Sunday, April 13, 2008

To be of Use: Grade Inflation in Higher Ed, Part VII

By Nicholas Stix
July 13, 2001
Toogood Reports

“You’ve got to look under rocks,” said Chris Christopoulos. Chris was a hotel technology instructor at Sullivan County Community College. Chris meant, “To make money.” I creatively misunderstood the line to be about getting at the truth. Of course, if you look under enough rocks, you run across more than a few snakes.

Sullivan County was the best school I ever attended — better than the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Tuebingen, and the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School, even though I had some good, even great teachers at those schools. At Sullivan, I studied sociology with Tom Lambert, who was the embodiment of my kind of “looking under rocks.” In Tom’s Introduction to Sociology class, he weighed the theories of Max Weber and the other giants of the field, articles from the New Republic and newspapers, and the experiences of the middle-aged workmen who would regularly visit his office for bull sessions. Today, Tom still embodies the creed of Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), one of the godfathers of sociology: “Nothing human is alien to me.”

Which brings us to our friends, the tenured, “full” (or as Thomas Sowell has quipped, “empty”) university professors.

In November, 1996, I attended a talk given by Herman Badillo at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. Then the vice-president of the CUNY Board of Trustees, Badillo (who has since been named Board president) had been invited by Charles “Jim” Landesman and Richard Valcourt, to talk about reforming CUNY.

Valcourt, then my literary agent, and Landesman, an old graduate school philosophy instructor of mine, were the founders of the new, CUNY Association of Scholars, a local branch of the conservative, National Association of Scholars (NAS). I counted nine people present, including the hosts, Badillo, myself, and a graduate philosophy student-sycophant of Landesman’s. That left at most four tenured instructors, one of whom was a lovely, octogenarian, retired math instructor named Miriam Hecht, who later gave me material on political conflicts at CUNY and Columbia University going back to the 1960s.

Badillo called on CUNY instructors to research what was going on at their respective campuses, the better to reform them. Badillo made it clear, by the way, that he was only interested in the help of tenured instructors. He got no takers. As one tenured, lady philosophy instructor from CUNY’s Brooklyn College pleaded, what with the stress of teaching and serving on committees, colleagues were “suffering heart attacks.” Besides, “Our students don’t like being criticized.”

Note that Brooklyn College has long been — with Queens and Baruch colleges, respectively — one of CUNY’s three most academically rigorous campuses. And as a tenured instructor, the speaker would teach at most six courses PER YEAR, with the aid of graduate teaching assistants (T.A.s) and department secretaries. In contrast, as an adjunct, I taught as many as seven courses in three different fields to 170 students, with no T.A.s or secretarial help, PER SEMESTER. (Tenured instructors get paid about ten times as much per hour as adjuncts.) On the bright side, I never suffered any heart attacks.

In spring 1997, when I submitted my article on grade inflation, “Making Up the Grade: Notes from the Antiversity,” to the journal, Academic Questions (AQ), I insisted that it be published pseudonymously or not at all. As every academic knows, publishing such an exposé without the lifetime job security that tenure provides, would have been an act of professional suicide. In fact, at the time, NO TENURED INSTRUCTOR had authored a major study on grade inflation.

And yet, Academic Question’s longtime editor, Sanford “Sandy” Pinsker, of Franklin and Marshall College, put me under tremendous pressure to use my real name. I successfully resisted him, but he ultimately demanded and got a list of every pseudonymous article I had ever published. It was a long list.

One year after my article appeared, I saw Sandy Pinsker in Chicago, at the National Association of Scholars’ (NAS) national convention, behind the official NAS table. (AQ is the official journal of NAS.) We were both wearing name plates. Approaching him, I was stopped dead in my tracks. Pinsker stared at me with a look of hatred that I was used to seeing on the faces of racist, black subway muggers. I know what to expect, when I board New York’s “A” train; however, I wasn’t prepared for that at Chicago’s Regal Knickerbocker Hotel.

After all, this was the convention of the National Association of Scholars, whose motto is “for reasoned scholarship in a free society”; it wasn’t the convention of the National Association of Muggers. If “reasoned” and “free” are to mean anything, they must mean that facts and arguments trump titles. Otherwise, scholarship (aka science) isn’t about truth. And if it isn’t about truth, and truth alone, then it’s just a front for the world’s worst writing.

Upon reflection, I concluded that Pinsker had pressured me to use my real name, so that I would be destroyed professionally. He was angry, because I had refused to give in to him. To tenured instructors, it isn’t an untenured, adjunct professor’s “place” to publish exposés in major academic journals — or anywhere else, for that matter.

Various grandparents and great-grandparents of mine came here in steerage, to be free of petty tyrants who thought they could assign them a “place”; so, too, did Sandy Pinsker’s forebears.

I was merely a “useful idiot,” as the communists used to refer to the fellow travelers they duped into helping them.

Maybe I just need to change my frame of mind. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic, 1987 masterpiece on China, The Last Emperor, deposed emperor Pu-Yi (John Lone) complains bitterly to the benevolent, fatherly governor (Ruocheng Ying) of the communist prison in which the emperor is being re-educated, “You just used me!” The commandant responds calmly, “Is it so terrible, to be of use?”

As Leslie Stevenson argues in Seven Theories of Human Nature (now entitled, Ten Theories of Human Nature), my freshman philosophy textbook at Sullivan County Community College, the truth or falsity of a statement or theory is always independent of the identity of the person propounding it. Sixteen years later, when I taught my first college class in philosophy, at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, New Jersey, I would assign Stevenson, along with Plato’s Symposium and The Republic.

Unfortunately, in academia, truth counts for little; titles are everything. A great many academics are constitutionally unable to distinguish good research from bad, and sound arguments from unsound ones. Indeed, most tenured instructors got where they are by parroting their teachers, and they are perfectly comfortable with the habits they developed as graduate students, thank you.

Zachary Karabell, a socialist, Harvard history instructor, is the only established academic I know of, who has written with any degree of honesty on the caste system which rules this most peculiar institution. In What’s College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education, Karabell observes,

“The sensitivity of academics to hierarchy manifests itself in many ways, but if you want to observe one of the most unpleasant demonstrations of academic snobbery, go to a major academic conference and watch how people react to one another. Let’s say a panel delivers three papers to an audience of seventy-five. At the end of the formal presentation, the audience will ask questions. People stand and identify themselves. Those who have ‘respectable’ qualifications will elicit nods of agreement or sighs of disagreement, and others might approach them afterwards to continue the conversation. But if you stand up and say that you are from No-Name Community College, and even worse, if you say you are an adjunct, eyes glaze over. The sensation is palpable and familiar to anyone who’s attended these events.”

In Part VIII: Deafening Silence.

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