Friday, March 27, 2009

Presentation at the '09 Gulf-South Summit

This afternoon, I gave a short presentation at the 2009 Gulf-South Summit, a conference on Service-Learning and Civic Engagement through Higher Education, in Baton Rouge. The title of my presentation was: "Service-Learning as a Vehicle for Transforming Academic Cultures and Course Instruction: Bringing Politics Back In"

I think the presentation was well-received on the whole, but it did generate some critical commentary. The basic thesis of my talk was that the mission of higher education has evolved away from creating engaged citizens concerned about placing knowledge in the service of the public good in favor of training civically-disengaged, though highly-skilled, private professionals. I lament this de-politicization of the academy and suggest that administrators, faculty, and students work together to recapture and revive that mission -- and that the growing importance of service-learning in the academy represents an opportunity to do just that. My presentation simply articulates some percolating thoughts and is not researched in any "scientific" way, so take it more as an anecdotal reflection coming out of my experience as a committed service-learning instructor who not only tries to teach students about civic engagement, but who has also tried to explain to faculty colleagues the value of service-learning as pedagogy. What follows below are my presentation notes. Please feel free to comment on them and to critique them. I'd appreciate whatever input you might have.

Service-Learning as a Vehicle for Transforming Academic Cultures and Course Instruction: Bringing Politics Back In

What brought me to this topic was a growing realization during my years of involvement with service-learning in higher education of two somewhat troubling truths:

1) Students are mostly ignorant of what I called "applied civics."
2) Faculty are hesitant to see their work as part of civic education and tend to shy away from embracing as part of their jobs the role of crafting engaged citizens out of their students.

As I began to ponder these realizations, I began to wonder why this was so and I started to think that perhaps the root of this reality was located in our current academic culture. And if this were so, then I reasoned that this was a culture that I thought needed to be transformed. Hence the title of my presentation. But this title begs the question: What is the academic culture that needs transformation? For me, the answer is manifold, but I settled on five of what I thought were the most salient characteristics of our current academic culture that seemed to stand out to me. They are the following:

1) Our current academic culture is one that divorces knowledge from public life.
2) As a corollary to this point, our current academic culture is a culture that privileges knowledge as serving the professional and private life.
3) Our current academic culture is also one that confines knowledge within specializations and disciplinary silos; and this tends to discourage the process of making knowledge relevant, digestible, and usable to non-specialists.
4) Our current acacemic culture is one that conflates and confuses politics with ideology/partisanship, and demands that educators sacrifice the former so as not to be tarred and feathered with seeming to promote the latter.
5) Our current academic culture is one that sees students first and foremost as consumers and education first and foremost as a consumption commodity.

What is lamentable about this is that what I see as our current academic culture is a relatively recent creation. Education in the United States wasn't always this way. In fact, up until the late 1960s and early 1970s, education and curricula – and particularly higher education and university/college curricula – were designed intentionally and specifically to craft and mold engaged citizens through the acquisition of knowledge AND its direct application to public life. This is not to say that the kind of citizen that was valued in the halls of the academy prior to this moment in history is one that reflects an "ideal" citizen, but simply that administrators, teachers, and students were more conscious of and attentive to the civic dimensions of education.

Let me provide a brief example of what I mean here. The most frequent question I get from undergraduate and graduate students today about their college education is not: “How will I be better able to serve my community and be a more informed and active citizen?” but rather “What kind of job can I get with my education once I finish with college?” And I hear equally as much from faculty that their purpose is not simply to impart knowledge and encourage critical thinking, but how can I or my department improve our job placement statistics for our graduates. I hardly ever hear my faculty colleagues say (except occasionally in some kind of abstract and detached way) that their purpose as educators is to create engaged citizens who will apply the knowledge they gain from their academic experiences to public life.

How did we get to this point? Well, at least in the United States, I think in many ways it came out of a unique confluence of environmental factors during the specific historical period of the late 1960s and early 1970s that included:

1) A weariness with the socio-cultural conflicts of the 1960s between a civically-minded (and perhaps radicalized) academy and the entrenched forces of a recalcitrant state and a somewhat scornful private sector;
2) General disillusionment with public life and the seeming futility of civic engagement that came with the collapse of public trust in, and respect for, political life and public institutions in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal; and
3) An ascendent technocratic revolution of social, political, and economic life that promoted the professionalization and depoliticization of public sector and private sector work.

In essence, we in the world of higher education (faculty, students, and administrators alike) retreated into the safety and comfort of either the cold, hard rationalism of "scientific" inquiry across the disciplinary spectrum or the disconnectedness and, in my view at least, surrealism of post-modernism –- in either case, an escape from the public realm and the means of distancing the academy from its mission to cultivate in its students the idea that their education should be directed towards public life and civic engagement, or simply that public life and civic engagement even mattered (in a word: apathy). We went from the conception of higher education as a means to serve the public good by creating social capital in a knowledgable and engaged citizenry to a place where the civic and community purposes of education took a back seat to the creation of competent, specialized, and apolitical individuals.

In practical terms, what became the standard operating procedure in classrooms was to assiduously avoid the tensions of politics (and I don't mean here partisanship or ideology) as part of the academic experience in the classroom. Engagement with and debate over hot topic issues was tolerated so long as it was “sanitized” and cleansed of even the hint of discussions of “right” or “wrong.” Given that my own academic training is shaped by this environment, even I, who have come to think of applied civics as an essential part of any course goal, still find myself continuing to tip-toe around the tension and messiness of the conflicts that come with awakening a sense of civic purpose to academic work among my students. I always feel the need to temper what some might refer to as intellectual conflict over polemical issues of everyday life by trying to tamp down passions, even well-informed and adequately-contained passions, in the search for “neutrality” and “balance” in debate and discussion. That's not to say that political and civic life don't come up in classrooms; but I find that when they do come up, the tendency is to tackle them in terms of process and theory. In other words, "how" political life and civic engagement work (process) and some suggestions as to "why" they work the way they do (theory); but usually not whether they work well (because that gets into the realm of "subjective" judgment), and certainly not what our individual roles might be in making them work well according to what we value and hold dear (because that makes it personal).

This is where we are now. But it is not where we have to stay. We can, and should, without compromising the “science” of knowledge creation and dissemination, try to reclaim for the academy as its primary purpose and mission, the training of students, and even the production of knowledge through our own research, with a much clearer eye towards advancing the public good and towards cultivating engaged citizens.

Service-learning as part of an academic curriculum, if done properly, represents an opportunity to achieve this transformation of the academic culture. Service-learning can be the perfect vehicle for this process. It is certainly a natural bridge that can connect the specialization of knowledge and the depoliticized and professionalized curriculum that guides our current academic environment to public life and civic engagement.

How can service-learning transform our academic culture and course instruction and bring politics, in the best sense of that term, back into the classrooms of the academy, without falling into the trap of advancing partisanship or ideology?

1. Many scholars have argued persuasively that service-learning can and should demand that faculty and administrators learn about and teach about applied civics as an integral part of the overall university or college curriculum and as an integral part of any course content. I agree with this argument. The simple effort of designing a service-learning course provides a golden opportunity for faculty not only to learn about and teach "applied civics" directly, but also to reconsider and reconfigure the content of their courses as it relates to applied civics.
2. I would also take a page from Harry Boyte's conceptualization of "everyday politics" to augment the applied civics foundations of an effective curriculum and argue that service learning courses should require that students and faculty think of their roles and lives as students and faculty as connected to this notion of “everyday politics” -- in other words, that the academy (and what goes on in the academy) is part and parcel of civic engagement and public life. It’s what we do every day, so why shouldn’t that experience factor into our approach towards public life. In other words, we don’t need to abandon our identities and roles as students and educators when we engage in community service and public life, nor do we leave the tension and messiness of civic engagement behind us when we enter the campus; but rather we make each relevant to the other. Civic engagement shapes learning and teaching, and learning and teaching shape civic engagement.
3. Service-learning courses, especially, should be spaces where cognitive dissonance and conflict regarding public life and community service can have the opportunity to find expression without being overly or unduly constrained or subverted by the apoliticization of knowledge creation, dissemination, and application. Service-learning courses are an opportunity for teachers and students alike to question the course content critically and politically (i.e. as it relates to the public good and civic life) in a way that reflects everyday life.
So there you have it. My presentation notes. Of course, I went off script a good bit during my presentation, but I stuck pretty much to this outline. Anyway ... just thought I'd share. If you feel so inclined to leave a comment or share your own toughts/reactions, I'd be grateful and appreciative.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Family Values

Have you ever noticed how rightwing conservatives tout the notion of "family values" as if only conservatives could ever hold them and abide by them? As if conservatism = family values and liberalism = anti-family values? It's all part and parcel of a pattern of conservative self-righteousness that seeks to take basic human decency, not to mention concepts of love, charity, honor, commitment, loyalty, dignity, hard-work, compassion, etc., and to claim some kind of proprietary ownership over these kinds of values.

Well, I have this to say: family values are not ideological.

I refuse to let self-righteous conservatives claim ownership of the basic human values that many, many, many liberals quietly and happily live by. Good, decent human beings can live by these values of decency, compassion, tolerance, understanding, charity, love, etc., regardless of their political ideology.

And to those special, outspoken, and judgmental "family-values" conservatives who have defiled their own marriage vows by cheating on their spouses, who have sought the comforts of sexual intimacy in brothels, who have themselves defended the institution of marriage by getting divorced, who have spent long hours at the office making tons of money all the while missing out on the family dinner together, who have never been to their kids' parent-teacher conferences, and who are generally just too busy to do anything with their kids, etc., I say:

Kiss my happily-married, never-divorced, completely-faithful, parent-teacher-conference-attending, elementary-school-volunteering, weekend-birthday-party-chauffeuring, regular-family-dinner-time-attending, family-values-living, LIBERAL arse!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Random NOLA

Here is my next addition to Random NOLA, which is a blog posting category that features a photo that I've taken from places around the city of New Orleans that make up a part of my day. They won't be pre-arranged. And I'm going to try to make them pictures of inconspicious scenes, but potentially identifiable to the attentive native. In other words, don't expect to find pictures of the Superdome or the St. Louis Cathedral or other such easily identifiable places. Where possible, I'll also try to keep street signs out of the picture, too. The goal is not only just to share a brief, random part of the path of my day, but also to see if true NOLA-philes can figure out exactly where in the city this scene is located. So, without further ado, here's the next "Random NOLA" Photo. Click on the picture to enlarge it. Give it your best shot and put your guess in the comments section:

March Madness

And, no, I don't mean the College Basketball kind of "March Madness."

No, what I mean is that thing I usually experience at work during the month of March. March is perhaps my busiest time of the year. In addition to my regular courses, I have lots and lots of very important administrative tasks that I must tend to. There's the whole graduate admissions process, where I coordinate all of the applications to our graduate program, coordinate our admissions committee meeting, and then parcel out the admissions decisions to our applicants. There are our summer grant programs, whose deadlines all arrive in March. There are three such programs and I coordinate the applications for all of them, arrange the committee meetings for all of them, and inform applicants of our decisions for all of them. And March (also leading into April) are the months of Conference Attendance and paper presentations. I have one paper to present at a National Conference at the end of March, and another one in April. The April Conference is one that my office is actually hosting and for which I am serving as the Local Arrangements Chair, since it is taking place in New Orleans. And we're talking about a Conference that attracts 150 or so attendees from all across the Southeastern United States. And then there are the undergraduate and graduate thesis defenses. On top of it all, I have committed to a pretty major role in the Spring production of my daughter's ballet dance company. (Yes, yes, I do a little bit of dancing myself, but mostly stage acting, so don't get too worked up about it.) And this means that my Saturday afternoons are pretty much eaten up by rehearsals. So, I am a bit crazy and generally tired during this one month out of the year.

All this is to say why I haven't been so attentive to the blog lately. But I try. I do try.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Open to Competition?

Ever notice how some pro-market conservatives aren't really all that open to competition when such competition threatens entrenched business interests? I've noticed. For example, take an article written by AP correspondent Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar which discusses the impact of Obama's idea for giving consumers another choice in the health care market -- this time a choice of government run health care like the kind that our elected federal representatives get at taxpayer expense.

It seems that Obama's plan would not only give consumers more health care choice, but would actually reduce the costs of health care premiums to consumers by 20% -- all simply by giving the consumer MORE CHOICE. Isn't that what conservatives always tell us? Here's Alonso-Zaldivar:

The proposal, which Obama advocated in his presidential campaign, would for the first time offer government-sponsored coverage to middle class families, as an alternative to private health plans. By some estimates, it could reduce premiums by 20 percent or more — making it much more affordable to cover the estimated 48 million people who don't have health coverage.

But insurers fear competition from a government plan could drive them out of business, and Republicans worry it would lead to a government takeover of health care. Liberals, meanwhile, are equally adamant that Americans deserve the choice of government-sponsored health care.

Such a plan could be similar to what seniors have in Medicare, which is government run. Or it might be designed like the federal employee health plan, available to members of Congress, and delivered through private insurers.
How is it, if the government is so inefficient, that a government-run plan could drive insurers out of business? Especially if consumers will always have choice between the public versus the private plans. Let me put it like this: if I don't like the restrictions or limitations that come with the government plan, then I can always choose the private plan, even if it costs a little bit more. Just like I can always send a package through UPS if I am dissatisfied with the US Postal Service.

When it comes to Social Security, I often hear conservatives advocate for allowing individuals the right to choose to invest in a private retirement account, arguing that citizens should have a choice to invest their own income either in the publicly-run retirement program (Social Security) or private ones. The argument has always been that more choice is better for consumers; and, in fact, the assumption is that private retirement investment companies would be much more competitive and attractive to consumers. When private companies think they can gain market share from the government, they and their conservative advocates ALWAYS argue for more consumer choice and freedom. But when private companies think they stand to lose market share from government competition, they and their conservative advocates ALWAYS seem to moan and groan about the unfairness and injustice of the principle of more consumer choice. If consumers were to be FORCED to buy the government plan, then maybe their gripes would have some merit. But that's not what's happening, and so conservative complaints fall flat and seem ... well ... un-conservative.

So, my challenge for conservatives is this: live up to your principles. If insurers can't compete, then they SHOULD go out of business. And if they are faced with a government-run program that is cheaper and preferred by consumers, then the creative private insurers WILL find ways to compete to regain market share. And that can only be good for consumers, right?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Random NOLA

Here is my next addition to Random NOLA, which is a blog posting category that features a photo that I've taken from places around the city of New Orleans that make up a part of my day. They won't be pre-arranged. And I'm going to try to make them pictures of inconspicious scenes, but potentially identifiable to the attentive native. In other words, don't expect to find pictures of the Superdome or the St. Louis Cathedral or other such easily identifiable places. Where possible, I'll also try to keep street signs out of the picture, too. The goal is not only just to share a brief, random part of the path of my day, but also to see if true NOLA-philes can figure out exactly where in the city this scene is located. So, without further ado, here's the next "Random NOLA" Photo. Click on the picture to enlarge it. Give it your best shot and put your guess in the comments section:

James Perry, Alcalde de Nueva Orleans

Este chavo es justo. Translation: This dude is righteous! I'm liking Perry more and more every day. You should be, too.

Anh "Joseph" Cao: Resume of a Democrat, Part IV


Monday, March 02, 2009

Dunceball: Obama vs. Limbaugh

The more I think about the whole situation involving Barack Obama's criticizing Rush Limbaugh publicly and then Rush Limbaugh's bombastic and long-winded speech to the fawning militants at CPAC, all followed by RNC leader Michael Steele's having to recant his criticism of Limbaugh and grovel for forgiveness at the feet of the Great Leader, the more I realize how utterly shrewd a politician Barack Obama really is.

Here we have Barack Obama, who is proposing a budget that is so bold and costly that it gives even me the jitters, utterly decimating whatever conservative opposition to his agenda might be mustered by throwing into complete disarray the conservative establishment and making it all look like it's the conservatives themselves imploding. And how does Obama do this? All he did was plant the seed that Rush Limbaugh is the de facto leader of the conservative movement in opposition to the GOP's nominal leadership. Then he simply backed up and watched Limbaugh take the bait, rise to the occasion at CPAC, while the GOP leadership cowered and wilted.

The GOP comes across as completely emasculated and the only thing left on the pile of rubble is a bombastic entertainer whose self-indulgent and arrogant nature is basically a turn-off to anyone except rabid, bully-ish, and fight-picking rightwingers. I, myself, wasn't clued into the genius of Obama's move until I started reading what conservatives are saying to and about each other in this whole scenario.

Andrew Sullivan has a great rundown of what he calls the "Rush War." Andrew Sullivan's conservative colleague at The Atlantic, Ross Douthat, had this to say:

But if you accept the parallel [of Limbaugh] with Oprah, then you also need to recognize that if American liberals treated someone like Ms. Winfrey the way the adoring CPAC-goers treated Rush - not just as a great communicator and entertainer, but as an arbiter of what their movement is and ought to be, and what their party should be standing for - they'd look like starstruck fools. And rightly so.
My favorite, though, is conservative pundit David Frum who wrote this scathing assessment of Rush-mania:
And for the leader of the Republicans? A man [Rush Limbaugh] who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as “losers.” With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence – exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we’re cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush’s every rancorous word – we’ll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time.

Rush knows what he is doing. The worse conservatives do, the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined.

But do the rest of us understand what we are doing to ourselves by accepting this leadership? Rush is to the Republicanism of the 2000s what Jesse Jackson was to the Democratic party in the 1980s. He plays an important role in our coalition, and of course he and his supporters have to be treated with respect. But he cannot be allowed to be the public face of the enterprise – and we have to find ways of assuring the public that he is just one Republican voice among many, and very far from the most important.
It is a thing of beauty to see conservatives implode and to see Rush be the catalyst for this implosion.

Worse for conservatives and for the GOP is the fact that they finally did something smart by selecting Michael Steele to be head of the RNC, but that this whole Rush thing has made Steele not only look incompetent and servile to El Rushbo, but it has completely undermined the meaning of Steele as the first black Chairman of the RNC. Now, Steele seems like nothing more than a token figurehead of the GOP who has to bow down to Rush as if Rush were the white master and Steele the black servant. That's a shame, because Steele was such an inspired choice for the GOP. And now Rush has gone and ruined it. And when you think of how Limbaugh reacted to criticism of another Republican-of-color, Bobby Jindal, in the face of Jindal's atrocious speech responding to Obama's address to Congress, you realize how patronizing Rush is towards both Jindal and those conservatives who would criticize Jindal's speech. Rush's condescending and patronizing attitude towards the GOP's shining leaders of color just reinforces the worst of racial stereotyping that is often associated with conservatives and the Republican party.

And it is pure genius for Obama to know that he could count on Rush's massive ego to play his part in this whole affair and, as Frum said, "cooperate" in such an endeavor thought up by Obama and the Democrats -- an endeavor that would only help to dig the grave deeper and push the GOP even farther towards irrelevance, all at the moment when the GOP is the only thing standing in the way of Obama's bold initiative to reshape government and politics along liberal lines in a way not seen since the days of FDR and the New Deal.

One ends up thinking that Obama and the Democratic Party he leads are playing conservatives and the GOP for fools, and that all of them, El Rushbo included, are happy to play the part, albeit unwittingly. One can't help but think the following about Rush and the GOP: "What dunces!"

As a liberal, I find it quite enjoyable to observe this whole thing. But I can only imagine what sensible conservatives must be thinking. They've got to be pulling out their hair. Though that, too, is an image that I have to admit amuses me just as much.