Tag Archives: Higher Education

Cheese Cubes and Celery Sticks: Faculty Appreciation in the Modern Era.

I am wrapping up my thirtieth year in the classroom. Aware always that for every professor there are dozens of Ph.D recipients who would love to work in academia, but will never have the chance, I have worked hard to be the best teacher and scholar I can be. I am aware of the privileges I have enjoyed, and recognize the obligations that places upon me to do good work. Even with a heavy teaching load, large numbers of advisees, and spending my career at small colleges with few resources to support faculty research, I believe it is important to continually be productive and continually to grow and improve as a professor of history.

I began studying the history of Indigenous peoples as an undergraduate student at the California State University at Long Beach, to which I transferred after two years at a local junior college. I did not have the opportunity to work with members of Indigenous Nations until I began my academic teaching career at Montana State University-Billings, a small, open-admissions campus that was part of the larger Montana State University system. I taught survey courses in American history at MSU-B, the department’s required course in Historical Research Methods, and upper-division courses covering the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Early National Periods. I was an effective and popular teacher. I won the college’s Winston and Helen Cox Fellowship for the year 1996-1997, awarded annually to an outstanding junior faculty member, and one year later the Outstanding Faculty Award, presented by the Associated Students.  But I most valued my work with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne students who attended MSU-B, from whom I learned much. Most of them were older students. They traveled a great distance, sometimes every day, to attend class. They struggled with the costs of college, and the burdens of caring for children and grandchildren while attending school. Almost none of them finished in four years. Some were perennial part-time students. Many of them took my course in Native American History, required for the Native American Studies major and minor, and they taught me a great deal about the power of working together.

            For example, I began a research project on race relations between members of the Crow Nation and white residents in Hardin, Montana, a reservation border town in which half the population was Indigenous. A college provost demanded that faculty engage in what she called “applied research,” which seemed to mean “stuff that she felt mattered.” Early American history clearly was not on that list. So I began poking around. After Native American students at Hardin High School protested some callous treatment by non-Indian students, a white supremacist group distributed on doorsteps throughout Hardin a despicable racist pamphlet. I began to investigate the story. I could not accomplish as much as I wanted.  As a single parent at that time, it was difficult to drive the 120-mile round-trip to Hardin and get much work done there, and I found it difficult to get anti-Crow white people to speak honestly and candidly about their town. But I did talk to sympathetic whites, and many Crow people, who described their lived experiences in Hardin, a town where residents remembered seeing “No Dogs or Indians” signs in downtown businesses. It was a searing experience. I never published on the topic, but the experience taught me at an early point in my career the obvious but often overlooked point that an important part of writing the history of a community involves forging relationships with members of that community. Collaboration, I learned, was integral to good community history. We can learn much from even those projects we do not finish.

            Billings was a tough place to work as a professor while being a single parent. Resources were scarce, the pay was low, and the teaching load was seven courses a year. Most of us in the department worked summer jobs to help make ends meet. As much as I loved the students, I could not stay. I never completed the Hardin project because I left Billings in 1998 for a new position at the State University of New York, College at Geneseo. I had signed a contract with Cornell University Press to publish my first book, Dominion and Civility, and that provided an opportunity to make a move that was better for my family. Except for one year I spent at the University of Houston in 2009-2010, I have been at Geneseo ever since.

            Geneseo, like Billings, is a small, underfunded, public college. Though Geneseo was a much more selective college at the time I arrived, my job was essentially what it had been in Billings: teach Colonial and Revolutionary US, Research Methods, and the college’s required course in the Humanities. I also developed and taught my Native American survey, a course on American Indian Law, and an upper-division course in Haudenosaunee history. At Geneseo, as in Billings, I succeeded in the classroom and as a scholar, winning the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activities in 2013 (both the highest SUNY system-wide awards given in those areas). I was also named James and Julia Lockhart Professor from 2005 to 2008 and promoted to Distinguished Professor in 2015, the highest rank for any faculty member in the SUNY system. I published six books, including a textbook in Native American history now in its third edition, and developed the college’s minor in Native American Studies. At Geneseo, as in Billings, I greatly value the work I have done outside of the classroom with Indigenous peoples in New York State.

            In Geneseo I was presented with opportunities that were not nearly as available in Montana. Shortly after my arrival in 1998, for example, I was invited by the Tonawanda Seneca Nation to provide research and expert witness testimony in their efforts to recover Grand Island, New York, purchased from them in 1815 by the state of New York in violation of the federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Act.  It was the first of several Indigenous rights cases in which I was involved over the next two and a half decades. I was privileged to work with the Onondaga Nation, the Akwesasne Mohawks, and the Oneida Indian Nation, all on cases involving their efforts to recover lost lands. I have also worked on gaming and taxation issues involving Haudenosaunee nations in New York State. This work brought important benefits, and led to several of my book projects: Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams, and Peacemakers: The United States, the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and the Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794, both published in 2015.

            Finally, collaborative work led to the book project I am hoping to finish very soon. In 2014 I began working with the Onondaga Nation on research related to cleaning up Onondaga Lake, once the most polluted body of water in North America. The Superfund law allows Indigenous nations to have a say in the cleanup process if they can demonstrate a cultural tie to the polluted site. My job was to demonstrate that connection. Over several years I completed a 700-page annotated bibliography, with links to copies of all the documents, illustrating this massive history. Working on the history of Onondaga Lake with the Nation led to work writing the history of the Onondaga Nation itself. It has been a massive project. It requires frequent trips to the reservation, 90 miles from my house. Nearly all the research is completed, and I am looking for time to finish the book, revise the manuscript, and work through the project with some of my collaborators at Onondaga Nation to produce a final draft. I have learned a great deal.

            While work on the history of the Onondaga Nation takes up much of my time, since late 2018 I have served as the founding director of the Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History. I am very proud of this work. New York, under law, requires every municipality, from the smallest crossroads to the largest city, to have an appointed historian. Many of these town and local historians are amateurs. They are elderly, and they may not have much or any training as a historian.  But it seemed to me that partnering with them would benefit our students, help the historians, and increase the public’s awareness of their community’s history. As director, I have applied for five grants. Four of them have been funded fully:

            *          A small, $853 dollar grant that paid for our first organizing meeting.

            *          An $11,000 dollar grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation to create an online Indigenous History of Livingston County in 2021 (Geneseo is the seat of county seat for Livingston County).

            *          A $176,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to fund the Center and to provide for 21 paid internships across New York State in September 2021.

            *          And a $453,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation to create the Gardiner Foundation Semiquincentennial Summer Fellowship Program. Because the Geneseo administration does not value this work, it will likely cease after this year. During its two years, I managed the program and placed fifty students from seven colleges in paid summer fellowships in local historians’ offices across New York State. I oversaw their work and help disseminate their efforts.

            By the end of next year the Center will have placed 71 students from 7 colleges in high-paying fellowships across the width and breadth of New York State.  Another fifty students, since early 2019, have completed independent studies on local history topics in their communities, and unpaid internships in their hometowns. Given that much of this work was done during the pandemic, I am very proud of what the Center has accomplished.

            In the future, I intend for the Center to do more work to demonstrate that Native American history in New York is Local History. In collaboration with scholars at other universities, local historians, and representatives from Indigenous Nations, we have begun work on what we have dubbed “The 1779 Project” (The Van Schaick raid against the Onondagas and the Sullivan-Clinton expedition against the Senecas and Cayugas took place in 1779, a critical year for Indigenous New Yorkers during the American Revolution). We hope that by telling the stories of these American invasions of Iroquois land, we can complicate the history of the 250th Anniversary of American Independence, by placing Indigenous dispossession at the heart of New York State History in the same way that the “1619 Project” raised provocative questions about the important place of slavery in discussions of American liberty. The project, when we obtain funding, will include a book, curricula and lesson plans for New York teachers, a digital platform addressing the history of these expeditions and Indigenous dispossession in the state, and a series of book clubs and traveling lecturers giving talks about the Invasions of 1779. Our goal is to reach every school and every community in New York State by the time our work is completed.

            I love undergraduate teaching. Apart from the four years I spent in grad school at Syracuse University, my entire career has been spent at undergraduate public colleges where teaching is job one. Despite the challenging times facing public higher education, when I meet my students, I remain optimistic about the future. But that is becoming more difficult than ever before.

Just this week I gave a talk sponsored by the Livingston County History Museum and the Association for the Preservation of Geneseo. I like the work both groups do, so I did not charge (I did accept an unexpected gift from both organizations.) My parsimonious college demanded that we pay $108 to have a representative from the A/V department open the cabinet that contained the microphone and the USB cord for connecting my laptop.

I know this is a small matter. I know that a hundred bucks and change is not a lot of money. But, as they say, it’s the principle. The point of all that I have written above is that I have worked very hard over the past thirty years. I have done some really good work. I know that I have taught many students, over many years, who will vouch for the work I have done. I understand all of this. But it saddens me that I have grown accustomed over the past few years at Geneseo under the college’s current leadership to going above and beyond in all my work and receive for it little recognition, no thanks, and continuous disrespect and humiliation shown by our callous leaders. What I cannot grow accustomed to is working hard and having to pay for the privilege. I would complain but I know by now that nobody in charge cares and that nothing will be done. I do not like whining, but I am thoroughly demoralized.

I Read Florida House Bill 999 So You Don’t Have To

And it is worth worrying about.

It is known as Florida House Bill 999. Those numbers are what you dial when you experience an emergency in Great Britain. In that sense, the numbering is fitting, for this bill poses a grave threat to intelligence, critical reasoning, and freedom of thought. It is no laughing matter.

The bill applies to all public postsecondary institutions in the Sunshine State. It empowers a Board of Governors to “align the missions of each constituent university with the academic success of its students; the education for citizenship of the constitutional republic; and the state’s existing and emerging workforce needs,” among other things. The Board must “provide direction to each constituent university on removing from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor.” They will also oversee an “Accountability Plan” that lists majors by the salary of their first-year graduates, and demands the collection of evidence on the universities’ promotion of “education for citizenship of the constitutional republic and the cultivation of the intellectual autonomy of its undergraduate students.”

Faculty members who choose not to toe the line can face discipline. The Board of Governors has the power to “initiate a post-tenure review of a faculty member at any time with cause.” Each state university board of trustees can make decisions for hiring and is not “required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university or other individuals or groups.” In other words, academic departments would not have a role in assessing the expertise of their would-be colleagues. Faculty cannot be trusted with hiring new faculty. Hiring decisions may not use “diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, Critical Race Theory rhetoric, or other forms of political identity filters as part of the hiring process, including as part of applications for employment, promotion and tenure, conditions of employment, or reviewing qualifications for employment.” Each school’s Board of Trustees may also “review any faculty member’s tenure status,” should they fail to conform. Shut up and take it, the state legislature is telling faculty, and if you do not like it we will ruin your life.

This is dangerous and draconian. It flies in the face of everything an education is supposed to be. Free-inquiry is not a cardinal value on Florida, where legislators with little expertise in education are crafting policies for universities.

The legislation also proposes to create the Florida Institute for Governance and Civics, which will “provide students with access to an interdisciplinary hub that will develop academically rigorous scholarship and coursework on the origins of the American system of government, its foundational documents, its subsequent political traditions and evolutions, and its impact on comparative political system.”

That may sound relatively benign, but its not. The Institute will “encourage civic literacy in the state through the development of educational tools and resources for K-12 and post-secondary students that foster an understanding of how individual rights, constitutionalism, separation of powers, and federalism function within the American system of government.” This includes holding on-campus forums to allow students to hear from “exceptional individuals who have excelled in a wide range of sectors of American life to highlight the possibilities created by individual achievement and entrepreneurial vision.” This is all coded language. Horatio Alger would be proud. There is no systemic injustice in America, and students in Florida should learn that the only reason for their failure can be their inability to work hard and think big.”

Historians clearly are part of a problem that the Florida State Legislature hopes to eliminate. “General education core courses,” the legislation reads, “may not suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” History and other courses “with a curriculum based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” might be accepted as electives, but not for general education. Students should stick to “this nation’s historical documents, including the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments thereto, and the Federalist Papers.”

The language in the legislation is vague and unclear. Critically important terms are left undefined and could conceivably lead faculty members teaching theoretical physics on the hot seat. What, to the legislators, is the meaning of “intersectionality”? Of “Critical Race Theory”? What, for that matter, do they mean by “a curriculum”? The legislature, I suspect, want the small number of people who read this bill not to worry about its contents: a proposal to shut off entire fields of inquiry aimed at understanding and proposing solutions to demonstrable and easily-documented injustices in American life. But that a bill of this sort could even be considered is a sad state of affairs for a Nation ostensibly founded on Freedom.

Action is required. While the leader of the American Historical Association bitches and whines about “presentist” scholarship, Florida lawmakers are setting fire to the very idea that students should be exposed to ideas that challenge them, make them feel uncomfortable, or aware of the obvious and yawning gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be. This country is not healthy, and the problems we face today have historical roots. Meanwhile, the entire historical profession has fallen victim to a process of slow strangulation as public university systems deal with declining state funding. Much of the extraordinary talent of a generation of historians has been squandered. Public historical illiteracy is growing by leaps and bounds.

And now, this spate of Republican bills crushing free inquiry and silencing dissent. This legislation is racist and dangerous, a threat to all who value freedom and the ability to raise troubling questions. It is incumbent upon all of us who care about the field of history to explain why. Each of us who believes in the importance of Intellectual Fearlessness, and the importance of raising big questions, more than ever, must act. Each and every chance we get.

Slow Learner

Or unmotivated, or an under-achiever, or “not interested in school.” I was all those things. I am pretty certain I did not know what the SAT was until I became a college professor and that I did not understand its gate-keeping and corporate-enriching function until I became the parent of a high school student. I certainly never took it. I did not even realize until later that I barely graduated from high school. Some of my family insisted I go to my high school graduation because they expected it would be my last.

I showed them.


You can call me Doctor.

And here’s the thing: I was precisely the sort of student who Dr. Jill Biden would have helped. People like Dr. Jill Biden motivated me to make my way through school, to find my calling, to succeed. And I needed that. I needed it when at Ventura College. At Cal State. Even at Syracuse, where I earned my Ph. D. It was not a solo effort. I needed a lot of help.

Because it turns out that when you do not do well in high school, don’t take the SAT, and don’t build relationships with the people who might write for you letters of recommendation, lots of doors close. You will have to work harder than your peers who were either more privileged or more adept at making important life decisions while teenagers. And sometimes you can with remarkable ease dig yourself a hole from which it is very difficult to escape.

One door that remained open for me was the junior college less than a mile from my folks’ house. I am pretty sure the school took anyone who applied, and I could walk there. It was cheaper than the four year college. I could have learned a trade there, had I wished. I could knock off some of the required courses needed should I choose to transfer to the Cal State system. Most importantly, I could learn what it meant to be student, to take learning seriously, and how to succeed. That did not happen by itself. It was because of the people I encountered at that school

I can name more of the teachers from whom I took courses at Ventura College than I can for my undergraduate years at Cal State Long Beach, where I ultimately transferred. I can remember more distinct moments in the classroom from VC than I can from CSULB. None of the teachers I had at the junior college had Ph.D. degrees. None of them had the Ed.D degree that so many of Dr. Biden’s creepy and sexist critics have maligned. As far as I can tell, they all had Master’s degrees and none of them every wrote a book or published any path-breaking research. And while I was there as a student? I can guarantee you that I never thought for one second, “I wonder what degree my teacher has and from where they got it.” Never dawned on me at that time that this was something that mattered.

Those teachers, by helping me learn how to think, and teaching me that learning was, among many things a discipline, changed my life.

In my reasonably affluent neighborhood, I see so many cars with college stickers on the back window. Parents take pride in their kids attending Yale, Duke, Northwestern, or Cornell. I often see stickers for my own college, which for years has been thought of as something akin to the poor man’s Swarthmore. I do not see stickers for the “less prestigious'” universities and for community colleges. That is unfortunate.

One quick glance at the leadership of the Republican Party, for instance, will teach you that legions of idiots and jackasses have flourished in and graduated from Ivy League colleges. While some will tell you that the United States has the best system of higher education in the world, it would be foolish to deny that it is expensive, elitist, and frequently out of reach for too many people. The cost of college continues to sky rocket. Even at the public schools I attended as an undergraduate and beginning graduate student, dwindling state support for higher education has caused the cost of attendance to soar.

My first teaching job was at Montana State University-Billings. When I was there in the mid-1990s, the average age of the students was slightly above 27 years. I was teaching my peers. The school served many “non-traditional” students who in Montana and many parts of the country are hardly non-traditional at all. My students commuted from the Crow Reservation, or they were coming back to school after raising a family or a divorce or after a business failure or an at-work injury. Some had done their time in the armed forces and were looking for what came next. Some had careened from one misfortune to another but finally seemed ready to make a move. Some had not cared about school but now, finally, had decided to go. I miss teaching older students.

Many of these students, according to the logic upon which we still too often rely, were not “well-prepared” for college. They had “deficiencies” that needed “remediation” and sometimes support services. Many of these students flunked courses, or they came for a semester before taking the next semester off. Almost none of them graduated in four years. I am embarrassed to say that, starting out, fresh out of Syracuse, I sometimes lamented that these students did not seem to have any background knowledge. I was wrong to think that way. You see in higher education we too often blame the victims: we are college professors, after all, and we have no obligation to teach those who cannot be taught. If the student, for whatever reason, does not have the skills to succeed in college, they are out of luck. Some college students just are not good enough and they will flunk out. It is almost seen as inevitable. My wife and her friends, inner-city elementary school teachers all, laugh at what they see as our snobbishness. If only we had the option of choosing our students, they say, and viewing the difficult ones as unfortunate and expendable. They have to teach everyone who walks or crawls in the door.

What, like, it's hard?” | Legally Blonde (2001) – FictionMachine
The guy on the right writes for THE NATIONAL REVIEW

The attacks on Dr. Biden are so distasteful. They are sexist and elitist, of course. They are the sort of thing the dude who Elle dumped in “Legally Blonde” would say. But more than that, in their sneering contempt for public higher education and, most of all, community colleges, they cast the teachers who teach there and the students who study there as unworthy, as people whose educations count for less than theirs. No empathy. No sense that different people follow different paths, and that not everyone has it so easy. If only they could spend some time on these campuses. If they were honest they would see that the work of thousands of educators like Dr. Biden is so much more valuable and important than their stupid, key-jangling opinion pieces.

A Lot of People Writing About Higher Education Know Nothing About Higher Education

Like many professors, I have learned a lot this past Pandemic Spring teaching at my small, under-funded, public liberal arts college in Western New York State.  Most of all, I have learned much about the strength and resilience of my battered students.  I have been amazed by their ability to complete their work in the face of significant disruptions in their lives and, in a few cases, horrifying stories of personal tragedy and grief.  I have had students email me their papers from their cars, sitting outside a McDonald’s with its free wi-fi.

            I have also learned that so many “thought leaders” and “change agents” writing about the future of higher education seem to have very little sense of what it is that we college professors do in the classroom. Many of them seem to write from the Ivy League.  They appear to have no familiarity with the sorts of colleges and universities most American college students attend.

            Whether we are talking about Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ suggestion that professors wall themselves off from their classes with a prophylactic plexiglass shield, or others’ suggestions that our Zoom lectures can be packaged, marketed, and reused to create economies of scale in academia, the fact of the matter is that few of us lecture any longer.  The “sage on the stage” model is old and less effective than other methods in reaching today’s students.  This is not a lament about “kids these days.”  It is, rather, exciting, a development that brings a vibrancy to the classroom that makes the learning experience more rewarding and impactful for all.

Mitch Daniels has proposed placing professors behind plastic, plexiglass shields.

            We are neither talking heads nor orators bound to a lectern. Our classes are not one-way streets, with faculty speaking and students listening. We move around the room. Our students do, too.  In my history and humanities courses, I try to talk with, rather than at, students.  True, some instructors lecture very effectively and engagingly with their students, but too often this mode of instruction renders students passive.  They absorb “course content” which is often supplemented by massive, expensive textbooks (True Story: No college professor reads a textbook for enjoyment or out of interest, yet too many of us expect our students to do so). Students in these courses take notes, periodically regurgitate what they think is important, but otherwise play little active role in their own education. It is rote and it is terribly dull, but a lot of people think it is what we do.

            It is not.  College classrooms look much different today than they did when I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s.

            We know it is better to have students learn by doing.  Students in the liberal arts and humanities learn by asking questions, and by listening, conversing, and engaging in discussion and debate.  They collect evidence, read critically, and analyze.  We work hard to create critical thinkers and writers. In my classes, we discuss the sources to assess their strengths and weaknesses, their biases and prejudices, and to see what sorts of information this source might yield. We urge students to consider their own preconceptions that might color how they interpret the past.  And together we engage in urgent Socratic dialogue which exposes the weaknesses in our reasoning and forces us to confront long-held assumptions.  Or job is to help students learn, and that is something so much more than merely distributing to them over video selected course content.

            The content of our courses, after all, can change dramatically over time. History is not a static collection of names, dates, and places.  Rather, it is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  History is not a science, but it is a discipline, as we set out to answer the questions that present themselves to us in a deliberate, systematic, and rigorous manner.  The questions we seek to answer can change with the world around us.  Not only does new scholarship force us to rethink old assumptions, but the world itself insistently raises questions about the way things are and the way things ought to be. 

            There are of course many different ways to teach effectively. Different academic disciplines lend themselves better to some teaching methodologies than to others. But we must dispense with the outdated notion that college professors provide rote course content by lecturing in ways that can be packaged and replicated semester after semester.  So much student learning takes place in libraries and in the archives, in faculty offices and in the hallways outside the room before and after class.  Students learn through internships and through working closely with faculty mentors on research projects.

            There has been so much loss over the course of the past three months.  The inconvenience and financial blows colleges and universities are experiencing may pale in comparison to the needless suffering of so many families across the country.  If, however, higher education is deemed in need of reform, I would urge these advocates to reflect upon the best learning experiences they had themselves in college.  It likely was not something that took place as they sat in a massive lecture hall, or watched a video, or labored through a chunky textbook.  To help higher education, let’s look towards adequately funding public colleges and universities, reversing the long-standing trend towards a highly continent teaching faculty. It is a smart, long-term, investment.  Let’s equip faculty to provide students with the resources to provide students with the high-impact learning experiences that can awaken in them a new sense of the possible and that can change their lives.   

What If I Don’t Like Chipotle? Jerry Brown and Higher Education

Jerry Brown, the governor of my home state, recently aired some complaints about college professors and higher education.

“What I like about Chipotle,” he told a meeting of the California Chamber of Commerce, “is the limited menu. You stand in the line, get either brown rice or white rice, black beans or pinto beans,” Brown said. “You put a little cheese, a little this, a little that, and you’re out of there. I think that’s a model some of our universities need to follow.”  Brown was especially critical of the California State University system, which in his view needs to improve its four-year graduation rates.

I have some thoughts about this.  For two years I attended Ventura College, one of California’s many community colleges. It was a short walk from my house.  Then I earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in history from Cal State Long Beach.  It has been a while, but I have some experience with the system.  And now I teach at an institution that in many ways is analogous to Cal State, the State University of New York College at Geneseo.

I do not know the current graduation rates in the Cal State system, nor whether they have declined dramatically or whether programs are so badly impacted that students struggle to find the courses they need to graduate. Certainly Governor Brown thinks so. And the fault lies with the professors.

“They have so damn many courses because all these professors want to teach one of their pet little projects, but then you get thousands and thousands of courses, and then the basic courses aren’t available. It takes kids six years instead of four years,” Brown said.

“I know that’s not politically correct, or intellectually correct, because there’s so much to learn,” he added. “But you don’t learn it all in college. You learn most of it after you leave. So, get a good basic education in whatever field you try to do it in and get out of there.”

I can only speak to history departments, of course.  Certainly there are professors who are intensely specialized and narrowly focused, who teach nothing but what is in their tightly bound field of interest. But some of these courses, I would argue, provide students with a powerful educational experience.  Governor Brown is right, in the sense that you learn much after you leave college, but there are skills that students obtain and experiences students have in these narrowly focused courses that can be life-changing.  Sometimes narrowly focused faculty are a problem. But in my experience not only are they a minority, but they are viewed as a problem in their department. Far more common are professors who work hard, run themselves ragged teaching courses that cover a vast chronological or geographic range, sometimes far outside their research areas.  And I would point out to Governor Brown that I can count the number of historians who have complained about this reality on one hand, and I have been at this for nearly a quarter-century.

At Geneseo, I teach six courses a year.  Of those, two are what we call service courses, taught for the purpose of fulfilling my department’s commitment to helping students complete their general education requirements.  I teach a Humanities course that covers the great works in the western tradition from Classical Athens to Shakespeare, or a freshman writing seminar known as INTD 105.  I teach two survey courses, one in Native American History and one on American Indian Law and Public Policy, both of which fulfill general education requirements in a number of categories that students need in order to graduate, and 2 other courses in the department of History. Of the six courses I teach every year, at most two of those are specialized courses directed toward the interests of history majors.

My point is that I think Governor Brown has diagnosed the problem improperly. It is important to help students succeed. It is important to  ensure that they have access to the courses they need to graduate on time.  When I attended Cal State Long Beach, the vast, vast majority of students were commuters. I never knew anyone who did not work part time. I knew many “non-traditional” students–veterans, people coming back after a couple of years, people who bounced around from college to college and found themselves in Long Beach.  Some of them were ill-prepared for college, and needed remedial help, which was available. Although Geneseo’s student population is overwhelmingly white and between the ages of 18 and 22, there are schools in the SUNY system with more diversity, both in terms of ethnicity, race, ability and experience.  Sometimes students do not have the financial means to make it through school in four years.  Things happen. Problems arise.  When I attended Cal State, it cost me around 400 dollars a semester.  I could work and easily pay my bills.  It is not like that anymore.  Students may have trouble finding the classes they need, then, because economic necessity might require that they work when classes are offered.  And meanwhile, faculty lines go unfilled.

There are many problems afflicting higher education, most of them caused by a steady decline in funding.  Governor Brown, I know, is humane and interested enough to recognize the value of the liberal arts, of how liberating a college education can be.  But if we want our states to offer world class educations, we have to be willing to pay for it.  We cannot expect increasingly indebted students to foot the bill.  Indeed, it is a good investment for citizens and legislators.  You fund the colleges.  More students can attend.  More classes are available for them.  They graduate, earn higher paying jobs than they would if they did not go to college and, voila, they pay more in taxes over the course of their careers than if they did not attend college.  Return on investment, right?  The current leadership of the GOP, and many Democratic leaders who seemingly want to sound like Republicans on matters of higher education, want to view colleges as elite institution.  The truth about state institutions like SUNY and CSU, in my experience, is that they are nothing of the sort: if adequately funded they can become engines of democracy, equality, and opportunity.

Betsy DeVos Needs to go to School

What a dark and frightening world it is that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sees awaiting the young people attending the nation’s colleges and universities. “The faculty,” DeVos warned an audience some time back at the Conservative Political Action Conference, “from adjunct professors to deans, tell you want to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”
Oh, Secretary DeVos, you have it all so wrong.
I have attended colleges and universities, public and private, as a student in California and New York. I have taught at colleges and universities in Montana, Texas, and New York. I have spent more than three decades, as student and a professor of American history, on college campuses.
My colleagues and I have, I will admit, told students to do their assigned work. We have told them that they need to communicate clearly and effectively with evidence to support their reasoning. Sometimes we complain that they do not work hard enough or think with enough discipline. But we do not tell our students what to think. Indeed, there would be no better way to lose an audience of 18-22 year old young people.
I have no idea how much time Betsy DeVos spends in college classrooms, but I can say that higher education as it actually is practiced bears little resemblance to the dystopian vision she outlined last week and that is echoed so often in the right-wing media.
In history and the liberal arts, we pose big questions over which great minds around the world from many cultures have wrestled with for millennia. We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures. We urge students to be curious and hard-working, critical but kind. But we do not tell students what to think. We ask them to use their imagination and their reason. We expect them to argue—to investigate problems, gather evidence, consider the scholarship, and advance a thesis with confidence and clarity. We urge them to question everything, to challenge assumptions, to demand evidence, and to be intellectually fearless. We demand that they think.
Are there incompetent professors? Or ideologues in the university classroom? Sure, there are a few, and as many on the right as on the left in my experience. But they are a tiny minority, as they are in any line of work. There are, after all, incompetent and close-minded politicians, plumbers, and cabinet secretaries, as well, and “the faculty” is generally a group of fiercely independent and open-minded thinkers.
And that is what we want for our students. When I teach my college’s required course in the Western Humanities, my students read Sophocles and Thucydides, Plato and Cicero, the Bible and Augustine, Aquinas and Thomas More. That is a reading list that Conservatives a couple of decades ago would have loved. My students debate questions of immense importance: what are the components of human nature, what is the source of evil, how does one define

Yours Truly, Telling students that they should not kill the Melians

justice, and the relationship between law, power, and liberty, to name a few. The students’ opinions cross the ideological spectrum, but all understand that they must explain why they believe what they believe, and the evidence and experience that led them to those beliefs. And they must consider the ideas of great thinkers along the way, some of whom will challenge all that they believe to be true. Education can be an unsettling experience. Students who really want to be educated will be challenged.
Betsy DeVos seems to look on all of this with dread. She wants college students to join in “the fight against the education establishment,” to root out those phantoms “who say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you are a threat to the university community.” She believes that conservative students are under siege, assaulted by a college community that pays little heed to their First Amendment rights.
Nonsense. And the few exceptions she might trot prove no rule. Professors are as much a threat to free thought on college campuses as Grizzly Bears are a threat to children in elementary schools.

Education is essential for the functioning and survival of a republic. STEM education is important. We all know that. But a thriving democracy requires informed and questioning citizens, capable of thinking for themselves, assessing evidence, and dismantling the cant of demagogues and press secretaries. This is precisely what education in the liberal arts provides: students who can write, who can reason, and who can debate; students who can cut to the quick of an argument and insist on seeing the evidence and demand answers. These are the sorts of people, judging by Secretary DeVos’s demeanor at her confirmation hearing, that she worries about the most.
Spend some time on a college campus. Listen to what students talk about when they talk about their classes. Read what they write and what their professors write. Look at what they learn. Do so broadly, and with an open mind. You will see, then, that Secretary DeVos needs to go to school.