Category Archives: higher edcuation

Revolution, Marketing, & the Legacy of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies

I’ve been working on a project examining poetry at the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies since the fall of 2014. Of course, when I began this exploration I had many questions. I had the big research questions.

And I also had logistical questions: Was there an archival record? Where was this archival record?

Looking for an archival record of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies naturally led me to the potential of exploring materials related to Moravian College. Was there a connection? Did they have materials? Information on the webpages for the library and the school archives seemed to indicate an avenue of pursuit, but it wasn’t screaming “hey, look here! Hey, start here!” Additionally, there was the issue of access. Library websites made it clear that there was not a full-time archivist available.

Eventually, I sorted out my archive questions out and have since spent a lot of time at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem.

The connection between the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and Moravian College wasn’t exactly clear when I began exploring this project in the fall of 2014. On the surface, however, that connection seems to be clearer today. Sort of. Or, at least, the connection Moravian College wants to make to the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and a revolutionary past has become clearer.

Moravian College’s embracing of its historic past is interesting to me as someone involved in higher education. My composition classes in the spring of 2015 and the fall of 2015 addressed on higher education. In class we frequently explored the marketing of colleges. Together we took a critical eye to the marketing rhetoric of colleges and universities. One of my classes in the spring of 2015 was a dual enrollment class. We often focused on Lehigh Valley colleges and universities since many of the students were going to schools in the area. A local focus also made sense since we could frequently use local media coverage of area schools as a jumping off point for discussion. The online presence of Moravian College was something we explored often.

The above paragraph is an attempt to build my ethos. I remember what the website for Moravian College looked like a year or so ago. It certainly doesn’t look like it does at this moment. Just trust me: it was a rather typical website of a small liberal arts college in a nice community. When I began initially exploring the website of Moravian College in the fall of 2014, there wasn’t anything distinctive about it. It was what one expected from the website of a small liberal arts college in a bucolic setting.

Last fall, I found myself again visiting the webpage of Moravian College. Things had changed.

Navigating to Moravian College’s website forces the viewer to confront immediately a revolutionary past. It isn’t subtle.

Moravian Splash Page

When a viewer of the website scrolls down, the call to “Be a Little Revolutionary” recedes and they’re confronted with a very short history of the origins of Moravian College.

Scroll Down Moravian Website

The “16-year-old girl” mentioned in the short history blurb is Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf, daughter of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

Moravian Revolutionary in Your Blood

Taking ownership of that “revolutionary” claim.

When I visited the Moravian Archives in the fall of 2015, I noticed that the streetlights surrounding the campus of Moravian College featured flags proclaiming their motto for all to see. “Be a Little Revolutionary” is a marketing campaign that seems to be everywhere. Again, these streetlight flags were not something that I saw present in the summer of 2015 when I first visited the Moravian Archives.

a lot of revolution now and then

wow much revolution such colonial past wow

The new list of best places to work in the Lehigh Valley came out recently and there was a profile of the award winners in the local newspaper. Each workplace profiled is listed with a little bit of information, including the founding date. The local paper, The Morning Call, lists the founding of Moravian College as 1742 and in another article, featuring factoids, lists the claim of “the sixth oldest college in America and the first school to educate women.”

best place to work

Competition for students is difficult. I understand the drive of colleges and universities to undertake attention-grabbing ad campaigns and to develop buzz phrases for marketing purposes. I do know that the history of education in American, especially women’s education, is complicated. It is far too nuanced for sloganeering. I’ve not delved too far beyond the #18C in tracing the connection between the schools. It is certainly much more complicated than what a marketing campaign tries to make it. This use of the idea of revolution, The Revolution, and a historical past is driven by marketing. It is a clever and organized campaign.



This isn’t an all-inclusive post about the history of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and it isn’t a post about the history of Moravian College. It is a post drawing attention to branding and marketing of higher education today. I think this post is a starting point for highlighting the collapsing and simplification of a rather complex historical past, not just of the boarding school and Moravian College, but also American history and the history of women’s education in the United States.


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Filed under academia, higher edcuation, history, Moravians

Ending 24/7 Finals Culture

Finals time is here again and with it, at many schools, comes 24/7 study culture. Student lounges and campus buildings give up the late regular semester hours and throw the doors open to a 24/7 study atmosphere. The apparatus of the university goes into overdrive as food courts and libraries are kept open. All the while students scramble for space at the various tables across campus.

The 24/7 mode of finals has to stop because it isn’t healthy. And we, of all people, should know better.

As educators, scholars, and researchers we should know that the 24/7 finals culture isn’t good for students. Read Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education with enough regularity and you’ll see plenty of content focused on work and life balance. As educators in higher education we know that letting our work overrule us is bad for our work, our health (both mental and physical), our relationships, and myriad of other individual factors.

Throughout the semester many of us extol the virtues of working and researching in chunks. Many of us teach writing as a process. Our bible of graduate school was Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. We subscribe to the slow and steady wins the race pace of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks with its methodical chipping away at an article over a period of time. (Side note: Wendy Laura Belcher deserves props for including a section on mental and physical wellbeing in her book.)

Still, we are complicit in the 24/7 finals culture just as much as the midnight-make-your-own-waffle-bars and 24/7 library hours that normalize such a culture. Our courses cram everything into the syllabus. Massive projects, papers, and exams on the last day of class that are then followed by final exams. For some students the message of accepting 24/7 final culture isn’t only codified in the syllabus, but it is made clear in messages that students should work every day of Thanksgiving break, except for the day of the actual day of Thanksgiving. The messaging is the same for fall breaks, Easter Breaks, spring breaks, and so on.

And why shouldn’t they receive that message about working all the time? For every column in an academic newspaper about work and life balance there are pieces extolling the virtues of working on a day off or a holiday. And let’s not even say anything about the comments to such pieces. As humans we should know better and as educators we should know even better. Cramming isn’t learning. The diminishing returns on learning that occur when students cram is steep. All-nighters to finish a paper or a project don’t represent true learning or intellectual pursuit.

While students are bombarded with the messaging of 24/7 finals culture there are voices on many campuses trying to push back. Student health centers, mental health centers, and wellbeing centers share messages of rest, extol the virtues of self-care, and showcase the diminishing returns of cramming. With the increased focus on the role mental and physical health on campuses, we should be mindful of these messages. This is especially the case given the large number of academics that have struggled with depression and mental health issues in graduate school or in their current positions. The connection between physical and health and depression is well known. Sleep deprivation, not eating right, not socializing, and not exercising are triggers to bouts of depression. The 24/7 finals culture is a perfect cocktail to exacerbate the triggers for depression.

As educators we have a great deal of power to shape the approach to work that students develop and within our small circle of control our own syllabi represent a great place to start. We can choose to not have projects due on the last day of class. We can make the decision not to have an exam on the last day of class and a final exam a few days later. We can schedule and stagger heavy reading loads during the semester. We can make substantial changes to our approach and still maintain the academic rigor we desire. We do not have to be beholden to the academic calendar of midterm exam weeks and where school breaks fall. And, at a smaller scale, we don’t have to assign due dates for submission of assignments that cap at 11:59 PM.

In many cases we have little control of shaping the culture of our campus, but when it comes to modeling healthy modes of academic work we do have an opportunity to do so. And we should certainly make use of that opportunity.

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Filed under academia, Education, higher edcuation, pedagogy, teaching

Not your typical University Commerical

The genre conventions for a 30 second TV spot used by major colleges and universities, especial R1 institutions with bigtime sports, are rather conventional. Nondescript inspiring music accompanies well-known images of the campus, vague highlights of award-winning research faculty (often in science and technology), and students often enjoying life far from the classroom. And there are sports.

Last night I saw a university commercial that exploded nearly all of these well-known higher education advertising conventions. This commercial for the University of Minnesota aired during their game against the University of Michigan:

The Minnesota commercial features Keith Mayes, a scholar of 20C African American history, at Minnesota. It is clear from the opening words that this commercial is going to do something different. The commercial opens right up with a big, bold claim. It is certainly a claim familiar to many scholars of American history and life, but it lays a foundation for an argument largely unfamiliar to the general public. This is not going to be your typical university commercial. It is going to have substance. It is going to have an argument. It is going to keep going on this line. And it is going to pack a punch in 30 seconds.

Given my usual audience I’m not going to go into detail with this advertisement. Watch it yourself.

This particular ad from the University of Minnesota is from a series of similar ads. Many of them feature tough issues ranging from global warming and the environment to medical research. However, for me at least, this one stands out for how it focuses attention on teaching while it also highlights race, social justice issues, and the achievement gap. And, of course, the humanities, especially our relationship to history, has a prominent role.

I think this commercial will resonate with many of you.

The University of Minnesota did a good thing for all of us, especially humanities scholars at bigtime research and sports institutions. The ad provides an example to help ask the question to departments, school divisions, and administration of why the PR department doesn’t create advertisements like this.

I think the ad also raises a larger question. The work done by Mayes represents a nexus of history and curriculum development designed to ensure the long-term academic success of minority students. We often advocate for the ability of the humanities to do relevant cultural work that matters today.

I am not a fan of “the humanities matter argument” because it rings as a rather vapid platitude. I think the best way to defend or justify the humanities is to not talk about it, but do it. But how many of us in the humanities do scholarship that could be featured in a commercial like this one? I think that is question we need to grapple with and not rely simply on the claim that humanities matter.
PS: I watched last night’s game on my Xbox via the ESPN ap. The world of commercials works differently in that context. I do not know if this commercial was broadcast on cable or satellite feeds. However, millions of people have cut the cable and watch ESPN online. I still imagine a significant population saw this advertisement.

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Filed under academia, higher edcuation, history, humanities

The Possible End of #FollowWomenWednesday

Last week, Megan Kate Nelson published a great piece on her blog about the limitations of Follow Women Wednesday going forward. One of the stunning revelations by Nelson’s post was her own blunt statement that #FollowWomenWednesday cannot keep going.

I skimmed the piece last week before class and that night went home to read it in-depth. My initial reaction to the downturn in the return of the Follow Women Wednesday imitative was the start of the semester caused the precipitous decline in tweets, retweets, and additional follows. I had a few other ideas after my initial reading that I wanted to share, but they are rather redundant because Nelson’s piece addresses nearly all of them and with some awesome data visualizations.

However, I am somewhat relieved that there is now some really useful data backing up what was merely a gut feeling on my part. If you are interested in the circulation of ideas or any form of communications networks, then I highly recommend reading Nelson’s piece. The evidence that Nelson provides a concrete sense of how limited a network academic Twitter is. The limitations of academic Twitter is something that many of us recognized, but it is helpful to data backing up that feeling.

Without any data, my impression of Follow Women Wednesday was that it was getting harder to do it. In the early days, following and retweeting was easy. I was introduced to the voices of many women that I hadn’t encountered before Nelson kicked off Follow Women Wednesday. Also, I had the chance to share accounts with many of my followers. It was great.

However, Follow Women Wednesday is getting harder and as Nelson’s data shows that has a lot to do with communications network in which it exists. My initial reaction is that I need to plan what to share on Wednesdays. That takes time. On Tuesdays I’m thinking ahead to the next Follow Women Wednesday and that I need to plan what I’m going to share. However, it is very hard because Tuesdays are some of my hectic days of the week. It is hard because I’m seeing many of the same accounts, many accounts I already follow, many accounts that I’ve shared and retweeted. I want to amplifying different voices.

I think a lot about Twitter and social media because of my own accounts and having made use of Twitter in several of my classes. Currently, I’m affiliated with four Twitter accounts. An account for 2 scholarly initiatives I’m collaborating on with others, my main account, and an account for my composition classes. That is a lot to deal with on a weekly basis. I’ve learned a lot about the limitations of Twitter and social media by working on those accounts. I’ve become more strategic about amplifying the accounts that I am affiliated with and that has spilled over to my thinking for Follow Women Wednesday.

I’d like to publicize Follow Women Wednesday on at least 3 of the accounts I have a hand in & amplify many more voices, but the planning that would take is daunting. As Liz Covart has shared in recent posts on her blog, social media, especially Twitter is hard. Social media is even harder when trying to break out to other audiences. Honestly, I might never have thought about these strategic issues of using social media without following Covart’s work. Covart has been very open & honest about the difficulties that she faces in sharing her content online. In addition to providing great historical content, Covart has been sharing a lot about how social media works, and doesn’t work, especially as a tool to engage with and build a larger audience. My circle of folks on Twitter knows that Covart’s work is great, especially Ben Franklin’s World, but to make Covart’s public history initiatives work, sustain themselves, they need to move beyond the academic Twitter audience.

However, as Nelson’s post points out, Follow Women Wednesday isn’t moving beyond academic Twitter. Follow Women Wednesday had that initial movement beyond a predominately humanities Twitter academic audience. I was happy to see Follow Women Wednesday picked up by science blogs and members of the science community, however, I was shocked by the inability of Follow Women Wednesday to move beyond an academic Twitter. Nelson addressed this inability of Follow Women Wednesday to move beyond academic networks. One of the most interesting points was the fact that an unwillingness of accounts to “pay it forward,” especially those that could amplify voices to many, many followers. I’m still shocked by this fact. I’m not sure what to make of it. Nelson describes this phenomenon in more detail:

No Stars

In a world in which one tweet from Miley Cyrus can get a television show renewed, going viral necessitates the participation of at least one Twitter “star” – someone who has followers in the six-figure range, and who actively tweets.

Despite the fact that many participants in #FollowWomenWednesday have tweeted the handles of high-profile public intellectuals, women in media, and actors – none of these women have paid it forward. Also, a significant number of high-profile public intellectuals (like, say, Jill Lepore) are either not on Twitter, or tweet so infrequently (ex: Doris Kearns Goodwin) that they do not have much of a Twitter presence at all.

Follow Women Wednesday started out as an organic solution to a very important problem on Twitter, not jut academic Twitter. The sad feeling that I have, and Nelson’s data, I think, backs this up, is that very inorganic solutions are need to keep amplifying Follow Women Wednesday. The information that Covart has shared about her attempts to publicize her content shows that venues like Twitter, as spontaneous as they appear, aren’t as organic as we hoped or thought or wished.

It is sad that I think of Follow Women Wednesday as a #Brand that needs to be promoted. To maximize these new voices I encounter I don’t want to retweet a tweet I just saw. I want to wait a few hours when more people might see it. But I forget. I want to amplify voices others might not be familiar with from online. But it takes planning. I feel like I need metrics. I feel like I’m making judgments. I feel like I’m dealing with brand messaging and not the problem that Follow Women Wednesday seeks to address.

Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Maybe I am overthinking it. Maybe the visualized data is on the wall for Follow Women Wednesday, but I don’t want that to be the case. I want it to keep going.

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Filed under higher edcuation, Social Media, twitter

There is No Hope of Tenure

If you follow me on Twitter, than you know that I’ve recently started a VAP position. It is renewable for up to three years. That is good, especially after adjuncting for the past year. The pay is better. The benefits are better. The resources are better. The creature comforts are good. However, at the end of the day, it is still a contractual position. Yes, it is for the year and I don’t have to worry about receiving a contract for the spring. I’ll be paid during the summer, too. But things happen way above our pay grades. Multi-year jobs used to come with the sense that they were an assured longer-term position. Short of disasters in the classroom, one could expect to reach that full allotment of the multiple years, but now so much is in flux with higher education. I would never count on anything in higher education anymore.

I’ll be going on the job market for the fall. It has nothing to do with the position that I currently hold. It is all about the system. I can’t afford not to do go on the market again. There is no longer the luxury of taking a year off in a multi-year position and focusing on publications and other professionalization activities. Time is running out and we can’t bank on much in higher education anymore. However, I can bank on getting older. I can bank on my PhD getting stale. I can bank on having only limited opportunities to solve the two-body problem. I can bank on continued economic strain.

The silly season of hiring, though small in numbers, is already here. It has been here since the summer. We don’t have to wait for the MLA Job List to come out. We run by the fiscal year now, not the academic calendar. However, there is an uptick in listings on various sites now that the academic year has started. More will come. That more is, of course, relative since there really aren’t that many jobs to be had. We all know that.

In academic job postings for this week, I saw an advertisement for a tenure-track position in the University of Wisconsin system. I think it is clear based on the reaction of faculty in the University of Wisconsin system and commentators on higher education that tenure in Wisconsin is dead. If not dead, then tenure in Wisconsin is certainly dying. It isn’t just the loss of tenure in Wisconsin that matters. The real danger of Wisconsin is that Scott Walker has provided a model for reducing public universities and tenure than can be adopted in all 50 states.

I can’t read that job ad for the tenure-track position in the University of Wisconsin system and believe it. Even though the ad claims this is a tenure-track position, there is no tenure. If there is no tenure in Wisconsin, then there certainly can be no tenure anywhere. If there is tenure now, then there is no guarantee that it will exist by the time a person is at a 1 or 3 year review, let alone the 6 or so years to come up for tenure. Do you want to bet on any of that happening? I certainly don’t.

Having recently moved, I have no cable or internet in my apartment. I packed lightly and didn’t even take my trusty radio that I bought when I was in high school. I did bring my Xbox. But DRM is a pain without the internet. On a whim, just as I was going to hop in the car, I grabbed my DVD of Band of Brothers. I’ve been watching that as I’ve unpacked and set up my apartment. I was struck by the dialogue between two characters in one of the early episodes, Lieutenant Speirs and Albert Blithe. The conversation between Speirs and Blithe occurs in the days after the D-Day. Speirs is the soldier that is unafraid; Blithe is experiencing the emotional effects of combat and is frightened. The dialogue between the two, I think, has a lot to add to our feelings about tenure, the lack of it, and what can be done about it.

Capt. Ronald Speirs: What’s your name, trooper?

Pvt. Albert Blithe: Blithe, sir. Albert Blithe.

Capt. Ronald Speirs: You know why you hid in that ditch, Blithe?

Pvt. Albert Blithe: I was scared.

Capt. Ronald Speirs: We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function. Without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends on it.

For Speirs “accept[ing] that you’re already dead” is tied directly to “function[ing] as a soldier is supposed to function.” Albert Blithe is afraid, just like many early career academics. The argument early on in academia is to put your head down, don’t make any waves and survive until you get tenure. I think what Speirs offers is a viable alternative to that line of thinking. Give up that hope of tenure and one can function not only better, but actually survive. Given the circumstances facing higher education, putting one’s head down to survive is clearly not working and it isn’t going to work. The early career academic thinks there is still hope of tenure. What if there is no hope, specifically of tenure and we operate under the assumption? If we overlay what Speirs has to say about being a functioning soldier on to higher education, then I think we can get somewhere. Instead of hope and death, think about what Speirs says if we swap out those words for tenure.

Of course, it is problematic to make this comparison between tenure and war, especially when Speirs observes that a well-functioning solider does so “without mercy, without compassion, and without remorse.” One of the arguments for the benefits of tenure is that people can than advocate and stick their necks out for other people, for causes, and for ideals. If we act with no hope of tenure, then can’t we, maybe, act now with mercy and compassion to others, our values, and our ideals? And, more importantly, act with the mercy and compassion that our fields and students need right now?

If you aren’t into Band of Brothers, and are troubled by the war metaphor, I think the same line of thinking about acting like there is no tenure can be achieved by thinking that “there is no spoon.” I imagine I could have written about the Matrix, but I’ve never seen it and I’m more familiar with Band of Brothers. What I know about the Matrix and the spoon is largely second-hand from memes and the internet, but it seems the idea could fit, too.

I am still thinking about my “no hope” comparison and one thing in the back of my mind as I parse through these ideas is the issue of publication, especially after reading Megan Kate Nelson’s two recent (and excellent and awesome) posts about leaving academia. I recommend that you read them: here and here. They are honest and sincere and we need those voices that are willing to share such stories. I’m unsure about how to balance my ideas from Band of Brothers with Nelson’s recommendation here:

And fourth, if you are a graduate student or an adjunct, Do Not Publish Too Much. One article, maybe two. If you’ve already written a book, keep the manuscript in your desk drawer until you have a tenure-track job. Then pull it out, polish it, and send it to presses.

Under my Band of Brother’s metaphor this doesn’t matter because we are acting like tenure doesn’t exist and that there is no hope. However, Nelson’s point is about being hired in the first place, let alone getting tenure. As she notes:

I was an adjunct with two books. In the rigid world of academic hiring, I didn’t make sense to any search committee out there. I was too experienced for assistant professorships, and there was no way any dean would approve hiring an adjunct with tenure. I had published too much, and I had made myself unhireable.

Clearly my Band of Brothers comparison only goes so far and needs more fleshing out. Maybe there is an asterisk for the publishing issue that Nelson raises. Clearly, I need to think more about these intersections. However, I think my comparison holds up on a host of other issues related to academia. There is no reason to be fearful and not function as an ally, an advocate, or an innovative teacher or public scholar / intellectual. The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re not getting tenure, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a teacher, scholar, or a public intellectual’s supposed to function: With mercy, with compassion, without regret. All of higher education depends on it.

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Filed under academia, higher edcuation, tenure

Y’all, look at this!

This is a post about y’all. Not you all, but the word “y’all.” Specifically, it is about the use of y’all in academic and classroom contexts and the use of something called the “performative y’all.”

Now, you likely never heard of the phrase “performative y’all” since it is a concept conceived by my partner in a passing discussion that we had a long time ago. The performative y’all occurs when y’all is used devoid of any cultural context and employed as an attention grabbing marker to highlight the importance of content to follow. In essence, the performative y’all is used as a short-hand form of “hey, everybody, listen up to what is going to follow” or “hey, everybody, look at this.” This use of the performative y’all appears to have grown out of the need to meet Twitter’s character limit. However, my partner identified the use of the performative y’all well before either of us became active users of Twitter. Yes, the performative y’all can be seen habituating Twitter, but my partner first noticed its use in emails and internal listserv messages while we were both in graduate school.

I’ve encountered heavy use of y’all on college football Twitter and I’ve never thought twice about it. However, I’ve noticed increasing use of y’all occurring on the academic side of Twitter. On academic Twitter, y’all serves as a way to draw attention to a post, a link, or an idea. The performative y’all, especially on mediums like Twitter, functions as a manicule in word form. It draws attention to the content. It would be an oversimplification to say that y’all used to draw attention to southern foodways or a weird happening in the south is right, but that saying y’all look at my new book publication, or what I found in the archive, or OMG cute puppies would be wrong. I’m not the word police and that isn’t the reason why I am writing about y’all.

However, I have a lot of concerns with the use of the performative y’all because using it without any social or cultural context also means that its use is devoid of related negative social and cultural perceptions. In effect, utilizing the performative y’all allows the speaker or writer to escape being thought of as the stereotypical dumb Southerner or having other dispersions cast on one’s background or education.

Those of you that know me might be thinking to yourself: Why does Greg Specter care? He isn’t from the South. I believe that the grief one gets for using y’all isn’t about the city listed on one’s birth certificate, but rather on the manifestations of markers tying, in my case, one to the South. More on that below.

Again, you might be thinking to yourself, surely, Greg Specter, you don’t go around using y’all all over the place. Yes, I do; I say y’all a lot, especially in the classroom. When I began graduate school I had a teaching mentor that used y’all a lot in the classroom setting and in personal interactions with me. I don’t know if this individual came from the South, but they did go to school in the South. Not that going to the school in the South means one is going to have an inherent transfer of Southern-ness. Point is my first mentor used it a lot. Like many early-career instructors, I borrowed a lot from this individual and y’all was part of those borrowings.

While the above case certainly influenced my use of y’all, my other exposure to y’all is much more personal. My long-term partner comes from the South. They use y’all a lot. Spend enough time with someone and you will learn and borrow a great deal from them. An increased use of y’all is one thing that I have received as part of my relationship. I’m sure I’ve picked up other phrases, too.

Repeated use of y’all certainly helped. I like to say y’all and especially like to use it in the classroom. I like y’all because it is a gender-neutral plural noun. Y’all demonstrates more personality than saying “all” or “everybody.” Now, my use of y’all occurs in the physical space of the classroom or in email greetings, but it is not something I include in formal documents like assignments and exams.

Since returning to Pennsylvania I’ve been called out for my use of y’all in the classroom setting. In some cases, these instances have been lighthearted, but in other cases they have been murmured mocking that I overheard. These reactions are not ones that I ever encountered during my time at the University of Missouri. The first response that someone might have is that these murmurings against my use of y’all are a sign that students don’t respect me, but I don’t think that is the case. I am not willing to buy into that line of thought since I know of instances where friends and colleagues have been mocked or dismissed for using y’all.

I don’t think my use of y’all would be a problem if I had received my PhD from a school on the West Coast or in the North East. I think for a many of my students, Missouri, being a thousand miles away from the Lehigh Valley, carries enough weight to mark it—and me—as Southern. Now, Missouri is weird; it doesn’t fit easily into categories of north, south, east, or west; but, folks unfamiliar with the state do not necessarily know that. At some level, Missouri’s history as a slave-holding state, a border state, and its role during the Civil War likely colors the associations many have of the state, but I’m not sure how much. Additionally, I’m unsure if the University of Missouri being in the SEC affects the perception of the state or of me. I don’t get the sense that SEC sports are on the radar for many of my students and the people I encounter. For many of the students that I interact with in the classroom, Missouri is a marker of a connection to the South and it colors my use of y’all.

Notice that I did not recount my time in Columbia, Missouri as part of the formative experience in my use of y’all. Columbia, like many college towns, exists in a well-contained bubble that draws in many people without ties to the area.

I will continue to use y’all in the classroom. I’ll certainly use y’all outside of the classroom. However, I do wonder: For users of y’all, like me and a few people are judged for using y’all in the classroom, are we judged for using y’all in other professional spaces? Perhaps judged by people who, unburdened by cultural makers, make frequent use of the performative y’all?

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Filed under higher edcuation, teaching

A Call for Sentinels in Academia

What is happening in Wisconsin with regards to tenure is disturbing, but I’m more concerned with what the reactions to circumstances in Wisconsin reveal about the expanding discord between individuals on the tenure-track and the vast majority of college-level teachers living off the tenure-track. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of this conflict to be found on Twitter and on article comment sections. Individuals outside of full-time academic work express feelings of “welcome to my world” when hearing responses from those on the tenure-track reacting to changes in tenure proposed for the University of Wisconsin system. Those with precarious employment might look at tenure-track professors in Wisconsin as hypocrites for never voicing concern about the uncertain economic and employment situations facing their colleagues. Others might feel that folks in Wisconsin should just leave; others would be more than willing to take their vacant jobs. From those on the tenure track there is still a level of dismissiveness towards their adjunct peers: You are not like us; our situation is different from yours. Sadly, many people recognize that the responses from those on the lower-rungs of the academic hierarchy are expressing reactions that are only natural after decades of brewing marginalization.

Going forward, if we ever hope to fix the problems facing academia, especially with regards to issues of job security for all, we can’t have this tension and in-fighting existing between involved parties. Regardless of circumstances, we need to advocate for each other.

Regardless of circumstances, we need to watch out for each other.

We need to be like meerkats.

Individuals across the spectrum of academic life could learn a great deal from meerkats. Meerkats live in large matriarchal social groups, known as mobs, consisting of a dominant female, the dominant male and a variety of helpers consisting of offspring and other meerkats that have joined the mob. Meerkats, regardless of their standing within the mob, participate in a variety of roles ranging from babysitting and providing milk for young meerkats, to foraging, grooming, and play.

One of the most important roles within the meerkat mob, and the one they are most famous for, is that of sentinel. Standing erect on their hind legs, meerkat sentinels scan the horizon for threats to members of the mob as they forage, care for their young, or rest and relax. At great risk to themselves, a meerkat on sentinel duty might work from ground-level or an available highpoint, like a dirt mount or even a tall tree, scanning the earth and sky for any sign of danger. During this time on sentinel duty the meerkat forgoes foraging for themselves and exposes themselves to the very dangers they are watching for on land and in the sky. In the event of danger, a sentinel will call out to the rest of the group with a warning for them to return to the safety of their burrow or bolt holes.

A meerkat at Zoo Atlanta standing watch.

A meerkat at Zoo Atlanta standing watch.

At this point, you might be thinking this is a call for academics to be on watch for each other in the face of trying times. Yes, it is call to watch out for each other, but it is a specific call. It is a call to watch out for each other, and like meerkats, to do so regardless of station.

Science knows the practical reasons of why meerkat mobs engage in sentinel behavior, but the reasons are less clear at an individual level. There are several theories as to why meerkats engage in sentinel behavior. One theory contends that it is altruistic behavior. Another theory argues it is a way for individuals to increase their prestige within the mob. A different theory argues that it is not altruistic behavior, but is a way of preserving the mob, which, in turn, secures the preservation of the individual. The fact is: Regardless of station or reason, all meerkats engage in sentinel behavior.

We in academia need to be like meerkat sentinels. Regardless of our station, regardless of the reasons for guard duty, whether altruistic or out of a need for self-preservation, we need to watch.

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