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Time to re-tire?

In one sense, the answer is a definite 10-4, good buddy. We started BloggEd one year ago, and for that year it has concentrated the collective mind wonderfully, both prompting and providing a forum for thoughts on all things higher ed. But posts have noticeably slowed, suggesting that we have pretty much said our piece on the subject. If you want to hear our thoughts on other subjects, I’ve migrated my random thoughts on this and that over to benyagoda.com; Maria is blogging about makeup; and Lizy has a major Facebook presence. As for Gigi, you’ll probably have to knock on her office door.

In any case, thank you very much for listening and for your comments.

In the other sense, the answer is harder to supply. The other sense is really retiring, as in from my job as a professor of English at the University of Delaware. Just so you know where I’m coming from, I am 56 years old (“at the moment,” as John Travolta so memorably put it in “Saturday Night Fever”), and I just completed my eighteenth year on the job. This idea has actually been brewing for some time, as I know from a piece of legal notepad paper I have tacked up on my office bulletin board. I must have written it in 2005, because I have scrawled a year-by-year schedule of when I will be teaching, take sabbatical, take retirement sabbatical, and then take me leave, which I wrote down as, um, now.

When I mention this idea to Gigi and selected friends and colleagues, they usually say something along the lines of, “Why would you do something so dumb? This is a job that pays you well, that you basically believe in and enjoy, with colleagues that you like and institutional support (from paper clips to computer assistance to a nice title to a library and gym), that does not—to put it mildly—make excessive demands on your time. Huh?”

Part of the answer is suggested by the aforementioned “retirement leave.” The U of Delaware offers retiring faculty, if not a golden handshake, then certainly a silver one, including a semester off with pay in one’s last year. Plus full health and other benefits after retirement and a cash payment (2.5 percent of annual salary times the number of years in service). In general, the financial side of such a decision is akin to the old joke about the two school teachers in Minsk (or is it Pinsk).

First school teacher: “If I were as rich as Rothschild, I would be richer than Rothschild.”

Second teacher: “Why is that?”

First teacher: “I’d have my teacher’s salary on the side.”

In my case, I would be losing my teacher’s salary, but I would have my income from writing (which I was doing full time when I started this job), plus the savings that U. of Delaware thankfully encouraged me to accumulate, etc., plus Social Security when and if it comes, etc., plus my wife’s salary (her planned retirement date is never–does never work for you?), etc., plus the envisioned end of mortgage and college tuition payments, etc., etc., etc.

But money’s only one factor here. Coming back from sabbatical this past spring semester, I had one of my worst experiences in the classroom. It was a perfect storm. It was the Introduction to Newswriting class, always one of the most challenging; the first two sessions were cancelled due to snow, which put us behind from the start. The class met at late afternoon, it was black as night outside in February, and the energy level from students was zero or less. They didn’t talk and more of them than ever before brought and stared into laptops. I was a little off my game, maybe in part because the well-publicized troubles of the journalism business have made me question the value of the inverted pyramid and other verities presumed to be eternal.

Whatever the reason, I developed and then couldn’t shake the feeling that I was teaching a remedial class. I would throw out a concept or a current-events happening that I would have thought would be familiar to most or all. No reaction. I would carefully and slowly explain it. Then if the concept—libel, say, or news aggegator—came up again later in the class or in a subsequent one, I would ask if anyone could define it. If I was lucky, one student would do so. Then I would say, “Gooooooood.”

Simply put, it was not the way I would choose to spend my time in the best of all possible worlds. Hippocratically, I was doing no harm—but I didn’t feel like I was doing much good, either. It was not horrible; I am not bemoaning my fate. It was just not the way I would choose to spend my time. Throw in correcting papers and going to faculty meetings. And, I began to think, if I had the option to spend my time differently—to devote it all to writing, traveling, seeing friends, pursuing interests of all different kinds—why shouldn’t I?

Then summer came.  I had a great experience teaching a study-abroad program in Italy—it was good academically, but kind of amazing in the way spending a month in the town of Cortona seemed to be a transformational experience for the students (“transformational” being a buzz word for our provost, which I had never thought much about before). I also reflected on a great group of journalism students who graduated in May. Four in particular: the most talented creative non-fiction writer I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, whose memoir I am hugely looking forward to reading; someone who blossomed from a shy young woman to a hard-driving reporter, and has been hired by a mid-sized daily in this “dying” industry; another greatly talented young woman who’s taking on Manhattan and snagged a job with one of the top magazines in the country; and a fourth person who has combines first-rate writing and reporting ability with an inquisitive and searching mind, and is starting out on the bottom rung (soon to climb up) in the blogosphere.

As the memory of that terrible spring class recedes, I think more about the gratification and inspiration I got from working with that group. And maybe it’s Charlie Brown and the football, but I have also been thinking of ways I can improve that Intro to Newswriting class. Plus, I miss my colleagues.

So I am re-upping. For now.

Take care.

—Ben

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Study abroad revisited

My room with a view

Some time ago I wrote a post about leading study abroad programs called “My Semi-Corrupt Bargain.” I’m unable to search out the link for it because my internet connection is spotty, and my internet connection is spotty because once again I’m leading a study abroad program in Cortona, Italy, teaching two courses: “English and American Writers in Italy” and “Travel Writing.”

This is the most beautiful place I have ever had the pleasure of living, beautifuller, certainly, than New Rochelle, N.Y.; New Haven, CT; New York City; Hopewell, N.J.; Philadelphia; or Swarthmore PA—that’s the full roster. Internet willing, you’re looking at the view from the window out of which I will look right after typing this period. (For a more extensive view of Cortona, see the film “Under the Tuscan Sun,” which was largely shot here but otherwise bears no relation to reality.)

I hope I’m not being seduced by all this beauty when I say I’ve revised my assessment: now I think the bargain is only one-quarter corrupt.

In the earlier post, I expressed two misgivings, specifically relating to the five-week summer and winter sessions programs that I’ve participated in and that are popular at my school, the U. of Delaware. First, study abroad (like unpaid internships, which I’ve also posted about) is a great opportunity that less-well-off students pretty much get shut out of. Their financial aid packages don’t extend to program costs, and, for the most part, they can’t really justify taking out even more loans to fly off to Italy.

Second, UD requires that faculty offer and students take two classes during the session, and I argued that in one of these sessions, which are geared to a broad range of students, and in which students will naturally spend a fair amount of time traveling and doing other kinds of life-experiencing, you can’t really teach two whole courses worth of material. The “corrupt” part is that faculty—and by that I mean me—don’t make such objections out loud, because being paid for two courses is better than being paid for one course.

I’m still not happy about the de facto class discrimination in the program; I’m also not sure what can be done about it. But based on a comment by Gigi, I’ve come around on the pedogical issue. This is just an amazing experience for these students, some of whom have never been out of the country before. So far they have seen Rome and Florence; tomorrow we go to Venice for the weekend, and we have trips planned to the hill towns of Pienza and Montepulciano, and to Siena, for the centuries-old Palio horse race. Even better than that, they have come to think of this amazing town as home, absorbing its rhythms and some of its customs and culture.

Their youthfulness and cheerfulness is a kind of passport, and they have made friends, or at least the acquaintance of, an impressive variety of expats and natives. Through one of them, they’ve made their way to the commercial bakery that, between 1 and 6 AM every day, bakes the bread for Cortona’s restaurants and groceries. I get the sense that when they arrive at this place, they knock on the door and give the password, and are handed some warm pane, straight out of the oven.

Surely that’s worth a couple of course credits right there.

–Ben

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Great Op-Ed piece in the NY Times about a time, not so long ago, when Bell Labs actually paid its executives to repair to the University of Pennsylvania campus to study James Joyce, and be lectured to by “the poets W. H. Auden and Delmore Schwartz, the Princeton literary critic R. P. Blackmur, the architectural historian Lewis Mumford, the composer Virgil Thomson,” and others.

The reason: to broaden their intellectual outlooks.

The author, my friend Wes Davis, reports that the program was halted in 1960, eight years after it started:

Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities.

Nice try while it lasted.

—Ben

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Bob Picardo, class of '75

My reunion has came and went. What a time it was. Too bad it happened in May rather than April, the month that T.S. Eliot described as “mixing memory and desire.” Maybe we needed that extra month, because the reunion contained many more emotions besides just M and D: there was nostalgia, fellowship, a little learning, inspiration, melancholy, a lot of laughter and some tears, all packed into (for me) just under 48 hours on site.

I think I attended my fifth, twentieth, twenty-fifth and now thirty-fifth reunions. (There may have been a fifteenth thrown in there, but the blending-together factor makes it hard to know for sure.) I have a handful of good friends from college days, but they usually don’t even come to the reunions. So I spend most of my time talking to people I see only at reunions. That’s 5-10 minutes of conversation every 5-10 years. I am very happy to (briefly) catch up with these people, but the whole thing is a like a strange science fiction novel, where aging happens in fast motion. One second the guy has a full head of hair and is sowing wild oats; the next, gray hairs, “or none, or few,” hang from his head, he’s recovering from heart surgery, and his kids are in their twenties, embarking on interesting careers (or not). Sheesh.

One thing I did more this time than ever before was meet a bunch of classmates for the first time. That relates to the reason I attended this reunion. My class has a lively e-mail listserv, ably albeit unofficially moderated by erstwhile class secretary Art Greenwald. The diverse discussions in this forum, ranging from taste in comedy to the cost of college (see below) are almost always interesting, sometimes informative, and often entertaining. (I except the political talk, which is often blustery and which I tend to DWR—delete without reading.)

There are probably half a hundred regular participants, and while some I knew back in college, like John Levine, Mark Peters and Diana Hamlet-Cox, there are quite a few I did not. I came the reunion specifically so as to meet (to name just a few) Rob and Cynthia Tauxe, Mike Greenwald, Paul Miller (TD), Hunt Helm, Tommy Bourgeois, Joan Berliner Spear, Garth Dickey, and Peter Bubriskie.

They did not disappoint! Convivial and interesting souls all—and it was interesting to note the slight variations between their personae on the screen and in the flesh.

Mr. Bourgeois, a New Orleans native, is head of standards and practices for CBS—or, as I think of it, he gets to decide who is allowed to say “sucks” on TV. But his passion is music, and he helped put together the second most memorable event of the reunion, a cabaret concert featuring performances by the incredibly talented members of our class. The highlights were too many to list, but I can’t not mention Art Greenwald’s George Burnsesque rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” Sally Sanford’s utterly charming Cole Porter medley, Jane Peppler’s very cool Yiddish song stylings, and Star Trek’s Bob Picardo’s amazing song parody, “I Hate You Babe,” a divorce kiss-off song which he sang as both Sonny AND Cher. This was a performance for the ages.

The most memorable event of the weekend was a memorial tribute to the classmates who had died in the five short years since the last reunion. There were I believe thirteen, a number that gives one pause. I did not know any of these souls; I only recognized a few of their names. But as their friends stood up and gave brief, heartfelt, incredibly moving reminiscences and appreciations, I felt that I was meeting and getting to know them a little bit, just like my listserv friends.

Next reunion: Gigi’s for the Somerset (Mass.) High School class of 19 mumble-mumble. Can’t wait!

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U. of Delaware's state-of-the-art Visitors' Center

I belong to a Yale class of ’75 listserv, and recently, in addition to planning for our 35th reunion (starts the day after tomorrow!), there has been a lively discussion about the seemingly shocking rise in the cost of college: a year at Yale cost about $5,000 in our day, and $50,000 now. Since I have papers to grade and there is no better motivation than procrastination, I offer some comments on the subject—with the understanding that they are purely based on personal experience and observation, not on any knowledge of the economics of higher ed, the economics of pricing, or the economics of anything. So here they randomly are.

1.  My personal inflationary landmarks (aka the things whose prices I remember and are basically the same product over time) are the newsstand price of the New York Times (ten cents in 1971; $2 now) and the price of a ride on the N.Y. subway (thirty cents in ’71; $2 now). So the change in the cost of a year at Yale ($5,000-$50,000) is roughly in keeping  with those commodities.

2. At Yale (which Maria attends), Swarthmore (where Gigi works), the U. of Delaware (where I work), and Vassar (from which Lizy just graduated), and presumably most other major colleges and universities, if you divide the annual cost of running the school and educating the students by the number of students, you come up with a figure that is more, and in some cases far more, than the sticker price of tuition (much less the amount that the average student actually pays, once financial aid is factored in). At Yale and Swarthmore, my sense is that tuition accounts for something in the area of half the cost, with the rest coming from endowment income. At Delaware, which gets funding from the state (though it isn’t technically a state school), tuition accounts for roughly 40 percent of the budget. The relevance of this is that even if costs were substantially reduced (athletic programs cut, professors made to teach five classes year-round, tenure eliminated, thermostats set at 65 in the winter, etc.), tuition still wouldn’t cover them, so tuition would not go down.

3. When I chat with my Delaware students, I often ask them why they chose to come here. The most common answer (often eerily expressed in exactly the same words) is, “I fell in love with the campus.” That makes sense. It was a nice setting to begin with, but in the eighteen years I’ve been teaching there the place has been transformed, with a lot of new buildings, extensive renovations to all the old buildings, and every cement sidewalk torn up and replaced with a brick path. From looking at dozens of colleges with my two children, I know that UD is not alone in spending so much on physical plant. The centerpiece of virtually every tour we took was the “state of the art” gym (a state-of-the-art library was rarely on display). My sense is that all colleges, even the Yales and Swarthmores, realize they are in a battle for students with their peer institutions, and amenities and the appearance of luxury is one of the most important things they can sell, if not the most important. This has nothing to do with education, obviously, and it costs a lot of money, also obviously.

4. When we went to my daughter Lizy’s graduation over the weekend, we were very gratified to bring with us my 95-year-old mother-in-law, Marge Simeone. She is in fine fettle, but isn’t quite as nimble as she used to be, so we rented a wheelchair for her. On graduation day, the second—and I mean the second—we got to the outdoor amphitheatre where commencement was to take place, we were greeted by a friendly, extremely competent woman wearing a nametag stating her name and “Office of Disability Affairs” (or words to that effect). She very clearly explained all the options for seating, and access to and exit from same, and made it clear that she and her colleagues would do everything they could to make sure we comfortably enjoyed the ceremonies.

My reason for sharing this touching anecdote? The friendly woman was part of the administrative superstructure some of you have alluded to and which, indeed, has relatively recently sprung up and multiplied at U.S. colleges. So, in fact, is Gigi. She and her half-time assistant spend their time helping Swarthmore students (and alumni) get into medical school and law school. None of these jobs existed thirty-five years ago, and they cost a lot of money to staff and run. Should they be gotten rid of?

One of my Yale classmates, Chris Edwards, talked about the sort of nanny-state RA system he experienced when he fairly recently went to BU to get an advanced degree. Again, this whole structure (often called “Residence Life”) postdates our college experience and is a presence to some extent on all campuses. Gigi  in fact used to work in this field (at the Universities of New Hampshire and Pennsylvania), so I have some familiarity in how it works, essentially, to address and develop the non-academic side of students. This quest can sometimes seem a little foolish, as Chris observed. But its has a sort of noble bottom line, which is, as I see it, to support who more than likely wouldn’t have made it through (or been damaged by) the Darwinian sink-or-swim college ethos of past decades: people in wheelchairs, the non-wealthy, those on some kind of emotional precipice, those that society seems to think are marginal or different, and so forth. People with a handicap, or at least without a head start.

The sink-or-swim mentality had a kind of attractive intellectual purity to it, and was a whole lot cheaper. But there is no going back. And even if there were, I’m not sure I would want to.

And now I really have to grade those papers.

—Ben

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Be smart, not dumb

Kudrow: Follow your dreams

We got home last night from Poughkeepsie, NY, where we celebrated Lizy’s graduation from Vassar.

Woo hoo.

Needless to say, the occasion prompted myriad thoughts and emotions, some of which we’ll share in the weeks ahead. For now, I’m still thinking about commencement addresses.

(On that subject, three posts down, I asked BloggEd readers to choose their ideal commencement speaker from a list of attractive candidates. Your votes skewed intriguingly with those of America, as reflected in a Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll. America: 1, Warren Buffett. 2, Sandra Bullock. 3, Oprah Winfrey. BloggEd: 1, Buffett/Tom Hanks (tie). 2. Anderson Cooper/Nancy Pelosi (tie.))

Lisa Kudrow,  Vassar ’85, gave the address to the class of 2010, their family, and their friends. It was really good—smart, interesting, and substantially funnier than anything Phoebe ever said on “Friends.” But the message bemused me. Boiled down to three words, it was: “Follow your dreams.”

One of my problems was that Kudrow’s support for the proposition of dream-following was her own example. She told how she graduated from Vassar with plans and training for pursuing medical-type research, but within months kept hearing voices in her head urging her to become an actress. She initially resisted but ultimately succumbed, endured seven or eight years of apprenticeship and only the most minimal success, then finally broke through with a recurring part on “Mad About You” and then sitcom stardom on “Friends.”

The fallacy is that for every Kudrow, there are dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people who have a dream and never get it. Actually, writing that sentence makes me feel like a small mean person, so I will hurry on to another problem with follow-your-dreams speeches, a problem they share with the other main theme of commencement addresses, the admonishment to be aware of and responsive to the needs of your fellow humans, develop a moral sense, be a productive member of society, etc.

The problem is that while all these things are good qualities to take through life, they’re only tangentially related, at best, to a college education, the achievement of which, after all, is the reason for the commencement.

So, sitting in the beautiful setting of Vassar’s amphitheatre, listening to Kudrow and her fellow speakers, I began to muse about what I would say in the improbable event that I had been asked to speak to the graduates. Here is what I came up with:

I stand before your eager faces, your splendid caps and gowns, and the best advice I can give you is:

Be smart, not dumb.

When I first started teaching undergraduates, it was a little surprising how dumb they were when the semester began. By “dumb,” I don’t mean unintelligent. (Legions of people with high IQs and SAT scores are dumb.) I mean three specific things: not being curious, lacking general knowledge, and being prone to offer or blindly accept unexamined conventional wisdom and flat-out unsupportable propositions, as opposed to subjecting them to critical thinking and analysis.

It was a lot surprising, and pretty sad, how many students were still dumb when they walked out the door after the last class. I fear that many of you will leave this campus today in that same unfortunate state.

Where does the blame lie? I suggest we share it jointly, the students and professors.

It’s tempting to absolve myself of responsibility, and to tell the truth, sometimes I give in to temptation.  After all, isn’t curiosity an inborn trait, like red hair or nearsightedness, nurtured and cultivated, if at all, only at a very young age by your parents? And after all, it’s curiosity that leads to general knowledge. It prompts you to read books, or notice and wonder about things that pass before you as you go about your day, and look up articles on Wikipedia—and doing those things makes you know stuff, as if by magic.

Well, right, but the classroom is a little world, and in it we professors can “model” curiosity and mandate general knowledge about the subject at hand. Most important, we can and for the most part do build our classes around that critical thinking thing. It doesn’t matter what course or major. In science and math, you should or could have learned to distinguish an ingenious and elegant experiment or theorem from a shoddy and ill-constructed one. In history, you were taught to analyze primary and secondary sources and cast your judgment on the long-ago activities and motivations of men and women. In English, you learned the arts of “close reading” and argument. In every discipline, you were taught to train your eye on the text or topic under discussion, determine its intellectual worth, express your findings in that discipline’s language, and create something of your own that was new and good.

What I am asking you to do is extend these skills and habits of mind to your lives. Learn to recognize clichés and bromides, and do not accept them in place of real argument, sentiment or thought. If you find yourself thinking or expressing yourself in those terms, cast them out! Much better that you try to form an original and true idea, no matter how (seemingly) small.

Be skeptical (not cynical) of the many things you will be asked to agree with and believe. Politicians and pundits will constantly tell you what they think you want to hear. Scrutinize their statements and subtexts, and figure out what they really mean. No matter who is talking to you, think about what they’re really saying, and why.

Then there are the dumb commercials, dumb movies, and dumb reality TV shows that you will be exposed to. It’s not that you shouldn’t necessarily enjoy them. Just realize that they are dumb, and develop a sense of just how they are dumb.

And here is the most important thing. When someone sends you an e-mail describing an incident or offer that seems to good to be true, remember that dumb people send these on to their friends. Smart people check them out on snopes.com.

That is all.

Goodbye and good luck.

—Ben

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Uhoh

Jobs and the class of 2010.

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The class of '70, finally capped-and-gowned

I love this story in the NY Times about Boston University finally giving the class of 1970 a chance to march. Forty years ago, the “campus, like many across the country, was in turmoil, with strikes, sit-ins, building takeovers and fire-bombings.” So the school cancelled final exams and commencement, and mailed the grads their diplomas.

The Times reports:

At their own convocation on Sunday morning, class members — with their gray hair tucked under their caps and lifetimes of experience under their belts — strode across the stage in their fire-engine-red gowns and received their diplomas (actually, certificates, since their real diplomas had been mailed to them at the time).

Swaying back and forth, they spontaneously sang “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” They bopped and shimmied off the stage to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Attorney General Erich Holder gave the commencement address and told the assembled crowd of grads, “I love you all.”  Then,  “gesturing to the class of 1970, sitting right in front of him, he said, ‘But these are my people.’”

–Ben (class of ’75)

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