Own Colleagues.” Seems fitting since I actually am in Wisconsin right now. Anyway, the “naughty” tweeter in question is Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in Education Policy. Here’s a quote from the article:

To several students who had tweeted their excitement about enrolling at Madison under the hashtag #FutureBadgers, Ms. Goldrick-Rab sent a link to an op-ed essay from the Journal Sentinel criticizing the removal of tenure protection from state statutes. Here are some of the responses she got:

Here CHE includes some response Tweets– here’s a link to that— where basically some not so informed college kids respond “ha ha we don’t care” and other nonsense. This was like a month ago. Then the College Republicans got involved a month later, in part because Goldrick-Rab kept on going and tweeted “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many- it’s terrifying.” This caused more outrage, more attacks on Goldrick-Rab on Twitter, and condemnation of Goldrick-Rab from both the UW Chancellor and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate.

And then, like I said, I stumbled into a spirited and pleasant Twitter conversation about some of this this morning.

So, a few thoughts in not a very precise order:

  • The general public doesn’t understand tenure or the difference between what it means to be a professor, an associate professor, an assistant professor, a non-tenure-track professor/instructor/lecturer, part-timer, or a graduate assistant, all of which is to say that the general public does not understand why all these professors in Wisconsin are in such a tizzy about weakening tenure. So it is not at all surprising to me that some 18 year old young people “stoked” about being admitted to UW think it is uncool for sara to kill their buzz with some sort of newspaper article, man. Because even though Goldrick-Rab is completely right, academics in Wisconsin (really, everywhere) have A LOT more work to do to explain to our students and the public at large how this all works and why this matters. A lot more work.

Most of what academics take as “common knowledge” about how higher ed works is a mystery to the rest of the world. I can recall times where some of these issues have come up informally in class discussions over the years– sometimes during faculty union contract negotiations– and I’ve taken five minutes to explain to a room full of juniors and seniors some of the basics of higher ed hierarchies, not only about faculty but also administrators. For most of my students– juniors and seniors,  mind you!– this is all new information. So again, while Goldrick-Rab is completely right, she made the faulty assumption that her audience of stoked would-be freshmen would actually understand her references to this op-ed.

  • The second mistake I think Goldrick-Rab made is the comparison to Hitler, and actually, as a general rule of thumb, I think any argument that makes a comparison to Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. to a contemporary figure– as in “Scott Walker is like Hitler”– is lazy and it’s going to cause trouble. This “x is like Hitler” trope shows up so much on Twitter because it’s shorthand and you only have 140 characters. The problem is it’s not accurate– I am no fan of Scott Walker, but I don’t think he’s likely to wage an aggressive war of domination in Europe and a systematic extermination of the Jews– and it can be taken way out of context by a group like College Republicans, who are already probably sensitive enough to informally being compared to Nazis. Anyway, my first piece of advice to any would-be academic Twitter-er: no Hitler comparisons.
  • Two other bits of advice to would-be academic Tweeters (and this is a bit of a tangent, but it came up in my Twitter conversation this morning) I’ll mention. First, Twitter is a terrible place to try to discuss anything that is at all complex or controversial, and yet academics try to use it for that purpose all the time. This is why (IMO) online spaces like blogs are still relevant and useful: instead of trying to convey all this on Twitter, I just shared a link to this. Maybe not as many people will read all of my rant here, but I am less likely to be misunderstood and/or taken out of context.

Second, academics (and anyone else, for that matter) who take to Twitter to express strong (and controversial) beliefs can’t get too upset when they are held accountable in some fashion for expressing those beliefs, especially when those beliefs actually take more than 140 characters (sans Hitler references) to convey. Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for academic free speech and I’m not suggesting that Goldrick-Rab or Steven Salaita or any other academic ought to be fired over Tweets. I’m just saying that if an academic (or anyone else) posts provocative stuff on Twitter, they shouldn’t be too surprised if a) it offends people and/or b) the message gets passed around and gets out of the writer’s control in a hurry.

  • Having said all that, I think the executive committee of the University of Wisconsin faculty senate are behaving like a bunch of wimpy knuckleheads. First off, Goldrick-Rab didn’t tell those young people not to come to UW; she referred them to an op-ed piece in Milwaukee’s mainstream newspaper about the impact of Walker’s budget cuts and rollbacks/changes to tenure. These really are things that the faculty ought to be telling would-be students; keeping them in the dark doesn’t do the students any good and it kind of indirectly supports Walker et al’s decisions. Second, what the hell is the point of faculty senate if it isn’t going to defend the faculty’s right to speak? I’m sure there are some details I’m missing here, but as reported in CHE, these people are throwing one of their own ranks under the bus. That’s appalling.

EMU-AAUP contract negotiations and an eye on the future

By the way, this is a post I’m writing for both stevendkrause.com and for EMUTalk.org and it’s the kind of thing I’ll keep posting on stevendkrause.com once the sun that is EMUTalk.org sinks below the horizon for good in September or so.

The faculty union, the EMU-AAUP, is in the midst of contract negotiations this summer, and so far, so good. I have no detailed or inside knowledge about what’s going on, but I have chatted with a few colleagues who “know better,” and this is what has happened so far (at least according to the EMU-AAUP web site):

  • There is nothing particularly contentious on either side of the table right now. Probably the biggest fight is going to be over administration’s contribution to TIAA-CREF because the administration changed the way this works for new administrators coming to EMU so that it is a noticeably worse deal than it is right now. It’s more complicated than that, but I guess what it boils down to is the administration wants to pay less for retirement than they do right now, and the faculty obviously don’t like that idea.
  • Apparently, faculty at EMU have fallen behind our peers in terms of salaries and such, and given that the finances and enrollments at EMU are generally pretty solid, we will probably see a decent enough raise both in terms of a flat percentage and also in terms of the “bump” between assistant and associate and associate and full. Of course, the union continues to want to negotiate these raises as a flat percentage, which benefits the highest paid faculty at EMU. It is no wonder that the leadership of the EMU-AAUP has been dominated by faculty in the College of Business and the College of Technology, at least that’s pretty much been the case since I’ve been here.
  • There will almost certainly be some kind adjustment in health insurance, though that’s just an educated guess based on the fact that there has been some kind adjustment on health insurance with every contract I’ve seen.
  • The EMU-AAUP site has a blog of sorts where they have been posting updates to the contract negotiations so far, and things seem to be going smoothly. It’s early of course, and they always start with the less contentious stuff, but it looks like there will be some kind of new language/rules on student conduct, there are some changes to the way contracts work for tenure-seeking faculty that makes things a little easier, and there’s going to be some kind of “electronic dossier system” that will end the ridiculous stacks of binders and such that faculty submit for tenure and promotion and the like.

So while I wouldn’t want to predict too much, I’m not too worried about this contract cycle. I’m frankly a lot more worried about what happens next.

The next contract will be the first under Michigan’s change to a “right to work” state, which means that workers in a bargaining unit (in this case the faculty) have the right to “freeload:” that is, the union will continue to represent all faculty for the purposes of negotiations and for grievances, including faculty who decide to not pay their union dues. If enough faculty opt out of paying the dues, the union will be weaker and eventually it could go away.

Just to make matters worse (as reported in Inside Higher Ed here, “Threat to Faculty Unions”), there’s a case that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to hear next year that could further weaken public sector unions. I’m not sure it would make matters worse in Michigan or not because the IHE article makes it sound that if the court decides that a forced “fair share” fee to a union is unconstitutional, then all states would become “right to work” states.

Either way, the future is worrying. Up until this point, the union hasn’t really had to do much in the way of convincing faculty that the union was a “good idea” because everyone had to pay their dues regardless of how they felt about it. Now if the union doesn’t pay close enough attention to the faculty as a whole, they will risk losing members.

I don’t think there is going to be a bunch of faculty who abandon the union anytime soon, especially in the current unpredictable climate higher education is in, and, as I have said many times before, I am all for the union. At the same time, I think the EMU-AAUP has to make some subtle changes in how it does things.

First, it needs to continue to be responsive to the constituency generally and not just to those who are loudest. A really subtle example of what I mean: the EMU-AAUP opened contract negotiation season with this video that depicts the “battle” that as about to come as akin to one of good versus evil and with all of the drama and special effects of a summer blockbuster. Now, I get that this is a parody and it’s supposed to “fire up” the base and all of that. But a lot (most?) faculty don’t see the administration strictly as the “them” that the “us” is fighting, and the “we’re here to battle” is not exactly a tone to take at the start of what can hopefully become a mutually beneficial negotiating process.

And along these lines, I think the union has to be a little more careful in some of its communication and sometimes knee-jerk responses. A good example of this for me personally is the whole Yik Yak mess: if the EMU-AAUP had held on to its initial position of banning Yik Yak on campus (they seemed to have backed off on that), I probably would have opted out of union dues as a matter of public protest. It’s easy for me to imagine lots of other scenarios where the union leadership does something that ticks off enough people to cost them a lot in dues.

Second, I think the EMU-AAUP needs to do more to emphasize the positive, and there really is a lot of positive with the union. They need better PR and better communication. They’re starting to do that with the revamped web site (though I think there are a lot of clunky elements to the new design), but I think it needs to go further than that. Rather than assuming that all faculty see the obvious benefits to the union, the EMU-AAUP needs to sell itself a bit better than it has done in the past.

Like I said, I don’t think faculty are going to leave the union anytime soon. The one percent or so of salary that faculty pay in dues is definitely worth it to me (though one thing the EMU-AAUP might do– if this is possible– is to have more of a sliding scale on dues that is tied to salary and/or rank, which would make the incentive for lower paid faculty to skip out on dues even less– just a thought). At the same time, the future of the EMU-AAUP and of academic unions generally seems murky to me.