Trumpery, Vocationalism and the Bachelor’s Rose: Taking the Off-Ramp from the Roads to Perdition

Trumpery, Vocationalism and the Bachelor’s Rose

 

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean

College of Liberal Arts & Science, GVSU

April 6, 2016

 

I turned 64 in February, and the rhetorical form appropriate to such a venerable age is, of course, the jeremiad.  Today I want to talk about some alarming trends in public culture, and about how our accomplishments this year constitute a kind of resistance that gives our students alternatives.  Along the way, I want to give a few glimpses of what the next academic year might bring, and redeem my jeremiad a little, with a new form of recognition.

 

The world today seems to be barreling toward a kind of cultural perdition. Traditionally, “perdition” refers to an individual’s final spiritual ruin; I want to discuss what could lead to the unrepentant and irreversible loss of a culture’s soul.

Our pop culture invites us to have passionate opinions about the proper recipient of the Bachelor’s rose. One is not in step with the times unless able to opine about whichever Kardashian is behaving most erratically.  We “enjoy” unfiltered and immediate communication, accessible to more people than at any previous time—but the bad news is, it pours out like Flint tap water, without filters and the proper treatment needed to prevent it from being really bad for your brain.  That’s expressed in public culture by incitements to violence, Islamophobia, references to normal bodily functions and allegedly abnormal genitalia as forms of public debate, and political discourse with an average of a falsehood every 5 minutes over hours of campaign speeches, as documented by Politico.[i]  The political road has grown clogged with trumpery—by which I mean the dictionary definition: worthless nonsense, garish appearances of no lasting use or value.

Careening down an alarmingly parallel road is the public culture of higher education.  Do we have any Wisconsin natives in the audience? Your exemplary system of public higher education faces a $300M hit. Kansas is making up for the latest of its tax shortfalls, $53M, by cutting their higher ed system yet again, by another $17M.  Delaware State just cut 23 majors; think of eliminating the equivalent of half the majors in CLAS.  Louisiana’s public university system faces a $131M cut, and Illinois has cut off funding for its state colleges entirely.  Every employee at Chicago State has received a tentative termination notice, including the President (and, even more shockingly, the deans!). Illinois won’t fund until they until they push through a budget cut—all this in a national economy with only 5% unemployment, with labor force participation growing back to pre-Recession levels, the Dow buoyantly back above 17,500, and wage growth outrunning inflation.  Imagine what things would be like if economic times were bad.

What’s worse is that as educators, we find ourselves trying to develop critical thinking skills in our students at a time when a kind of “first-job vocationalism” is presented as the hot new idea in the public sphere—a vocationalism that even undersells the STEM disciplines while it purports to celebrate them, reducing them to instrumentally expedient items on a training agenda, rather than having—like all CLAS disciplines—vital roles in the liberal education of fully human beings.  As the University of Iowa’s Pulitzer Prize winning author and Writer’s Workshop professor Marilynne Robinson put it, the pressure on universities is not, as in the past, to democratize privilege, but rather to train a "docile… working class." She observes that as a society, "[w]e have persuaded ourselves that the role of the middle ranks of our population is to be of use to the economy, more precisely to the future economy – of which we know nothing for certain."[ii]  

But we at Grand Valley prepare our students not just for managing the material contingencies of living, including a first job (although our students surely seem to do well in snagging them), but for a lifetime of change—not just to follow roads that others dictate, but to find their own way. 

The news for us has been relatively good.  Of the state dollars distributed on merit—a tiny fraction of the overall higher ed budget--the Governor has recommended the highest increase, 6.8%, for us. We know that if even half of that survives the legislative process, it’ll feel like a windfall.  But that’s not why we can face our challenges with confidence.   We moved notably further ahead this year because we’ve detoured from those pernicious, perditious roads.

First we focused on students, thereby rejecting “first job vocationalism.”  For example, I congratulate units—Biology, Classics, Film/Video Production—for  having completed their curricular redesigns, and Geography and Sustainable Planning for working so hard on their open house and on recruiting incoming students.  I’m encouraged that Theatre is looking toward the 25th anniversary of the Shakespeare Festival with plans to make it great for students and alumni.  I also want to praise the faculty—let’s pick Frank Sylvester as the avatar this time—who take the time to engage students-at-risk in the Freshman Academy, who make the effort for rigorous and compassionate advising, and to teach your classes with the same principled inclusiveness every day.

It’s worth noting that we’ve had phenomenal success along these lines in recent years:  time to graduation is down and graduation rates are up. We celebrate this even as we recognize that we need to keep doing better. One way to do so would be to elevate student scholarship; along this line, kudos to both the English Capstone Conference and the CMB Symposium for giving students the chance to present their research.  But there’s no speed limit on the express lanes to Perdition, and the traffic is always getting heavier—we know we must continue to improve.  So we must look for ways to incentivize faculty to take on the hard work of guiding student scholars, and we must tweak our personnel documents so that they define, count and recognize all forms of undergraduate student research. This year, in the momentum of Grand Valley’s first NEA grant going to Bill Ryan’s New Music Ensemble, provides a hopeful prompt to regauge the potential of our scholarly and creative activity with our students—ALL of that activity, from the STEM disciplines across the social sciences, humanities and arts.  Next year, before the accreditors come and dominate our attention, will be an ideal moment to make such revisions across the College.  And let me say, the Faculty Council’s “Out Of The Box” lunch conversations this year, about the needs of this generation of matriculating students were so important that they may resonate in first-year curriculum reform at Grand Valley for some time to come.

This year also showed us how spectacularly the performance of intellectual vitality and collegiality differs in different disciplines.  The Department of Statistics decided to express camaraderie by repeating its somehow numerically correct pie-in-the-face ritual on March 14.  In Classics, pedagogical creativity mandated a live chicken last year.  About the efficacy of these approaches, let me just say, your mileage may vary.   But there’s a connection between collegiality and completing tasks.  We are surrounded by some of the research accomplishments of our faculty, but it’s worth noting that this year we’ve also authored plans for assessing unit advising effectiveness, and before too long will have developed an emergency preparedness plan for every office.  And by May 3, every unit will have completed its new strategic plan.

Praise for this year shouldn’t apply only to faculty.  I also want to celebrate the PSS and AP employees in the room.  One other highlight of the year was welcoming our terrific new Assistant Dean for all things financial, Michelle McCloud, but this goes for all of you.  You make this a more spectacular place to work every day—whether, as an advisor, you helped a student to see a path that led to graduation on a day he was pondering leaving the university or, as a Lab Supervisor, you made the transition into Kindschi Hall with logistics worthy of a military operation and precision worthy of a surgeon.  Many of you work in one- or two-person shops, making sure language labs, the box office, art studios, equipment rooms, and the costume shop support the programs and projects that make this not just a useful but a vibrant place. Thanks to all of you who do the not-frequently glamorous jobs of getting everything ready, saving money, taking pictures, calling in the problems and preventing bigger ones, and generally being Student (and Faculty) Whisperers of the first order. 

One of the important institutional expressions of a liberal education is in the willingness to take on leadership responsibilities.  As you know, I’m a big believer in having a deep bench, so when Mary Schutten became Dean at San Jose State and Shaily Menon received an ACE Fellowship for the year, I took the opportunity to experiment with a redistribution of their portfolios over several people, each working part of their time in administration.  We did it within the same budget, yes; but we learned some new things we can apply someday soon, all while giving additional people an opportunity to have leadership experience.  I will always remember this as the Year of the Raucous Caucus; the injection of enthusiasm, humor and new perspective was enlivening for us all.  Many faculty reported that these interim assistant deans jumped right in, and though we moved in new directions, there was no loss of momentum.  Thank you for your service, which was insightful, dedicated, and innovative.  Please join me in a round of applause for Janel Pettes Guikema, Brad Ambrose, Merritt Taylor, Donovan Anderson and for our new Associate Dean Kevin Tutt.

While this year our detour has led us to be more student-centered, to enrich our departments’ professional climates, and to enhance mentorship and leadership, we also know the lay of the land ahead of us.  We know our state has some sizable challenges, so we’re not fooling ourselves about any sudden reinvestment in higher education substantial enough to change our tuition-driven financial model. We know that the high school graduating class in Michigan will drop by 10,000 students in the next 6 years, and at the same time, we know that the competition for those graduates is intensifying.  Last month the University of Alabama held a reception for parents and high school seniors at the Amway Grand Plaza.  Yes, ‘Bama in GR.  We know it’s up to us to keep matriculation to Grand Valley an educationally compelling option for the best students.

This year, we have worked very effectively toward that goal.  We went off-road, joyously departing from the desultory roads to Perdition, with their tawdry distractions and temporary rewards.  We have taught our students ways to build off ramps and map detours by which the they, as citizens and as human beings, can make themselves and the world not just more serviceable or more entertained, but better.  And in so doing, we have renewed our commitment

to liberal education which, every day, cuts through the cacophony, provides capacities needed for an unpredictable future, and makes that future brighter with every graduate who walks across the stage—taking the first steps on the way to finding their own roads.

 

Oh—and here’s a happy ending to my jeremiad: the general culture may have been debased by much of the public communication in the past year, but ours has been uplifted by people who have enriched us through their writing and speaking, and facilitating others to do the same.   I am announcing a new annual CLAS award, signified by a Silver Cordon, granted to recognize faculty and staff who have, through their collegial communication, raised our level of discourse, facilitated our professional interactions, and strengthened our culture as a College.  In this inaugural year, we have a robust first class of honorees:

Carl Brown and Danielle Leek for creating the Speaking Lab, and pervading its influence throughout GVSU.

Mark Staves, for singlehandedly sustaining,from the very beginning of CLAS, Faculty Colloquium as a great interdisciplinary place to present our scholarship.

Jodee Hunt, for founding the Out of the Box lunches and setting a high bar by organizing the first two.

Monica Johnstone, for writing almost all of CLAS Acts, the summer CLAS publications, and the countless web postings about each of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Daniel Lippman, Darren Samuelsohn and Isaac Arnsdorf, “Trump’s Week of Errors, Exaggerations and Flat Out Falsehoods,” Politico, March 13, 2016.

[ii] http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/november/robinson-humanities-lecture-110315.html



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