ICR2012: Zombies, Climate Change, and the End of the Two Cultures

Just got back from ICR 2012 in Tempe, AZ. Huge thanks to Ron Broglio and Mark Lussier for hosting (and to my friend Michael Gamer for organizing my panel). I made some new friends and had a hell of a time — too much fun, really. If you’re interested, I’ve put the talk I gave up here.

But I wanted to quickly jot down some take-aways. First, climate events had a much larger impact on the Romantic period than I’d understood — perhaps even helping catalyze the French Revolution. Second, in an era of climate worries and Zombie apocalypse obsessions, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man may end up having a larger influence than Frankenstein:

Finally, the marvelous Marilyn Gaull gave a talk on Romantic science that was an inspiring opener. Her main point: that the “two cultures” are never so far apart as they seem. But as I was mulling it over later, I realized that institutionally, it feels like the two culture divide is collapsing. At universities, the humanities and sciences are increasingly fighting a joint rear-guard action against the expansion of professional schools into their curriculum. After mulling this over with some others at the conference, I’m pretty sure this trend isn’t particular to the schools I’ve worked at.

Damning Study of For-Profit Colleges

It is probably a little self-serving for me to criticize for-profit colleges, but the report put out by the Senate’s Health, Labor, and Education committee is withering.  Among the findings:

Well over 50% of the students who begin an associates or bachelor’s degree curriculum withdraw without receiving a degree.

For-profit colleges average a 19.2% profit on their revenue, spend 22.7% of their revenue on marketing, and only 17.2% on instruction.  Notable, the figures for publicly-traded schools were worse than privately held for-profit colleges.

A big driver: Federal aid.

Credit: Paso Robles Winery

In 2009-2010 alone, fully a quarter of Department of Education funding (which only discriminated between colleges on the basis of accreditation) went to for-profit colleges.  For-profit schools, unlike community colleges, have substantial financial aid offices that are adept at matching eligible students with federal student aid. The inquiry had been running for two years now, yielding testimony to extensive fraud and an industry that consistently places profit above education and student outcomes.

For me there are two key take-aways. First, for-profit colleges are profitable because they are serving a huge portion of the underrepresented, economically disadvantaged, and minority students who are eligible for various federal aid programs. It would be tremendously valuable public service if they did this while providing a solid education and finished degrees (and the committee singled out schools like Strayer, Walden, and National American University that are doing just that).

Second, the findings should amplify criticism of the trend to model higher-ed’s administrative structures on corporate governance. For-profit colleges should be seen as a test case for whether market forces and the profit motive can serve the public good more efficiently. The committee has found repeatedly that raises in tuition are considered with a view toward profit rather than the cost of instruction. Right now, the primary service of for-profit colleges is to siphon federal funding to shareholders while burying disadvantaged citizens under mountains of debt.


Student Debt Headlines and the Humanities Degree

The New York Times and the Chronicle have mounted a one-two this week to publicize the problem of student debt (something I’ve posted on previously here and here and here).  In an extensive front-page story from Sunday, the Times lays out the problem from the perspective of undergraduates, and the Chronicle followed up today with an analysis of graduate recipients, particularly Ph.D.s working as adjunct faculty, that need welfare and other public-service benefits to make ends meet.  Both provide extensive analysis; the Times piece in particular leverages an extraordinary amount of statistical support.

The implications of the problem are broad, now that more than half of graduating seniors are going to college.  If college is fast becoming a prerequisite of stable middle-class employment, it seems clear we need policies that provide education without burying the students under a lifetime of debt.  I was fortunate enough to attend a state school on scholarship; many of my colleagues won’t finish paying off their educational loans for a decade or two.

One place where the Times piece suffers is in its analysis of the sources of the problem.   Continue reading

Teaching with Omeka: Presenting the Peries Project

Yesterday the seminar I’ve been teaching at Penn finished their digital project: an online edition of John Leyden’s “Tales of the Peries,” a handwritten manuscript in the archives of the National Library of Scotland. Leyden was a romantic poet as well as close collaborator of Walter Scott’s, before traveling to Southeast Asia as a functionary of the East India Company. Once there, Leyden established himself as an Orientalist and specialist in Asian languages, and the Tales of the Peries is an example from this fruitful period before his early death in 1811.

As part of a larger class on historical fiction, fantasy, and the influence of empire, my students built an Omeka site that includes digital facsimiles of the manuscript, transcriptions using Scripto, a plugin for Omeka, and a “readerly edition” that incorporates their research into editorial practices and critical editions and links to supporting materials and entries in the Omeka collection and on the wiki. In addition, they built a host of supporting materials for the site, from critical evaluations of the Tales, its verse, and the influence of Urdu and Arabic literature, to information about Leyden, his involvement with the EIC, even an animated Flash map that walks the reader through the geography of the tale and details the main transformations of Melech Mahommed, the main character, over the course of the narrative.

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ThatCampPenn 2012

I spent Wednesday on campus at Penn’s inaugural ThatCamp. It was set up by the Penn Library and the Penn Humanities Forum, and showed the promise and possibility of the “unconference” format, particularly when applied to something as tentative and collaborative as the digital humanities.

Amanda French, who came up from house THATCamp at George Mason and the Center for History and New Media. She set precisely the right open, collaborative, free-wheeling tone at the opening session, and it carried through. The thing that struck me most forcefully is that the open formatting creates environments that are extraordinarily friendly to non-specialists. Continue reading

Compounding Educational Debt

To add a quick note to yesterday’s post about the MLA’s statement regarding academic debt, Alex Gourevitch argues that debt has become a central plank not just of the American economy, but of how we organize that economy from the federal level on down. This only emphasizes that reigning in the costs of higher education and student debt demands federal as much as local action. Academia needs to work to make these national, as well as institutional and state-level issues.

(And on an unrelated note, Matt Yglesias suggests that Humanities majors, who it turns out are some of the hardest-working and best prepared students at universities, should probably receive more credit in the society at large. Yawp!)

MLA Statement on Student Debt

I’m glad the MLA Executive Council has issued a formal statement addressing the problem of student debt. Nothing could be more timely. They suggest three main avenues of address: adjusting financial aid to reduce the proportion of loans, holding tuition in check, and decreasing time to degree. I wonder how much impact we can have if we focus on working within departments and even institutions to address these problems; an increasingly competitive job market combined with uncertain job prospects outside academia both serve to increase pressure to stave off graduation and lengthen time on the market and, as a result, increase long-term debt.

More generally, it is at least as important that we broaden our focus beyond the university and even state legislatures. As I mention in a previous post, increases in tuition and an increased reliance on student loans have been shaped by a long-term shift in federal priorities away from direct funding to the state and toward federal subsidy of student loans. This encourages states to spend more money on medical care (which triggers federal matching funds) and less on education, at the same time that slack is taken up by student debt that is federally financed. The net effect is that federal money that used to indirectly subsidize universities through the states is now indirectly subsidizing education through student loans. This hardly seems like an optimal solution

Both the increase in student debt and the increase of the costs of higher education in general put particular pressure on the Humanities. Many of the recommendations advanced by the MLA were put forward last year by Peter Conn (a colleague here at Penn), in a lengthy and detailed editorial for the Chronicle. In addition to making specific recommendations to reduce the number of graduate students enrolled in Ph.D. programs, Peter emphasizes what is perhaps the core challenge, to communicate that the humanities “are not merely ornamental and dispensable. They lie near the heart of mankind’s restless efforts to make sense of the world.” As MLA Pres. Berman notes in a letter that accompanies the MLA’s statement:

[T]he liberal arts celebration of an education not linked to professional preparation has existed alongside the promise that higher education would open the door to a fulfilling career. This gap between the appeal of the liberal arts, on the one hand, and the dismal job market, on the other, persists and puts pressure on the MLA’s mission: promoting the study of language and literature.

I still think that we need concrete ways to define the value of a liberal arts degree in the face of a weak economy. Even our intuitions regarding the economics of the liberal arts are often wrong. To take two examples:

(1) Yale University released a report last year that analyzed the cost of graduate programs and found that graduate students in the humanities were far more expensive that those in the sciences; the net cost of a six-year humanities Ph.D. was $143,000 compared to $17,000 for the natural sciences. At the same time, the calculation only includes the cost of grants, benefits, and teaching fees that are paid to those graduate students — not the course tuition that is paid by the students they teach. In other words, the core financial value that humanities graduate students return to the university, their teaching, was excluded (at the same time that the study subtracted grant money supporting graduate students in the sciences). At a school like Rutgers, where I earned my Ph.D., the number of students we taught over the course of six years was considerable (I estimate I taught approximately 150 students in stand-alone courses, excluding TAships that supported other faculty). Even taking this into account, I’m willing to assume that a humanities graduate student is more expensive that a graduate student in the sciences.

(2) But this imbalance stands in an inverse relationship to the value of undergraduate tuition in both fields. I was talking yesterday to a member of the science faculty who attended a lecture, presented by Penn’s financial team to the science faculty, which explained that tuition for science coursework does not cover the expenses of establishing science labs — which are in fact subsidized by humanities courses. This confirms what I’ve read and heard elsewhere about the cost versus value calculations that universities use for the sciences and humanities. I would even be tempted to link these two observations, by suggesting that the increased cost of humanities graduate students is in part a product of their greater teaching value to the university.

The Value of a Humanities Degree

Inline with my ongoing discussion of the costs of higher education, I’ve noticed a lot of recent discussion that tries to evaluate the value of different college degrees. On the one hand, I think that humanists lose the argument when we try to fix the value of a degree in monetary terms. But as a practical matter, the economic environment and the skyrocketing costs of higher education demand we engage the question.

In an article just published for Bloomberg, Peter Orzag, the Obama administration’s recent director of the OMB, notes that we can expect current economic conditions to depress wages for college graduates as much as ten percent after ten years. Orzag makes a pragmatic case that decreased wages imply we should make a college degree less expensive, particularly at public universities already squeezed by tightened state budgets and higher medical costs. But this also implies that students will be shopping more carefully for degrees regardless of the public vs. private university path they choose. Yesterday, Kevin Drum posted a WSJ chart that purports to break down unemployment rates by profession and degree. Drum highlights the top-paying careers, which are heavy with engineers. But unemployment tells a different story. Engineers seem to be about average, with around 5.1% unemployment. Holders of science degrees fare a little worse, with 5.2% unemployed. It turns out the sector you really want to be in is education — only 4% unemployment. (An engineer might argue that this marginal difference in unemployment is compensated by economic value — their median salary is $78,000 versus $43,500 for teachers.)

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Higher Education and Medicaid Costs

Sarah Kliff has a new post up about the relation between rising Medicaid costs and decreased funding for higher education. Briefly, a drop in federal funding for health services encourages states to reallocate funding for things like universities toward healthcare (particularly because Medicaid spending activates federal matching funds). Per my post the other day, you can see how this leads to a round robin effect: less Federal money at the state level encourages less funding for universities and more student debt, and in turn, more federal outlay on student loan programs. If on top of this, students are working in part to secure private healthcare, any impact that Federal legislation has on access and affordability of healthcare in the short term should help relieve financial pressure on student families. And in the long term, student access to a single payer public health plan would probably help reduce financial burdens all around (for state healthcare budgets, for universities, and for the students themselves).

Yesterday we observed a 99-minute work stoppage in support of Occupy Philly and the Occupy Wallstreet movement. One of the questions that emerged was how to encourage Penn to increase its activity in the movement. It seems to me that, given the vast amount of expertise that Penn students and faculty have to offer, one thing we might be able to do would be to draw connections like these. If there is enough discussion in public forums, I’d expect some of it to filter into the national conversation about OWS and the 99%.

Growth in University Cost Relative to the 99%

In continuing with the line of thought from my previous post on the factors that affect economic and ethnic diversity at Universities, there are three sets of statistics that have come out recently, highlighted by Matt Yglesias, Matthew Levitt, Brad Plumer and others, that paint a pretty ugly picture about wealth and education in the US. First, we have the CBO study that showed the widening gap in earnings between the “Top 1%” and all other wage earners. Then we have the continued exponential increase of college costs, and the declining value of a college degree in terms of wages. (I’ve pulled the earnings data from the CBO study, tuition information from the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center, and wages from the National Center for Education Statistics):

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