Thursday, February 06, 2014

Long-form CCOA

Pardon the "Seinfeld" reference: Elaine turns some work in to her boss at a clothing catalogue, Mr. Peterman. His response: "That looks like a lot of words." Which is how I'd respond to this dissertation-length take-down of a liberal-arts college in Maine, one Miss Self-Important pointed me to in the comments to her post about conservative critics/critiques (which did I want this to be?) of education, or CCOAs. My complaint was/is that these critics tend to take the things that rile them (or, more to the point, that rile their readerships outside academia) out of context, giving the false impression that Dildo Studies seminars have replaced Shakespeare. So MSI pointed me to the thorough version. Which I did my best to get through.

It's not an easy read, in part because of minutiae about when students choose an advisor, or which sports are offered, and the fact that it's incredibly repetitive* (just how many times do we need to learn about that cancelled "Queer Gardens" course? or "Modern Western Prostitutes"?), and because why exactly are the presidents of Bowdoin introduced by their religions (a tragic downward spiral leading to the first Jew, one who promotes "diversity"!), but mostly because of bits like this:

“Global citizen” and its family of related terms such as “citizen of the world” are, it should be noted, metaphoric phrases. No one can be, literally, a “citizen of the world,” as the “world” is not a polity. “World citizenship” has no defined or agreed upon rights or responsibilities and, despite such institutions as the World Court, no binding law.
Or this:
Relations between Protestants and Catholics at Bowdoin seem placid.
Or my favorite:
If this sample group accurately reflects the Bowdoin student body as whole, then approximately 462 Bowdoin students had sex on that one Saturday.
One imagines them all in one heap!

Anyway. The document is a somewhat quantitative accounting of things we kind of all already knew existed at liberal-arts colleges - interdisciplinary humanities classes, bins of free condoms, a hippie-dippie social environment that's not for everyone, and programs for LGBT and minority students.

But there's virtually no engagement with the case for, say, gender studies. Or with what it even is. Like, the whole gender-is-a-construct thing. This doesn't mean there aren't biological sexes. It means, well, in part it means that transgender people exist, but it also means that gender is performed. That it isn't biology putting women in dresses and men in pants. It means that when one notes a difference between the behavior or status of men and women, boys and girls, one doesn't automatically assume it's rooted in biology, but first considers social pressures.

Meanwhile, all courses of study that look at the non-Western world are treated as political propaganda and not, you know, courses on the history, literature, or politics of various parts of the world.

And student social life is a decadent orgy, even if it's not.

Point being, while the document is indeed lengthy, and within its length there's more context, the same CCOA problems arise. The same buzzwords inspire panic, rather than inquiry. Specific examples below, by heading from the document itself:

"'Studies' Programs"

-These "were founded to advance political goals." Do these courses consist of political indoctrination, or is it "political" enough that black or gay people were deemed worthy of being studied? Like, would some other framework for studying these groups, within pre-existing disciplines, be acceptable? Unclear.

"Hooking Up at Bowdoin"

-Starts sensibly enough: "The term 'hooking up' is a bit ambiguous, as it can refer to sexual interaction on the spectrum from kissing to sexual intercourse." Indeed - people "hooked up" on dates in the 1950s. Then we get the usual discussion of sexual promiscuity, which is apparently what kissing more than one person before getting married amounts to.

-"Sometimes students who hook up do form a relationship in the sense of becoming frequent sexual partners—though without the expectation of sexual exclusivity or personal commitment." I know nothing of Bowdoin specifically, but in the world of young people generally, hookups, or whatever we're calling this, is very often the start of a long-term monogamous relationship or even a marriage. Other stats cited give the impression that students in serious relationships, or not involved with anyone, abound. Once you factor in the number of hookups that don't include anything plausibly defined as sex, things start to look a bit less libertine. 


"Queer Bowdoin"

-Bowdoin is accepting of gay people, less so of anti-gay people. That the school makes LGBT students feel comfortable is, apparently, a political agenda.

"Identity and Race: Being Different":

-Bowdoin not only has affirmative action, but goes out of its way to recruit minority students and make them comfortable once on campus. 

-Perhaps being so celebrated is awkward for minority students. 

-Belgian-inspired stew was served at a diversity workshop.

"What Students Study":

-Some vague reference to there being more non-canonical than canonical English and History classes, but no ratio. We get a list of "conspicuously nontraditional courses with fairly strong ideological overtones," although I'm having trouble ascertaining the overtones. What's the message behind "Entering Modernity: European Jewry"? That European Jews should or should not have done so? Or of "Comparative Slavery and Emancipation" - I'd imagine the prof thinks slavery's bad, but is that really ideological? And most bafflingly, "Colonial Latin America" - why is a world-history course controversial? We also hear yet again about the cancelled "Queer Gardens" course.

"Faculty Research and Publications":

-Professors sometimes teach courses related to their dissertation topics. The problem being... that students hear about a topic from an expert, along with whichever broader courses? Are any PhDs not trained in teaching fields unrelated to their topic? From the offerings shown, it seems as if there's a mix of general and specific - why is this bad? I'm not sure what the problem is, other than that some dissertations deal with gender, which is squicky, or race and gender, which is doubly squicky. The tone makes clear that we should find the sample partial CVs damning, but why?

"Conclusion":

-So Bowdoin doesn't teach a single "course on Edmund Spenser." Does every dead white male who could be included in a syllabus merit a single-author course?

-Does Bowdoin really not teach "wisdom" or "culture"? What does that even mean? How could that have been demonstrated, even with over a thousand footnotes?

-I am very nearly asleep. Not entirely the fault of that document.

*"The report as originally written was much longer," we learn. There's additional material on some website. I can't.

11 comments:

Flavia said...

Wow. You're made of sterner stuff than I am!

So Bowdoin doesn't teach a single "course on Edmund Spenser." Does every dead white male who could be included in a syllabus merit a single-author course?

Yeah, this smacks of trying way too hard to find something to be aggrieved about. Spenser is a major Renaissance writer, but single-author courses on Spenser just aren't common at the undergraduate level, and usually taught as one-offs (not as a course with a permanent catalog number). Among my peers of roughly my Ph.D. date--e.g., an average of 10 years out--I know no one who has taught such a course more than once...and that includes people who actually do research on Spenser.

Phoebe said...

Well, I'll confess to skipping the parts about environmentalism and sustainability. That thing was long!

But yes, I thought the Spenser line would jump out at you. I, meanwhile, had to Google to be reminded who that was - either because I'm a philistine or because I somehow ended up with a French literary education rather than an Anglo-American one.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, I agree that this report is deeply boring, but that was my reason for calling it to your attention - this is the alternative to the use of anecdata, and this is why people don't do it very often. As you said in my comments, "With CCOAs, my point is that if there's one wielded dildo vs. hundreds of canonical offerings, an article about how college in America today is Dildo Studies for all will paint an inaccurate picture. If the point is merely that this happened, with some context of similar incidents, fine." Well, here is a pretty thorough count of dildo studies vs. canonical offerings. The report doesn't hide that there is a lot of traditional stuff going on Bowdoin (only "18%" of course offerings are in Studies, as it points out), but it also lays out that there are some nontraditional things going on, and then some pretty extremely nontraditional things ("Western Prostitutes"). It doesn't say all American colleges are like this. Everything is highly contextualized, beyond the glaring problem that they haven't interviewed any student or sat in on any classes, b/c Bowdoin wouldn't allow them to. So your complaint seems to boil down to, This report editorializes. It should just report the data without commentary. Well, maybe. But that's a pretty stringent standard if you want to apply it to all writing.
However, on the substance, I think your criticisms are mainly question-begging. You respond to each of its sections with, essentially, Why shouldn't Bowdoin do this? But the report is asking, Why should it? What is the goal being pursued by offering these courses or organizing student life in this way? So let me try and show two instances of how your criticisms point back to the original questions:
1. Gender:
The report points out that the gender studies courses begin from the assumption that gender is socially constructed for the purpose of "structuring inequality and dominance." Why begin from this assumption? You acknowledge that this is not quite settled truth. Maybe biology matters a bit, especially as you suggest, when it comes to gender identification, which is all biology and no construction. Why not start from at least the ambiguity? This is what the report asks Bowdoin. I don't see why it has to then go on to make the case for social construction if what it wants to show is that Bowdoin's Gender Studies program begins from an ungrounded premise. It's Bowdoin's job to justify that, not the report's.
2. Politicization:
Your ham-handed question is, "Do these courses consist of political indoctrination, or is it "political" enough that black or gay people were deemed worthy of being studied?" Is the implication of this question that opposition to these "Studies" programs only be based on the belief that the people aren't worthy of study? It seems to be. But let's pretend it was a sincere question. The report offers some evidence for its claim that these programs were established for some at least borderline indoctrination purposes:
According to the March 17, 1969, minutes…Afro-American studies was conceived to create slots for black faculty members who could assist black students: “The Director of the program ought [to] be black and black faculty ought [to] be recruited for it.” The 1971 “Proposed Revision of the Bowdoin Afro-American Studies Program” …extolled the program’s potential to promote a “process of re-socialization and socialization of Americans” and fulfill “a psychological need on the part of Black students.”

Miss Self-Important said...

In this context, black people are deemed worthy of being studied, but to what end? To "re-socialize Americans." Not because anything written or created by blacks has any intrinsic intellectual or artistic merit, apparently, but because it serves a particular ideological end. Granted, all "liberal education" is in the broad sense political, but I don't know that history or English departments generally make these sorts of claims for themselves: take "The Byzantine Empire" to be re-socialized and have your psychological needs met?
Now, you spin this as part of an effort to make minorities "feel comfortable," but that's quite an open-ended goal. What shouldn't a college do to make segments of its students feel comfortable? Start a new major for them? Would any such effort be legitimate? Russian-Jewish Emigre Studies taught exclusively by Russian-Jewish Emigres (for which, I am available!)?

3. Student life:
That story about how they abolished the substance-free dorm got axed b/c too many minority students selected it instead of dutifully diffusing their edifying presence more widely among the white students was pretty good though.

Why should Bowdoin do all these things? Bowdoin's official justification is that its mission is "inclusiveness" and "global citizenship." Is that sufficient? Can anything be rightfully excluded from the goal of inclusiveness? You point out that anti-LGBT sentiment is, and that this is presumably good. The report offers some evidence that political conservatism is excluded. Maybe that's good too, since that’s just a matter of fluid self-identification. How do we decide what’s exclude-able from the stated criterion of inclusiveness? Is inclusiveness really the purpose of higher ed? Is it reasonable to ask universities to justify these things?

In your comments here and at my blog, you claim to be broadly sympathetic to the "conservatism" that consists in wanting colleges to teach "traditional" courses and maintain decent atmospheres largely free of violence, sexual misconduct, etc. But I'm quite puzzled about why you think colleges should do this. What’s good about these things? Is there anything in principle wrong with a college curriculum which doesn't teach any canonical subjects, but focuses entirely on the various Studies? You say that conservatives exaggerate how much casual sex and excessive drinking is happening at colleges, but would you think it was a problem if a lot more of it was happening? Is anything wrong with casual sex by consenting adults or even excessive drinking, so long as it doesn’t harm others? Your constant refrain is that things aren't as bad as conservatives claim, but what standard do you propose for determining how bad is bad enough?

Phoebe said...

The easy stuff first. The what-should-be-in-a-curriculum stuff later:

-I do see how the broader context - the acknowledgment that Bowdoin is a nice enough college and not End Times - helps, even if much of what's making that particular document long and boring is that it maybe wasn't edited.

What I found, though, was that once we got into the meat of the objections, it was thrown out there as if obvious why "gender" and "studies" and "Latin American" should cause alarm. While it's interesting to know where Africana Studies came from, there's no reason to believe that what goes on in a class in that area today isn't important and rigorous.

-What's wrong with "Western Prostitutes," anyway? I could very well see a class with that title being worthwhile. A lens into how society was structured at different times. There's actually interesting scholarship in that area that could potentially work for undergraduates. And it has nothing to do with dildo demonstrations! A student whose modesty or taste or whatever leans to not taking a class in which one will probably be required to say the word "prostitute" just won't sign up.

-I don't think political conservatism should be excluded, and indeed, went to the college I did in part because I wanted to be at a school with political diversity. That said, among college-age people as well as our generation, my impression is that conservatism no longer much includes anti-LGBT arguments.

-Is it "conservative" to oppose excessive drinking at colleges? If women are drinking, maybe, but that seems like fairly old-school college behavior if it's preppy dudes. (I have seen the Princeton Reunions.)

-In terms of my values, no, I don't think there's anything wrong with consensual sex between adults. As a practical matter, given the potential physical risks, especially for women, there's something to be said for not having sex absolutely every time you get together with someone in any capacity - but I mean, even Dan Savage says this, although I'm quite sure I didn't first learn of that approach from him.

If colleges are giving the impression that one *must* have some kind of intercourse, that would be a problem. But they're not. Available contraception acknowledges that some do.

Miss Self-Important said...

it was thrown out there as if obvious why "gender" and "studies" and "Latin American" should cause alarm. While it's interesting to know where Africana Studies came from, there's no reason to believe that what goes on in a class in that area today isn't important and rigorous.
Well, no, the argument was made that these were explicitly politicized majors designed to advance certain ideological and not quite academic goals, and that is why they are questionable. You may say that the reasons for their inception 30 yrs ago has no bearing whatever on what they're like today and we shouldn't assume it does. At the very least, the burden is on Bowdoin to demonstrate that, especially given how it continues in the present to describe the purpose of its Studies programs (cf, the Gender Studies program purpose - to show how gender is constructed as a means of oppression). More broadly, I'm confused as to why you'd be so dismissive of the idea that the recent origins of a thing bear on its current form, which you also claimed in your post about loving your work - that it doesn't matter where the idea originated, just how people use it right now. I recall you writing here often that it's a mistake to assume that Jews are simply "white," given that in the past, they were thought of as non-white. Why should that matter, on your terms, if here-and-now, Jews are seen as unproblematically white?

What's wrong with "Western Prostitutes," anyway? I could very well see a class with that title being worthwhile. A lens into how society was structured at different times.
Right, so this is my question about what value you actually find in more traditional liberal arts courses. What's wrong with any course about any topic so long as it's taught by a qualified professor? Practically anything can be used as a "lens" into a different society at a different time, or our own society in our time. What's wrong even with dildo demonstrations? If I had written a dissertation on the history of dildos, and then wanted to offer a course on the topic, would that be a problem?

I don't think political conservatism should be excluded, and indeed, went to the college I did in part because I wanted to be at a school with political diversity. That said, among college-age people as well as our generation, my impression is that conservatism no longer much includes anti-LGBT arguments.
Well, then if there appears to be a proportional shortage of conservatism, should a concerted effort be made to rectify the balance? And sure, I don't suggest that there should be conservatives to provide anti-LGBT sentiment, but simply that these are two things excluded from an agenda of fairly indiscriminate inclusion, and so one wonders what grounds there are for that. What kind of a goal is inclusion, and how can we know when we've reached it?

Miss Self-Important said...

Is it "conservative" to oppose excessive drinking at colleges?
I would think so, as to oppose all uncivilized and brutish behavior. The fact that students have long been drinking does not quite mean that its excess was ever permitted or encouraged by conservatives. You may be confusing "everyone in the past" with "conservatives," but I'm not sure these are entirely overlapping categories.

So, I reiterate the question. You insist that your primary issue w/ CCOAs is that they give higher ed an unfairly bad name, since colleges are actually are quite conservative in their curricula and social atmospheres and that is, presumably, as it should be. However, what you actually say here is not that the things conservatives complain about don't happen, but that there is no problem when they do. Studies programs are great, courses on any random topic are fine, a lot more drinking and sex (all consensual, of course) would also not detract from anything. So, what's the point of a college education then? What should students be expected or required to study, if anything?

Phoebe said...

Here's Part II of my earlier comment, which may address some of what you just wrote, but as I wrote most of it earlier and forgot to post, maybe not all...

OK, so, re: the curriculum:

-It's obvious what's *not* seen as desirable, but not what is. Meaning, I'm not clear on how the ideal CCOA liberal-arts curriculum differs from a high-school one. The complaint appears to be that what's taught is too PC, but also too specialized. The outrage seems restricted to cases where it's a dissertation on race or gender that gets turned into a course, and not when (returning to Flavia's point) a relatively minor but definitively dead-white-male author or topic is the focus. Why are we lamenting that there's no course *just* on Edmund Spenser, *just* on the Founding Fathers?

-I'd agree that if college education meant a series of courses based on whatever the profs happened to write dissertations on wouldn't be ideal. It wouldn't be as disastrous as one might think - we are, after all, expected to write dissertations with a broader significance, and to be able to articulate that significance, and to have had them approved by committees who don't share whichever narrow interest. (My dissertation, for example, was about the idea of French-Jewish intermarriage, but also about modern Jewish history, 19th C French literature, and the French Revolution. A 'race and gender' project, or not, depending how you look at it.) A "dissertation topic" course might end up being quite general.

But as it stands, courses are a mix between dissertation-topic ones and more obviously general ones. Why is it a bad thing to have experts in specific areas - ones also trained in related general areas - teaching some classes on their expertise? Not as a prelude to grad school, but as a way of getting a few bits of deeper knowledge about bits and pieces of the world. If anything, *not* having that at all seems as if it would reduce college to high school.

-What if what CCOAs are calling PC nonsense *is*, at this point, a part of Western Civilization?

-I keep returning to more of a critique of all this from the left, which is that for all the talk of critiquing power structures, college ends up being a very hierarchical system, with a lot of older white men contributing to the perpetuation of the nation's class structure, ignoring adjunctification, etc. It seems as if there could be a much stronger hypocrisy charge than whatever charge it is the CCOAs have come up with. As in, yes, colleges are more conservative than CCOAs claim, but that's not necessarily a good thing. It may just point to a mismatch between stated values and actual practices.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not clear on how the ideal CCOA liberal-arts curriculum differs from a high-school one.
Consider the UChicago Humanities Core sequences with which we are familiar - were those just a re-hash of high school for you? I didn't read any of those books in high school, with the exception of a couple novels assigned in my roommate's Reading Cultures course. I'm not sure why you conflate "survey" or "broad" with "high school." I've TA-ed a broad Ancient Philosophy survey at Harvard that I would've flunked in high school, because the material and the level of sophistication at which it was pitched would've sailed over my head.

I would also say that taking such a course is more useful for a freshman or sophomore with no background in ancient philosophy than taking a single intensive seminar on Plato's Republic with no further study of ancient thought. That's not b/c the Republic does not merit its own course. But from the perspective of liberal education, it's important that students are familiar with more of the now-weird and alien-seeming worlds of the past that were foundational for our world than that they have mastered every argumentative movement of a single Platonic dialogue. Ideally, one would have both in the course of time, but breadth (not to be confused with shallowness) is more urgent than depth in what you call "a few bits...about bits and pieces."

So compare that to the Bowdoin Freshman seminar offerings listed in the report. Maybe three of those look like plausible introductions to the humanities, and that standard is not related to the whiteness of the topic. "East Central European satires" are presumably written by white men, and some of them are good, but that's far too narrow for a freshman introduction to, essentially, the history and literature of a civilization. An entire course on Spenser would be equally problematic as a substitute for something like a humanities core.

I'll return to the problem of time limits. Students only have four years, and not all of that time is going to be devoted to the humanities and social sciences. So what, given these limitations, do you think students should learn? You say, I'd agree that if college education meant a series of courses based on whatever the profs happened to write dissertations on wouldn't be ideal. It wouldn't be as disastrous as one might think... But what is the "ideal"? Is there some standard by which we'd know, aha, now we have too many dissertation-topic courses? Should there be any guiding principle behind course offerings? Or behind a university? Or, is it just too daunting to come up with lists that necessarily exclude some good things, and so better not to impose and just let the whims of faculty and students guide them? I'm not too daunted by the prospect of a list of what should be required at a university with a liberal arts program (and probably without one), and will provide it at your request. But, my question is still, what's the standard you're using to determine whether a school's curriculum is good or not?

I keep returning to more of a critique of all this from the left, which is that for all the talk of critiquing power structures, college ends up being a very hierarchical system... Sure, maybe the liberals at these schools are actually liberal hypocrites, but that seems orthogonal to conservative criticisms of the curriculum, and not a shortcoming of these criticisms unless, again, the point is that any curriculum is good enough and so none really can be legitimately criticized, while what really matters is the age, race, and employment status of the professors.

Phoebe said...

The reason I bring up high school is because of the emphasis on U.S. history and works that will be definitively considered classics. Obviously it depends on the high school, and the Core class, but there could very well be overlap.

But agreed, a survey could be more or less advanced. So let's say breadth over depth. Unknown worlds. Wouldn't that also include studies of places other than the West? Of women?

"But, my question is still, what's the standard you're using to determine whether a school's curriculum is good or not?"

While I don't, like you, have a list (and am thus doomed to lose this argument), I'd say that as long as we have a system in which students attend colleges that suit their inclinations/needs, it's going to depend which college. Some will be more hippie-dippie than others. Some will be more pre-PhD than others, with students interested in depth-courses. Some, as Flavia said, will be needing college for the cultural capital, in which case it's enough that knowing certain works confers that. If the entire system were to change, and everyone just went to the nearest state school, rather than to a school tailored to needs or preferences of students like them, then maybe we could have a conversation about what College consists of, down to the specific texts.

And as for the critique from the left, I suppose I didn't make that very clear. My point is that college these days is thought to be so liberal, and presents itself as such, but not only are things less than liberal in terms of "the age, race, and employment status of the professors," but also the curricula. Hippie-dippie is, I suspect, the exception, and even there, there's a good amount of canon.

Miss Self-Important said...

Wouldn't that also include studies of places other than the West? Of women?
Sure, all territory covered in previous Gender Civ discussion. No one is troubled by the historical study of non-Western civilizations. Montesquieu, a great canonical stalwart, endorses that. But the end is still academic, not ideological, except again, in the broad sense in which all education is political. It's not enough to study colonialism or post-colonialism (as, if you recall, one of the Chicago Civs purports to do), unless the civilization actually has no history prior to being colonized, in which case it would seem to be not quite a civilization but some sort of creation of colonials.

As for women, also yes, but certainly not as an "alien world"! To whom are women alien? Maybe to monks. But I suppose here the question is something like, what is the study of women? Is it the reading of texts by women? About women? About feminism? Should it argue a certain position about the status of women? Plato and Aristotle have many things to say about women, for example, but would that "count" for your requirements? My dissertation is on political representations of the family in early modernity - this features much discussion of women, and yet little of it by women and equally little that would satisfy a contemporary feminist. My job, as I take it, is to take seriously such proposals as Bodin's that fathers should have the right to kill their wives and children, to figure out what merit this has for politics. What's the status of that?

I'd say that as long as we have a system in which students attend colleges that suit their inclinations/needs, it's going to depend which college.
I'm not really sure what that means. I can see how an engineering school might be judged by its ability to turn out competent engineers. But how do we judge whether a "hippie dippie school" fulfills its missions? By how many hippies it turns out? And is a hippie dippie school one that is expressly founded for such an end (Antioch College, say), or is it one that over time starts to tend towards it? If the latter, can students, alumni, faculty, etc. resist that shift, or does the shift become the very purpose of the institution at some point?

This ambiguity seems to be exacerbated by the fact that most students don't attend schools that suit their needs or inclinations. With the exception of a few specialized science and engineering schools, most colleges and universities in the US are general and offer the whole spectrum of courses of study. Moreover, many students don't know yet what their needs and inclinations are when they choose a school, or they don't make much of a choice, but default to either the best or cheapest school to which they're admitted. With the exception of a few students with either many choices or an unusual degree of early self-knowledge, much of the process of getting to a school is chance and circumstance. The example of Flavia's students is perhaps apt - SHE sees that they need cultural capital, but THEY don't necessarily come to her school with the purpose of acquiring it in mind. That's why general or liberal education maintains such traction in the US, b/c we're attached to the idea that people are not yet determined at 18, as against most European systems, and that they don't yet know what they don't know.