Another memelicious monologue

Historiann has thrown down the gauntlet in response to Tony Grafton’s round-up of a spate of recent books about higher ed.

Near the end of his review, Grafton muses,

Best of all would be for enterprising publishers to find curious writers and have them describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects. The polemical books, even those that have some substance, end up slinging mud—which, as Huckleberry Finn pointed out to Tom Sawyer, isn’t argument—more often than laying out the evidence. The empirical studies, with a very few exceptions, are deliberately cast in such general terms, and written in such a value- and metaphor-free style, that they won’t reach anyone without a professional interest. Neither sort would give an intelligent outsider—say, a parent or student, a regent or a trustee—a vivid picture of a year’s life and work at a college or university, as it is experienced by all parties; much less a lucid explanation of how finance and pedagogy, bad intentions and good execution shape one another in the academic world.

Historiann suggests that

The other bloggers and regular commenters here study and/or teach at a variety of institutions around the world–so let’s offer our own detailed descriptions of our universities and what the problems look like from our vantage.

. . .and she was kind enough to include me among the bloggers she tagged for this meme.  So here goes.

(Check out the comments on Historiann’s post for links to others who have posted on this topic this week.)


I must admit I haven’t read any of the books Grafton reviews, though certainly I have heard of most of them.  I don’t read them because too often I’m unduly angered by books in this genre. It’s akin to being a duck and reading books about duck hunting during duck season.

Another caveat: I’m still junior faculty at Boise State; this is my second year on the tenure track in the history department there.  I’m getting a sense of the university and its issues, but my perspective is necessarily the narrow one of a newcomer to the scene. Plus, I can’t help but compare it to the institution where I spent 10 years, first as a graduate student, then briefly as an adjunct and then as professional staff, UC Davis.

Finally, I’m not known for having much of a filter; I tend to say what’s on my mind.  I like to think that characteristic lends me the ability to “speak truth to power,” but more realistically, it’s just me being naïve and not knowing when I’m putting my foot in my mouth. Who knows, then, what kinds of–let’s be generous and call them fans–this blog post will win me locally?

In this post, I’m looking at students, my workload, and three big issues that concern me.

Let’s begin with the students

Here’s the difference between UC Davis students and Boise State students, in a nutshell:

UC Davis student, in my office, talking to me about her D paper.  She’s 19 years old and taking my course to satisfy a general ed requirement.  “But I’ve always been an ‘A’ student!  Certainly there’s been some mistake.  Can you look at my paper again to see if you missed something?”

Boise State student, in my office, talking to me about his D paper. He’s 28 years old and taking my course to satisfy a general ed requirement. “Well, I’ve fucked up again, haven’t I? How can I do better next time?”  He listens to my suggestions.  “That’s really helpful.  I might not get to this until next week; I have sole responsibility for the kids right now because my wife has to spend several weekends in jail.”

My sense is that our students, and particularly our undergrads, are predominantly working class. Last I checked, our four-year graduation rate is 8 percent, and the six-year is 26 percent, but of course that doesn’t say much about reality, as many of our students are transfers from elsewhere, and they don’t figure into graduation rates.*  Many of my students are my age (36) or older.  This semester, I have students born between 1957 and 1993, which, as you can imagine, makes for interesting discussions.  Many are veterans.  Many have fought with addiction in various forms.  About one-third are Mormon.  The overwhelming majority are white.  Many are single parents. At least three of my students have initiated divorces this semester; I can’t remember having any married undergrads at Davis.

My workload

I came in at a time when everyone in the department has a 2-2 course load, and we’re all nervous that we’ll have to go back to a 3-3 (without, of course, the institution changing its research and service expectations).  This year and for the forseeable future, however, I’m on a 2-1, because I’m the internship coordinator for the department. This job is supposed to come with a course release each semester, but it would be foolish of me to accept a 1-1 load when I’m wanting to seem like A Team Player On The Tenure Track,** so I negotiated a 2-1 plus a stipend.  When I first came on board, I also negotiated a couple of course releases in my first couple years, but I won’t be taking those, as a 1-0 load doesn’t look very good, either.

It looks as if my pattern of courses will become one survey and one upper-division course in the fall, totaling about 80-90 students, and then either one upper-division undergraduate course (possibly cross-listed for grad students) or a graduate course in the spring (40 students if undergrad, 15 students if grad).  I can make those upper-division courses pretty much anything I want. Thus far that’s meant a public history and a women’s history course; I’ve proposed a digital history course for next fall.

All in all, it’s a fine teaching load.  I have no complaints, except maybe when I’m grading papers.

The scholarship requirements for tenure are modest, with three decent journal articles and around five lesser pieces (e.g. book reviews).***

As a public historian and women’s historian, I’m finding service is taking care of itself both on and off campus. Most of us in history carry a pretty significant service commitment.

Let’s lay it all out on the table, shall we?  Aside from my small stipend for internship coordination, I’m paid $49,000 a year, and yes, I negotiated up to that amount. It’s a significant decrease from my staff salary at UC Davis, and I don’t have much hope of it increasing until tenure, when it should rise to just about what I was making in Davis.  (And no, we’re not finding it cheaper to live in Idaho than California, aside from the cost of our rent.)

Big issues

Boise State is definitely feeling its growing pains, so it’s facing plenty of challenges, not the least of which is that it still receives less funding from the state than does the University of Idaho–last year it was widely advertised around here that BSU receives 2/3 per student what UI does–even though Boise State is now the most selective public institution in Idaho.  Educational institutions in Idaho aren’t really rolling in money to begin with. That said, here are three big issues that I think will impact my time here at Boise State:

A new focus on STEM education and research (and a misunderstanding of what the humanities are and do)

The university is jonesing for STEM money and STEM graduates. I mean, all the big universities are doing it, right?  I understand the appeal of STEM–there’s a good deal of satisfaction and positive public relations to be had in announcing your science professor has just secured a grant worth $250,000 or more. It’s also nice to bring the university royalties from intellectual property that’s been commercialized through technology transfer. That said, science researchers at most American universities rarely recoup their start-up costs through grants, so the costs of scientific research tend to be added to undergraduate tuition–and they definitely don’t recoup those costs if faculty leave for elsewhere within a decade. Despite these figures, during my time at UC Davis I heard more than one professor opine the indirect costs paid to the university from science grants are life support for the humanities.

The misguided self-importance of a few scientists aside, administrators also are misinterpreting the relative economic value to the university of the sciences and the humanities. At least one person interviewing for a high-profile position here has announced that all departments should pay for themselves–by which the prospective bigwig meant with income from more than tuition. I know he isn’t alone in this belief (universities should be run like businesses!), and the implication always seems to be that arts and humanities programs should be the first to fall under the budget ax because we’re not producing patents and drawing mega-grants.  Yet the humanities, with our growing class sizes, our many general education courses, and our lower faculty salaries, are incredibly cost-efficient–especially when we consider that we’re educating a lot of the K-12 teachers who accept ridiculously low salaries. (How low? Last year, the salary for a new teacher in Idaho dropped below $28,000, and the average salary remains $41,000.)

Of course, my colleagues and I have a nefarious (and apparently quite workable) plan to snag an NSF grant or two, so that the indirect costs will help pay for some scientist’s lab equipment.  (My start-up costs? $3,000 plus an iMac.)

There also hasn’t yet, as far as I can tell, been any kind of serious reflection here by people outside the humanities as to how the arts and humanities complement STEM education and research.

An attempt to become a “metropolitan research university of distinction”

This drive toward “distinction” is marked by greater investment in STEM, but also more Ph.D. programs and a greater rate of faculty publication.  I’m all for publishing, but it’s difficult in light of the next issue I’ll discuss.  (And can I just say it’s hard for us long-form historians to compete on publication quantity with criminal justice or political science types who apparently publish many, many short pieces?)

A desire to scale up the number of students we teach, and the speed with which they graduate

I’m not sure why our administration wants to bring in more students, as we’re having a hard enough time graduating the students we already have.  Perhaps it’s because if we’re investing heavily in the sciences, we’re going to need to recoup the costs somewhere–and where better than by making arts and humanities faculty teach more classes, each with a significantly greater number of students?

Because so many of our students are working part- or full-time, many of us would like to provide them with as flexible a schedule as possible. Unfortunately, for administrators, this flexibility too often means offering classes online.  I say “unfortunately” because, although I am often an advocate for the thoughtful use of technology in teaching and learning, the university has made a couple of decisions that make it clear

  • online classes are about faculty relinquishing control of their “content” and allowing for the greater adjunctification of the university;
  • the university has a narrow view of online teaching as content to be acquired by students;
  • the university is not really invested in best practices in online learning.

This blog post is already too long, so I’m going to just touch briefly on each of these points.

First, a colleague of mine has been teaching a section of one of her courses online for some time. When she first signed on teach online, she was told any course content she created would be her intellectual property.  However, the university’s latest version of its statement on online instruction intellectual property rights (PDF) indicates quite the opposite:

A course (as a designed collection of assembled and authored material) produced under University sponsorship, where the University provides the specific authorization or supervision for the preparation of the course, is a work made for hire (as defined by law and BSU policy). A course specially ordered or commissioned by the University and for which the University has agreed to specially compensate or provide other support (such as release time) to the creator(s) is a commissioned work, (as defined by BSU policy). In either case, the copyright to the course will be held and exercised by the university.

I suppose that means my colleague’s course, which includes videos of her lectures, can now be handed over to an adjunct to teach, yes?  Who cares, as my colleague pointed out, that according to the AAUP’s counsel, it’s unlikely that classes crafted by professors can be considered works for hire?

Second, in that same IP statement, the university makes clear what, in its eyes, constitutes an online course: “An online course implemented in the Blackboard course-management system at Boise State University, or similar educational technologies, is an organized collection of articles, notes, media, assignments, online communications, tests, and similar materials.” Basically, then, an online course is a bunch of stuff that can be collected and passed on to someone else.  It is not, you will note, collaborative or individual student work that showcases critical and creative thinking. It is something to be packaged and delivered–likely, as I noted above, not by the professor who created it.

Third, the platform the university provides and assumes faculty will use, Blackboard, does not provide adequate tools or configuration options to allow for best practices in student learning in the humanities.  If I’m going to teach online, you can bet it will be more ds106, less enterprise learning management (ick!) system.


That was quite the monologue, and yet it barely scratches the surface of my last 16 months or so of experience at Boise State.

Anyone who wants to participate in this meme is welcome to do so–either leave a trackback at Historiann’s, or a link in the comments to her post.

I especially invite Colleague Who Sometimes Reads This Blog (and signs hir comments thus) to add hir perspective, either here in the comments or in a pseudonymous! guest! post!  Alternatively: Get. a. blog.  :)

* For a nice rant about graduation rates and how they (don’t) work, see Dr. Crazy’s post for this meme; simply search her long post for the phrase “motherfucking graduation rates.”

* Hey, that’s A TPOTTT–a teapot!  Sing it with me, tenure-track folks: I’m a little teapot. . .

*** I’m totally falling down on pursuing book reviews and encyclopedia articles. If you’re a journal or encyclopedia editor who needs reviews/entries in public history, women in U.S. science, women in California history, museum studies, or digital humanities, please do be in touch.


  1. The History Enthusiast says:

    I’m totally lusting after your teaching load. We have very, very similar demographics here (student-wise), and teaching 3-3 while trying to navigate the chaos that surrounds me is so challenging. I feel like I spend more time being a personal counselor than being a teacher, because so many of our students are overwhelmed with *life.* It is really exhausting.

    More to the point, I’m sorry you are in a situation where your job/intellectual property is in jeopardy. Don’t be discouraged…there are schools out there that don’t see education as a commodity to be delivered to waiting hands. They are just getting harder and harder to come by these days.

  2. Colleague Who Occasionally Reads This Blog says:

    And so the gauntlet has been passed on to me, and since a blog is not in my immediate future, I’ll go the comment route. Professor M-B is newish, but savvier than most of her colleagues, which won’t surprise readers of her blog. I’m not sure I can add anything noteworthy to her comments. Perhaps a couple of random observations that will reinforce hers will be of interest.

    One is that, notwithstanding that absolutely bullet-proof fact that the humanities are dirt cheap disciplines that pay for the techies to thrive, at our university the opposite is assumed to be true by otherwise intelligent people. There is no arguing with these people, among whom is our VP for Research and Economic Development (sic), who once responded negatively to a plea for funding for an excellent poetry journal here with the remark that he “does not know what a poem does for us once it’s published.” This pretty much captures the state of the humanities here — if it’s going to happen, we have to find external funding for it. Because we are cheap, we can do this. I wish we did not have to, but there it is. I’m not sure that this attitude, in such pure form, is present at most universities. The fact that this VP hasn’t even been trained to act like he appreciates a good poem is what continues to amuse (?) me.

    That anecdote gets at a more pertinent observation, I think. Boise State University is still way off the beaten path. I’ve been here for close to two decades, and while the university has become a better place to work in general, it is still the Wild West in many ways. This can be useful — we don’t have a lot of rules, policies, structures in place that are the norm elsewhere, which means we can get away with a lot of experimenting, especially at the department level. But it also allows attitudes like that of our VP for Research (and Economic Development!) to thrive, and influentially so.

    Anyway. That’s what I’ve got.


  1. […] M-B, however, has told us all exactly what she thinks of the online classes at her institution: * online classes are about […]

  2. […] M-B at the Clutter Museum writes from Boisie State U. about her predominantly working-class students and their complicated liv….  Accordingly, she resents the administration’s “desire to scale up the number of […]

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