Higher Ed.

Graduate student unionization.  Of late, it seems that those of us engaged in funded graduate study are caught between [insert Game of Thrones reference].  As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, in the past couple weeks I’ve received an email from Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia Beeson laying out the university’s official position.  I’ve also been following the Intellectual Poverty blog of one Andrea Hanna, a graduate student in communications at Pitt, and supporter of unionization.  Let’s parse the claims within, and see what’s going on.

Beeson basically claims that education (including networking, the development of practical skills, etc.), rather than financial compensation, is the primary point of graduate study.  As such, she doesn’t want to foreground financial concerns.  If there are any issues with the current funding system, she argues, they should be addressed piecemeal—on a departmental basis—rather than through the broader framework of unionization / collective bargaining.

Hanna, on the other hand, claims that the university is starving her to death!  Having come to Pitt from Northern Ireland, she finds it very difficult to get by on her graduate stipend.  Among other measures, she’s had to resort to handouts from a local foodbank.  Her blog is dedicated to tracking this “intellectual poverty” and her attempts to overcome.

Now, I’m not going to make a claim for or against unionization.  I would like to say, though, that my experience as a grad student at Pitt (five years as a PhD candidate in the English department), bears little resemblance to Hanna’s.  Still, I respect what she’s doing.  I think transparency is important: we need to get our (financial) experiences out in the open so we can have an honest debate about what problems exist and how they can be solved.  In short, we shouldn’t cede to the administration’s desire to obscure financial concerns.  As such, let me relate my experience.

My official job title at Pitt is “teaching fellow.”  According to Pitt’s Graduate Studies website, this means I make $9,590 per term, or $19,180 per year (plus health insurance).  In exchange, I teach one section of freshman composition (or a similar course) per semester.  My class meets for 3 hours a week.  As I’ve taught this class before, my out-of-class preparation time is limited—probably about 5 hours a week (this includes meeting with students, reading/responding to student emails, grading blog posts, etc.).  Also, five times a semester I read a batch of student essays: this is pretty time-intensive, taking about 8 hours per batch.

So, over the course of a fifteen-week semester, I work about 160 hours (45 in-class, 75 preparation, 40 grading).  For this I get paid $9,590, or about $60 per hour.  In the English department, funding along these lines is guaranteed for at least five years.

Unlike Hanna, I find I am able to live quite comfortable on my Pitt salary.  I have a roommate, and thus pay only about $700 per month for rent and utilities (gas, electricity, cable/wi-fi).  I buy groceries at Trader Joe’s, where I spend about $250 a month.  For recreation I do regular millennial stuff: drink craft beer, go out to eat, see bands.  I own a 2003 Toyota Corolla (so no car payment), and though I have student loans, am fortunate that they are in deferment (hence no loan payments).  So in short, despite making a relatively low wage, as a single, rather frugal person, I find that almost every month I have money left over.

I don’t want to imply that my experience is typical.  In fact, after reading Hanna’s blog, I recognize that it’s not.  As such, whether grad students unionize or not, I feel that the university needs to do a better job of making salary / work information publicly available for comparison.  How much, for example, does Hanna (or a biology PhD) make per hour of work?  How much do they actual bring home, and were they appropriately informed of this situation before taking a position at Pitt?  These questions obviously inform whether unionization is needed.  Likewise, if the university refuses to provide such information, one must conclude that unionization is indeed needed.

Of course, financial transparency should also extend to faculty members.  How much do faculty and staff in the English or communications department make, for example?  How does this compare to those in the Business school?  At many colleges this information is publicly available.  Not at Pitt.  Because of her rank as one of the highest paid university employees, we know that Provost Beeson earned $492,133 in 2016.  Hanna claims to make $17,500 per year.  This indicates that Beeson is approximately 28 times more valuable to the university than Hanna.  Is this true?  I don’t know.  I do feel, though, that we should get all the salary data out in the open, so we can properly debate such claims.

So, in short, from what I’ve seen, any claim that graduate students at Pitt, as a whole, are “impoverished” is a bit ridiculous.  But some student employees obviously have grievances.  I call on the university to compile and make available detailed salary and work information, so that the members of the Pitt community can decide if these complaints are valid.

As someone who has taught writing to both native English speakers and second-language learners, I’ve noticed something of a “two cultures” situation between these ventures.  The former is dominated by English departments, generally, while the latter is dominated by linguistics.  These two groups have different ideas about how writing should be taught.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about where my own views fit in.  To help figure this out, I’ve drafted a short statement of how I teach writing, a “this I believe” statement, you could say.  Here it is:

  • A writer improves by writing.  The job of the writing teacher is to create an environment in which the writer has to write.
  • To write is to create meanings (interpretations of our shared world) and make those meanings understood.  As such, the student writer must receive constant feedback as to how her meanings are received.
  • Increased linguistic sophistication is achieved when a writer is forced to create meanings beyond the forms on which she normally relies.  The learning environment should be structured to encourage such movement.
  • Conscious knowledge of the writing act (grammatical rules, names for textual features or stages of the writing process) is useful to a limited extent.  The introduction of such knowledge should always be subordinate to active meaning-making.

Reviewing my claims, a number of things stick out.  First, as is perhaps apparent, I make no distinction, on a theoretical level, between teaching native and non-native speakers.  In all cases, I’d argue, teaching writing is a matter of triggering the innate human tendency towards meaning-making.  We learn a second language, I’d say, the same way we learn a first language: by doing it.

Second, my sidelining of the conscious elements of the learning process might surprise some.  Now, I admit that some knowledge of basic textual forms is beneficial.  For example, the idea that it often improves uptake to say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said (introduction-body-conclusion) is something everyone should know.  In my experience, though, by the time they get to me (a university writing instructor), most students already know such rules, at least in the abstract.  If there’s a problem, it’s that they can’t actualize this knowledge.  This means that presenting ideas about how writing is or should be is usually not an efficient use of class time.  Instead, the students should be the ones producing the content.  They should be doing the writing and thinking, not the teacher.

Third, the ecological nature of writing should be respected.  Smaller units of discourse are inevitably shaped by the larger units of which they are a part: a word gets its meaning from a sentence, a sentence from a paragraph, etc.  This means that you should be very careful about decontextualizing language units.  Consider the sentence.  If you want better (richer, more technically correct) sentences, you can’t focus solely on individual sentences.  Instead, each sentence must be engaged within a larger discursive structure.  This is what I’m trying to get at when I speak of students creating “meanings.”  Meaning, as used here, is a complete idea, projected into the world for a purpose.  This purpose, in turn, shapes each sentence, paragraph, etc.  By focusing on meanings (instead of decontextualized units) students learn to engage in the dialectic between part and whole which is inherent in the writing act.  This helps them become better writers.

Finally, the value of difficulty should be acknowledged.  Students must write, but to grow, they must do more than just write: they need to move beyond the forms they typically rely on.  This implicates content.  Students need to be forced to write about things they haven’t written about before.  And these topics should be complex (relevant to the student’s current level).  Even if students are writing every day, I’d argue, their growth will be limited if the topics they are writing about are too simplistic or too familiar.  In such cases, they’re just displaying their abilities, rather than expanding those abilities.

That’s it.  The above ideas are largely draw from (American, English-department based) composition theory.  I honestly don’t know how they would be received in ESL circles.  But I welcome any discussion the above might spark.

The centerpiece of my writing class is always the lived experience of the student. I try to stress though that our experience of the world is never disinterested or given. Instead, what we see and hear and feel is always shaped by various forces. Here’s a lesson plan that seeks to illustrate this point.

Note: this is for a 75 minute class.

Lesson Plan:

To begin, I had my students listen to the Beatles’ epic “A Day in the Life,” and do a short (~7 minutes) freewrite describing the experience. My prompt asked them simply, how does this song make you feel? What does it make you think about? Why?

* This activity could utilize any piece of music, as long as 1) the students are not overly familiar with it and 2) it has a substantial entry on Wikipedia. “A Day in The Life” works particularly well, I found, because of its challenging nature and the well-documented (and interesting) circumstances of its composition.

After freewriting, I asked if anyone knew anything about this song (some recognized it was the Beatles, but no one knew its name). I then told them the name, and asked them to go to the relevant Wikipedia page and do some research. “Find out where this song comes from,” I asked. I gave them 15 minutes to read about the song. Though instructed to start with the song’s Wikipedia page, they were encouraged to follow whatever research path grabbed their attention.

We then listened to the song again, and did another freewrite. My prompt this time asked them to note any differences in what they heard or felt or thought. In short, I wanted them to reflect on how background knowledge changed their experience of the song.

Theoretical Justification:

I know from my own experience that learning the context and compositional background of a piece of music (or film or text) inevitably alters how I engage with that work. I was hoping that my students would experience the same effect, and that reflecting on those changes would make them more aware of how knowledge (and context in general) shapes their understanding of the world.

I also feel that engaging deeply with an object (especially a disruptive one like this song), and attempting to share that experience, is a fundamentally beneficial activity for young writers. It forces them to put their subjective experience in symbolic form. It’s also useful for them to see how others make sense of a shared object. This tracks with one of the main goals of my class—to better understand how we see the world, and how this differs from how others see it. Though I didn’t focus on it much, the varying research paths taken could also provide fruitful grounds for discussion.


After our second freewrite, we spent ~45 minutes discussing what we had written. I started off by having some students read their first freewrite aloud. Their responses were varied and fascinating. Some students wrote of being “confused” and “scared” by this “trippy” song, with orchestral parts which reminded them of the score to a horror movie. Others wrote about how some parts (Paul’s verses, in particular) reminded them of childhood. The dominant tendency, after doing some research, was to focus more on the lyrics and the story behind the song (IE, an acquaintance of the Beatles dying in a car wreck). This, predictably, lead to the students hearing an increasingly plaintive element.

Perhaps the most telling response was from a student who wrote about how at first, the unusual structure of the song caused her “anxiety.” This anxiety was relieved once she did some research and “knew what the song was about.”  This response says much about this student’s relationship with novelty.  It is my hope that after exploring this relationship in the classroom, she’ll be more inclined to take note of it in other contexts.


This was a fun exercise, and I certainly saw changes in my students’ experience of the song.  I’m inclined to believe though that to really facilitate the kind of inter-contextual transfer I’m seeking, it may be necessary to have the students draw some generalizable conclusions from the activity. Towards that end, perhaps this in-class activity could be followed by an essay assignment in which students discuss this “experiment” and what it says about the relationship between knowledge and lived experience.

In group discussion I’d also like to put more emphasis on what the differences noted “mean.”  For example, the song’s background story made one student feel less anxious.  What does this change say about the importance of narrative coherence in her world?  Certainly this question was implicit in our discussion; if I were to teach this activity again though, I’d like to make it explicit.

As noted many times on this blog, I work within the philosophic tradition known as American Pragmatism. William James proposed this tradition’s core principle—the pragmatic method– as a way to resolve seemingly intractable “metaphysical questions.” In short, it holds that to know an object, we should examine that object’s effect on other objects. I’ve found that this simple move—tracing the consequences of a belief or statement or action— can prove remarkably useful in clarifying my thoughts. In the following I’d like to demonstrate the pragmatic method in action. Specifically, I want to interrogate a commonplace I often encounter as a college writing teacher: students ≠ kids.

Before we begin, I need to clarify what I mean by “commonplace.” As I understand it, commonplaces are ready-made verbal formulas. They are the bits of distilled wisdom, imparted to us by our various communities, that help guide our actions.

Commonplaces are obviously important. They help us understand and interact with our environment. We therefore become very attached to them. This emotional investment can sometimes blind us to their actual nature. Me and my commonplaces get so close, James would say, that I start to see them as ontologically true. And that’s a problem.

Consider a US Marine, guided by the belief that as a Marine, she is “always faithful” and “first to fight.” These commonplaces shape the Marine’s actions. Hence, they’re important. If the Marine is a pragmatist though, she recognizes that “always faithful,” though it may (seem to) fit her to a T, remains a mere verbal formula. It’s been applied to her from without and therefore remains open to revision (or even rejection). It’s true, sure, but true only because of what it does in context. In other contexts, or for other Marines, it may be false.

Now let’s turn to a pedagogical example. College students are adults, not children (students ≠ kids). This is pretty much a truism among progressive educators, its utterance sure to garner a round of head nods at the conference or faculty meeting. Is it true or false though? Following James, we can find out by tracing its consequences.

So what does students ≠ kids do? Well, first it encourages teachers to “take the training wheels off,” to make students responsible for their own learning. A long line of progressive educators, from Maria Montessori on down, would suggest that this is a positive move.

So our example can do positive work. If we wish to follow James though, we must keep in mind that this statement is in no way ontologically true. We can’t, for example, prove empirically that college students are adults and not children. Instead, we must view this statement for what is it is—a community generated object acting on other objects. Among certain constellations of objects, its consequences may be other than positive.

Consider a common situation faced by writing teachers. It’s near the end of the semester. You’ve worked through a carefully designed syllabus, given your students every opportunity to think critically and learn and grow. Despite this, some students remain mired in bland thought and language, comfortably ensconced in the status quo. This is a frustrating moment. And for some teachers, reminding themselves that their students are NOT fully formed adults may be a potent ameliorative tactic. It can help the teacher read more generously, find new reserves of patience. In short, writing teachers can’t expect college freshman to think and write like Theodor Adorno. Conceptualizing college students as in-process, as plastic, in short, as children, may help teachers come to terms with this fact.

So, here we have a commonplace (students ≠ kids) that in certain contexts does positive work. In other contexts, the inverse (students = kids) does positive work. From a Jamesian perspective, we can therefore say that this commonplace is both true and false. To make this determination we consider the thinker, the context and what the commonplace does for that thinker in that context. In short, we must use the pragmatic method.

Admittedly, such an analysis makes an implicit moral claim. It suggests that it’s better (more logical, more socially useful) to think of our beliefs as tools rather than objective descriptions. As tools, we’re free to change said beliefs as circumstances necessitate. We’re free to view our students as both adults and children, for example. William James makes a strong case that this is the best way to approach our world. It forces us to stay flexible, makes us more generous thinkers. I too think this is a good way to live and to think. Use of James’s pragmatic method can help nudge us in this direction.

Philosophy so white (and male). So claims a trending Twitter hashtag and a recent LA Times article by Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel, two academic philosophers. As someone who exists on the fringe of professional philosophy (I’m a writing teacher, but use philosophy in my classroom), I feel I have a unique perspective on this issue. So is “philosophy so white?” Yes. But why exactly?

First off, as with any discussion of social dynamics, we should be wary of anyone who claims there’s one single answer. There’s obviously a lot of factors at play, a lot of stories which can be told. I’ll start with the most basic.

It may seem a little obvious, but one reason philosophy is mainly practiced by white men is because the books you have to read to “do philosophy” in the Western, academic tradition are mainly written by white men. Not surprisingly, people generally like to read stuff written by people who look like them. It’s therefore understandable that philosophically inclined women of color, for example, may be drawn to Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldúa, over Kant and Hegel. An interest in such texts, of course, would take these scholars outside the bounds of academic philosophy and philosophy departments.

Related to the above, is something that the authors of the LA Times article hit upon: quality in philosophical production is largely an aesthetic judgment, and because of the nature of the tradition, it’s easier for white men to present the aesthetic demanded. White men are, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel put it, simply better at “sounding smart” in the way “smart” is defined in the philosophy seminar room. I agree with this. What should be done about it though? It seems that the authors would like to expand the definition of philosophical skill to include a wider range of practices. For example, “woman’s ways of knowing” should come to be seen as a valid form of philosophical investigation. Again, I agree. From my perspective, more diversity in thought and practice is always good. If academic philosophy wants to remain culturally relevant, it seems that such a transition must take place.

Considering this topic though, I’m drawn back to a conversation I had some years ago with a theoretical mathematician (a sort of philosopher, I suppose). He was a pretty reasonable guy, but also adamant that no woman could do the work on which he was engaged. This belief, at least on the surface, didn’t seem to be driven by any particular hatred of women. Instead, from a reasoned consideration of his experience, he had drawn the conclusion that for whatever reason— neural makeup, social conditioning or lack of interest—women could just not do his particular brand of super high-level math.†

Now, it’s easy to dismiss this man’s claim. Let’s not do that though. Instead, let’s try to read his experience in light of Cherry and Schwitzgebel claims about philosophy. Are there modes or degrees of philosophical thought, which, by the nature of the female body or society’s innate (IE, unalterable) reaction to that body, are forever closed to women? If so, why may this be?

Of course, our monkey brains are pretty plastic. This being the case, there’s a strong argument that given the same degree of social support and personal desire, a woman, all other factors being equal, could perform any thought activity that a man could perform.‡ Obviously, throughout history the support has been missing. This should change. If it did though, would the desire be there too? Would the number of men and women doing the most abstract and obscure theorizing even out? Or, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel suggest, is the only answer to redefine “high-level theorizing,” to somehow change it into something in which women (as we now use that term) can participate? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a redefinition? I don’t have any answers. These certainly seem like questions philosophers should be asking though.

[†] More specifically, his claim was that there were a few hundred people in the world who could do his work and that none of them happened to be women. From this, he drew the larger, and perhaps unjustified, conclusion that no women could ever do the work.

 [‡] But while performing this thought activity, would they be “thinking the same?” Or does the body we think in indelible shape the nature of our thought?

Rhetorical practice is, of course, inherently unstable. With the introduction of new actors, issues and technology, the way people talk and think changes. Anne Applebaum claimed recently that the rhetoric of “The Donald” is representative of such a change. In short, she sees Donald Trump as bringing the vulgarity of online discourse into the political sphere. He’s the “voice of the bottom-feeders.”

I agree with Applebaum that vitriolic online discourse can have (and is having) real-world impact. What defines this discourse though? And what should we do about it?

First, when discussing online discourse, it’s important to keep in mind the extent to which to it represents a radical democratization of language. The barriers to rhetorical dissemination have dropped, those formerly silenced can speak. Viewed in this way, one can easily label Applebaum an elitist. She’s a celebrated foreign policy analyst, a graduate of Yale and Oxford. Certainly the way she speaks (and thinks) diverges from the proletarian norm. And who is to say that her rhetorical style– the one she implicitly advocates for in her attack on Trump– is superior? Rhetorical practice is, after all, inherently unstable. And allowing more people to bring their ways of knowing and speaking into the conversation is good, right?

Yes. But letting more people into the conversation has consequences. In a crowded room, with everyone speaking at once, there’s a strong incentive to yell the loudest. This is what we often see online. On Twitter and Facebook discourse is coarsened, nuance disappears. This often (but not always) acts to undercut the benefits of rhetorical exchange. The experience of the other is not substantively engaged with, opinions do not shift, new bonds are not forged. Instead of conversation we have rhetoric as a sort of therapeutic primal scream.

Applebaum’s concern is that this type of rhetorical practice, via Trump, is infecting politics. I have similar concerns with regard to the academy. Though generalizations are always dangerous, it’s fair to say that a certain mode of sensemaking is typically practiced in the library, lab and classroom. This involves listening, questioning and complication. It typically does not involve yelling really loud about your feelings. Such discursive practices are contingent, of course, but they are not arbitrary. We talk this way because it helps us accomplish the goals of the academic enterprise.

So, assuming that Applebaum is correct and that destructive communication practices are migrating off the internet into other spheres, how should academics respond? As a starting point, I would urge teachers and scholars (and anyone else interested in promoting healthy discourse) to consider their own online behavior. Do we engage with a multitude of opinions? Do we seek to promote this sort of engagement in others? As we move through loud, crowded digital rooms do we insist on speaking (and thinking) with nuance and respect?

Unfortunately, even among educated, left-leaning subjects such behavior is often not the norm. This makes the role of those of us well-versed in academic discourse even more important. We must bring our mode of sensemaking to the public sphere. We must provide a coherent, workable rhetorical model for others to follow. Otherwise, as Applebaum suggests, our students, and eventually our colleagues and we ourselves, are going to be talking (and thinking) just like The Donald.

As a teacher, I have a conflicted relationship with cultural studies. I don’t deny that cultural products are implicated in larger systems of power or that it’s advantageous to be aware of those relationships. I worry though about the rhetorical behavior cultural studies-style pedagogies encourage. In short, as practiced in American universities, cultural studies seems to have no positive program. This makes it “academic” (and not in a good way!). Let me explain.

As I use the term, cultural studies is a mode of cultural analysis which arose in England with the work of thinkers like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. It became popular in American universities in the 1990s and though not theorized much these days, still has lingering influence. It general terms, CS involves scrutinizing cultural products to reveal ways in which they are implicated in / work to support unjust power structures. A typical CS pedagogy involves the analysis of an advertisement or film or popular song, the teacher demonstrating how this object constructs its viewer as a consumer, legitimizes an unjust economic order, is racist or sexist, etc.

I admit, cultural studies-style analysis can be fun. It’s intellectual detective work. From a pedagogical perspective though, many have come to see it as something of a dead-end. We show students how to deconstruct cultural products. They do it for a grade. They have no inclination to do it outside the classroom though. Or even if they do, the ability to detect ideological influence doesn’t change their behavior as consumers or citizens.

The above complaint is nothing new. In my field of rhetoric and composition it has been addressed by Patricia Bizzell and Thomas Rickert, among others. My concern is not though that cultural studies is ineffective in bringing about revolution (no pedagogy can, of course). Instead, I worry that it makes any sort of substantive change less likely by encouraging division instead of intersubjective understanding.

As I see it, the ideal cultural-studies subject is skilled at critique, at seeing through the gauzy veneer capitalism throws over its racist/sexist/anti-human machinations. Where does she go from there though? The next step, in line with the mission of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham school, is activism, more often than not defined as “raising awareness.” This typically involves the publication and dissemination of critical findings, the formation of collectives with other critically aware subjects to discuss said critical findings. What comes after that though?

Most often nothing. And herein lies the problem. When cultural studies works it provides for nothing more than the creation of echo chambers in which one can speak / be spoken to by other like-minded subjects. This is what I would argue we are seeing among politically aware students on college campuses today. Their expressions of outrage are so fervent because a pedagogy of critique allows for nothing more than outrage (and confirmation of that outrage). “We see how X is racist/sexist/anti-human,” they scream, “why can’t others?” Because your (cultural studies-influenced) program doesn’t speak to them, I would argue. It’s academic in that it’s in-group speak. It’s therapeutic in that it feels good on an emotional level. It’s not a positive program though in that it includes no mechanism for outreach, the cultivation of shared understanding and thereby, change.

So what would a positive program for cultural studies look like? In my opinion, it would have to be focused on analyzing cultural products to see what they do for the consumer. Yes, American Sniper, for example, is a terribly racist / sexist / xenophobic film. Why does it appeal to so many subjects though? What need does it satisfy and how can we work with these subjects to satisfy said need in less socially destructive ways?

Of course, such a program doesn’t work unidirectionally. In the sort of engagement I propose, the critically aware subject must surrender certainty, be open to change and co-evolution along with the American Sniper-loving good ol’ boy. This is difficult. It’s the opposite of therapeutic because it often feels really fucking bad to have your beliefs challenged / changed. That said, I think such a program could help revitalize cultural studies as a pedagogical tool. At the very least, it would help cultural critics seem less shrill to those outside their discourse community.