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Commencement speech

December 23, 2014

When I graduated from college in 1990, I had mixed feelings about wearing an academic robe. I was thrilled to be graduating, but the black robes seemed a bit pompous and elitist.

I had recently returned from a year in Germany, where academic dress had been abandoned since the 1960s due to its perceived association with right-wing authoritarianism. I had heard the slogan “Unter den Talaren, Muff von 1000 Jahren” — “Beneath the gowns, the mustiness of 1000 years” — a reference to both outdated university traditions and the “Thousand Year Reich” of the Nazis. The slogan first appeared in 1967 on a banner unfurled by two law students in a packed auditorium at the University of Hamburg. It became popular in the context of student protests against the failure of German universities to come to terms with the Nazi past.

Since the mid-1990s, academic dress has gradually returned to many German universities. When I started at Sacramento State in 2003, my department chair told me the department would buy an academic robe for me, if I wanted one. I hesitated for a while, since I assumed it came with the expectation that I would regularly attend commencement. But I decided to take the robe, and overall I’ve come to see commencement as an important and enjoyable occasion. Of course some of it is rather tedious, but I like shaking the students’ hands and seeing their pride and excitement.

Last Friday I again attended commencement, but I didn’t get to shake many hands, since this year I was the faculty speaker of my college, the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Our college gives speakers five minutes. At first that sounded ridiculously short, but once I discovered how difficult it is to prepare such a speech, I was glad that I didn’t have to fill more time.

Of course I procrastinated, in part by reading commencement speeches and advice about commencement speeches. I found a useful list of suggestions on writing a commencement speech, which said to “Honor the occasion,” “Keep it under 18 minutes” (no problem there), “Be utterly yourself,” “Startle them,” and “Speak slowly and well.”

Also helpful was NPR’s “Anatomy of A Great Commencement Speech,” which listed four rules: “Be funny,” “Make fun of yourself,” “Downplay the genre,” and “You must have a message.”

NPR also has an online database of over 300 of the best commencement speeches, including this fantastic speech by Meryl Streep.

In the end I finished the speech with enough extra time to practice it twice in the kitchen, before struggling into my storied academic robe and driving to the massive sports arena where we hold commencement.

Overall it seems to have gone alright. A few people told me the acoustics were so bad that they could barely understand any of the speakers, including me — aargh! — but others said they could understand me just fine.

Here’s the text of my speech:

I feel very honored to speak to you today and to congratulate you, Sacramento State graduates of 2014. Unfortunately, I’ve never given a commencement speech before, and I really had no idea how to prepare. So I did what any tenured professor with over twenty-five years of education and a Ph.D. would do: I googled it.

Before long I found myself watching videos of fantastic commencement speeches by Meryl Streep and Michelle Obama and other luminaries. I read what I should do (speak slowly, keep it short), and I read what I absolutely should not do (don’t make it about yourself). I learned that I should offer advice, anecdotes, humor, inspiration, hope, and wisdom – all in five minutes. And I learned that I should speak from my experience, make it personal, and above all, make the speech my own and don’t imitate anyone else.

As you can probably guess – given that you’re practically college graduates – I soon realized that all this online input wasn’t really helping very much. I was getting a lot of information, but not very much knowledge or understanding. And I also wasn’t practicing my speech.

Then I remembered something I’ve often told my students: you can get information anytime, anywhere. But knowledge, understanding, and know-how – those require real work. The kind of work that a student of mine was doing when she said that she could only understand half of the text I had assigned – a difficult text in eighteenth-century political theory – but she was enjoying the challenge. Or the work that another student was doing when he wrote a research paper on climate change, even though the topic made him anxious and depressed. Long hours of study, intense conversations with a wide range of people, engagement with new ideas and worldviews. You can do that kind of work in various ways, but one excellent way is to go to college.

As college graduates, you’ve not only acquired knowledge and understanding, but in a broader sense, you’ve become more free.

Free of what? Your education certainly hasn’t been free of financial cost – for you, or your parents, or the California taxpayers.

Has college made you more free to get your dream job? I think it probably has. And since this is the college of social sciences, I’m happy to report that, no, not all social science majors are unemployed, and it’s actually not true that only business and engineering majors go on to successful careers. And in any case, a recent survey found that the number one thing that young people today want in a career is not a high salary, but a sense of personal meaning and social purpose.

If a college education makes you more free to pursue your chosen career, what makes your career choice a truly free choice? Freedom of mind. That’s another kind of freedom you’ve learned in college. The capacity to know yourself, to think for yourself, to understand your genuine needs and interests.

And even free thinking people are not truly free if they live with economic anxiety, or ecological destruction, or fear of bigotry and violence. And so at Sacramento State, you’ve also learned political freedom: the capacity to shape the policies and decisions that shape your lives – not only in government but at work, and at home, and wherever people need to find ways of making decisions together. As college graduates, you’re prepared to go beyond watching the news – or at least The Daily Show – and start making some news of your own.

I hope your college education has made you more free in all of these ways. And I hope that if you’re ever asked to prepare a commencement speech, or any speech, and if you start by going online, you’ll also remember to get into your head and your heart, and out into the world. That’s where the real action is

And now I’m already out of time, and I was supposed to give you some advice. I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but I’ll say that as you leave Sacramento State, remember to be kind and courageous – challenge ignorance, challenge yourself – live with nature, live a lot – take action, take care – and don’t forget to write.

Thank you, and congratulations on all your hard work.

Contingent faculty report

April 11, 2014

It’s not often that my work overlaps with that of the U.S. Congress.

In January the House Committee on Education and the Workforce released a report on the working conditions of contingent faculty, “The Just-In-Time Professor.” As one story on the report noted, this is the first time that Congress has formally addressed the issue.

Not to be outdone, and certainly not by the U.S. Congress, the Faculty Council of the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies (SSIS) at Sacramento State, which I currently chair, recently sent out a brief report on the working conditions of contingent faculty in our college.

When we first started working on the issue about 18 months ago, we had a brief discussion on what term to use for non-tenure-track faculty. We eventually settled on “contingent faculty,” which has long been used by the AAUP and other groups to highlight the uncertain working conditions of non-tenure-track faculty. It’s also the term used by the House Committee report. The more familiar terms “part-time faculty” and “adjunct faculty” have become somewhat misleading, since non-tenure-track faculty now comprise between 50 and 80 percent of university faculty, and many teach full-time. The California Faculty Association (CFA) and our university employment guidelines use the term “Lecturer,” while the CSU Collective Bargaining Agreement refers to “temporary faculty unit employees.”

The CFA officially represents contingent faculty and has secured significant contract improvements over the years. The CFA also has an excellent “Lecturers’ Handbook.”

At Sacramento State, about half of the faculty are on contingent appointments, with substantial variations among departments. In the fall of 2012, the SSIS Faculty Council sent a survey on contingent faculty to the College’s department chairs, and a year later we sent an online anonymous survey to all 109 contingent faculty then teaching in the College. The total number of respondents was 56, which makes for a response rate of 51 percent.

Most respondents expressed satisfaction with questions of collegiality and autonomy in course design, among other things. But there were many areas of considerable dissatisfaction, which won’t surprise anyone familiar with the issue:

Unpaid work (44 responses). On their own initiative and without additional pay:

  • 29 advise/mentor undergraduates, and 18 advise/mentor graduate students
  • 21 attend conferences or colloquia, and 24 attend professional development functions
  • 12 develop new courses
  • 18 publish research papers

Receipt of contract for appointment or reappointment:

  • 10 have, at least once, received their contract after the semester started (46 responses)
  • 33 usually receive their contract less than 15 days before the semester started (47 responses)


  • 5 said their college has a mechanism for recognizing outstanding contributions from faculty with their appointment title, 13 said it did not, and 30 said they don’t know (48 responses)
  • 48 said they had never applied for a performance award from their college (48 responses)

Professional Development:

  • 14 said their department provides them with professional development opportunities, 34 said either it did not or they were not sure (48 responses)
  • 25 said their college or university provides them with professional development opportunities, 23 said either it did not or they were not sure (48 responses)


  • 33 are not aware of opportunities to participate in governance in their department (46 responses)
  • 35 are not aware of opportunities to participate in governance in their college (46 responses)
  • 28 are regularly invited to department meetings, 19 are not (47 responses)
  • 9 have a vote on some issues at department meetings, 15 do not, and 16 are not sure (40 responses)
  • 13 would like to play a larger role in department meetings and/or department committees, even without additional compensation, 12 if they were compensated financially, and 20 if they were compensated in some way (52 responses)

Our report also included a brief set of recommendations for consideration by all members of the College:

  1. Consider formally inviting contingent faculty to attend department meetings, and trying to schedule meetings at times when the maximum number of contingent faculty can attend. Contingent faculty cannot be contractually required to attend meetings, because service is not part of their contracts, but departments can consider inviting contingent faculty to provide input on decisions that affect them. Department meetings also provide an opportunity to share information and ideas, and including contingent faculty may help strengthen department collegiality and morale.
  1. Consider allowing contingent faculty to vote on departmental decisions that do not involve ARTP for tenured and tenure-track faculty, such as department chair, curriculum, and other matters pertaining to faculty working conditions. Departments might consider establishing a minimum service threshold for voting rights (e.g., two semesters).
  1. Consider ways of more fully including contingent faculty in departmental social events.
  1. Consider inviting qualified contingent faculty to teach the full range of courses taught by tenure-line faculty (lecture, seminar, lower-division, upper-division, graduate, etc.). Relatedly, consider establishing explicit criteria for course allocation.
  1. Consider providing contingent faculty with department-level funding for professional development, preferably on an equal basis with other faculty.
  1. Consider using a wide range of factors to evaluate contingent faculty. The recent memo from the Dean’s office indicates various possibilities.
  1. For department chairs, in cooperation with the Dean’s office, consider ways of providing contingent faculty more advance notice and confirmation of employment. Whenever possible, confirm appointments on an individual basis, rather than waiting until all appointments can be confirmed at once. Contingent faculty need the earliest possible notice of their teaching assignments for adequate course preparation and other matters, and they require a confirmation of contract to make decisions about other work opportunities.

Some departments were already doing some of these things before we starting working on the report, and we’ve gotten positive feedback from some faculty. But it will take some time to see to what extent individual departments undertake significant changes.

One exciting change already is that our college dean proposed to solicit nominations for a lecturer representative to join the Council this fall, and the Faculty Council approved. The person will be elected by the College’s contingent faculty, and given that lecturers are not paid for university service, he or she will be eligible for one unit of assigned time. I’m told that two people have already nominated themselves.

Of course, there’s only so much we can do at the college level, but as they say, “you gotta start somewhere,” and we might make some relatively easy but significant improvements.


MOOC at your leisure

March 6, 2014

Back in January, I met with Melinda Welsh of the Sacramento News & Review to talk about MOOCs, and this week’s issue includes a few quotes from our discussion in a feature story: “MOOCs: High-tech hype, or the future of education?

Among other things, the article quotes me on the way public fascination with MOOCs easily distracts us from more fundamental challenges to higher education. What are we not talking about when we’re talking about MOOCs? We’re not talking about the working conditions of contingent faculty, or rising tuition and student debt, or the need to restore public funding to higher education.

Welsh and I also talked about the way boosters have often presented MOOCs as a techno-fix for the ills of higher education. But now the MOOC messaging has shifted from technology-as-savior to technology-as-sublime-mystery.

According to the gurus of innovation, the MOOC phenomena is simply being misunderstood. As Mark Zuckerberg’s character said in The Social Network: “We don’t even know what it is yet.”

Unfortunately, this new packaging is not much less deterministic and anti-democratic than the first. Whether MOOCs are essentially good or essentially unpredictable, the implicit message is that we don’t have political choices about how to respond — but of course we do, as Welsh makes clear in her discussion of faculty response to proposed California Senate Bill 520, which would have required public universities and colleges to give credit for privately run online courses.

The article rightly points out that MOOCs do have various benefits, and they may actually work best when not associated with universities at all: “some even suggest MOOCs will create a vast new ‘leisure learning’ market.”

But MOOCs also raise other important concerns, frequently and forcefully presented by Jonathan Rees:

Epistemic obsolescence. Why invest all that time and money — Welsh reports that a computing class produced by Udacity cost about $250,000 — when the content will be outdated in a couple years? Maybe it doesn’t matter so much for certain introductory topics, but most faculty continually update their courses to reflect new developments, both in their discipline and in society at large.

Faculty de-skilling and self-obsolescence. If students can watch lectures by the best super-professors in the world, do they really need highly trained but somewhat-less-super professors any more at all? If faculty record all their best lectures so that anyone can watch them by clicking a button, why would a university pay those faculty to give more lectures? Students can watch the lectures alone at home, and if someone still wants a little classroom interaction, a low-paid temp teaching assistant can lead discussion. Welcome to Wal-Mart U!

Time constraints. Watching an online lecture at home can be an excellent complement to assigned reading and other course materials, but there are only so many hours in a day. If forced to choose, should students watch a video or read a book? Maybe some of each, depending on the student, topic, and goals of the course. But when time is short, a 15-minute video easily seems more attractive than a 50-page reading assignment. The risk is that students no longer acquire the analytical and interpretive skills that come from careful reading of difficult texts.

These issues came together in a recent class of mine, when I played a few minutes of one of Michael Sandel’s lectures from his famous course on justice. Sandel is an engaging lecturer, in part because he often directly engages at least a few members of his huge audience in back-and-forth discussion. Nearly everyone remains silent, of course, so it’s nothing like a good seminar, but the verbal exchange is symbolically important, and even those who aren’t lucky enough to enjoy a few moments of friendly banter with the Sage on the Stage may feel virtually included.

But as I watched the video with my students, it struck me as incredibly sad. Why would we sit there and watch another professor discuss important issues with another set of students? So I jumped up and turned it off, told the students to watch it at home, but only after they had finished the assigned reading, and the students and I talked about the issues ourselves.

A BIT of my book

February 18, 2014

Maybe you’d like some food for thought, but you’ve already had lunch and it’s too early for dinner. Or maybe you’re looking for a midnight snack. You want something tasty but not filling, just a short chapter or two, a bookish treat.

You could try a bite from a bit of my book.

The culinary landscape of academic publishing is changing in all sorts of ways, and MIT Press recently expanded their menu with something called “BITS”: single-serving chapters of MIT Press titles.

A BIT doesn’t cost much ($2.99 to $4.99), and it’s readable on any screen (DRM-free). If after the BIT you want to buy the book, you get 40 percent off on the Press website.

The BIT of my book Science in Democracy includes chapters 3 and 8. The text is identical to the printed book, including footnotes, but without the original page numbers.

Chapter 3 is about the relation of democracy and expertise in eighteenth-century theories of political representation. Here’s an excerpt:

Commentators today usually portray political representation as necessary for coping with the size and complexity of modern states. The founders of representative government agreed, but they were also convinced that it offered a way of dealing with the perceived incompetence of unruly citizens. Scholars today echo this view when discussing the relation of science and democracy. They acknowledge that science incorporates both egalitarian and elitist elements (e.g., egalitarian norms of publicity and transparency on one hand, and merit-based restrictions on membership on the other). But when it comes to democracy, they equate democracy with its egalitarian elements (e.g., voting rights) and neglect its elitist elements (voting is a process for selecting representatives whom voters deem, in one respect or another, more qualified than others). Indeed, commentators generally equate calls for the “democratization” of science with efforts to increase the quantity rather than the quality of public engagement. This chapter shows that this populist view of democracy is embedded within the liberal theory of representative government. It also shows that this view of democracy stems from a time when most people believed that democracy necessarily led to majority tyranny. This historical legacy suggests that finding a place for science within representative democracy depends on rethinking the relationships among science, democracy, and representation.

Chapter 8 is about how science becomes political:

To say that science has been politicized implies that it was previously not political. And assuming that politicization is reversible, things that have become political can be depoliticized as well. But what does it mean to make something political? How does one know that a particular change or event qualifies as an instance of the larger phenomenon of politicization? . . . My aim in this chapter . . . is not to tell everyone what politics really is, nor to subvert practical efforts to shift received boundaries between science and politics. On the contrary: the purpose of asking how science becomes political is to facilitate such efforts by exploring their normative stakes and potential contribution to representative democracy.

That’s all for now. Go ahead, try it, you’ll like it.

Can’t buy me love — how about education?

February 14, 2014

It’s Valentine’s Day, and even though it’s a holiday no less commercialized than most, and stores are suddenly filled with flowers, champagne, and chocolates, we all know you can’t buy love. (Actually, the chocolate might help, or so early modern physicians believed, according to an op-ed on “Sex and Candy” in today’s paper.)

What about education? Many of us in the liberal arts tend to see education as inherently non-economic, as fundamentally opposed to economic ideas, values, and interests. The liberal arts have intrinsic value, we say, good in themselves and not (only) for their instrumental benefits. And even if liberal arts students actually have better economic prospects than most assume, I think there’s a tendency in the liberal arts to draw a sharp line between economic and intellectual concerns. Maybe that’s why so many faculty continue to have an ivory tower view of our profession, finding little time for the mundane work of participating in university politics, engaging the general public, or actively promoting public support of higher education.

To be sure, university life depends on intellectual curiosity, autonomy, community, and other values and activities that are easily undermined by commercial thinking. But it’s not a black-and-white issue, as critics of the commodification of academic work sometimes suggest. It’s possible to think in terms of what legal scholar Margaret Radin calls “incomplete commodification.” I wrote about this issue in an earlier post, and in a book chapter that I’ll excerpt here (citations removed):

When giving someone a gift, it is indeed “the thought that counts,” but expressing that thought by purchasing a gift with money need not denigrate the thought. Similarly, most people must work for pay, and yet most hope to have jobs they would enjoy doing for free. And anyone who takes pride in “a job well done,” does the job in a manner that is not fully captured by its market price. Rather than simply banning certain things from being sold, society might resist universal commodification by finding ways of protecting and promoting the non-market dimensions of things exchanged on the market.

Today the non-economic dimensions of higher education are especially threatened by a lack of economic resources. Deep cuts in public funding have led to skyrocketing tuition and student debt, increased reliance on contingent faculty, and reductions in faculty positions, course offerings, and library services, among other things. Many taxpayers seem unwilling to spend money to educate “somebody else’s children,” otherwise known as the future of our society.

Fifty years ago the Beatles released the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” which includes a scene of the band frolicking on the grass during the song “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The song is a joyous embrace of love over money. The scene ends with a grumpy man saying to them, “I suppose you realize this is private property!” George replies dryly, “Sorry we hurt your field, Mister.”

Just because something has economic value, such as a field, doesn’t mean it will be hurt by non-economic uses, such as frolicking. And just because university education depends on non-economic values doesn’t mean nobody has to pay for it. The question is who.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Liberal arts, the job market, and Pete Seeger

January 31, 2014

  mini graduation cap on money, by SalFalk

This was the first week of the new semester at Sacramento State, and my courses seem to have gotten off to a good start. Unlike last semester, I didn’t have students sitting on the floor, telling me that they couldn’t find a spot in the classes they need to graduate. I don’t know to what extent that’s due to the recent modest budget increases for public higher education, but for now at least everyone has a chair.

That makes this a good time to consider the latest flurry of fretting over the employment prospects of liberal arts majors. Yesterday President Obama stoked the job market anxieties of art history majors. Such anxieties are pervasive, and many students these days decide to major in business, nursing, and other professional degree programs in part because they assume those degrees promise more income than a liberal arts degree. And that’s no surprise, given the messages conveyed by many administrators and faculty, as well as our culture as a whole. Especially in tough economic times, students constantly hear that they should choose a “practical” major.

There’s nothing wrong with figuring out how you’re going to pay the bills, but the assumption that liberal arts majors will end up on the streets has been repeatedly debunked, most recently in a report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment. The report confirms other recent studies showing that liberal arts majors actually have higher long-term job earnings than those with professional degrees.

Median Annual Earnings by Age-Group and Undergraduate Major (2010-11)

Median Annual Earnings by Age-Group and Undergraduate Major (2010-11)

Humanities and social science majors do best when they go on to graduate school, and if you only consider those who don’t get a graduate degree, humanities and social science majors are at the bottom of the income scale, but by less than most people assume:

Median earnings for graduates with only baccalaureate degrees (2010-11)

Median earnings for graduates with only baccalaureate degrees (2010-11)

The report also makes a point confirmed by other studies: employers like to hire liberal arts majors. As reported by Inside Higher Ed:

Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically . . . all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.

And in the end, of course, as Jordan Weissmann argues, “Money Is a Terrible Way to Measure the Value of a College Major.” Students should expect much more from college than a high salary. Among other things, they should expect to learn how to think critically, write clearly, and speak publicly about issues that matter to them — regardless of their major.

All of this gives me one more reason to take a break and listen to some of the songs of Pete Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94. One of the best in this context is the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes,” which Seeger made famous, and which my parents used to sing with my sister and I in the car whenever we drove past Daly City on the way to the beach. (Today people might know it from the opening segment of the television series “Weeds.”) Like most people, I thought it was just about suburban conformity, and the cheerful tune might have motivated Tom Lehrer to say (according to Christopher Hitchens) that it was “the most sanctimonious song ever written.” But listening to it again now, it seems broader than that, more chilling, even downright Orwellian:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same.

Nowadays a lot more people go to college than when the song was written, and maybe some students see the pressure to conform less in the suburbs than in the universities.

Meaning and the Economics of Science

December 1, 2013

Commentators have often described the current batch of twenty-somethings as narcissistic materialists, and the growing number of university students majoring in business may seem to confirm that. In the United States, more than 20 percent of college students now major in business, up from 13.7 percent in 1970, and more than twice the number of any other field. But an article in today’s New York Times, “Millenial Searchers,” cites a recent study that shows most young people today — so-called millennials — actually want something more than money:

the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”

Of course, “meaning” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but a sense of meaning generally involves the feeling that a person’s life has purpose and value for both oneself and others. “People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”

Unfortunately, the economy today rewards only certain kinds of meaningful work. In another thoughtful piece in today’s Times, “The Real Humanities Crisis,” Gary Gutting distinguishes among three sources of meaning: material goods, social connections, and cultural development.

Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.

If you’re a young person who wants to get rich or help those in need, you can probably find a job. But if you want to be an artist, writer, philosopher, historian, or cultural critic — if you want to be part of the humanities — you have a long row to hoe. The extremely talented and very lucky can do well for themselves, but the vast majority of cultural workers find the economic deck stacked against them. Gutting writes,

We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class . . . But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.

Many cultural workers struggle to get by with adjunct teaching appointments, and one promising avenue for reform appears in efforts to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty. As Gutting writes, “If adjuncts don’t meet the standards to be part of the regular faculty, they shouldn’t be hired. If they do, they should be treated the same.”

Another reform that Gutting mentions would be to give the humanities some of the public funding that currently goes to college and professional sports, which in the United States enjoy enormous government largesse.

The online journal Spontaneous Generations recently published an issue on “Economic Aspects of Science” that addresses many of these dilemmas. It includes a piece of mine on “Public University Funding and the Privatization of Politics.”