Raising the Bar…..or Just the Microphone?

Should a TED talk be a required part of a faculty member’s tenure-application portfolio?  That’s the question stirring up controversy at Princeton University these days, following the decision of the school’s Tenure and Promotion Committee to deny tenure to Carsden Pik, an Assistant Professor of Physics. 

Pik’s publication record in prestigious scholarly journals is impressive, and in 2015 he was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that black holes are actually dark grey.  However, these accomplishments were not sufficient, according to the Committee.  The decision letter sent to Pik, which he shared with the press, states that “student course evaluations were the only evidence you provided of your teaching ability.  The severe limitations of these measures have been extensively documented in the research literature.  A more valid indicator of your teaching performance would be videos of TED talks you have delivered.  Unfortunately, you have never been invited to present a TED talk.  If you are indeed the excellent instructor you claim to be, why have you never been invited to give a TED talk?  What’s wrong with you?  Virtually everyone in academia, including custodial staff, has given a TED talk in the past few years.  Why haven’t you?  We ask again:  What’s wrong with you?”

In response, Dr. Pik maintains it is not his fault that the color of black holes is not a topic sexy enough for a TED talk.  “I guarantee you, if I did a show-and-tell highlighting kittens playing with yarn, those clowns at TED would erect a statue in my honor.  Princeton’s T & P Committee can just go bite me!”

Princeton’s President, Christopher Eisgruber, has chosen not to reverse the Committee’s decision. “I feel bad for Professor Pik, but he’s his own worst enemy.  For the love of God, man, stop hiking your corduroy pants up to your nipples and wearing ketchup-stained shirts to work every day.  Maybe then you would get a nod from the folks at TED.”

Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Professor Jones

Well, it’s about time. 

On January 16th the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared tenure-track faculty to be an endangered species in North America.  According to FWS Deputy Director Greg Sheehan, “the decrease in the percentage of full-time faculty that are tenured or tenure-track has reached a point where extinction is a distinct possibility if ameliorative action is not taken soon.”

As a first step, FWS is collaborating with the Harvard Museum of Natural History to display eight tenured Ivy League professors (one from each school) in separate diorama exhibits that can be viewed by Museum visitors.  Jane Pickering, Executive Director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, states that “these will all be professors in excellent health — four women and four men — who will go about their daily lives in habitats constructed especially for them.”

Each diorama will consist of a small office that includes a mahogany desk, ergonomic chair, bookshelf, faded Oriental rug, personal computer, and printer, as well as wall posters of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  A feeding station equipped with a water fountain and high-nutrition-food-pellet dispenser will be located in the corner.  Toilet facilities and sleeping quarters will occupy rooms adjoining the dioramas, not visible to visitors.

Pickering promises that “the care the professors will receive at the Museum will rival in quality what is provided to those priceless pandas at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.  We want these folks to thrive, mate, and reproduce.  Vibrant, multi-colored academic robes will be worn  by the male professors during the high-fertility wine-and-cheese season (April and May) in order to help them attract their female diorama colleagues.  Our goal is to produce at least one tenure-track baby by June 2019.  We saved the bald eagle, and we can save tenure-track faculty!”

Well said, Ms. Pickering.  Well said. 

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that both Arizona State University and the University of Kansas recently rescinded honorary degrees they had awarded to noted television journalist Charlie Rose, in the wake of accusations that Rose had engaged in sexual harassment.

The Chronicle dubbed these reversals “clawbacks,” surely one of the less pleasant words in the English language.  In any event, clawbacks are gaining momentum, and not just in the realm of dealing with sexual mischief.  Exhibit A: Amherst College, one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States, announced yesterday that it will be revoking the degrees of graduates who benefited from grade inflation at the school dating back to 2000.  According to Amherst President Carolyn Martin, “during a faculty retreat in late May there was a spontaneous outpouring of guilt and shame over grade inflation that was all-consuming.  Many professors were flogging themselves with leather bookmarks dipped in vinegar, while others engaged in rampant, intentional paper-cutting.  It was a remarkable display of existential angst.  I had never seen anything like it.”

It all began when a sociology professor rushed the stage during the retreat’s opening session, grabbed the microphone from the facilitator, and wailed, “I have never given a student a grade that he or she truly deserved.  I am a coward and an insect!”  The session turned into an AA-type meeting, with one person after another standing up and proclaiming, “My name is _______, and I inflate.”  It wasn’t long before a Catholic priest was summoned from the College’s Spirituality and Sushi Center to hear confessions. 

According to President Martin, “the whole day ended up being a journey to hell, with lots of uncontrolled sobbing and remorse over selling one’s soul in order to satisfy, as one professor put it, ‘demands of the relentless demon spawn of wealthy parents’.”

As the retreat came to a close, faculty vowed to take action that would go beyond the five Hail Mary’s that Father O’Shaughnessy instructed each offender to recite as penance.  They committed themselves to reviewing every grade they had awarded since the Spring 2000 semester, making adjustments when necessary.  This task took all summer.  The result: nearly 40% of all Amherst graduates since 2000 will have their bachelor’s degree rescinded.  On January 15th, 2018, these individuals will receive registered letters informing them of the College’s action.  The newly minted non-graduates will be afforded an opportunity to take the re-graded courses at a discounted tuition rate.  “It’s the least we can do,” says Martin. 

President Martin realizes that Amherst’s clawback will generate controversy, but she stands by the decision.  “I had a professor come up to me a week after the faculty had voted to take back the degrees.  She said that she’s sleeping better than she has in a decade.  Her recurrent, cold-sweat nightmares of living in a dystopian universe where the only letter in the alphabet was ‘A’, and the only number was 4.0, had ceased.  She hugged me, cried, and then fell asleep in my arms.”

For the record, pharmacies in Amherst, Massachusetts report that sales of Ambien have decreased 73% in the past two months.


Making Lemonade

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Tips on Making the Most of Your College’s Location” shared suggestions for how “a college situated in a seemingly less-than-ideal place could appeal to students.”  A useful piece, to be sure, but it omitted some compelling examples of doing the most with the least.  Here are two stories that deserve greater attention:

Wetlands Community College (Everglades City, Florida) — There are more alligators in Everglades City than there are people, and the single most frequent cause of death in this community is being eaten by an alligator while walking or driving.  “These gators are smart,” observes Gary ‘Sweetwater’ Wench, Everglade City’s sheriff.  “They hide in the back seat of your vehicle and when you stop for a red light — Whammo! — one chomp and it’s over.  Plastic-covered car seats are a must in our town if you want to avoid replacing upholstery every three months!”

For years this constant threat of sudden death suppressed enrollment at Wetlands, until Bix Slawson became Dean of Admissions in 2014.  Slawson decided to revamp the institution’s recruitment materials to focus on the allure that risk and danger have for teenage males.  “We introduced our new branding slogan, ‘Live on the Edge at Wetlands’, in 2015, and haven’t looked back.  Our incoming class has grown from 283 in 2014 to 890 in Fall 2017.  The first-year gender breakdown has shifted from 56% female to 89% male during that period.  And our newly established Russian Roulette team won the NCAA Regional Finals last year.”

Slawson acknowledges that “we do have a retention problem, of course, because of the gators and the high number of students who try out for the Roulette squad.   But those who survive frequently go on to serve with distinction in elite units of the military.  Most Navy SEALs are Wetlands graduates.  We’re very proud of that.”

Carlsbad University (Carlsbad, New Mexico) — The city of Carlsbad is located about 25 miles from a nuclear waste repository.  “Radioactivity makes people jumpy,” says Dale Janway, the town’s mayor.  “And I mean that literally.  When radioactive material is absorbed through your skin, it affects the nerves associated with limb movement.  Just walk down Main Street in Carlsbad and you’ll notice people’s bodies jerking all around like they’re marionettes controlled by a crack addict.  It’s the damnedest thing you’ll ever see.  Naturally, this used to alienate high school students who might otherwise come here for college.”

Not any more.

In 2013, Swaseen Mushkentaya arrived at the University to chair its Performing Arts Department.  She soon recognized that the spasms produced by radioactive poisoning closely resemble much of the oeuvre of modern dance.  “It’s all there,” Mushkentaya claims. “The choreography of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp.  It’s as if the city’s public spaces were one huge rehearsal studio.”

Mushkentaya realized that combining toxic levels of radioactivity with dance instruction was a win-win for the school and the community.  She initiated a master’s program in Modern Dance that has attracted students from all over the country, and her latest work, Mutant Twitcher with Three Heads, will premiere this summer at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. 

“Our enrollment has mushroomed over the past three years,” Mushkentaya boasts.  “Oops, did I make a bad joke?”

Moral of Story: Stop complaining that your school sits atop a live volcano, and start turning negatives into positives.  Wetlands did it, Carlsbad did it, and so can you.


The Flake Stops Here

It’s not often that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) injects itself into political controversies relevant to college campuses, but 2017 has not been an ordinary year.  So perhaps it is not surprising that the agency has announced that it is reclaiming the word “snowflake” for its exclusive use.

In a December 21st press conference held at NOAA’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, Chief Administrator Timothy Gallaudet noted that in the past few years the term “snowflake” has been “hijacked by conservative activists and re-purposed in a derogatory fashion to describe an overly sensitive or easily offended college student.  This is an abuse of a word that depicts one of nature’s most stunning creations, an intricate, wondrous, symmetrical ice crystal that gently descends through the Earth’s atmosphere.  Dragging ‘snowflake’ into the polarizing discourse of our nation’s current political battles is simply unacceptable.  STOP IT.”

Doctor Gallaudet suggested that the term “whine-puppy” be used instead of “snowflake” to refer to the population in question, a recommendation that was immediately objected to by representatives of DUPE: Dogs United to Pee Everywhere.

Happy Holidays to All from University Life!

Unintended Consequences

The University of Maryland made headlines recently when it decided to hire a full-time “Hate-Bias Response Coordinator” (no joke).  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the coordinator “will manage a new bias-response team, as well as meet with students affected by hate incidents and help design training and education on diversity and inclusion issues.”

Sounds pretty good in theory, but it looks like the details are revealing a devil or two.

For example, consider Sage Grouse College in Casper, Wyoming.  In early November it hired its first HBR Coordinator.  Just in time, it seemed, because less than two weeks later a flood of vile, hostile graffiti targeting natives of Liechtenstein began appearing throughout the campus (e.g., “Likdenstein is the 4th smallest country in Europe, and it SUCKS.”)  The country’s flag (see above) was found stuffed in a toilet in The Bird’s Nest, Sage Grouse’s main student cafeteria, causing the facility to flood. 

Shockingly, campus police traced the crimes to Quentin Skoof, the school’s HBR Coordinator.  According to a statement released by the college, “Mr. Skoof was deeply concerned that there would too few hate incidents on Sage Grouse’s demographically homogeneous campus to justify his continued employment in the Coordinator position, so he decided to manufacture incidents on his own.  Given that no students from Liechtenstein attend Sage Grouse, Mr. Skoof thought that no one would be harmed by focusing on this group.  As it turns out, the grandparents of the custodian who discovered the flag in the toilet were raised in Liechtenstein.  The custodian is now being treated by a therapist from our Flag Abuse Crisis Team (FACT).”

Mr. Skoof has been formally reprimanded for his actions, and will be required to attend a remedial vocabulary class where the proper spelling of “Liechtenstein” will be addressed. 

On a more positive note, the percentage of Sage Grouse students who correctly identify Liechtenstein as a country in Europe, not a sex position, has increased from 15% to 43% since the graffiti incident.


Desk Wars

Campus Reform, a politically conservative website devoted to higher education, has ignited a firestorm of controversy with its recent claim that chair desks for left-handed students are significantly over-represented in college classrooms around the country.  According to Sterling Beard, Campus Reform’s editor, left-handers constitute only about 10% of the student population, but nearly 17% of all college chair desks are designed for this subgroup.  “What we have here is discrimination, pure and simple,” Beard asserts.  “Many right-handed students are being not-so-subtly encouraged to take notes with their left hand, which subconsciously facilitates the sort of socialist thinking that supports abortion-on-demand and Michael Moore documentaries.”

Not surprisingly, skewed chair-desk ratios are most likely to be found in small liberal-arts colleges in New England such as Amherst, Middlebury, and Bowdoin, where even the math classes typically begin with an inspirational reading from Trotsky.

“This array of furniture represents a daily ergonomic micro-aggression against conservative students, and it must stop,” Beard demands.  “We are now hearing reports of outbreaks of ‘trans-handedness’ on campuses throughout the United States.  Many young people who were born biologically right-handed now actually prefer to take notes with their left hand.  Some have ceased using their right hand when typing on their laptop, and are insisting that Obamacare pay for the surgical removal of that hand.  At Colby College they’re even lobbying for ‘hand-neutral’ bathrooms.  This is insane!”

Campus Reform will sponsor Burn, Baby, Burn, a classroom furniture bonfire, on the quadrangle at Williams College in February 2018.    


“Should Laptops Be Banned in Class?”  That’s the incendiary question posed in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  With a ferocity that evokes images of battlefield carnage at Antietam and Gettysburg, faculty and students on campuses around the country are engaged in a steel-cage death match to determine who controls the classroom in 2017.  Professors want students’ undivided attention, while students relish their constitutionally protected freedom to roam the Internet and monitor friends’ breakfast choices, explore the influence of Heidegger and Kierkegaard on Taylor Swift song lyrics, watch SportsCenter updates on the arrest records of bowl-eligible college football teams, and keep tabs on the daily breastfeeding schedule of Beyoncé’s twins. 

Neither side wants to give ground.  Some faculty attempt to ban laptops in their classrooms, but resourceful students respond by hiding smartphones between their thighs, staring at their crotches during class in a fashion that brings to mind Louis C. K. fiddling with his Sears Craftsman Tool Box while auditioning potential cast members in his office.

Is there a way out of these killing fields?  Absolutely, according to officials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  University spokeswoman Samantha Yertz-Pez proclaims that “we have taken hold of this Rubik’s Cube of a problem, broken it down, and then combined it with another problem to fashion an elegant solution.”

Here’s how they did it, according to Yertz-Pez:

“First, it’s important to recognize that most students don’t pay attention in class, regardless of whether they are using a laptop or not.

“Second, the Internet information these students currently scan on their laptops is pretty much pure crap.  The challenge we face is to give them something meaningful to do in class with those machines.

“Third, due to state budget cuts, we no longer have sufficient staff to carry out much of the computer-based work of the University.  For example, we desperately need people to enter grade changes into our data base for students who are unhappy with their GPAs and want their transcripts altered.  And Health Services must update students’ medical records on a weekly basis to show the status of the sexually transmitted diseases they are being treated for.  The University’s annual Chlamydia Festival is only two months away!  We just don’t have the personnel required to do the work.

“Here is where students and their laptops come in.  Beginning in January, we are going to give students the option of doing computer-based clerical work while they are in class.  These tasks can be substituted for note-taking and conventional course assignments, and will be graded.  If a student performs at a high level, he or she will also be given a voucher for use at the University’s Medical Marijuana Dispensary.

“This is a win-win situation for everyone.  The University gets essential tasks accomplished, the students get good grades and high-quality weed, and professors no longer have to spend hours preparing content-stuffed lectures that students ignore.  These same faculty can now devote their energies to composing essays for The Nation and The New Republic while using class time to show documentaries that deconstruct the intersectional identities of zoo animals (‘A Cheetah is More than Its Spots’).”

Can undergraduates be trusted to handle the sensitive information about their fellow students contained in administrative records?  “Not a problem,” says Brad Sneft, the University’s legal counsel.  “We have clearly communicated to students that all violations of confidentiality will be severely punished except when we choose not to do so.  There’s no ambiguity about what our position is.”

Report Card

Well, someone has finally done it.  And, of course, it was HarvardOn Tuesday, America’s flagship university announced a thorough overhaul of its grading system in an effort to reduce faculty guilt over grade inflation.  According to Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, “for far too long, higher education has been dominated by a paradigm that does not reflect how faculty truly feel about the grades they award.  It’s time for substantive change.  Toward that end, I am proud to share with you the new Harvard University Grading Scale (HUGS).  I hope it exerts a positive influence on the policies of our peer institutions around the country.  Thank you.”

The Scale, presented below, will be implemented in the Fall 2018 semester.

A+   Satisfactory, but less than outstanding

A     You know you’re capable of better

A-    The minus should tell you something: stop skating through life

B+    Unambiguously disappointing

B     Not only disappointing, your work is also boring

B-    Have you no pride?

C+   This is beyond embarrassing

C      Total disaster

C-     You should be beaten

D+    You should be put in prison, and then beaten

D      Don’t have children

D-     Don’t even adopt children

F       Your parents should not have had children

INC  You’ve never committed to anything in your life; why start now?

AUDIT   Whatever.  But seriously, why even bother?

President Faust dismissed rumors that the timing of the HUGS announcement was an attempt by Harvard to retake the high ground among Ivy League institutions after its second consecutive loss to Yale in THE GAME on November 18th.

Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guess My Name

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that “professors at Eastern Michigan University are objecting to its partnership with a private company to market and support online programs, making it the latest institution to grapple with questions about the quality of online instruction.”

While faculty are fighting these battles around the country, as universities increasingly contract with for-profit institutions to develop academically “iffy” enterprises, a small school in Lubbock, Texas has raised the stakes to the next level.  Meerkat University announced last week that it had signed an agreement with Satan in an effort to more aggressively market its online offerings.

Meerkat’s President, Dr. Fenton Swig, noted the risk inherent in such a venture: “Cutting a deal with Satan is not something we do lightly.  We’ve worked with evil online companies before, and yes, their vision statements often amount to, ‘We’d have rhesus monkeys teaching online if we could get them to stop pooping on the keyboard.’  But Satan represents a whole new ballgame of indifference to quality.  Partnering with an entity whose slogan is “By Any Means Necessary” gives us pause.  

“That being said, our tuition-driven business model requires that we cultivate new markets for online education — toddlers, the recently deceased, and ISIS, for example.  Satan has a negative reputation, to be sure, but how much of that reputation is truly deserved?  His biggest sin was to challenge the patriarchal hegemony of God the Father.  In today’s political climate that happens every week in the New York Times Book Review.  Who gets to decide what is evil, anyway?  In a world where the Kardashian family and the creators of Jersey Shore and The Bachelorette have not been sentenced to life imprisonment for committing genocide against popular culture, what’s so bad about enrolling a dozen dementia patients from an assisted living facility in a 3-credit graduate course on The History of Etch-A-Sketch Art Since 1960taught by a bottlenose dolphin with an associate’s degree from Sea World?  I guarantee you, if we don’t do this, someone else will.”

PS:  For those not familiar with the title of this post, please borrow your parents’ vinyl copy of Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones.