Liberal Education Goes on the Offense

A few weeks ago, I spent four days at the annual conference of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  Several hundred small to mid-size colleges and universities are represented  by about a 1000 presidents,provosts, deans and other academic administrators gathered to discuss the state and future of higher  education.  This  was the 100th annual meeting of the association! The  conference theme was presented as “Liberal Education, Global Flourishing, and the Equity Imperative.”  Sorting through the abstract headlines, session after session grappled with a drumbeat of  concern over the near and long term future of post secondary education.

Over the past several years, the annual confab spent most of its program in arguments defending the values of a liberal education in the face of an increasingly utilitarian attitude toward the purpose of higher education. This year,there seemed to be less defense and more offense–more simple assumption that what young men and women gain through liberal education beyond high school is essential to the future of all human endeavor. Without the graduates of liberal education in all of its forms and no matter how accessed, the future of humanity is in deep trouble. So, let’s just stop all the talk of gloom and doom and get on with engaging our young adults in rich and broad arts and humanities curriculum, for it is this type of learning experience only that will set them on a course to a life well lived.

Several of the presenters pooh poohed the media harangue that higher education has to change or it will soon see its “business” and “purpose” decay to irrelevancy. The point is, the conference embraced, that our society–any evolving society–cannot do without a higher and continuing education resource. The role played by colleges and universities to transition young men and women to adulthood, to provide knowledge and skills to future leaders and professionals, to preserve and curate what we have collectively learned and to generate new knowledge through research and creativity are fundamental to societal health.


Why Do So Many Care about the Preferences of So Few–The Oscars!

Movie awards season is well in swing.  All those films we saw in 2014 (actually most of us only saw a very few if any) are now vying for the status of “award-winning” from all sorts of competitions.  But the ones that we pay most attention to are the early January Golden Globes and the late February Academy Awards.

There are plenty of other prestigious awards—The American Film Institute honors pictures that represent the best in collaboration; the various guilds (Screen Actors, Directors, Writers, etc.) recognize excellence among their peers; the Critics’ Choice Awards are given by broadcast film and television critics; and the Film Independent Spirit Awards recognize films with budgets under $20 million.  It’s the Oscars, though, that have become an annual phenomenon.

The live broadcast of the Oscars attracted more than forty million viewers last year making it the most watched non-sports telecast over the prior ten years.   Since its founding as a modest insider dinner among Hollywood elite in 1929, the awarding of the Oscar statuettes has become one of America’s and the world’s most shared three plus hours of radio, television and now live streaming on a mobile device near you.  Office pools abound as the annual event nears—newspapers and websites provide ballots for marking the choices.  Oscar-watch parties have become yet another popular reason to costume and consume.

What is this all about? I mean how do these few movies, their stars and makers, grab the fascination of millions and millions around the globe for a couple months culminating in a TV show each year?  And how do the votes of about 6000 Academy members make a difference to those millions?  Being one of those 6000 potential voters, I marvel at it all each year.

I became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1993.  After several years financing and producing motion pictures, I was sponsored and then elected to membership.  The Academy requires that two of its existing members sponsor a new member based on significant accomplishments connected to the creation of theatrical motion pictures.  Once a year, the Board reviews the sponsor applications and decides on the invitations it will offer to new members. Oscar nominees automatically receive membership, but not many other folks are given the nod.

No doubt that getting the invitation was a very big deal.   But being honored by membership in the Academy, doesn’t begin to help me understand why the results of voting for the Oscars makes for such a mega-conversation every January and February.

The 6000 +/- Academy members are mostly like me—white, male, in their early 60’s.  According to a best guess survey in a recent LA Times article (the Academy does not provide specifics on the demographics of its membership), 94% of the members are white, 77% are men. Hence, the annual criticism about the lack of diversity in the Academy and, this year, the controversy about the lack of diversity in the actor/actress categories.  The motion picture industry has a reality of demographics among its makers that does not mirror those of our country, but I doubt if it is much worse that so many of our professional communities.  Certainly the industry has work, lots of work, to do, but as Tim Gray points out in VARIETY, but the voting of the Academy may not be the best place to target in strengthening the diversity of our country’s films and filmmakers.

Take a look at how the voting works—each category of Oscars (actors, directors, costume design, screenwriters, etc.) is nominated by its “branch of members.”  Given the number of eligible voters in each branch, the number of votes needed to secure a nomination is pretty small.  Steve Pond in an article in THE WRAP shows how a best actor nomination takes about 190 votes to secure a place on the ballot.  Because of the number of voters in the various branches, a best director nomination can be had for about 45 votes, best cinematography takes 38 votes and so on.  The whole membership votes on best picture nominations making that category the toughest to assemble enough votes to get on the ballot—about 550.  Given such small slices of the overall membership, the numbers get diced pretty thinly and, when spread across a little over 300 eligible films, a lot of excellence is left on the side-lines.

So, I am unsure regarding how much we can deduce from the votes of a few hundred people when making sweeping cultural generalizations about the best of any Oscar categories.  I am reminded that the step-sister awards show to the Oscars, the Golden Globes, which reaches an annual audience of about 20 million (half of the Academy telecast) has results decided by a vote of 90 Hollywood Foreign Press members.  Ninty!  And we pay attention.

Once the results of those 90 reporters turns into a television event and tons of red carpet photos and unrelenting dish about who said what or wore whom, we then march relentlessly to the Oscars.  And the world awaits.  The reason we can’t not pay attention to the Oscars must be that the motion picture has always given us a reminder of what can be bad and what it is to be good—characters in conflict and celebration, adversity and triumph, the predictability and surprise of life and living.  Movies allow us to see our reflected dreams, nightmares, attitudes and beliefs.

The stories motion pictures present are often dully formulaic and not worth our time and money, but others take us on rides to other galaxies, future dimensions, back in time or into the human mind faced with unbelievable challenge.  Those are the kinds of films that catch my vote: INTERSTELLAR, AMERICAN SNIPER, BIRDMAN, SELMA, BOYHOOD, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  Notice that not all these made the official list announced by the Academy.  I expect that all of the members had films left out of the final list that they hoped would get a nomination.  This is why I think the movies mean so much to so many—they do represent the incredible diversity of their audience.  There is always a story, a character, an image that connects.  And the connection makes a difference for that moment in time—enough of a difference for us to spend a couple months every year talking about it, hoping it will be recognized by others and cheering when it wins the Oscar.

It is an honor being a member of the Academy and it is fun to vote each year.  I do take my voting seriously—checking the box for what I think represents the best of those 300 or so films of the past year.  But then I probably only saw about 40 of those eligible—thanks to the screeners they send us—so how comprehensive and well-evidenced can my judgments be?  After all it’s not as though anyone really cares, right?  Only just about everybody.

Written for AU College of Arts and Sciences website January 2014.


The Power of a Mentor

Ray Browne founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in 1968. I was lucky to study with Ray while pursuing my Ph.D. A few years ago, I wrote the remembrance following on the occasion of Ray’s passing. I have been thinking of Ray a lot these days. Never underestimate the power of a mentor!

“Remembering Ray Browne is easy for me. Forgetting him will be impossible. You see, Ray Browne gave me my intellectual game—he grabbed me and pushed me hard onto the field to play the game that has become my life’s work—popular culture and higher education.

In the fall of 1970, on a Tuesday night, I was sitting in my first class in the English Ph.D. program at Bowling Green University. The class was 18th Century Sentimental Drama with a professor on whom I had staked my graduate studies career. I have no real recollection of how I got there, I had started college thinking I would be a microbiologist and work in the agronomy lab at John Deere & Company in Moline, Illinois up the river from where we gather today. I grew up a child of the new television generation, with a grandma who took me to movies every Saturday. I had a collection of comics that filled a closet. My mom was an antique dealer and jammed our house with the flotsam of everyday American life and living. Sputnik careened overhead and we all wanted to be scientists. In my town, that meant figuring out how to grow more corn and soybeans. So off I went to college and a career looking into a microscope and shaving paraffin to lay into slides.

Inorganic chemistry got in the way and I ended up majoring in English with minors in philosophy, history and Spanish. That made me useful only for grad school where I ran in all kinds of directions—English drama, 20th century novels, 17th century poetry, 19th century American drama—ending up in that class in University Hall at Bowling Green. I took it till the break—8:30 central time. It was raining.

I was in a bit of a predicament. There was no way I could take another hour and a half of 18th century sentimental drama—largely closeted and only privately performed? John Deere had no use for an English major. More importantly, my wife had the and I didn’t have a dime to call home. So I walked downstairs out of sight of the other grad students hanging through the break. On that lower floor, near the exit to the parking lot, there was a door with a sign–Center for the Study of Popular Culture. There was a light on and for some reason—maybe just to hide out till that class started again and the professor was occupied—I walked in. Ray Browne was standing in the middle of the room reading some papers, “Why hello there, young man, come in,” Ray waved.

That was it. Ray Browne caught me. He did not let go. It was a few hours later, when I made it home to chatter away about this silver-haired man with a gentle southern accent who said I could get my degree under his mentorship, had to read 19th century American literature, one area I had not skipped into, but would be specializing in popular culture and film. I mean, this guy said it was okay to watch TV and movies. He said I could admit that my love of great literature was inspired by Classics Illustrated comics. Detective stories were as consequential to understanding the human pursuit of truth as a re-reading of Oedipus the King. My then wife asked, “I thought you were going to do something with English?” Nope. Ray had me now. Things would change.

In his book Against Academia: a History of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, Ray described his graduate students in the 70’s at Bowling Green matter-of-factly: “Their drummers were somewhat off the conventional beat.” Yep. That they were. Still are, I expect. I met my fellow graduate student musketeers, Mike Marsden and Jack Nachbar, in that first year. I collaborated with and learned from many others who were the founders of this great academic association, the pioneers of this now ubiquitous arena of intellectual pursuit. But what is now so strong, so obvious, so unquestioned (make that mostly unquestioned—there are still those who look askance), was an incredible challenge to us then. We marched to a drum that drove the old folks crazy.

And we took a lot of shit. In that world of radical change growing out of war and civil rights protests that rocked the establishment throughout our society, to the academy we were just one more example of what was wrong with the young generation. We were reviled at faculty meetings, warned against studying that “Mickey Mouse” stuff called popular culture. Certain faculty would not work with us. We were the bad boys and girls of the English department. But we were driven. Ray and Pat Browne had plans for us, for all of you. They urged us to write, to present, to publish, to teach popular culture. When Marsden, Nachbar and I bemoaned the lack of scholarship on popular film, Ray told us to quit worrying and start working—The Journal of Popular Film (now JPF&T) was born. Ray and Pat had us on their mission–changing the face of academia.

Ray called it a “new” humanities. Popular culture was he explained, “the cultural environment that WE LIVED IN (emphasis mine)).” Our study was of ourselves. And not of the primly prescribed self that had been approved by an educational elite. But the stuff of our daily lives, the expressions of our collective values, beliefs, nightmares and dreams. Ray bridled at prescription, at any directive from on high that one thing was more important or worthy than another. He was relentlessly curious. He demanded that his students not seek refuge in the safety of tradition. His teaching was grounded in an essential hatred of any kind of oppression, physical or mental. “The first thing we need to realize,” he wrote in his article “Internationalizing Popular Culture Studies,” “is that the heavy hand of an established canon of subject to be learned and taught must be lifted.”

He saw our goal and purpose as profoundly democratic, just and essential. “Like it or not, every American owes it to himself and his society to make great effort, through formal or informal study and analysis, to understand the culture around him or her,” he wrote in Theory and Methodology in Popular Culture. “Often the student will discover,” he went on, “if he can rid himself or herself of blind prejudice, that much of popular culture is to be appreciated.” Today, these writings seem pretty self-evident. But they were clearly heresy at the time and Ray took a lot of hits for his advocacy of these “new” humanities. There were ugly fights over tenure, personal attacks on Ray and his students. But he never stopped pushing and never let us give in to those who would seek to bridal our curiosity, to ignore our inquiry, to stifle our questions. And now here we are. Remembering Ray Browne. Easy for me to do.

Ray Browne made all the difference to me and through me has, I hope, done the same for many others. I never stopped listening to his lessons, never stopped passing them on. Ray taught me to be continually curious, that nothing is unworthy of my attention and that the truth often lies in what others see as trivial. Ray taught me that the study of the past was necessary, but to study the present with critical rigor and confident conclusion is the acid test of intellectual maturity. And he taught me, above all, that my students are my colleagues as I was his. He taught me that I owe it to those who come after to share with them more than my knowledge and experience and what I have learned over a life time. By Example, Ray Browne taught me to say yes to my students and to show excitement and passion for the life they will live. Ray Browne waved me into his embrace on a rainy Tuesday night forty years ago. He listened to me and he said yes. Forget Ray Browne? Impossible.

Written for Tribute to Ray Browne at the PCA/ACA Annual National Meeting, April 2010

Students – Customers or Products?

Recently, a discussion appeared on a the LinkedIn group devoted to higher education teaching and learning (HETL) that asked the question “Are Students Customers or Products?”  I know that it is fashionable to use such terms when we are all being focused on the value proposition and the return on investment with regard to the high cost of education. What follows is my contribution to that discussion:

“We Are Not Customers!” a student protest sign rages in one of many video clips that pop up in the news stories and documentaries on the cost and corporatization of higher education. When considering the “customer” or “product” labels, I tend to be wary. Mostly I think of students as the next up—the future. They are going to pick up where we leave off. In my teaching and my work to support the mission of my College, the things I care about, the knowledge and experience that I have gathered and created over the years are offered to them with the hope that they will remember and preserve the best of it, use the useful and discard the useless, all in their construction of an individual and collective future.
I know that I am not without fault in generalizing about our students, in making sweeping generational judgments about their nature and character. They do the same of me and my generation as I did of those who had gone before. But I hope I spend most of my time calling my students by their names and not by labels, looking for and appreciating their individuality rather than dismissing them with generic references and superficial generalizations. Above all, I try to keep the lens of “students as future” at the core of my attitudes and expectations. We spend a great deal of our days in higher education looking to and revering the past. We introduce and immerse our students in what has gone before, in examples of others, experiences and revelations of days, years, centuries gone by. We bet that the rearview mirror will prepare our students for what lies ahead. I feel like a backseat driver, constantly swiveling my head to remind my students of the light they ran or the near miss they didn’t see. And I forget that they are driving—more and more as I get older, I see that they are really driving! They are the future, sitting in our classrooms, working in the labs and studios, online, face to face, they are the future and when we see them in this light, what we do has great meaning and worth. If higher education leaned a bit more in the direction of the future in its curricular and programmatic development, we might not worry about labels for our students, but see them for what we need and hope them to be—the caretakers and makers of their world.

Hello world!

Here we go–this blog space was claimed three years ago, but never populated.   Kinda like a land rush, claim filed and then nothing  but procrastination on building the house.  But like so many others in the virtual world, I think there might be some things worth writing down.  At least for me to work out thoughts on those subjects that matter to me–education,  popular culture, media, and maybe some forays into contemporary global social issues.   But I do not claim expert status or expect much in the way of impact or influence of my posts.   So read if you want, and do not expect any sort of obsessive updates.