Five Lives, Forever Changed

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay critiquing the “Productivity Syndrome” in academia, Mitchell Aboulafia suggested that professors concerned about this problem should “stop publishing scholarship for an extended period of time.  Announce this decision to colleagues.  Be willing to say that this is for your good and for the good of your field.” 

Three days ago, at Duke University, Assistant Professor of English Elston Brillo stood up at a lunchtime department meeting and proclaimed that he was going to follow Dr. Aboulafia’s advice.  He encouraged his colleagues to join him in “stepping to the sidelines of this soul-killing publication rat race.”

The conference room’s audio-equipped surveillance camera, now in the possession of Durham, North Carolina police, recorded what happened next:

Professor Harold Frazley-Quint, age 72, screamed “Are you insane?”, grabbed his chest, and had a heart attack.  Eyes and mouth wide open, he died on the spot. 

Assistant Professor Penelope Kelso, seven months pregnant, gasped and immediately went into labor.  Thirty-five minutes later she delivered Gherkin, her first-born, in the hallway.  Gherkin is now in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Duke University Hospital, while Penelope resides in the psychiatric ward.  The only words she has spoken since the incident are “Where are the page proofs for Chapter 4?  I need to return them to the publisher by Monday!  Get that baby away from me!

Associate Professor Kevin Gumrap began choking on his ham sandwich.  Professor Brillo applied the Heimlich maneuver to Gumrap in time to save his life, but not quickly enough to prevent the significant brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation.  As a result, Gumrap, a Melville scholar, will be teaching four online sections of E112 (Introduction to Verbs) in Fall 2018. 

Gretchen Stent, Assistant Professor, fainted and suffered a severe gash when her forehead struck the edge of the conference table.  Extensive plastic surgery will be required, and her upcoming TED talk on “Adjectival Patriarchy: Why ‘Many’ and not ‘Womany’?” has been cancelled due to photogenic impairment.  She is suing Brillo for $3.6 million.

Associate Professor Clive Taylor-Riesling lept across the conference table and grabbed Brillo by the throat while the latter was Heimliching Gumrap, yelling “What the _____ are you talkin’ about, you pissant?  I’m in the middle of researching volume 4 of my 12-volume authorized biography of Tupac Shakur!  Are you tellin’ me that I just spent the last 5 months of my life transcribing his dental records for nuthin’?”

Life Lesson: Announce whatever you wish to your colleagues, but anticipate their reactions.

On a Scale of…….

RateMyProfessors, the infamous student-evaluation-of-faculty website whose relationship to verifiable fact is indeed Trumpian, recently dropped its chili-pepper ratings of instructors’ “hotness” in response to charges of sexism (no joke). 

A noble gesture, to be sure, but let’s be clear: RMP has ushered in a Golden Age of student-initiated faculty-review websites.  Here are a few of the specialized sites that have gained significant traction in the past several months:

Nate, My Professor:  Only provides ratings of professors named “Nate.”

Ate My Professor:  The brainchild of Hannibal Lecter’s grandson, Winston “Cheeseboy” Lecter, who is serving three consecutive life terms at San Quentin.  This is more of a Zagat-style dining guide than a site for finding evaluations of teaching quality.  Humanities professors get very high ratings (“overall, very tender”), while Management profs receive relatively low ones (“too much gristle”). 

Date My Professor:  Published by the anarchist student group LUAD (Leave Us Alone, Dammit!), it takes the position that there should be no restrictions on students dating their professors.  WARNING: Ratings are very explicit with extensive narratives, and often include photos, drawings, and/or claymation exhibits.

Mutate My Professor:  Faculty are described in terms of the animals their teaching styles most closely resemble.  (“Professor Willis prowls the classroom like a cheetah stalking its prey on the Serengeti Plain.  Has been known to claw the shirt off a student’s back with her fingernails.”  “A sloth in appearance and behavior, Professor Tyler frequently falls asleep curled up on his desk during exams, surrounding himself with leaves, twigs, and branches.”)

Bait My Professor:  A politically conservative site where students taunt their instructors, tempting them to respond in an ill-considered fashion (“Bite me!”) that will get them fired by nervous administrators.

Inflate My Professor:  A site for sucking up to faculty in order to obtain good grades (“Professor Graven taught me to love photosynthesis in a way I thought would never be possible!”).  All reviews are signed and forwarded to the relevant faculty member.

Sedate My Professor:  Ratings of hyperactive, over-enthusiastic teachers.  Offers a variety of coping strategies (e.g., “Don’t go to class”; “Arrive late”; “Leave early”).

Nitrate My Professor:  Terrorist website maintained by Al-Qaeda followers who are hostile to higher education.  Do not click on the emoji that has a fuse sticking out of a bowling ball!

Coming soon…..a site that features nothing but chili peppers.


“The World Needs More Mormons”

“Well, slap my chaps and twirl my spurs!”  The University of Wyoming has stirred up a bit of a ruckus with its new promotional slogan, “The World Needs More Cowboys,” which is prominently displayed on its website (no joke).  Among other things, the slogan might be criticized as sexist and/or human-centric.  Unfortunately, neither the gender-neutral version (“The World Needs More Cowpersons”) nor the bovine-friendly one (“The World Needs More Cows”) was popular with focus groups, so the school opted for cowboys.

As the controversy continues to churn on the Wyoming campus, it’s clear that other institutions are taking note and, in some cases, emulating the Laramie school.  For example, in September 2018 Brigham Young University will unveil its new tag line: “The World Needs More Mormons.”  

According to BYU President Kevin Worthen, “well over 90% of our students are Mormon.  We want to significantly increase the number of non-Mormon applicants, and then baptize them once they get here.  We have a lot to offer these folks: testosterone-driven young men will surely appreciate our tradition of polygamy [‘Hook-ups You Can Be Proud Of’, claims the BYU website], while young women will experience the profound sense of sisterhood that is generated when multiple females focus their attention on one shared man [‘He’s Mine, He’s Yours, He’s OURS’]It’s true that polygamy is currently illegal in the U.S., but at BYU we take a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ approach, and it’s worked well for us.”

Coming in January 2020: “The World Needs More White People” campaign, launched by Bob Jones University — just in time for the Presidential primaries.  Stay tuned.


I’m Just Sayin’……

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “sometimes when Chronicle reporters….call sources for a story, experts who are women will say they can’t provide comments because the subject is a bit outside their expertise.  The same isn’t always true of male experts.”

Hmm…. Could there be some unwarranted male-bashing going on here?  Well, University Life decided to investigate the Chronicle’s claim.  We picked three topics, and for each one we solicited the opinions of a female professor and a male professor.  The results:

TOPIC #1:  The Controversy over Current U. S. Immigration Policy

Valerie Plurtz-Wizzen, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Princeton University.  Author of U. S. Immigration Policy since 1900: Causes and Consequences (Harvard University Press, 2017). 

Response:  “I’d love to comment, but there’s a Mexican family of four that crossed the Nogales border into Arizona last week that I haven’t interviewed, and I wouldn’t want my remarks to be based on incomplete data.  I’ll have to decline.  I’m so sorry.”

Clarence Kusker, Professor of Civil Engineering, Drexel University.

Response: “Sure, I’d be happy to answer your questions.  Fire away!”

TOPIC #2:  Transgender Identity and Sexual Politics

Gretchen Stilton-Brie, Professor of Endocrinology, Developmental Psychology, and Sociology, UCLA Medical Center.  Editor of The Transgender Handbook (Oxford University Press, 2018).  Recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

Response:  “Thanks so much for the invitation, but my expertise does not extend to transgender dynamics in the protozoan community.  I realize that you are not asking me to comment on transgender dynamics in the protozoan community, but you never know how single-celled eukaryotes might turn out to be relevant to this discussion.  I’d prefer to hold off saying anything until we know more.”

Dalton Wrendl, Professor of Finance, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Response:  “Sure, I’d be happy to answer your questions.  Fire away.”

TOPIC #3:  The Future of Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace

Samantha Quintepino, Professor of Cognitive Science and Director of the UC-Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Lab.  Developed the first computer program to translate post-modernist English prose into English (2008).

Response:  “Oh my gosh, AI is evolving in so many different directions these days!  It would really be premature, and irresponsible, for me to speculate right now.”

Dalton Wrendl, Jr., Assistant Professor of Lacrosse, Duke University.

Response:  “Robots are going to absolutely RULE the workplace, dude!  You can quote me on that!”

Okay, maybe the Chronicle is on to something.

Flush Renaissance

With many state legislatures reducing appropriations for higher education at an alarming rate, universities around the country are searching for creative ways to finance the upgrading of their crumbling physical infrastructures.  Leading the way is Louisiana State University.  In 2017, the World Health Organization declared that 72% of LSU’s bathrooms had achieved CODE RED status, meaning that the unhygienic conditions in these units could easily support the growth of Ebola viruses as large as a horse’s foreleg.  In the words of Tedros Adhanom, WHO’s Director-General, “that’s not good.  If one of those toxic bundles got loose, the entire population of the LSU campus could bleed out in a week, and the rest of the state’s residents would be wearing hazmat suits until 2050.”

Not content to sit on their germ-covered hands and wait for this epidemic to occur, LSU has become the first university in the nation to use the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform to pay for the rehabilitation of its bathrooms.

According to F. King Alexander, the school’s President, “we’re asking folks to invest in the bladders and bowels of the LSU community.  A $20 donation can purchase thirty 1000-sheet rolls of toilet paper, a necessity we haven’t been able to afford since 2015.  With a $50 gift we could buy three toilet seats.  LSU hasn’t had a functioning toilet seat since 2012.  We tried replacing them with extra-large cinnamon bagels from the cafeteria, but that was a disaster.  Trust me, you don’t want to know why.  

“And we definitely need new plumbing.  Flushing the toilet in our bathrooms is like playing Poop Whac-A-Mole.  What goes down in one bowl comes back up in another, just three stalls away.  Hell, we don’t even have three bucks for duct tape to repair cracks in the urinals.”

LSU hopes to raise at least $7 million in the first year of its Kickstarter campaign, which will operate under the slogan, “Join the Stream Team.”  Donors who give $100 (“Golden Club” members) will have a small, rust-resistant nameplate with their initials placed in a urinal on the campus.  Those who contribute $5000 will have a bathroom stall named in their honor, which will feature the donor’s full name and hometown in platinum on the door.  “We’re going first class,” says Alexander.

John Bel Edwards, Louisiana’s governor, is enthusiastic about the Stream Team initiative.  “I love this school’s can-do attitude.  Here’s my 50 bucks. Sign me up for a dozen mango-scented urinal cakes!”

We smell progress. 

Sorry, Not This Year……

Elite colleges and universities take pride in their low acceptance rates.  Indeed, achieving rates in the single digits has been known to make admissions directors scream louder — in ecstasy — than a howler monkey during foreplay. 

And now this: William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard, announced at a press conference on Tuesday that his university had accepted no one for the fall of 2018.  That’s right — an acceptance rate of zero.

Fitzsimmons noted that this year’s applicant pool of nearly 43,000 was the most highly qualified in the school’s history.  However, Harvard wanted to send a clear message that it was no longer simply seeking to enroll “the best of the best.”  As he put it, “we’ve decided to accept only the best of the best of the best.  We’re not looking for the inspirational high school valedictorian with perfect SATs who was raised by wolves in a dumpster next to a razed Wendy’s in the inner city.  Hell, kids like that are everywhere these days.  What we want are the kids who were abandoned by those wolves, and who then had to home-school themselves in the street while discovering a cure for pancreatic cancer using nothing but tweezers and a one-legged Norway sewer rat.  We’re all about performance, not just promise.”

When a reporter asked the Dean about the financial implications for Harvard of not accepting an entering class in 2018, he scoffed.  “Are you kidding me?  We’re not some tuition-driven trailer park.  God actually borrowed money from us last year to remodel his deck overlooking the firmament.”

What about all those highly qualified applicants who were turned away?  “Not a problem,” says Fitzsimmons.  “We encouraged them to attend a safety school like Yale, Princeton, or Williams for a couple of years and then reapply to us.  We’ll even accept a few transfer credits from those places, though we need to be careful, because students occasionally try to sneak in courses that were not taught by Nobel Prize winners.  What’s up with that?”

As the press conference came to a close, the Dean was asked if he thought a 0% acceptance rate might be viewed by the public as the sign of an insufferably snobbish, narcissistic institution.

“I certainly hope so.”

Less is More….

What would Thomas Jefferson think?  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, renovations of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia could significantly decrease the amount of shelf space available for books, and many faculty are unhappy at the prospect.  To an English professor of a certain age, the musty fragrance of an 1861 edition of Silas Marner discovered in the stacks can be more potent than a bongful of premium-grade Venice Beach recreational marijuana.  

But let’s be fair.  What options do shelf-starved university libraries have in these challenging times?

Perhaps the most creative approach has been taken at the University of Arizona.  When its Main Library ran out of space for new books in 2012, the school entered into a collaboration with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and Classics Illustrated comics to produce shortened versions of every volume in the library.  That’s right…..every volume.  

According to Library Director Lazlo Kefler, “Over the past six years we have reduced the space needed for our holdings by nearly 60%.  For example, a typical paperback copy of The Brothers Karamazov is well over 700 pages.  Our version is 86 pages.  How did we do it?  We started by cutting the length of those ridiculously long Russian names.  ‘Fyodorovich’ became ‘Jones’ and ‘Alexandrovna’ became ‘Pam’.  Nothing of substance was lost.  No harm, no foul.  And then we removed lots of unnecessary prepositions, such as ‘in’, ‘for’, and ‘to’.  Once again, no harm done.  Finally, we got rid of two characters, Ivan and Dmitri, and all of the plot lines involving them.  That was a bit trickier to pull off, but we were able to do it without compromising the flow of the narrative.”

Kefler admits that some books are easier to condense than others. “Technical monographs with lots of mathematical formulas are a real pain.  You don’t want to leave out an important step that gets you from A to B in a calculus proof.  Our solution is to present everything in a continuous flow on the page with no spaces between the symbols, no punctuation, no new lines or indentations for next steps, and no +/-/÷/×/= signs.  This saves tons of room.  Of course, it also makes the formulas a bit more difficult to understand, but let’s be honest, these volumes have never been a picnic to read.  Math and science are hard!” 

On a more positive note, Kefler maintains that certain books actually become more comprehensible when you shorten them.  “Consider postmodernist literature.  We distilled the collected works of Michel Foucault into a pamphlet that — in its entirety — consists of the following two sentences:

Everything you think you know is made up by powerful interests that are out to screw you.  And they’re winning.

“Or take James Joyce’s Ulysses, another big fat novel.  We replaced it with a single photograph of a Dublin street from 1904, which is when Leopold Bloom’s story takes place.  The photo gets the job done, and students love the revised version!”

Looks like a win-win to us.  Well done, Mr. Kefler. 



Don’t Be a Victim…..

Unless you reside in Texas, where it’s legal — and indeed, one is even encouraged — to carry a live hand grenade on campus, there’s not much you can do to bring to an abrupt close a tedious, dysfunctional faculty meeting.  However, there are actions you can take to prevent, at an individual level, the brain death associated with such gatherings.  The Chronicle of Higher Education recently took note of a professor who brought her knitting to meetings (no joke), news that prompted us here at University Life to scour the country for other examples of faculty strategies for surviving group deliberations.  It quickly became evident that professors are a creative bunch.  A sampling:

—  At the University of Oregon, Physics professor Marjorie Yesketh-Snaffle uses department meetings as an opportunity to give Freckles, her pet hamster, a bath.  “I put a stainless-steel bowl on the conference table, fill it with warm water, add some Palmolive dishwashing liquid, and voila, it’s time to suds up!  Freckles loves to be washed, so there’s no violent splashing around that my colleagues might find annoying.  In fact, they often take turns drying Freckles off after her tub time.  We’re a closer, more cohesive department now, and we have Freckles to thank for that!”

—  Craig Fleth, a Civil Engineering professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, builds ships in a bottle during Faculty Senate meetings.  “This activity requires intense concentration and attention to detail,” Fleth claims, “so it’s not unusual for a three-hour Senate meeting to fly by without my having the slightest idea of what issues were discussed or what decisions were made, which is fine by me.  For the most part, my fellow Senators are flaming a**holes.  And they’re always stealing my tweezers.”

—  At Brandeis University, Linguistics professor Abe Phlegmstein-O’Leary uses Tenure-and-Promotion deliberations to work on his long-term project of translating the Torah into a document composed entirely of emoticons.  “I want to make this sacred text accessible to a 21st-century audience.  It has been a challenging labor of love, to put it mildly, but it’s a damn sight better use of my time than discussing the scholarly worth of articles by preening, insufferable assistant professors on the erotic symbolism of alligator-infested swampland in Faulkner’s novels.”

So, what life lesson have we learned here? 

If you’re bored at faculty meetings on your campus, you have no one but yourself to blame.  For the love of God, buy a hamster.

Stay the Course…..

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Georgia State University has emerged as the “leader of the pack” in using predictive analytics to help develop strategies for increasing retention and graduation rates among its students.  

Nice job, GSU, but you’ve got a long way to go before coming close to the level of performance achieved by Flazmore College, a small, private institution located in Bamberg, South Carolina.  Over the past decade, Flazmore has raised its four-year retention rate from 27% to a remarkable 98.7%.  In other words, 98.7% of Flazmore’s freshman class are still there when senior year arrives. 

How can such an accomplishment be possible?  To explore this question, University Life interviewed Flazmore’s President, Dr. Penelope Dwange.

Dwange:  “How is it possible?  The answer is simple.  Once students get here, we don’t let them leave.”

UL:           “Huh?”

Dwange:  “All of our students live on Flazmore’s beautiful 750-acre campus.  Everything they could possibly want while they’re in college is right here, so there’s no reason for them to leave — not even for school vacations — before they finish their degree.  We’ve hired Blackwater, a private security services contractor,  to monitor the perimeter of the campus in order to prevent students from wandering off.”

UL:           “What happens if a student can no longer afford Flazmore’s fairly hefty tuition?”

Dwange:  “Not a problem.  We offer a comprehensive work-study program that employs students throughout the College, including on our farm.  Last year, our 20-acre cotton field produced an average of 963 pounds per acre, one of the highest yields in the state.  We couldn’t have done that without our student workers.”  

UL:           “Can financially needy students really earn enough from their campus jobs to pay their entire tuition bill?”

Dwange:  “Usually not.  That’s why we’re okay with a student not graduating in four years if they’re behind in their payments.  Our eight-year retention rate is 81%, and we’re very proud of that.”

UL:           “What happens if a student doesn’t have a high enough GPA to graduate after four years?”

Dwange:  “Once again, not a problem.  At Flazmore we don’t give up on students.  If their GPA at 120 credits is below the 2.5 threshold needed for graduation, we just keep them here, taking courses, until they get to 2.5.  We have a number of students in their mid-50’s who started at Flazmore when they were 18 or 19 years old.  Some of them have accumulated over 1000 credits but still haven’t achieved a 2.5, though a few are really close.  We’re confident that they’ll get there eventually.”

UL:           “You mentioned that Flazmore’s 4-year retention rate is 98.7%.  What about the remaining 1.3%?  Do these students escape from the campus?”

Dwange: “Well, they try to.”

UL:           “Do any of them succeed?”

Dwange: “No.”

UL:           “Are you saying that after they’re caught, they are…….”

Dwange:  “Yes.”

You can judge Flazmore College harshly if you wish, but you can’t deny that this is a school that takes retention very seriously.

Go Ahead, Take One…….

Like piranha streaking toward a fleshy human leg in the Amazon River, colleges and universities in 2018 are engaged in a frenzied search for degree programs that will guarantee students a successful financial future.  To be sure, the schools’ torrid romance with the MBA seems to be cooling.  Unless you obtain that credential from an elite institution, pretty much all you’ll get from your MBA these days is the assurance that you’ll be promoted from your daytime cashier job at Taco Bell to the position of drive-thru manager for the midnight-to-6:00-am shift.  It’s hardly worth it. 

But watch out, here comes Chokecherry College.  A small liberal arts institution located outside of Wheeling, West Virginia, it will launch the nation’s first M. A. Program in Shoplifting in the fall of 2018.  According to Chokecherry President Nisbet L. Fwitz, “this is — literally — a hands-on program that will provide students with real-world skills.  It’s not a program for kids born into entitled networks that connect them with the spoiled spawn of their rich brethren.  This is a program for the rest of us, the ones who are just one forged prescription away from opiod addiction.”

The Shoplifting program is interdisciplinary, and will prepare students to enter the fast-growing, multi-billion-dollar field of customer-initiated retail theft.  The curriculum includes:

PHILOSOPHY 604            Situational Ethics

METALLURGY 617          Tin-Foiling Your Tote Bag

ARCHITECTURE 743       Introduction to Retail Floor Plans and Air-Conditioning-Duct Escape Routes

FASHION 532                     The Getaway Sneaker: Current Topics in Pivot Design

FINANCE 511                     Pawn Shop or eBay?  Selling What You Pilfer

THEATER 310                     Interacting with Security Guards: Alibis and the Oral Tradition (cross-listed with the Communications 428)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE 594  Posting Bail: Cash, Check, Money Order, or Barter?

LEGAL STUDIES 424        Securing an Attorney: Evaluating Ads on the Sides of Buses

PSYCHOLOGY 681             Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  Developing Intimate Relationships in Prison (online only)

INTERNSHIP 701                Convenience Stores

INTERNSHIP 702                Shopping Malls and Big-Box Venues

INTERNSHIP 703                High-End Retail Establishments         

“We’re especially proud of our three-semester internship program,” Fwitz notes. “Students will learn the basics of grab-and-go in convenience stores like 7-Eleven, and then move on to low-risk shopping malls.  Finally, they will participate in our Midtown Manhattan program, which includes such prestigious sites as Tiffany’s, Prada, Bulgari, and Hermès.”

All program faculty have at least 10 years of shoplifting experience, and 40% have served time in prison.  “These folks know the field, inside and out,” Fwitz asserts.  “Let other colleges train the next generation of front-desk reception clerks at the Marriott.  At Chokecherry, we’re providing graduates with rewarding careers right from the start.”

The Revenge of the 99% has begun.