Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Update on Journalistic Practices

Just a quick update to this post to answer a few emailed questions:

Back in journalism school, it was drummed into us that you never, never, never try to give the reader the impression that you interviewed someone when you hadn't. I remember getting reamed out for quoting a researcher on elephant seals both from his interview with me and also from his published work and not being clear enough distinguishing the two. (By the way, this reaming was done by an excellent journalist and teacher, Jerry Lanson, then the city editor of the San Jose Mercury News, now the head of the journalism department at Emerson College. Jerry helped to convince me that I wasn't going to be a good journalist; I'll be forever grateful for that).

It's not necessary to go into detail on sources (as it would be in an academic paper), but you need to give your reader a clue: "in a web-published essay" or "in a recently published essay," or "X also wrote that." More importantly, you simply aren't supposed to pass off other people's work as your own.

I have a lot of criticism for my journalism education, and in retrospect it was a waste of a year except that I got to hang out at Stanford, where I met my wife (so going to Stanford was actually the second-best decision I ever made). But for all the attempted political indoctrination and the pervasive unconscious biases in the program, there was a deep committment to journalistic integrity. While my professors all argued that one can't be objective and one shouldn't even try, etc., they never would have stood for the kinds of manipulations and dishonest work on display in so many places. Whether this behavior -- from Jason Blair, to Dowdification, down to recycled quotes -- is the fruit of any specific policies that were adopted during that time period, I can't really tell. But journalism as a whole needs to do a much better job of policing itself and punishing those who violate the canons. I'd like to see journalism schools and editors really emphasize the basics of getting facts straight. But if my experience as a teacher is any guide, the students who are currently going into journalism just want to write opinion any way they can (too be fair, we did too, back in 1990-91, but our teachers and editors seemed to be somewhat better at forcing us to focus on the facts).
Journalistic practices

Jason Van Steenwyk via Glenn Reynolds points out that quite a number of high-profile journalists seem to be recycling the same quote from each other rather than going to the source. As a medievalist, I'd point out that Jason has identified descent due to shared error, exactly the way that we trace manuscript histories.

I'm someone who was going to be a journalist, and who has some training in the area (M.A., Stanford, 1991), so I know that this is a huge failure on the part of reporters (at least as far as their training goes).

I'm also someone who had exactly the same thing happen to me in January 2003, so I'm not at all surprised that so many big-time journalists are violating good-practice rules. It seems very common.

Back in 2003, there was a story in the London Sunday Times about my work on J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf translations. There were a lot of inaccuracies and problems with the story, but at least the reporter actually interviewed me. But after that, the story just took off. There were so many articles that I couldn't track them all down, and they invariably cobbled together quotations from the Sunday Times interview and from a piece of mine that had been published on the web, "Wrong About Almost Everything: Editing J.R.R. Tolkien". Of all the stories that came out, in many languages and formats, I'd say less than 2% of the reporters actually contacted me. I certainly was never interviewed in all the German papers that quoted me, nor in the Australian. But only 30% of the time did the reporters refer specifically to the Sunday Times story, and they never stated that they were quoting my published work without attribution, rather than interviewing me directly.

It may be that the specific case Jason mentions has to do with ideology rather than simple bad practice. It was my experience in journalism school and right afterwards that people at least acted as if they took attribution, getting the interview yourself, etc., very seriously. But there were no ideological reasons for reporters to do what they did in my case, and yet the same sloppy, dishonest practices were followed.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Housekeeping / Graduation Speakers

I've enabled comments using the new Blogger tools, and I've also turned on the Atom Feed, if anyone cares. I'm worried that I'll have to delete comments due to comment spam, but so far, no 'bots.

Tomorrow is Wheaton's graduation, one of the most beautiful ceremonies in academia, I think. It starts out with the students lining the path to where the ceremonies are held (a hollow in the center of campus called the Dimple). Faculty process through the students, and they clap for us. At the end of the ceremonies, we reverse things, and the faculty lines up on the path and the students process between us. We clap for them. It's very simple, but very powerful. I love ritual anyway, but so many of my own graduations felt like empty ritual. Wheaton's isn't, because it's so personal. I know a big chunk of the senior class by name, and so I'll be cheering for a lot of different students as they get their degrees. And as they process out many of them will reach over to shake hands with or hug particular professors. It really illustrates the way that the faculty and students here feel like we've made a difference in each other's lives.

So the deep emotional content of the ceremony is the exact opposite of the ersatz profundity of the graduation speakers. We are scheduled to have Mary Robinson, and I've already been warned to bring a good book under my robe (and I will). I can't critique her yet, but I thought it might be funny to discuss some of the previous speakers we've had:

Surprisingly Excellent:

Of all people, Robert Reich, whom I just have never been able to stand when I've seen him on television, read his OpEds, etc., was the best of the speakers we've had. To my enormous surprise, he made the whole speach about the students, not about himself. He was funny, he teased them a little, made excellent jokes, and was genuinely warm. I couldn't believe it.

David McCullough, author of those gigantic John Adams books. He dug into his database and found a connection between an Adams descendant and Wheaton. She was actually in attendence, to his surprise, since she was 94 years old or so, and he interrupted his speach to lead the crowd in applause for her. He also made the speech about the students and encouraged and applauded them sincerely. Classy guy.

David Whittaker (sp?), Newsweek editor and son of retired professor. Nice guy. Knew the campus and the culture; told stories. Students loved him.

Director of the Getty Museum (sorry, can't remember name). Short and sweet, funny, personable, didn't take himself too seriously.

Truly Awful:

Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist. I remember turning to one of my friends in the faculty and saying "I can't believe any educated human being could give a speech this shallow." His deep advice: "turn off your cellphone and your Blackberry." Wow. I mean, he had nothing to say, and now that I've heard him speak, I can never take any of his NYT stuff seriously again because, while he may have travelled the world, etc., he just spoke in one cliche after another. Ugh.

Worst Ever:

The historian from last year, whose name I'll update in here when I find it, who went on some kind of whacko, super-extreme, leftist rant. "You are graduating into the worst economy since the Great Depression." Huh? Not only a horrible thing to say to graduating seniors, but also a lie (unemployment rate was, what, 6.1% last year; I'm no economist or historian, but I think the Great Depression's was just a tad bit higher). The faculty kept clapping and clapping and giving standing ovations, etc., for what was like something you'd read on Democratic Underground. Again, I am not exactly a conservative (though I'm much less partisan -- I hate both parties -- than my colleagues), and I know that my colleagues say lots of stupid stuff about politics in the faculty dining room, but this guy was talking in front of students. And it seemed like he believed all of what he was saying. Somebody needed to adjust his meds.

Legendarily bad:

I was not at Wheaton when Connie Chung gave the most infamous of all graduation speeches, but the legend has it that she told a long, rambling story about having a dream that included her defecating in a dry-cleaning bag. I am not making this up. No one to this day has any explanation, but it's always fun to ask the older faculty to talk about that one speech, which in sheer awfulness has, apparently, never been surpassed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

"Overproduction" of Ph.D.'s, redux

I've received a surprising amount of email and a few web comments about the post just below, but I haven't been able to respond due to grades being due and baby not sleeping through the night (though he slept from 12 to 6:30 last night, so that was good; we're making progress).

One of the contributors to the comments on Elisabeth Carnell's blog, Dorothea Salo, wrote:
"I also think Drout mischaracterizes what the dream *is*. The Ph.D is NOT NOT NOT the terminal goal for (I would argue) 95+% of those who enter Ph.D programs. THE TENURED JOB IS THE TERMINAL GOAL. If that goal is out of reach for a substantial percentage of those who try for and/or achieve Ph.Ds, then Drout and his ilk are doing them a hell of a disservice, wasting a lot of their lives on a lie."

Carnell has already pointed out that it's not quite true to generalize so much. I can point to three friends out of my fairly small circle of close friends who are also Ph.D.s who got their degrees with no interest in a tenure-track job at a research institution. One wants to be a University President and needs to do the Prof. thing as a stepping stone, one wants to head the English dept at a community college, and the other is already Dean of the Graduate school and will almost certainly continue to move up in administration (and said friend is my age!).

But that's not really my point. I'm more concerned with this:
If that goal is out of reach for a substantial percentage of those who try for and/or achieve Ph.Ds, then Drout and his ilk are doing them a hell of a disservice, wasting a lot of their lives on a lie."

Setting aside the erroneous personal approach (I'm not sure what my "ilk" are, but if they teach at teaching colleges like Wheaton, have no graduate students of their own, and don't rely on any graduate students to teach classes in their departments, I'm not sure that the condemnation really holds water), I think there are real intellectual problems embedded in this statement.

"That goal is out of reach for a substantial percentage of those who try for..." Yes, it is, numerically. But we don't know which students it will be out of reach for. All the proposals I've read -- eliminating Ph.D. programs if they don't place 40% of graduates in tenure track jobs, etc.--assume that one can tell very early on who is good enough. But that's silly, given how much dumb luck is involved in the job search. For instance, you'd think candidates at the Ivies would be "better" than those elsewhere. That hasn't been our experience at Wheaton. While it's true that someone with an Ivy Ph.D. will probably get more consideration at a research-oriented school, such a person is actually at a disadvantage for us, since he or she is probably too specialized, lacks teaching experience, lacks ability to wear many hats (though this may be the way said candidates put together their vitae and letters; personal I reject all Ivy candidates who don't mention teaching in the first paragraphs of their letters.). So in terms of applying for jobs at small liberal arts colleges that are teaching-focused, a person from a "marginal" institution (like my own degree from Loyola-Chicago), has at least as good a chance as one of the more privileged.

More importantly, I'm not sure how it is a "lie" to allow people to continue in a Ph.D. when the job market is bad. Everyone in graduate school knows the job market realities--we talked about it constantly, from the day I arrived in my second M.A. program (my first M.A., in journalism, was different because no one in the program wanted to go into academia). The sound-bite was: "I can't believe you're specializing in medieval. To get a job in that field you have to wait for someone to die." To which I replied: "But a lot of medievalists are ancient, and maybe there will be a plague or something." This was on the first day of graduate orientation.

Now In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood argues that graduate students mentally overvalue their chances of success, and he may be right, but I think that's no different from people who want to go into medicine, law, art, music, acting, tv, film, or publishing. In every case, when you know something about the inside of the field, you quickly learn that there are trade-offs between the enjoyment of the job, the difficulty of getting one, the money, the hours, the politics, etc., that make the grass greener somewhere else. For really desireable jobs, in any field, the competition is fierce, as you'd expect it to be, since the reward can be so great.

I object to the idea that people have to be forcibly prevented from entering that competition for their own good, and so that they don't 'waste' their lives. Our sorting mechanisms at every stage are inefficient and unjust, but there is somewhat less inefficiency and injustice at later stages -- when the person has a publication record, teaching experience, etc. -- than simply trying to judge a person's potential based on an undergraduate transcript. Perseverence, bullheadedness and desire, sustained over a long period of time, are in my mind better indicators than a bunch of A's in undergraduate courses.

Friday, May 07, 2004

"Overproduction" of Ph.D.s.

[Now that's an exciting title for a blog post. People who don't care about the insider stuff of academia and only come here for the Tolkien stuff will probably want to scroll down or come back tomorrow]

Erin O'Connor, whose blog I've read regularly and enjoyed a great deal for quite some time, has a long, semi-angry post in which she discusses perceived problems in academia, including but not limited to the use of adjunct faculty, the difficulties of the job market and the problems of properly rewarding good teaching. In earlier posts I've addressed some of these issues previously (treatment of adjuncts
; exploitation of graduate students ), and given the foot-high stack of papers to grade (35 annotated translations in Anglo-Saxon, 25 15-page Chaucer papers, with final essay exams from both classes and final objective exams in Anglo-Saxon still yet to come in), this isn't going to be as long or detailed a post. But I wanted to address something that I believed for a long time that I've only realized lately is a morally and ethically problematic position.

Prof. O'Connor states
It is agreed that there is a massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s, and that departments that are contributing to this massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s are grossly irresponsible toward grad students even as they serve their own needs very well (they get the cheap labor they need to get freshman comp taught, and they get a pool of smart, interesting students to whom faculty can administer narcissistically gratifying graduate courses). Usually, the solutions offered to this problem run along the lines of suggesting that fewer Ph.D.'s should be produced, that those that are produced should be better supported, and that "The Profession," as comprised of hundreds of discrete departments, should renew its commitment to the tenure track by, well, being very committed to it (this commitment in turn is organized around an ideal of hiring as many TT faculty as possible, cutting back on adjunct labor as much as possible, and placing as many newly minted Ph.D.'s as possible in TT jobs). It doesn't work, and it can't.
Note the passive voice in "it is agreed." I used to agree, and I'm pretty sure that most people in the profession would agree. And I now think that they are and I was wrong.

Why is there seen to be an "overproduction" of Ph.D.s? Because there are only X number of jobs available in the academic system, and there are some number greater than X people who want those positions.
Thus the competition for those positions is particularly fierce. And, given the laws of supply and demand, the pay for the positions will be lower and the work demands higher than they would be in other circumstances. Thus, the reasoning goes, if there were fewer Ph.D.s looking for jobs, those people both in the jobs and looking for jobs would be better off. Reduce the number of people getting Ph.D.s and everyone would be better off.

Well, except for the kids who want to get Ph.D.s and would now be blocked from doing so due to the planned reduction in the size of the labor force. Thus 22-year-olds who want to go to graduate school and study would have to be locked out, not for their own good, but for the good of others -- either those already in the system or those who would somehow be deemed to be more deserving.

In practice this would mean that a very few, "elite" programs would produce the next generation of professors. After all, if you're going to reduce supply, then you'd logically cut the programs that are "lesser" in some way. (Unless there were an across the board cut--i.e., each school agreed, cartel-like, to reduce their acceptance of Ph.D. students by, say, 10%--almost impossible to imagine; and if it did happen, it would lead to no school being able to create or build a new Ph.D. program).

Because I am not personally invested in the myth of the superiority of, say, the students who go to ivy-league schools, I am not very confident that such a restriction of supply would be good for the profession intellectually. But it would be an even greater moral disaster, since it would create even more of a "rich get richer" system than already exists. Furthermore, such a restriction of Ph.D. slots would lead to earlier and earlier decisions having greater and greater effects. For instance, now a person could start as an un-funded student in a Ph.D. program, still earn a Ph.D., do a great dissertation and get a job. Since under a regime necessary to significantly reduce the number of Ph.D. students, the un-funded students would be the first to go (since they would be, presumably, less capable -- on paper, at least -- than their funded counterparts), you would have very early "lock-in": screw up one class your junior year of college and that's it.

To me the biggest problem in the elite side of the American educational system is this too-early lock-in. Students are tapped as capable or not way too early in their development. Med schools now in some cases are judging applicants based on the second decimal place in their GPA (because so many applicants are 3.8x or 3.9x). This is ridiculous in that it shows nothing about the different abilities of the students except, maybe, who had a little dumb luck on a final exam in a sophomore organic chemistry class. It just as stupid when the process is applied in other fields.

Prof. O'Connor believes, as I believed while I was in graduate school, that schools produce Ph.D. students to solve labor problems. I am not so sure. I think schools produce Ph.D. students because there is a demand, by students, to become Ph.D.s, and teachers want to grant that demand. If you restrict the number of students who can attempt the Ph.D., you are doing an injustice to those students who are capable of doing the work, who might prove themselves later on, but who, at the time of admission to the program, don't look as good on paper.

A quick illustrative story:

A friend from graduate school came to my institution as part of a relationship (i.e., partner was accepted, my friend moved to the city due to partner). Friend was never deemed worthy of funding for a variety of what seem to me to be trivial reasons. Friend persevered. Friend ended up with the consensus #1 job in Anglo-Saxon his second year on the market. Friend has a book out, another under contract, and is on glide-path to tenure at Research 1 school. If Ph.D.s were restricted, I doubt friend would have been allowed to continue. Also, at the same time friend was continuing to be refused funding, another acquaintance was getting the "gold-plated" funding package: a named scholarship, no teaching requirement, extra research money. Said acquaintance never finished. Suggests that early identification of who is or isn't good enough is pretty haphazard.

Sometimes we should be a little Foucaultian about ourselves: reducing the "overproduction" of Ph.D.s makes guiltless 22-25 year-olds suffer the loss of their dreams for the benefit of other people. Fewer Ph.D.s would make for better lives and better remuneration and better prospects for those who already have them: as Foucault points out, self-interest dressed up as humanitarianism has a particularly bad record, historically.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The End of the Semester
Classes at Wheaton end on Friday, and the collective insanity of the campus is in full career. It's both a good and a frustrating time to be a professor. Good, because for many students, only the pressure of the looming final deadline will motivate them to do their best work. And it really can be their best work, because they've had a semester of preparation under their belts. At this point in Anglo-Saxon, the students are mostly (I think) cursing me for assigning too much work. But we translated fifty lines of Beowulf in class today and they got it. They just rolled through syntactic constructions that would have baffled them two weeks ago. Because they're tired, frustrated and a little surly they didn't recognize how well they'd done, and because I was trying to push as hard as possible for one more day, I didn't yet let on how proud of I am of them. But my take is that out of the 35 students in the class, there are a good 25 who could successfully complete a Beowulf seminar (i.e., translate all 3181 lines in a semester).

Of course this time of the semester is frustrating when you're dealing with students who have let things slip too long and now want to try to overcome the handicaps they've set for themselves. And there's also the rash of illnesses (most probably real, due to stress levels) and family emergencies (most probably faked, but I don't push it; I give students the benefit of the doubt) that comes with the end of the semester. Add the fact that there are so many students at even super-extended office hours that you pretty much don't get ten minutes to think in the course of day, and it's tiring (add the often-waking, always-hungry one-month-old and it's really tiring).

But there's such a heady air on campus among the students that your pulse quickens: they are excited, scared, energized, spring-fevered. It's the end of the year, and so much life must be crammed into a couple of weeks. A great feeling.