Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I don't usually surf Genome Biology ...

But this open letter to the president of SUNY Albany, who has recently closed down the departments of Italian, French, Classics and Theatre 'to save money', deserves to be widely read:

A Faustian bargain, by Gregory Petsko.


  1. Hitting close to home, in my particular threatened warren of humanities lemurs in the great midwest-- we lemurs, in a departmental sub-area pack of 3 faculty who carry about 2 or 3x the number of asses in classes as our other 15 colleagues combined in other areas of the department, have learned lately that due to a low number of graduating majors in our sub-area we are a 'low completer' program. So while we cost nothing additional, we may get the symbolic axe so that those On High can appear to be achieving something. Oh, joy. At least it's just our major and not our jobs.

  2. Out-fucking-standing! Thanks for posting that merely.

  3. University President Smackdown! Hot dog!

  4. Just wow. That's one of the best-written articles I've read in a long time. Gregory Petsko is my new science columnist hero.

  5. I want to be clear that I'm not "abusing" or "bullying" anyone on this goddamned site, okay?

    But if I were the SUNY Albany prezzie and this Petsco shit came around my college, I'd kick the living shit out of him.

  6. My college is facing the same thing right now, and our "prezzie" has been going door to door to get feedback from individual faculty and departments.

    She walked into my office two weeks ago and I thought, "I must be getting fired..."

    It should shame SUNY Albany that someone outside the college had to point out their idiocy.

  7. We offer several versions of chemical basketweaving majors with most versions differing by only a few required classes taken outside our department. To show we are serious about cutting our budget, we've been told to eliminate one version of chemical basketweaving. This will net no money, offer slightly less options for students and save us about 8 lines of text in our catalog each year.

  8. One thing that bothers me a lot here - well, everything bothers me a lot here, but one is that choosing what to cut by number of graduating majors is a nonsensical metric, if what you're trying to do is save money.

    Cutting low-ENROLLING programs might make some sense. If you're paying 3 full-time faculty who between them teach a total of 75 students a year (5 classes each, 5 students per class), then your faculty are not pulling in enough to cover their own salaries (never mind administration etc.) unless you're in a very high-tuition institution. In that case you might want to look at telling them to do something to increase their enrollments.

    But my department doesn't graduate more than, well, we've got less than 20 majors in the program at any given time and not all of those will be graduating in a given year; so say (generously) 8-10 graduating majors per year. But we have excellent enrollments, the highest in the faculty after the philosophers (go figure). Our average class size is somewhere around 70.

    This is because we teach an enormous number of people who do a few courses or a minor with us on their way to a degree in something else - some other humanities discipline, or business or sciences or whatever.

    And I'm quite content that it should be this way. I'm perfectly happy to fill the role of making sure that whatever else our students go on to do with their lives is informed by at least a nodding acquaintance with the roots of the Western civilization they live in. (And as many of them as I can talk into it have learned at least some of at least one ancient language.) I don't see why all or even most (or even many) of them should become majors.

    But closing the department and firing all of us because we aren't graduating enough majors would make no sense at all. Even at the low tuition rates pertaining in these parts, we're bringing in enough in tuition to support ourselves three times over.

    The "graduating majors" metric is nonsense on the face of it. Its only function is to give weasel administrators an excuse to cut stuff and look as if they're doing something.

  9. This is a such a beautiful piece of writing. A pleasure to read, but disturbing as well. In our neck of the woods, however, it's the reverse; our students want to take all the humanities with none of the science. Our NURSING students don't have to take chemistry (they'll pick it up along the way, I guess when they screw up the med calculations and kill a patient).

    I wish there were more clamor like this for the Liberal Arts education. But what a joy to read....

  10. I don't find his argument convincing. It boils down to:
    -Enrollment is only low because we aren't forcing enough students to take these classes. The same could be said for any low-enrollment program. He offers no specific reason why these subjects in particular should be mandatory.
    -Without having programs in these foreign languages, you won't be able to learn from these selected works of literature. All these works (and a great deal of scholarship about them) are available in English. Does it truly take the mentorship of a PhD in Russian Literature to learn from the Grand Inquisitor?
    -The president is acting unilaterally. This does appear to be true, but it does not mean that the president's solution is wrong.
    -The departments might suddenly become more valuable in the future, due to unforeseeable changes in the world. This is the mentality of a pack-rat, desperately holding onto every bit of garbage because they might need it some day. Under what circumstances would the demand for a Classics education suddenly skyrocket?
    -Universities require a strong humanities program. He never states why a humanities program without these 5 departments cannot be strong. Why is Theater Studies absolutely vital to a university?
    -Science classes didn't teach him how to analyze, think, and write clearly, but his humanities classes did. If so, he must have had a horrid science education.
    -The humanities will be important in defining humanity. Perhaps, but none of the departments being cut are remotely close to bio-ethics or similar fields.

    If these departments don't deserve to be eliminated, is there ever a circumstance under which a department should be cut? What are those circumstances?

  11. Oh Captain, my Captain,

    You are playing right into his argument. You are focusing on the presumed utility, or lack thereof, of Classics. He is arguing that some knowledge of Classics and other humanistic disciplines is a good in and of itself. Knowing about the Grand Inquisitor, The Prince, Republic, and Faust are part of what makes us full members of our shared culture. There are ancillary benefits, such as improved writing skills and so on. But the point is precisely that utility is a bad measure of what should or shouldn't be taught in universities.

    This is part of his argument for reinstituting the dreaded distribution requirements that have hurt enrollments in some of these courses. We eliminated those requirements in the name of utility, and the result is a generation of barbarians who can't write and can't think critically. But they do have pieces of paper that attest to their meritoriousness in disciplines that have utility.

    And that's the point. If we keep this up, universities will become little more than vocational schools training the next generation of white collar lab workers, stockbrokers, and actuaries. They'll go about their drab business for increasingly lower wages, and they won't complain. C. Wright Mills saw this coming sixty years ago, and if anything it is worse than he predicted.

    What the author of the blogpost doesn't say outright is that while the SUNYs of the world will go vo-tech, Harvard will never, ever, ever eliminate its classics department. The rich kids will get their Plato and their Milton and, yes, their Marx. Then they'll sit in their gilded homes and toast themselves and their superior culture, while the little worker drones from the vo-tech world will do their bidding. So it was in the nineteenth century, so it will be in the twenty-first.

    One more reason why Archie is fucking angry.

  12. I heart Archie.

    Captain, a theater program is vital enough to the university that long ago, when my land-grant university was just an Ag school, there was still a theater/drama program run from within the English department. One of the core ideas of the Humanities is that if you can imagine your way into another way of being, you are better prepared to function in a democracy, where deciding what is good for the people involves getting outside yourself and your own point of view (something that, notably, the multiple-choice, job-obsessed 'flakes of today are terrible at doing). So apparently Long Ago Ag School asked the farm boys to read and perform Shakespeare because, well, they were going to be voters and town councilmembers and so on, and it behooved them to know something about other cultures, other times, and other people.

    Sadly, Long Ago Ag School turned Comprehensive University is now on its way to being Regional Polytechnic Institute, and whether our theater department will survive is anybody's guess.

    I wrote Professor Petsko a fan letter and he responded. Cute of him, no?

  13. Archie, SUNY Albany does not plan on banning any of these books. In fact, I doubt distribution classes in any of those departments would require students to read those books. There will still be an English department that can cover any of those books.

    Your post seems to imply that being required to take courses form these specific departments is the only way that one can live an informed, satisfying life. Do you really believe that? What of the ~half of the US population who doesn't go to college at all? Are they doomed to a life of serfdom because no one ever made them read the Inferno? If reading this page has taught me anything, it's that people with PhDs in Humanities are much more likely than anyone else to "go about their drab business (adjuncting) for increasingly lower wages."

    Marcia, your point would be stronger if actors weren't famously self-absorbed. Furthermore, eliminating a theatre department doesn't mean an end to theatre on campus. My university has a drama club, and I'm sure SUNY Albany has or will have one for students who wish to act.

    All of you are acting like SUNY Albany is eliminating its entire Humanities contingent. In reality, the College of Arts and Sciences will go from 23 departments to 18 departments. Why can the university not do without an Italian department when it's doing fine without an Arabic department, or a Hindi department? Surely there are works in those languages which over valuable insight into our own humanity.

  14. All of you are acting like SUNY Albany is eliminating its entire Humanities contingent. In reality, the College of Arts and Sciences will go from 23 departments to 18 departments.

    It isn't that SUNY Albany can't survive without Classics. It can and it will. And once they figure out that they can do without Classics, they'll start thinking that maybe Philosophy isn't so important. And after that, what's an English department for except teaching freshman comp? Let's put those suckers in receivership and hire some more adjuncts. It is a slippery slope.

    Moreover, the move is symptomatic of an instrumentalist attitude towards higher ed that has come to dominate in schools that serve the non-elites. Again, Harvard ain't never getting rid of Classics, but nobody questions a Harvard grad about whether she pursued a course of study that was sufficiently structured towards vocational utility. The very fact that someone thinks vocational utility is what matters marks them as non-elite. Look no further than the Chronicle chat yesterday with the guy who writes other people's papers for a living. His whole argument was based on the pressures of utility, and he is patently a well-read philistine.

    Look, I don't pretend that reading Milton will make everyone into more ethical citizens. But if the only references you get are to Family Guy, then you will not be welcome in the rooms where the real decisions are made, regardless of the utility of your major. By saying it is ok for SUNY Albany (or University of Albany as it currently prefers to be called) to start cutting programs, you are tacitly endorsing the idea that American higher ed should be even more divided between elite and non-elite institutions than it already is.

    Trust me, schools like the one where I teach are delighted that Albany is cutting programs. Every time that happens, we get that much more prestigious, and the value of our degrees goes up yet again. We make the future leaders, they make the future drones.

    But hey, if you figure that all is right with the world when the U.S. Supreme Court is composed entirely of the graduates of two law schools (Harvard and Yale), and only two of the justices didn't attend Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford undergrad--the other two went to Jesuit schools where they will likewise never, ever, ever, cut Classics--then, absolutely, cheer on the Albany move.

    But at least be honest about what you are saying. Don't cloak yourself in logical fallacies and call yourself a hard-nosed realist who is just calling it like it is.

  15. Making a slippery slope argument without evidence or further elaboration is a fallacy. Maybe you went to Harvard with Henry Kissinger?

    A Harvard Education is not valuable because of what is taught. You can get the same education at nearly any university. The value comes from mixing with a entire population of over-achievers for four years and making important contacts. That won't change, even if Harvard replaces Classics with underwater basketweaving.

    Maybe a thorough knowledge of the classics is important if you want to fit in with Supreme Court Justices. Personally, I would prefer it if the justices would put down the Commentarii de Bello Gallico and read up on something pedestrian like telecommunications before passing judgment on issues like Net Neutrality.

    While I don't know any judges, I do know a fair number of executives and high-up businessmen, people who are in the rooms where decisions are made. They don't reference Aesop or Aristophanes. If anything, they mostly talk about sports and politics. Even congressmen are more likely to talk about Star Trek than Homer.

    Could you provide a little more argument than (paraphrased) "All the Supreme Court justices went to schools that teach classics, so classics is a subject that everyone must learn."

    What fallacies am I using, exactly?

  16. Could you provide a little more argument than (paraphrased) "All the Supreme Court justices went to schools that teach classics, so classics is a subject that everyone must learn."

    Not what I said. I said they went to elite institutions, and elite institutions won't be getting rid of classics anytime soon. The point is that dumping departments marks you as second rate. Now maybe Albany was already thusly marked. But if it wasn't before, it is now.

    As far as slippery slopes go, one of the deep south state systems recently took a hatchet to several programs, including nursing if I recall. The Cal State system soon do the same. This is a trend, not an isolated instance. You'd be a fool not to think that outside of the elite institutions, a lot of programs are going to be reduced or eliminated.

    And the arguments used to justify the cuts are patently bogus, as Merely already pointed out. The graduating majors metric that Albany employed to decide which programs to axe, is meaningless. It was made up post facto to justify something that was already decided. Surely there are other programs with small numbers of graduating seniors. Are they going to get hit in the next round--because I assure you that the New York State legislature is only going to further defund SUNY--or will some other metric be invented to justify a different set of cuts?

    At any rate, the enrolled majors metric ignores service that some programs offer to others. I'll give you an example from Classics. Lots of premeds like to take some Latin for obvious reasons. Med school admissions boards like to see it too. But that option is off the table for SUNY Albany students as of next year. Sucks for them, I guess.

    Your metric seems to be utility, which happens to be a popular one these days. Petsko made the reasonable point that since utility is hard to predict, even in the sciences, it is short-sighted to use it as a metric. You called this a pack-rat argument, which was really a misrepresentation of what he said. But even so, if that's your position, then you obviously think utility can be predicted, and that it is the proper metric to use in these cases.

    But there are innumerable examples from the sciences that undermine this position. To use one, with the end of the cold war came the end of the drive to incrementally improve nuclear weapons. That put a lot of theoretical physicists out of action in a way that could not have been predicted in advance. Fortunately, physics departments had not eliminated other areas of physics, just because bomb-making happened to be the one with the most utility from 45 to 89, and so certain areas of applied physics were ready to take up new research. Yet that is precisely what science departments are doing right now--look at Beaker Ben's comment above (oh shit, there's that slippery fucking slope again! Too bad there's no evidence for it, huh?).

    And of course, business people talk about sports, and golf (not the same thing), and strip clubs, and lots of other unenlightened shit. I happen to like to talk about sports myself from time to time. The point is not whether you talk about Milton, or Dante. The point is that being a product of an institution where such things are taught marks you as elite. Once those things, and many more besides, are not taught at certain institutions, then those institutions cease to be elite and therefore cease to produce potential members of any elite, because to turn your phrase around, they can't get the same education as students at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Georgetown, Northwestern, Stanford, Williams, Amherst, Reed or what have you, anymore.

    Sucks to be them, I guess is what you are saying. Sucks for America is what I'm saying.

    Anyway, you misrepresented Petsko's arguments about utility to make yours sound stronger. In first semester philosophy, which Albany may be cutting soon, they call that the straw man fallacy.

    Nice chatting.


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