Kansas State University Distinguished Professors: Open Letter to the Kansas Board of Regents

Kansas State University23 Dec. 2013

Dear Kansas Board of Regents,

As University Distinguished Professors at Kansas State University, we write to call for the immediate repeal of the new social media policy, and to ask that you instead work together with elected faculty representatives and administration to craft a social media policy that best serves the interests of Kansas universities, their faculty, staff, and students. By revoking the faculty and staff’s right to freedom of speech, the new social media policy is an affront to academic freedom and academic excellence.

Furthermore, it undermines Kansas State University’s 2025 plan by driving away both potential hires and current faculty.  Social media covered by the new policy include cutting-edge venues valued for the dissemination of research, scholarly and creative activity, and development.  The free and open exchange of ideas is essential to fulfilling the mission of any university. As a group recognized for our contributions to and support of the essential research work of our university, we look forward to your response.

Sincerely yours,

Christer Aakeroy, Chemistry
John Blair, Biology
Frank Blecha, Anatomy & Physiology
Susan Brown, Biology
Edgar Chambers IV, Human Nutrition
M. M. Chengappa, Diagnostic Medicine
Gary Conrad, Biology
Rob Denell, Biology
Elizabeth Dodd, English
Walter Dodds, Biology
Michael Dryden, Diagnostic Medicine & Pathobiology
James H. Edgar, Chemical Engineering
Brett Esry, Physics
David Hartnett, Biology
John Hatcliff, Computing & Information Sciences
Dale Herspring, Political Sciences
Ryszard Jankowiak, Chemistry
Anthony Joern, Biology
Michael Kanost, Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics
Ken Klabunde, Chemistry
David Littrell, Music
Daniel Marcus, Anatomy & Physiology
James Marsden, Animal Sciences & Industry
Richard Marston, Geography
Nancy Monteiro-Riviere, Anatomy & Physiology
S. Muthukrishnan, Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics*
T.G. Nagaraja, Diagnostic Medicine & Pathobiology
Philip Nel, English
Harald Prins, Anthropology
Chuck Rice, Agronomy
Juergen Richt, Diagnostic Medicine & Pathobiology
Jim Riviere, Anatomy & Physiology
Tom Roche, Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics
Ted Schroeder, Agricultural Economics
James Shanteau, Psychological Sciences
Chris Sorensen, Physics
Brian S. Spooner, Biology
Xiuzhi Susan Sun, Grain Science & Industry
Michael Tokach, Animal Sciences & Industry
Philine Wangemann, Anatomy & Physiology
Ruth Welti, Biology
Dean Zollman, Physics*
 
University Distinguished Professors
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS

cc: Governor Sam Brownback, President Kirk Schulz, Provost April Mason, Faculty Senate President Julia Keen, Director of Government Relations Sue Peterson


Updated 23 Dec. 2013, 10:36 am: Since I sent this out, several UDPs have emailed asking to be included. I’m adding their names above, with an * to indicate that they weren’t on the original letter. But they’re very much in support, and asked that I record their support here.

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Kansas, the banana republic

It’s an anti-free speech manifesto that sounds like a pronouncement from the government of a banana republic.

The Board of Regents truly should back up, take a deep breath, and decide on something that meets the needs of its great universities.

This first try was ghastly, pure and simple, and should be stricken down immediately.

— “New Regents policy really bad idea,” Manhattan Mercury, 22 Dec. 2013.

Since the Mercury is subscriber-only (in its on-line version), I’ve taken the liberty of posting a photograph of the full editorial below. If the Mercury would like me to take it down, I’m glad to comply.


"New Regents policy really bad idea," Manhattan Mercury, 22 Dec. 2013


Link to piece on Manhattan Mercury website (subscribers only).

Further information:

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Higher Education is Not a Reality TV Show; or, How A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” Differs from the Kansas Board of Regents

Free Speech ZoneOn Facebook, a friend recently asked me how the recent controversy over the Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy differs from A&E’s suspending of Phil Robertson from the Duck Dynasty reality TV show. I see why she asks: The Kansas Board of Regents has rescinded faculty and staff’s right to free speech, just as A&E has rescinded Phil Robertson’s right to free speech.

First, let me go on record as saying that I support Phil Robertson’s right to express his belief that homosexuality is immoral, and to use the language of Christianity to do so. I think that using religion to advocate bigotry dishonors the Christian faith, and I wish that he would express his ignorance in a different way. But the First Amendment grants him the right to express foolish ideas, and I support that right.

A&E, however, is a corporation. If it chooses not to grant Mr. Robertson a venue for his homophobia, he can still express it — just not on the Duck Dynasty television program.

But here’s where reality TV and academia part ways. The free and open exchange of ideas is at the core of the academic enterprise, and one venue for that exchange is social media — blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. The Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy says that faculty and staff can be fired for impairing “discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” or for doing anything “contrary to the best interest of the university.” In addition to being both broad and vague, that language hampers our ability to do our jobs.

cartoon by Ann Telnaes

A university is different from a corporation. Academics who work for universities exchange ideas because it’s our job to exchange ideas. It is at the core of what the academic enterprise is all about. Thanks to this new social media policy, we now lack some of the basic tools for sharing research.

For example, the Kansas Board of Regents is appointed by Governor Sam Brownback, who believes that gay and lesbian people do not deserve human rights (such as, say, the right to marry). What if you’re doing research on human rights? Or teaching Walt Whitman, Alison Bechdel, or Oscar Wilde? Would that be “contrary to the best interest of the university”? Would it foster disharmony? If your university president is as prejudiced as your governor, talking about these ideas openly might give you pause. I am pleased to report that Kansas State University’s president supports the rights of LGBTQ people, but university presidents come and go. Policies last for a long time. And this sort of policy impedes the exchange of ideas.

In crafting this policy, the Kansas Board of Regents did not consult the faculty, staff, or administration of the Regents institutions. Had they done so, they might have avoided this debacle. Indeed, the most productive way forward would be for them to rescind the new social media edict, and instead work with elected representatives from the faculty and university administrations, to craft a sensible social media policy.

Further information:

Image credits: cartoon by the great Ann Telnaes; “Free Speech Zone” map from UpperLeft.

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Kansas Board of Regents Revokes Right to Freedom of Speech

Kansas Board of RegentsAs faculty grade their last student papers and exams before leaving town for the Christmas holidays, the Kansas Board of Regents quietly — and unanimously — voted to revoke their academic freedom and basic right to freedom of speech.  As the Lawrence Journal-World reports this evening, “The Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday approved a policy that would allow the firing of university employees if they communicated through social media in a way that aversely [sic] affects the school.”

According to the new policy, “improper use of social media” includes any “communication through social media that”:

“ii. when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interest of the university”

“iv. subject to the balancing analysis required by the following paragraph, impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

“In determining whether the employee’s communication constitutes an improper use of social media under paragraph (iv), the chief executive officer shall balance the interest of the university in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees against the employee’s right as a citizen to speak on matters of public concern, and may consider the employee’s position within the university and whether the employee used or publicized the university name, brands, website, official title or school/department/college or otherwise created the appearance of the communication being endorsed, approved or connected to the university in a manner that discredits the university.  The chief executive officer may also consider whether the communication was made during the employee’s working hours or the communication was transmitted utilizing university systems or equipment.  This policy on improper use of social media shall apply prospectively from its date of adoption by the Kansas Board of Regents.”

In essence, anything can be grounds for firing. And the Board of Regents has defined social media very, very broadly:

 ”Social media” means any facility for online publication and commentary, including but not limited to blogs, wikis, and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube.

So, for example, if the university decides that this blog post is “improper use of social media,” it can fire me.  Posting a link to this blog post via Twitter and Facebook (which I will do as soon as I finish writing it) could, if deemed “improper use of social media,” also be grounds for firing me.  (I hope GooglePlus and Academia.Edu do not feel slighted by the Regents’ omission, but rest assured that I’ll push this link out via those means as well.)

I understand why the Kansas Board of Regents would want to encourage responsible use of social media.  However, I find it harder to understand how a body that oversees an educational system designed to foster free and open exchanges of ideas would seek to impede free and open exchanges of ideas. I also wonder how it expects to enforce a policy that violates the first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  I suppose the fact that a state has far deeper pockets than any individual does will be the Board of Regents’ strongest means of enforcement.

At any rate, if you also find this decision troubling, you might let the Board of Regents know.  The telephone number is 785-296-3421.  Here is the contact information for Fred Logan (Chair of the Board of Regents), and contact information for all ten members of the Board of Regents.

Further information (updated 10 Apr. 2014, 3:40 pm, CST):

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This Job Can Kill You. Literally.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

As you likely already know, Margaret Mary Vojtko — an adjunct professor of French for 25 years — was found dead on her front lawn on September 1st. Facing mounting medical bills and lacking money to maintain or even heat her house, she died of a heart attack earlier that day.  As Daniel Kovalik writes, “Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.”  His article, “Death of an adjunct,” has been widely shared across social media, been reprinted in the Huffington Post, and inspired stories in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Gawker.

In some senses, her death was not preventable: she was 83 and fighting cancer. It’s likely that she would have died sooner rather than later.

But in other senses, her job killed her. And I’m not speaking figuratively. As Mr. Kovalik notes,

in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Full Time Respect for Part Time Faculty!

Her job left her unable to meet her basic needs (heat, food, medicine). Furthermore, that level of stress has an adverse effect on a person’s health. People forced to cope with large levels of extreme stress — and poverty is definitely an extreme stress — have shorter life expectancies. A job that reduces you to poverty also hastens your demise.

I would not suggest that Duquesne University acted alone in killing Professor Vojtko, nor that all individuals at the university lacked sympathy for her. But the university is certainly an accomplice. While it claims to be a Catholic university, Duquesne has fought its adjuncts’ attempts to unionize, alleging that it deserved an exception on religious grounds; in contrast, Georgetown University, citing the Catholic church’s commitment to social justice, recognized its adjuncts’ union.

Duquesne has many accomplices. Its treatment of Professor Vojtko was cruel, but not unusual. Exploitation of adjunct labor has become the norm in academe. Faced with rising costs (and, in “state” schools, decreasing support from the state), colleges and universities consider adjuncts an “economic” solution to their staffing needs. They’re highly qualified cheap labor, and — as the number of tenure-track jobs decreases — there are more Ph.Ds. to choose from each year. It’s a buyer’s market. Duquesne only did what other universities and colleges have done. Indeed, at American universities, 73% of all instructors are non tenure-track (adjuncts or grad students).*

Adjuncts United!

Yes, some institutions treat adjuncts more humanely than others. Some provide health insurance and even retirement plans. Some. But, even under the best conditions, adjuncts are second-class citizens. And, yes, some make it on to the tenure track. But most do not.

Relying on adjuncts as the primary way to teach classes has become normal, but it’s not good for the adjuncts and it’s not good for higher education. Adjuncts owe no loyalty to the institution that employs them; so, at the beginning of term, heads of departments must scramble to find people to cover classes. That’s no way to run a university. As Professor Vojtko’s death makes all too clear, that’s also not a humane way to treat an educator — or anyone, for that matter.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

One reason that universities rely upon adjunct labor points to the third group responsible for killing Professor Vojtko: all those who mock academic labor, consider teaching a cushy job, argue that educators are lazy (as in the familiar misconception, you only teach a few classes and then you get summers off!). The concerted effort to refashion intellectual labor as a form of leisure diminishes sympathy for a hard-working group that has much to contribute. It deprives them of their humanity. It makes them easy targets. They become easy to neglect, easy to ignore, and easy to crush beneath the weight of indifference and poverty.

Certainly, teachers — at primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels — are not the only people who have been maligned in this way. Factory workers (especially unionized ones), policemen, firemen, all public-sector workers have all been criticized as somehow unworthy of the salary and benefits they receive.

I’ve been using the passive voice, failing to name just who is doing the maligning, because this is not merely the fault of one particular faction. Certainly, responsibility lies with pundits on the right who complain about “the takers” mooching off “the makers,” governors who slash education budgets while simultaneously giving tax breaks to the wealthy, and businesses pushing an “educational reform” because it serves their financial interests. But people on the left are also at fault. In an effort to reduce the cost of college (certainly a laudable goal), President Obama fails to address the single greatest contributing factor to the rising cost of tuition: decreasing state support requires universities to find money from other sources. This is not something that the privately funded Duquesne University (Professor Vojtko’s employer) faces, but the president’s move to hold colleges accountable without a comparable push to restore public funding simply perpetuates the myth that educators are too highly paid. This myth obscures the fact that many of us are not well paid at all.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

I spent three years as an adjunct. Those years (1997-2000) were not happy ones. I was often angry. Indeed, I am frankly surprised and grateful that I have friends from that period of my life: a bitter person isn’t fun to be around. Today, I am tenured, a full professor of English at Kansas State University (which receives 20% of its funding from the state). As an ex-adjunct, I find stories like Professor Vojtko’s especially troubling. Her path might have been my path. It wasn’t, but it has been and will be the path of many others. The exploitation of adjuncts has only increased since my days as an adjunct.

This brings me to the fourth and final group I would indict in the death of Professor Vojtko: me, and people like me. No, I did not create the conditions that foster the exploitation of adjuncts. Nor do I support those who think that college should be run like a business, and am frankly appalled by the efforts (by President Obama, and others) to apply a capitalist ethos to institutions that strive to serve the public good. And, sure, I’m sympathetic to adjuncts. But that’s not enough.

American Association of University ProfessorsThose of us who have attained even a modest amount of institutional power need to speak up. We need to support organizations fighting for adjunct rights — such as the American Association of University Professors. I have been intending to join this group for years, and only now — while writing this paragraph — did I actually join. Writing this essay and joining that group aren’t sufficient, I know. But it is at least a step in the right direction.

We need to stop exploiting adjuncts. It’s killing them. And it isn’t good for the rest of us, either.

__________

* Note and Correction (added 22 Sept. 2013, 5:40 pm): According to the study, the 73% includes full-time, non-tenure track faculty (15%), part-time/adjunct faculty (37%), and graduate employees (21%). Those first two groups are both adjunct: that is, “full-time, non-tenure track faculty” is the equivalent of adjunct. So, if we add these two together, then we get 52% adjunct, plus an additional 21% graduate students, for a total of 73%. A more recent study indicates that  non-tenure track faculty (adjuncts and graduate students) now comprise 76% of instructors at American colleges and universities.  The correction here is that my original post stated that “73% of all instructors are now adjuncts”; using the source I originally cited, the more precise way to state this is that “73% of all instructors are now non-tenure track (adjuncts and graduate students).”  So, when Chris pointed this out (comment no. 37, below), I made the change.

Resources (updated 18 Nov. 2013, 3:00 pm)

Image sources: “Adjunct Professors Petting the Short End of the Stick” (Politics 365, 4 June 2013),  “Precarcity Everywhere” (Disorder of Things, 1 Feb. 2012), American Association of University Professors.  The Doonesbury strips come from “Mathematicians and the Market” (GeoffDavis.net, 1997), but check out Doonesbury at Go! Comics for more of Trudeau’s work.

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Stylish Academic Writing

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic WritingNo, the title of this post is not an oxymoron. Academics can write with style. Some of us do. All of us should. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword offers advice for all who aspire to write with grace and economy. The book is smart, funny, and — even better — applicable beyond academe.

Many of us write the way our disciplines taught us to write, but, as Sword points out, there’s a good degree of variance within any given discipline. People don’t write articles all the same way. In every discipline, there’s room for creativity, space for departing from the formula. Writing bland, jargon-y prose is not the only way to get published. To quote Sword, “academic writing is a process of making intelligent choices, not following rigid rules” (30). That’s the key advice here. You can write well and get published in any discipline; the path to publication involves smart choices, not the strictures of jargon.

Here are six pieces of advice from her book:

  1. Open with something catchy: As Sword puts it, “recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem” (8).
  2. Prefer active verbs to passive ones: no one likes sentences that erase human agency.
  3. As Richard Lanham famously asked, “Who’s kicking who?” That should be “Who’s kicking whom?,” but the point is sound: nouns and verbs form the backbone of a strong sentence. If your sentence construction obscures cause-and-effect, then rewrite it.
  4. Jargon for its own sake is lazy. Use it when it serves your purpose — as Sword notes, it’s a “highly efficient form of disciplinary shorthand” (117). That’s great. But don’t use it as a substitute for thought. Draw upon the insights of critical theory, philosophy, medicine, and any relevant discipline, but express those insights in clear, concrete prose.
  5. You don’t need to use long sentences all the time. Short ones are nice. Varying sentence lengths works well, too.
  6. Avoid extraneous words and phrases. As Sword writes, “Avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or about three times per paragraph, except in a parallel construction or for stylistic effect. Sentences that rely on subordinate clauses that in turn contain other clauses that introduce new ideas that distract from the main argument that the author is trying to make . . . well, you get the idea” (62).

From my earliest days as an academic, I’ve aspired to write clear sentences. So, in part, Sword’s book has (for me) affirmed what I’ve always tried to do. I know of course that (despite my efforts) I have written sentences that fall short of this goal.  For that matter, I know that I will never be as deft a stylist as Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, or Robin Bernstein (to name a few academics who are also graceful writers), but I also know I can be better.  Sword’s book can help us all be better.

This is why, since I started reading the book, I’ve been recommending it to my fellow academics.  (To give credit where it’s due, Robin Bernstein’s Facebook post of the video below alerted me to Sword’s work.)

The Humanities need scholars who can communicate well. Our professional lives and the futures of our disciplines depend upon our ability to convey our ideas with clarity and grace to legislators and to the general public. The Humanities are not a luxury. As Adam Gopnik wrote so eloquently earlier this week, “We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because [...] they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.”

Stylish Academic Writing has renewed my commitment to writing well.  If more of us take Sword’s advice to heart, perhaps over time, we can help our governments renew their commitments to the Humanities, and to a way of living that puts human beings first — rather than putting first, say, corporate profits, easily quantifiable utility, expensive surveillance, or lethal technologies.  Perhaps.

Even if we fail, it will have been worth the effort.


Bonus: a video on zombie nouns.

Another bonus: some links.

  • Stylish Academic Writing: Harvard University Press’s page, featuring many links.
  • The Writer’s Diet Test: Sword’s automated feedback tool asks “Is your writing flabby or fit?” and invites you to “Enter a writing sample of 100 to 1000 words” and find out.

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Professors Get Summers Off; or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Being a college professor would be a great job! You do a little teaching, and get the summers off!

— frequently expressed misunderstanding

To be clear: being a professor is a great job. Since I elect not to teach during the summer, I can devote more — though not all — of my time to research and writing. But the main thing I get “off” during the summer is a paycheck. Kansas State University last paid me on May 24th, and my next check arrives on September 13th. (Classes begin tomorrow — Monday, August 26th.)

As part of my continuing efforts to dispel the surprisingly pervasive myth that academics lounge by the poolside all summer, here is how I spent my “summer vacation” this year.

Conferences. I gave two conference presentations, gave two invited talks, and co-chaired (and co-organized) one panel.  All were different, and but one all were new material.  So, I also wrote these.

  1. “Manifesto for a Comics-Children’s Literature Alliance” at the 40th Annual Children’s Literature Association Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, on June 14th.
  2. “How, Where, and Why to Publish Your Book” (invited talk) at University of Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) on June 24th.  This was a longer and revised version of “How to Publish Your Book,” which I first gave on a professional development panel at a Children’s Literature Association conference some years ago.
  3. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): cover“‘He came up thinking fast’; or, How does Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon work?” (also invited) at the University of Winnipeg’s Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium on June 25th. This was a labor of love for me. It aims to be a tour de force close-reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon, revealing just how complex such an apparently “simple” book really is. I look forward to expanding it for publication.
  4. “Whiteness, Nostalgia, and Fantastic Flying Books: The Disappearance of Race in William Joyce” at the Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Maastricht, Netherlands, on August 12th. This will form part of a book called Erasing Race in Children’s Literature.
  5. “Keywords for Children’s Literature: A Roundtable Discussion,” co-chaired with Lissa Paul, at the Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature, on August 13th. As I note in my previous blog post, this panel was devoted to conceiving a second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011) — should sales of the current edition warrant — that better takes into account the broader, international world of children’s books.

Cost. I picked up maybe 40%-45% of the expenses for conferences. In addition to the three conferences where I presented (mentioned above), I also attended a fourth.  Here’s how it breaks down. (Dates include travel.)

  1. Children’s Literature Association Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, June 12-16. Not covered by the university or sponsor of event. Kansas State University provides funds for less than one conference each year. So, at this point in the year, such conferences are always self-funded.
  2. Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium in Winnipeg, Manitoba, June 24-28. All expenses covered by organizers of event. Canada makes available far more public funds for the Humanities than the U.S. does, and the organizers won financial support for the conference.
  3. Comic-Con 2013Comic-Con in San Diego, California, July 17-22. As an Eisner nominee, I paid no registration fee. But the plane tickets, hotel, and food (except for the Eisner Awards banquet, which was covered) were all self-funded. For what I did and learned there, see my reports on Comic-Con 2013.
  4. Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Maastricht, Netherlands, August 10-14.  Kansas State University has a fund to which one can apply (once a year) to fund international conferences. I got lucky this year, and over 90% of the expenses for this were covered! (I will this week submit my receipts for reimbursement.) For a report on the conference, see “Dutch Treat.”

Writing. I wrote two new essays, successfully expanded a third, and completed a failed revision on a fourth.  (What do I mean by “completed a failed revision”? I’ll explain in a moment.)  I also wrote — or, really, co-wrote — a fellowship proposal.

  1. “Children and Comics” was the sole piece connected to any of the conference presentations. It’s a radially recast “Manifesto for a Comics-Children’s Literature Alliance,” and will — if editors Bart Beatty and Charles Hatfield like it — appear in The Cambridge Companion to Comics next year.
  2. “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood.” It would have helped if I’d paid attention to the email inviting me to contribute this piece to a special section on Sendak. I’d thought the journal asked for a 4000-word piece, and so I wrote nearly 6000 words with the aim of trimming it down to 4000. Then I checked the email, and learned that the request was in fact for a 1500-word piece. Oops. With the assistance of Karin and of editors at the journal, I managed to get it down under 2000 words. maurice Sendak: two Wild Things and Max
  3. “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager” is a revised and expanded version of the blog post by the same name. A journal’s editor read it and asked me to work up a longer version of it. I’ve really enjoyed working on it because it’s more autobiographical than what I usually write, and because it allows me to articulate more fully a vision of why children’s literature matters to people of all ages.
  4. Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat“Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Seuss and Race in the 1950s” continues to trudge along, though is currently stranded by the side of a lonely highway, hoping a tow truck shows up soon. (I’ve written previously about this ill-fated piece.) One reader asked for some revisions. I addressed those. No problem. The other reader said revise and resubmit, and that… has me stumped. On the one hand, I feel that the other reader may miss the point (which, of course, means I need to be clearer). On the other hand, I feel that I am missing the point and am hopelessly out of my depth. I’ve done all I can, and am now turning to others for assistance. Happily, a brilliant scholar and gifted writer has very kindly agreed to take a look and offer some guidance. (Not sure if that person would want to be named in this blog, but if you’re reading this, I’m grateful!  Dinner’s on me at ASA!)
  5. Marie Curie Fellowship. I frankly think I’m a long shot for this. But, Mick Gowar and Zoe Jaques kindly invited me to apply. Thanks to their efforts and the efforts of others at Anglia Ruskin University, it’s submitted. If I get it, it will help fund my sabbatical year and relocate me to England. Note to non-academics: Every seven years, we can apply for a sabbatical: you get either one semester at full pay or a full year at half pay. I’m going for the full year and trying to make up the difference.

Another note to non-academics reading this: I don’t think I get paid for any of the essays. I may receive compensation for the Cambridge Companion piece (I’ve yet to see that contract), but academic publications typically do not pay. At best, you get a copy of the publication.

Also, while I’m calling the above “writing,” there is of course also research involved. Most of this I did myself, though I also employed Shaun Baker to seek articles for me. And I consulted him and Mark Newgarden on the “Children and Comics” piece, since they know comics better than I do. Thanks, Mark and Shaun! And thanks to Michelle Martin and Erica Hateley for sharing unpublished work that I cited in the William Joyce paper. Indeed, thanks to everyone else who has offered ideas or assistance! (As I write these words, I reflect upon how much I’ve learned from others — and, while I strive to acknowledge that in each work, I am also aware that a list of credits would impede readers of this post.)

Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy

Teaching. I choose not teach in the summer, but I do have to plan future classes. Speaking of assistance, I’m grateful to the experts I’ve consulted with questions about the graduate-level African American Children’s Literature course I’m teaching in the Spring of 2014. This is the first time I’ll be teaching this. Some courses we teach because we’re experts; others we teach because we want to become experts. For me, this course is definitely the latter. So, thanks to Gerald Early, Michelle Martin, Kate Capshaw Smith, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for sharing their knowledge.

Kristin Cashore, GracelingThe Fall 2013 courses are both ones that I’ve taught before. I changed some of the books on the Literature for Adolescents class, adding: Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Francisco X. Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, and this year’s “K-State First Book,” Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. The Harry Potter’s Library course remains roughly as it did the last time I taught it (2011). I say “roughly” because this time we’ll actually get to use Pottermore, which was still in beta in the fall of ’11.

Reviewing and editing manuscripts.  As editor for Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture series, I edited four books, reviewed two manuscripts, and responded to five book proposals. I also reviewed a manuscript for a children’s literature journal.

Only one committee meeting!  For an internal grant administered by Kansas State University.  I had to review the grant proposals beforehand, but still — only one meeting is unusual for an academic. I doubt any of my peers had just one committee meeting this summer.

Other writing.  There’s correspondence with editors, authors I’m editing, my agent (who is also a friend), friends, other scholars, students, former students, future students, and people who kindly invite me to come and give talks.  I wrote one letter of recommendation for a colleague applying for a fellowship.  And things I’m forgetting, I’m sure.

Barnaby, Volume 1Barnaby! In May, while visiting friends and family in New England (more on that in a moment), I visited the Ruth Krauss Papers at the University of Connecticut to seek scans of a bonus item we’ll include in Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby Volume Five: 1950-1952 (Fantagraphics, 2017). In Cambridge, I  stopped by Harvard’s archives for some reconnaissance on strips for Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 (coming from Fantagraphics next year). There were several email exchanges on this, and I’m still working to hunt down a few rogue strips. I edited one of the essays that will appear in Volume Two, talked to a journalist or two about Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (published earlier this summer), and am currently in conversation about having a book party in October in NYC. There are other Barnaby-related developments that I’ll wait for Fantagraphics to announce.

Seuss TV. Also during that trip east, I taped an interview on Dr. Seuss with A&E Biography in NYC. I have no idea whether they’ll use the footage, but I had fun doing it.

headless blue musician, AmsterdamYes, I had fun. In May, I attended my twenty-fifth high-school reunion in Connecticut, and visited friends in New York City, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. That was great. In August, I went hiking with family in Switzerland (en route to the conference in Maastricht). While there, I also played with my niece (the subject of the Emily’s Library series). We read stories, played with a jar of buttons, and with Matchbox cars. I pushed her on the swing, and she served me many imaginary breakfasts, warning me each time “Be careful. It’s hot.” I also spent time with Emily’s mommy and daddy, my mother, her second cousin, and my cousin.  In Amsterdam, I also got to hang out with him and his partner.  He (my cousin) and I became reacquainted last summer after a 29-year gap. My family is spread out across the globe, and as we age I appreciate more and more the remaining time we have together.

My friends are also spread out around the planet. Since many are also academics or connected to publishing (comics, children’s books), conferences are not only learning experiences but a chance to catch up with people I care about.

They are of course learning experiences (see previous post), as are all of my travels. I visit museums and bookshops, walk along trails and through city streets, listen to and talk with people. While I sit in planes and trains, I read books, I read book proposals, I edit books, I write emails, and I write whatever the next thing is — the talk, the essay, the book.

It’s a great job, being able to learn and share what you learn. I’m fortunate to have work from which I derive meaning. Heck, part of my job this year was going to Comic-Con. Sure, it wasn’t free — but still!  AND I traveled to five US states and three other countries.*

I love my job.

But I don’t get summers off.

___________________

*  One of those countries and one of those states were strictly personal, not business. But that’s still a fair bit of travel.

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The Edwin Mellen Effect

Edwin Mellen Press

 

It’s Opposites Day at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The headline reads, “Edwin Mellen Press Drops Lawsuit Against University Librarian.”

Chronicle's Misleading Headline

The article reports that Edwin Mellen Press has withdrawn the suit against McMaster University and Dale Askey, BUT Edwin Mellen Press is still suing Dale Askey.  Beyond the fact that the Chronicle should have let its readers know it was celebrating Opposites Day, this development raises several questions about the allegedly scholarly press known as Edwin Mellen Press.

  1. The news release’s internal contradictions are remarkable.  Without any irony whatsoever, Edwin Mellen Press in its press release says that “EMP remains resolute that all have the right to free speech.”  How is suing a librarian for $1 million an affirmation of that principle?  For that matter, how did suing Lingua Franca over its characterization of Edwin Mellen Press uphold “the right to free speech”?  This doesn’t make any sense.  And when you follow that claim about “right to free speech” in the very next sentence with “all have the right to take steps, including legal action, to protect their good names and reputation,” you’re reminding your audience that Edwin Mellen Press launches lawsuits at its critics in order to shut them up.  So, not a very effective piece of rhetoric.
  2. Even before Edwin Mellen Press launched this suit, it did not have a “good reputation.”  As Timothy A. Lepcyzk pointed out at EduHacker, when Edwin Mellen Press launched this suit against Askey, punching the words “Edwin Mellen Press” into Google would elicit the following suggestions: “edwin mellen press quality,” “edwin mellen press review,” “edwin mellen press reputation,” “edwin mellen press vanity,” “edwin mellen press vanity press.”  Edwin Mellen’s news release speaks of “EMP’s good reputation” and of the right to protect that reputation.  However, it didn’t have a good reputation when it filed this suit, and its reputation has only declined since then.
  3. You can’t erase the internet.  When you punch the publisher’s name into Google now, you get these automatic suggestions:  ”edwin mellen press,” “edwin mellen press reputation,” “edwin mellen press review,” and “edwin mellen press vanity.”  Below that, the first hit is the press’s website, but all other hits are other websites, each of which reference the press’s litigious behavior.  There are scores of articles on the Press, and they’re not flattering.  Did it seek to cement its reputation as a litigious bully or further delegitimize its allegation that it’s a “scholarly press” (a claim made in its latest press release)?  If so, then it has succeeded.  If it had other aims, it’s failed.Google: Edwin Mellen Press Vanity
  4. If the press cannot manage its own damage control, what does that say about its publicity department?  If dropping one suit (but not the other) was an attempt to control some of the damage that Edwin Mellen Press has inflicted on itself, it has instead inspired further speculation about its incompetence.  As Rick Anderson notes in his really nice close-reading of the Mellen news release, the publisher’s behavior “is simply bizarre.”
  5. This isn’t over yet.  Sign the petition!  There are currently over 3100 names on the petition.  Let’s keep those numbers rising.
  6. Finally, the Streisand Effect should be renamed the Edwin Mellen Effect. This PR debacle that the press has chosen to inflict upon itself will, I suspect, ultimately result in its undoing.  Its attempts to silence its critics have only amplified those critics’ voices.

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Vanity, Thy Name Is Lawsuit

Edwin Mellen Press

As you may have heard, the Edwin Mellen Press is suing librarian Dale Askey and his employer, McMaster University, for damages in excess of $4 million.

Why?  The suit alleges that Askey is guilty of libel for calling Edwin Mellen Press “a vanity press” and suggesting that it lacks “academic credibility.”  There are several problems with this claim.

  1. In the blog post in question (since removed, but still available via Archive.org), Askey does not call Edwin Mellen Press “a vanity press.”  He acknowledges that “they are not technically a vanity publisher” because they don’t require authors to underwrite the cost of their books.
  2. A serious academic press values academic freedom. It does not (for example) try to silence its critics with a multi-million dollar lawsuit.  A serious academic press builds its reputation on reputable titles.  If Edwin Mellen Press seeks to earn the title of “litigious bully,” filing this lawsuit will aid its cause.  However, if it seeks to improve its reputation, such legal action seems unlikely to further its aims.  As Inside Higher Ed and Academic Librarian have both reported, this is not the first time it has filed a lawsuit to defend its reputation.  The press’s last such lawsuit failed.  (A 1993 article in Lingua Franca called Edwin Mellen “a quasi-vanity press cunningly disguised as an academic publishing house.”)
  3. Making judgments about the quality of scholarship is a professional librarian’s job.  As Leslie Green notes, Askey in a 2010 blog post said “that Mellen was a poor publisher with a weak list of low-quality books, scarcely edited, cheaply produced, but at exorbitant prices.  Librarians are expert at making such judgments; that’s what universities pay them to do.  And the post made a key point about the public interest: ‘in a time when libraries cannot purchase so much of the first-class scholarship, there is simply no reason to support such ventures.’”
  4. Academics do not take threats to academic freedom lightly.  Librarians, Professors, and other academic professionals can advise their libraries not to buy books published by Edwin Mellen Press.  One way to do this would be to ask that, if a library’s vendor has Edwin Mellen Press on a list of books to be purchased automatically, then it should ask that the books of Edwin Mellen Press be removed from this “automatically purchase” arrangement. What it might do instead is, should a faculty member (or, to set the threshold a little higher, several faculty members) recommend a particular book, then the library will purchase it.  But the library will only purchase specific volumes recommended by faculty members — or by a particular number of faculty members. That way, should Edwin Mellen Press publish reputable scholarship (which it does do, on occasion), a library could purchase it.  Edwin Mellen can't spellBut Edwin Mellen could no longer rely upon automatic purchases from libraries.
  5. The Streisand effect.  As in the case of Barbra Streisand’s attempt to remove a photograph of her house from the web, the Edwin Mellen Press’s attempts to silence Dale Askey’s criticism has simply given more publicity to that criticism.  In sum, the more we blog about this and the more it gets report, the more that people will learn about the critique and the behavior of Edwin Mellen Press.  John Dupuis’s post “Publisher hits new low” has collected all of these links, and is adding new ones as Mr. Dupuis becomes aware of them.  UpdateThis point added on 11 Feb. 2013.
  6. I can think of no evidence to contradict Askey’s claim that while “they occasionally publish a worthy title,… so much of what they publish is simply second-class scholarship (and that is being kind in some cases).”  To judge from the comments I’ve seen elsewhere as well as from informal conversations with peers, this view of Edwin Mellen Press is widely held.  As William Pannapacker tweeted in response to the lawsuit against Askey and McMaster,

Heck, the website is so poorly edited that it misspells the institutional affiliation of a professor who endorses it (see image above right).  The word is Massachusetts, not Massachusettes.

What We Can Do to Help

So, for those of us who value academic freedom and feel comfortable speaking up, there are several steps we might take:

  • There is a petition asking Edwin Mellen to drop the lawsuit.  Sign it.
  • Who is paying for Dale Askey’s legal costs?  McMaster has just published a statement affirming their commitment to academic freedom, but Inside Higher Ed notes that Askey is paying for his own legal fees.  Full disclosure: I’ve met Dale Askey before and am a friend of his wife’s. (They both used to work at Kansas State.)  Earlier today, she indicated on my Facebook wall that they were indeed paying for their own legal fees.  Should that still be the case, could someone with knowledge of how these things work please set up a site where we might contribute to cover his legal fees?  Call it the “Dale Askey Legal Defense Fund,” perhaps.  And when you do this, please let me know so that I can add a link, here.  Thank you.
  • Let other concerned people know about it.  Use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and so on.  I’ve been using the #FreeDaleAskey hashtag each time I tweet about it.  Perhaps we might adopt that?  Would be great to see this trending on Twitter.
  • Speaking of legal fees, I wonder if this is the sort of case which someone like Lawrence Lessig might take on?  I realize that Professor Lessig is a busy man, and I have never met him myself.  So, I don’t mean to suggest that he’s obligated to add to what is already a considerable workload, but perhaps he — or someone like him — might take an interest in the case?
  • Contact your professional organization and ask that they address it.  So far, there have been statements from the Canadian Library Association, the Progressive Librarians Guild, McMaster University, the York University Faculty Association, and other faculty associations. UpdateThis point added on 11 Feb. 2013.
  • Other ideas?  Please share them in the comments section.  Thank you.

Update, 11 Feb. 2013: Added point no. 5 and the “Contact your professional organization” point (above).

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Well, at least she published a sort-of correction

dunce cap by Emily KelleyAs you probably already know, Forbes‘ Susan Adams contributed to the professors-don’t-really-work myth in naming “University Professor” the “Least Stressful Job of 2013″ (Forbes, 3 Jan. 2013).  After learning that this is utter nonsense, Ms. Adams did at least have the decency to publish an “addendum,” in which she acknowledges that the survey on which she was reporting “didn’t measure things like hours worked and the stresses that come from trying to get papers published in a competitive environment or writing grants to fund research.”

That’s a start. But I want to refute this “oh, professors have it easy” myth once and for all.

I realize that’s a tall order.  The myth persists in popular culture, aided — in America, at least — by a public that views knowledge with suspicion.  So, I can document how many hours I work (as I did, here and here).  Others can do this sort of thing, too.  We can also speak up when we see alleged journalists spreading this nonsense.  But how much effect are we having?  And while we cannot spend our careers putting out the flames of ignorance each time they ignite, if we don’t do this… the fire spreads.

So, for instance, I’m ostensibly “on vacation” right now (because I’m not teaching), but it took me a few days to respond to this because I was in Boston, attending the Modern Language Association convention and at Harvard gathering materials for my next book.  In the days before the Spring 2013 term begins, I need to finish assembling an American Studies Association proposal, get my syllabi together, get my course packs together, revise an essay and send it out, write an abstract for a summer conference (abstract is due Jan. 15th), send an abstract for a conference at which I’m giving a talk (this is due today), do some Routledge editing (I edit Children’s Literature and Culture series), get plane tickets for the two invited talks I’m giving in March, write at least one of two grants, start working on the Afterword and Notes for Barnaby Vol. 2, and… that’s all I can remember right now.  But I’m sure there are items I’m forgetting.

While I doubt that this brief response will have any discernable effect on the general public’s level of knowledge about what professors do, responding seemed better than letting ignorance go unchecked. If there’s a better way to educate the public about academic labor, I’m open to suggestions.

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Image source: Emily Kelley’s Dunce Cap.

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