Pedantic Professors

A followup to a post below. Sam Fallon writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

In recent weeks, Donald Trump’s pursuit of a border wall between the United States and Mexico has worked its way back in time — to the Middle Ages. Trump has happily agreed that his proposal is a distinctly “medieval solution.” “It worked then,” he declared in January, “and it works even better now.” That admission proved an invitation to critics, who inveighed against the wall as, in the words of the presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris, Trump’s “medieval vanity project.”

The response from medievalists was swift and withering — not just for the president, but also for his opponents. Calling the wall “medieval” was misleading, wrote Matthew Gabriele, of Virginia Tech, in The Washington Post, “because walls in the actual European Middle Ages simply did not work the way Trump apparently thinks they did.” On, David M. Perry, of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, insisted that “walls are not medieval.” And in Vox, Eric Weiskott, of Boston College, urged readers to “take it from a professor of medieval literature: calling things you don’t like ‘medieval’ is inaccurate and unhelpful.”

Along with every other medievalist, I take umbrage at the negative connotation of “medieval” in popular discourse. But on this particular issue, I think that our politics have gotten the better of us. No, boundaries between states were generally not walled in the Middle Ages (unlike in the Roman Empire or in Imperial China) – in fact, they often weren’t even defined. But any city worth the name was surrounded by a wall, for the obvious reason that it might be attacked, and given the military technology of the time, a wall formed an effective defense against such attack.

The walls of Orleans helped save the city from an English siege in 1429, which even involved the use of canon. Wikipedia.

All that Trump would like to do is to treat the country like a medieval city. One can take issue with his idea that the great hordes of illegal aliens swarming across our southern border really constitute an invasion force or otherwise threaten our way of life, or that a wall will be the best way of keeping them out (proper visa tracking and compulsory e-verify might be more useful on this front). I note, however, that a lot of the people who are in favor of not enforcing our immigration laws live in places where they don’t have to experience the externalities of the policies they champion, often surrounded by actual barriers, or otherwise protected by private security forces or just astronomical prices to keep the riffraff out. I read somewhere that the choice for America going forward is this: either a wall on the southern border, or lots of little walls throughout the country.

So yeah, walls are medieval… and they just may be something worth reviving.


• Many people ask me if there are opportunities for “extra credit.” The answer is always no. The idea that you can just “play till you win” is corrupting of education.

• It is true that you are all paying a lot of money to come here (or maybe you are; I am not privy to whatever deal you happen to be getting). But whatever you are paying, it is not coming to me, I assure you. And it is not useful anyway to see your professor as a service industry worker. Do not think of me as your masseuse, your waiter, your accountant, or even your lawyer. No, the only way that I can have any effect on you is if you consider me your boss. If I want something done, I want it done! And I do not want to hear anything about how you are “paying for this.” I want you to pass, but it is not actually my job to pass you. It is my job to grade you honestly.

From the Syllabus

Regarding University Courses:

The whole point of small universities like Reinhardt is that you can interact with your professors. This is not an opportunity that students at large state schools normally get, where graduate student teaching assistants act as intermediaries between professors and students, especially in introductory courses like this one.

However, university is not high school. High schools are large, part-time prisons, one of whose main functions is to keep young people occupied for forty hours a week and hopefully out of trouble. University is qualitatively different. The conceit is that you are adults, attending voluntarily, and can be trusted to arrange your schedule as you see fit. You therefore only have fifteen hours of class time a week, and once you’re out of class your time is your own – the idea being that you can now be trusted to do your work without anyone forcing you to.

This means that class time is at a premium. I cannot speak for other instructors here, but I will not be wasting much class time on “fun in-class activities” like movies, skits, taking up tests, etc. If you would like further contact with me for whatever reason, please come by my office hours.

It also means that I will not be chasing after you if you start failing the course, or stop coming to class. Your grade is your responsibility. I want you to learn something, and I want you to pass the course. But you must also want these things, and you have to make the first move. I hold office hours for a reason, and I am always baffled why students do not take more advantage of them.

Dartmouth Seal

Dartmouth is gearing up for what it calls its sestercentennial, that is, a celebration of the granting of its charter on December 13, 1769, 250 years ago. An elaborate, double-issue of the alumni magazine just arrived, which included this item:

My scholarship lives! (Although it would have been nice of them to actually state who the author is.) 🙂

In honor of the sestercentennial, allow me to post a graphic that adorns the title page of a book entitled simply The Dartmouth, by “Students of Dartmouth College,” which was given to me this Christmas by my classmate Ken Bower. The Dartmouth claims to be “America’s oldest college newspaper, founded 1799”; this is bogus, but it was going by 1840, when this book was published (at the time The Dartmouth was a literary magazine, and the book comprises all the numbers of volume 2). The illustration is of the four buildings lining the east side of the Green, with the three on the left comprising so-called Dartmouth Row, and the fourth being Reed Hall. (You can remember their names by the mnemonic “When Green Turns Red,” that is, Wentworth, Dartmouth, Thornton, and Reed.) Nowadays they are all in brick, painted white, with dark green shutters, but this wasn’t always the case, as the graphic illustrates.

Here’s a view of Dartmouth Row as it appeared in March of 2011, the last time I was on campus.

An Offensive Post

From Yana Weinstein-Jones (via Andrew Reeves): “This blog post will offend everyone in academia“:

Ghost, or object to be discarded when no longer necessary. Hired begrudgingly to fill gaps due to tenured faculty not wanting to teach dispreferred classes. Referred to with disdain because “some don’t even have PhDs”. Discussed as a problem that calls for pest control even though they teach more than half of the classes. Too beaten down to be scared.

Assistant Prof
To be taken advantage of because they will do anything to prove their worth. Make the mistake of trying to teach well. Must answer emails all day and all night. Very scared, but also determined. (see also, “Untenured”)

Associate Prof with potential promotion to Full
Firing on all cylinders to strategically select project with biggest payoff in terms of things that count: grant funding, publications in high-profile journals, high-visibility service. Ruthless elimination of anything and everything that does not contribute to promotion, such as mentoring students. More angry than scared.

Associate Prof resigned to endless Associate purgatory
Bitter at how life turned out. Particularly bitter at productive Assistant Professors: how dare they work so hard, making us look bad?

A person who has given up all of their hopes and dreams of an academic career, at least temporarily, to manage the most self-involved, passive aggressive, competitive, entitled, and needy workforce on an unimaginably low budget. The fact that everyone is highly intelligent and some kind of expert on something or other makes things worse, as each person deeply believes that the thing that they are an expert in is the most important one with the greatest need for resources.

More at the link.

History is History

Here is another article on a recent theme:

A recent study confirms a disturbing trend: American college students are abandoning the study of history. Since 2008, the number of students majoring in history in U.S. universities has dropped 30 percent, and history now accounts for a smaller share of all U.S. bachelor’s degrees than at any time since 1950. Although all humanities disciplines have suffered declining enrollments since 2008, none has fallen as far as history. And this decline in majors has been even steeper at elite, private universities — the very institutions that act as standard bearers and gate-keepers for the discipline. The study of history, it seems, is itself becoming a relic of the past.

It is tempting to blame this decline on relatively recent factors from outside the historical profession. There are more majors to choose from than in the past. As a broader segment of American society has pursued higher education, promising job prospects offered by other fields, from engineering to business, has no doubt played a role in history’s decline. Women have moved in disproportionate numbers away from the humanities and towards the social sciences. The lingering consequences of the Great Recession and the growing emphasis on STEM education have had their effects, as well.

Yet a deeper dive into the statistics reveals that history’s fortunes have worsened not over a period of years, but over decades. In the late 1960s, over six percent of male undergraduates and almost five percent of female undergraduates majored in history. Today, those numbers are less than 2 percent and 1 percent. History’s collapse began well before the financial crash.

This fact underscores the sad truth of history’s predicament: The discipline mostly has itself to blame for its current woes. In recent decades, the academic historical profession has become steadily less accessible to students and the general public — and steadily less relevant to addressing critical matters of politics, diplomacy, and war and peace. It is not surprising that students are fleeing history, for the historical discipline has long been fleeing its twin responsibilities to interact with the outside world and engage some of the most fundamental issues confronting the United States.

More at the link.

I’m not quite sure that I agree with his critique. First, it’s important to note that just because the number of history majors has declined, it does not mean that the study of history itself has declined – history remains part of most general education requirements, and of course people can minor in history while majoring in something else. And that something else, as noted, has to start paying off immediately.

But I don’t think that the popularity of the history major has much to do with academic historians’ engagement with the public sphere. My impression is that most high school and/or college students, if they are interested in history, are interested in the history itself. They don’t know who the big names are, or whether these people actually hold academic appointments (I certainly didn’t). There is still lots of popular history out there, whether in the form of books, television shows, movies, or video games (some of which, I feel compelled to state, is even produced by real academics, and most of which is based on work that they’ve done).

Or is the idea that popular and academic history have diverged too much in their concerns? Picture a young man who is interested in World War II on account of watching Inglourious Basterds and playing a lot of D-Day, who comes to university only to discover that the only course offered on World War II focusses heavily on Rosie the Riveter, race relations in southern factories, and Japanese internment. These are legitimate topics, of course, but you can see why some students might consider them of secondary importance to the actual war itself. I don’t think that this is as much of a problem as people think, but I admit that it can be a problem. History ought to be a house of many mansions, and any substantial history department should (and generally does) try very hard to recruit members who specialize in different times and periods… and approaches, including diplomatic and military history. But what happens if there are no applicants in those latter fields? This is a function of competitive convergence – there are so many would-be academics chasing so few jobs, that everyone specializes in something they think will win them employment, something designated “hot,” “up to date,” and “relevant.” No one is willing to take a risk on specializing in a niche interest. This is a shame.*

But I don’t know what can be done about it, except for all AHA member departments to make a pact to severely limit the number of Ph.D. students they take on, in the interests of loosening up and (paradoxically) diversifying the job market – even if it means that some of the professors will have to do some of their own grunt work, which means that it will never happen. Failing that, I do think that an expansive spirit is required, a deeply engrained (and enforced, if need be) principle that the same right that you have to do your thing guarantees someone else’s right to do her thing, i.e. a spirit of genuine diversity, whereby no one’s approach is better than anyone else’s. Alas, if team intersectional gets its way, very soon there will be a sort of Bechdel test for the acceptance of scholarship in Speculum or panels at Kalamazoo, because these people require constant validation and it’s never enough that they get to do what they want to do, you have to do it too. The totalitarianism behind this impulse has always annoyed me. Live and let live, eh?

* Robert Hughes (in his Culture of Complaint) quotes the critic Louis Menand:

most of the academic world is a vast sea of conformity, and every time a new wave of theory and methodology rolls through, all the fish try to swim in its direction. Twenty years ago every academic critic of literature was talking about the self, its autonomy and its terrible isolation. Today not a single respectable academic would be caught dead anywhere near the word, for the “self’ is now the “subject’ and the subject, everyone heartily agrees, is a contingent construction… what ought to be most distressing to everyone is the utter predictability of the great majority of the academic criticism that gets published.

He’s talking about literary study, but it applies in a lesser way to history too.

Our Appeal Has Become More Selective

Some sobering news from IHE:

History has seen the steepest decline in majors of all disciplines since the 2008 recession, according to a new analysis published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History.

“The drop in history’s share of undergraduate majors in the last decade has put us below the discipline’s previous low point in the 1980s,” reads the analysis, written by Benjamin M. Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University.

Some numbers: there were 34,642 history degrees conferred in 2008, according to federal data. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 24,266. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, there was a 1,500 major drop-off. And even as overall university enrollments have grown, “history has seen its raw numbers erode heavily,” Schmidt wrote, especially since 2011-12.

“Of all the fields I’ve looked at, history has fallen more than any other in the last six years,” he says. The 2012 time frame is significant, according to the analysis, because it’s the first period in which students who experienced the financial crisis could easily change their majors.

The data represent a “new low” for the history major, Schmidt wrote. While a 66 percent drop in history’s share of majors from 1969 to 1985 remains the “most bruising” period in the discipline’s history, that drop followed a period of rapid enrollment expansion. The more recent drop is worse than history’s previous low point, in the 1980s.

I think that one of the main reasons for the decline in the history major is on account of university tuition fees continually rising far beyond the rate of inflation, so that students, of necessity, must see university as a financial investment that needs to start paying off immediately, rather than an incubator of cultural literacy, informed citizenship, and a personal life philosophy, as it may once have been. I am not saying that history majors can’t perform well in a wide variety of jobs, precisely because they can conduct research and present it coherently, it’s just that they have to overcome certain hurdles before they can convince people to hire them. I would not discount the politicization of the discipline, although this is not nearly as bad as some commentators would like to suggest (the profession as a whole might lean to the left, but you can always find professors who keep their politics to themselves, or who are even conservative). But I take consolation in the fact that our appeal really is selective: to do history properly you need intelligence and motivation, literacy and hard work. These qualities are less common that you might imagine.

Washington and Lee

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Washington and Lee University has decided to make changes to the names of some campus buildings after concerns from students and faculty.

On Tuesday, the Board of Trustees announced that it will rename Robinson Hall as Chavis Hall, in honor of John Chavis, the first African-American to receive a college education in the United States. He graduated from Washington Academy, the predecessor of W&L, in 1799. Also, Lee-Jackson House will be renamed Simpson Hall in honor of Pamela Hemenway Simpson, who served as an associate dean of the college and helped move to a co-ed environment in the 1980s.

The board also announced that effective immediately, it will replace portraits of Robert E. Lee and George Washington in military uniforms inside Lee Chapel with portraits of the two men in civilian clothing. The board also ordered the doors to the statue chamber in the 1883 addition to Lee Chapel to be closed during university events.

These changes are not particularly radical, although I would be keen to know exactly how many “students and faculty” we are actually talking about here (university administrators love to sniff out mandates to do things they want to do anyway). Dropping the “Lee” from the university’s name, so that it reverts to “Washington University,” or changing the name entirely (cf. “Arcadia University“), would be very radical indeed. (Robert E. Lee was president of Washington College after the Civil War and promoted some innovative changes; the trustees appended his name to the place immediately upon his death in 1870.)

Here are some photos from the last time we were in Lexington, Virginia (2006). It is really quite a pretty town – featuring not just Washington and Lee, but also the Virginia Military Institute, the alpha chapter of Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc., and the grave of Stonewall Jackson.

Payne, Washington, and Chavis (formerly Robinson) Halls.

The Lee Memorial Chapel.

Outside Lee Chapel: Traveller’s grave.

And heraldry! This is the Washington and Lee coat of arms on Lettie Pate Evans Hall.

“Reeducation Campus”

Interesting article in City Journal about the political tendentiousness and intellectual poverty of most first-year seminar courses. Excerpt:

The programs often start with a “common read,” a book sent to everyone the summer before school starts, and proceed with lectures, discussion groups, seminars, courses, exercises, field trips, art projects, local activism, and whatever else the schools will fund. The programs are typically run not by professors but by “cocurricular professionals”—administrators lacking scholarly credentials who operate outside the regular curriculum. They don’t need to master an academic discipline or impart an established body of knowledge. They create a cocurriculum of what they want students to learn, which usually involves a great deal of talk about “diversity” and “inclusion.”…

Which authors should every college freshman read? If this choice were left up to serious scholars, you can imagine the candidates they’d suggest: Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, de Tocqueville, Dostoyevsky, Du Bois, Faulkner. And that’s why professors usually don’t get to make the choice. They don’t understand these authors’ limitation. Sure, Plato and the rest did fine work in their day, but they all suffer from a fatal flaw: none is available to speak on campus.

You need a live author with a rousing speech to appeal to today’s freshmen, or at least to the administrators of first-year programs who choose each year’s book. That’s why, when they convened in San Antonio, they were feted at lunches and dinners by publishers eagerly promoting not timeless wisdom but the fall catalog. Getting chosen as the common read means big sales—5,000 copies at a big school—and the publishers trot out their authors to perform 15-minute auditions during the meals.

Read the whole thing.