Standing Up for What We Do by Erik Alexander

Certainly we’re all aware of the scrutiny higher education has been under lately. Along with the ongoing “budget fatigue” many of us have experienced here at SIUE, it seems as if there are a never ending host of issues beleaguering American universities, public and private: rising tuition and fees, falling public support, administrative bloat, soaring student loan debt, underpaid adjuncts—the list goes on. For those of us in CAS, you might also add concerns about enrollments and sagging numbers for majors in the liberal arts and sciences. If you are a regular reader of the Chronicle of Higher Education, or follow these issues on social media, a new “crisis” emerges in higher ed seemingly every week (as a historian, I would be remiss if I did not point out that very little of this is new. As long as there have been universities in North America, there have been persistent questions about their utility and viability).

There are numerous explanations for the current climate surrounding higher education. As Linda Markowitz observed in her column for this space, increasingly it seems that education, and especially higher education, has become a transaction, with the students as consumers. Thus, students and their families (and politicians) view college as a return on an investment, and students face the dreaded “What are you going to do with THAT?” question for any major that is not deemed practical (i.e. leading to an immediate and obvious career path). Further, as debates over state funding for higher education grow more intense, politicians openly question the value of humanities and social sciences degrees, as Florida Governor Rick Scott did in 2011, when he asked, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” Scott went on to summarize this transactional view of higher education perfectly, explaining “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.” Even President Obama has made similar comments, joking in 2014 with an audience in Wisconsin, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree” (Obama later apologized for the remark, to the Art History Department at the University of Texas, no less).

Increasingly, critics are calling into question the very roles that full-time, tenure-track faculty play in our universities. Earlier this year, after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed substantial cuts to the University of Wisconsin system, in defending those proposed cuts, Walker suggested that “Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work and this authority frees up the [University of Wisconsin] administration to make those sorts of requests.” Walker is not alone. A recent bill proposed in the North Carolina state legislature would require all faculty at state universities in North Carolina to teach what amounts to a 4/4 teaching load (at least 8 academic courses per year). Another proposed bill in Iowa would require all University faculty to teach at least one academic course per semester (thus eliminating any form of paid research leave). Taking the transactional nature of higher education to its logical extreme, this bill would also require that professors, regardless of tenure status, meet a minimum threshold on student evaluations or lose their job (nevermind that factors like gender, age, and physical appearance can influence how students evaluate their professors, or that student participation in such evaluations is routinely low). Most outrageous of all, this bill would then require Iowa universities to publish the names of the five professors with the lowest scores who exceeded the minimum bar, and then allow students to vote for who should keep their job.

Clearly, higher education, and especially the humanities, arts, and sciences, face numerous challenges going forward. We are asked to increase affordability and accessibility, find new revenue streams, all without sacrificing quality in teaching or research while simultaneously promising a greater return on students’ investment in the form of future economic promise. Despite these challenges, I think we are in fact doing many of those things. For those of us in CAS for example, this has included streamlining programs, revising curriculums, offering more opportunities like internships, putting more courses online, and so on.

In the current political climate, all of these things are probably necessary and important ways in which we have to adapt. Yet, I would also add, nay, urge, and urge strenuously, that we simply cannot forget the things we do well. Furthermore, it is up to us to remind the world outside of higher education—politicians, students, parents—what those things are, and why they are important. Let me give you one quick example.

I teach in the Department of Historical Studies here at SIUE, and as I am sure many of my colleagues also experience, I have to continually fight the assumption among students that studying history means memorizing long lists of names and dates and events. The study of history, of course, is much more than that. I do have exams in my courses, but they are usually in the form of written essays that ask students to argue interpretive points about the past, and support those arguments based on evidence drawn from course materials. That said, being able to argue about the past requires some knowledge of the past, so there is some of that dreaded memorization involved. In past semesters, I have often provided my classes with a study guide of key terms to help students prepare for exams, but I found that students fixated so much on memorizing those terms, it was counter productive.

So, one semester, I tried a different approach. I still provided students with a list of key terms, but I told them the exam would be “open notes.” My hope was that this approach would ease their anxiety over memorization, and help them to focus on broader themes while studying. As I began grading the exams, I was surprised by the students’ answers. I started to notice that the answers included a good deal of extraneous information, entirely irrelevant to the questions I had asked on the exam. Furthermore, many of the answers included word choices and phrases that were not only extraneous, but identical to the language on other students’ exams

At first I was suspicious some students had been cheating, but I quickly realized what had happened: in allowing students to use their notes, they had prepared for the exam by essentially printing off whatever online materials they could locate, whether that was from Wikipedia or other online articles on the topics I had told them to study. The extraneous information and identical words and phrases I found were contained in the first couple of sentences of the Wikipedia entry on the subject at hand.

This experience was instructive for me in several ways (not least of all in pushing me to continually adapt how I approach my assessment strategies). Among other things, what it told me was that even having the wealth of knowledge of the Internet in front of them did not do much to help students perform well on a written exam. In fact, all of that information appeared to be overwhelming. Students were frequently unable to discern what was and was not important or relevant to the question at hand, or relevant to building an argument to answer an essay prompt.

In other words, it showed me that what we do is more than simply passing on the collected knowledge of our chosen discipline. Anyone with an Internet connection can access Wikipedia and obtain knowledge. We teach students how to gauge and interpret (and question) knowledge; how to discern what is and what is not important when asking and answering questions. All of the disciplines contained in CAS—humanities, arts, hard and social sciences—teach students to grapple with complexity, express themselves clearly, and think analytically. (As luck would have it, these are all among the most desired characteristics employers look for when hiring college graduates.)

As we are encouraged (and required) to think outside the box, stretch our boundaries, and adapt to changing times, we must also continue to stand up for the value of what it is we do, and why it is important. Most important, it is up to us to make the case that we are not stodgy academics who like the way we do things because we are stubborn and old-fashioned, but that there are valid and important reasons why traditional, classroom learning works, and often works best. As we continue our focus on experiential learning, let us not forget that a face-to-face discussion or a lecture is also an experience. As we race to put more and more classes online, like Arizona State University recently announced, perhaps we should stop and ask why so many students overwhelmingly indicate (in my experience) that they dislike online courses, and, more important, why the completion rate of online courses is substantially lower. As we embrace e-textbooks, we should stop and question why the sale of e-books has plateaued in the publishing industry, and consider the compelling research that demonstrates, pretty conclusively, that retention and learning skyrockets when reading physical print over digital books.

Finally, we also have to make clear the value of research, and its connection to teaching. When asked if we should be working harder, or teaching more classes, it is up to us to demonstrate what we do—how research informs teaching, and vice versa. Back in the 1990s, the Virginia state government called into question what it is Professors do with all of their time if they are only in front of a class for 6 or 9 hours a week, posing similar questions about teaching loads that we are hearing today (see, none of this is new). One of my mentors from graduate school, Edward L. Ayers (now the outgoing President of the University of Richmond), wrote an eloquent summary of how he spent his time each week, from teaching, to research, to advising and mentoring, and committee work. Twenty years later, his essay still holds up, and I am reminded of his closing thoughts:

“What’s the common denominator, then, in what professors do all day? Translation. We translate from a field of knowledge to people who want to know about it. . .We all live in at least two worlds. One of those worlds is a world of ideas, of print and numbers, a world almost limitless and impossible to master, growing every time we turn our backs. The other world is the immediate and human world of classes, committees, office hours, deadlines, budgets, advising. Without being a citizen of both worlds, an active participant in both worlds, we are diminished, our ability to teach diminished. The dichotomy between teaching and research is no dichotomy at all if we understand that a professor journeys back and forth between two worlds, translating among many people.”

I would suggest that the importance of translation applies not only in translating our chosen disciplines to our students, but also translating the value of what we to do, and why we do it, to those who would call it into question. Our very survival may depend upon it.


In Honor of Administrative Professionals by Sharon McGee

SIUE generally, but CAS specifically, has a remarkable core of Administrative Professionals. These women and men keep the internal mechanisms of our departments running smoothly so that faculty can teach and conduct research. Entering payroll; ordering textbooks; preparing contracts; providing answers to questions from students, faculty, and the public; completing travel vouchers; coordinating course evaluations; maintaining files and records; ordering supplies; keeping up with and completing ever changing paperwork/forms—these are just some of the tasks that our office support specialists and assistants do every single day, week, semester. Sometimes faculty members don’t know exactly all that our office support folks do for our work, but as any Department Chair knows from lived experience, office support personnel are hard-working, essential members of our Departments. In the Department of English Language and Literature, for example, I rely on Linda Jaworski-Moiles and Tori Walters every single day.

In the US, the last full week of April each year is Administrative Professionals Week. Beginning in 1952, what was originally called “Secretary’s Day” is now Administrative Professionals week, the purpose of which is to celebrate, recognize, and honor administrative professionals’ “skills and loyalty, attributes almost every office depends upon. Administrative Professionals Week celebrates and sheds light on administrative professionals’ devoted, valued work” (“About Administrative Professionals Week,”

While we should celebrate our office support colleagues every week, during the last week of April we should certainly acknowledge the critical work that they do for us, for our students, for SIUE.

Thank you to all of our great Office Support professionals! We value you and greatly appreciate all that you do!

Why Am I a Professor by Ken Moffett

During this point of the semester, many faculty are exhausted with ceaseless, ever-increasing time pressures. There are many assignments, term papers, and other items that must be graded in a timely manner. In addition, faculty members have research projects that need to be completed, and in many cases, under the pressure of deadlines. Moreover, the lives of faculty members include an interminable number of meetings whose topics span every imaginable aspect of university life.

This semester includes a unique stressor that is the number one topic of discussion around campus: a proposed substantial decrease in our state appropriation. As a consequence, faculty across our University face a high probability of having their teaching responsibilities increased with no additional compensation. Also, the governance structure of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and University is in the process of changing significantly, as the new fiscal realities preclude us from conducting “business as usual.” Additionally, the CAS is going to have a new Dean who will change the way in which we go about our responsibilities.

With all of this in mind, it is easy and tempting to forget one large question: why are faculty members in this profession? More personally, why am I a college professor? What is it about the job that attracted me, and keeps me doing it? In this blog entry, I share some reasons why I decided to become a college professor and why I continue to do so.

The primary reason is that I have always had an innate curiosity about the world around me. When I was four years old, I remember my mom reading the newspaper. One day, I asked her if I could read it since I had just begun learning how to read. She happily indulged me, and did so every weekend for as long as I was willing. When I read, I would always ask her what the different words meant, and what the stories in the newspaper were all about. Sometimes, I would learn things that I wanted to know, while at others, I would learn about things at an age that my mother would have much preferred that I hadn’t.

This interest in the world around me grew throughout my childhood. When I was six years old, my parents got cable television. I was one of those kids who was disinterested in shows like “Sesame Street,” and definitely did not like most movies or cartoons (except for “The Simpsons”). Yet, I discovered my favorite channel to watch at that time in life: CNN. I was interested in what is happening, why the world works in the way that it does, and why different politicians enact and support a wide array of public policies.

Many teachers and college professors buttressed my interest in political science, too. I think of teachers like John Alkire (my fifth grade teacher, RIP) who had an in-class debate about the candidates and issues immediately prior to the 1988 presidential election. In college, three outstanding professors encouraged me to pursue graduate study in political science: Alfred Evans, Russell Mardon, and Rodney Anderson (RIP). Through my doctoral program, four outstanding professors supported my study of American political institutions and collectively changed me from being an interested observer to an academic: Charles Shipan, Douglas Dion, Frederick Boehmke, and Peverill Squire.

During the last two years of graduate school, and through my nearly nine years at SIUE, I discovered one of the most attractive parts of being a professor: having time to pursue those things about which I am most passionate. This time allows me to pursue several different lines of research, and to publish the results of those projects in well-respected, externally valid outlets. This gives me a chance to learn something that I had not known previously, and to share it with the broader scholarly community. This time also allows me to serve the broader university community in a variety of ways.

Beyond research and service, this time provides an opportunity to do what matters most: work with my students. In my courses, I hope to create an environment where my students can freely ask questions, learn how to think carefully and systematically about politics, and receive training that allows them to effectively answer different questions in political science. More broadly, I want students with whom I have worked to become curious about the world around them in ways that they were not previously and to ask penetrating questions about it. In short, I want students with whom I have worked to be smarter, more capable, and more curious than they were before they had the experience. When these things are achieved, I am glad because my students get a small glimpse of those things that brought me to the point where I am today.

Professionally speaking, little pleases me more than to hear that one or more of my former students have done better things than I have in life. In particular, I am glad when one of the students with whom I have worked closely has gone onto do fantastic things or receives the opportunity to do so. For example, I am pleased to hear when my former students graduate from law school, become partners at law firms, finish their doctoral degrees and become academics, become business owners, become prominent in their chosen field, or otherwise pursue an endeavor of their choosing with a high degree of success. I am happy and encouraged that they are receiving the results of their hard, diligent work, and that their lives are better than they were before.

To conclude, why am I a college professor? Why do I do it? For me, this position encourages intellectual inquisitiveness, allows me to learn what I had not known previously, provides the time to be able to pursue my passions, and gives me a chance to “pay it forward” through my teaching, research, and mentorship with my students. So, why are you a faculty member? What got you interested in this career? What keeps you going professionally? I am keenly interested in your replies.

Opportunities and Barriers for a Growing African American Student Population by Howard Rambsy II

Maybe it’s a coincidence? The numbers and percentage of white students at SIUE have decreased at the university over the years while the numbers of black students rose. In fact, as a December 2014 article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education noted, African American students currently enrolled at SIUE constitute “the highest number in university history.”

How have we responded to the growth of African American students with culturally distinct, targeted academic programming? And here, I’m wondering about programming beyond a few events here and there during the month of February.

Between Fall 2003 and Spring 2013, the English department offered 95 African American literature courses – almost twice as many African American literature courses than the department offered during the previous 10-year period. Several of us were particularly pleased that our increases in African American course offerings were corresponding with the growth of black students at the university over the last decade.

My colleagues, Tisha Brooks and Elizabeth Cali, and I have been reminded that large numbers of African American students, hardly any of whom major in English, are drawn to courses that highlight African American subject matter. This semester, for instance, the three of us are teaching six African American literature courses; approximately 100 of the 140 students enrolled in those courses are African American. Put another way, African American students make up 14% of the total SIUE student population, 18% of the total number of students with majors in CAS, and 71% of the students enrolled in our African American literature courses this semester. (Not all of the students in our classes are necessarily CAS majors).

Of course the growth of African American students has not always meant an increase in support for their academic and intellectual interests. For instance, a look at the last several years of recipients for Meridian Scholarships and participants in the university Honors program suggest that these well-resourced programs are decidedly not for black students, notwithstanding the occasional “token.” Another problem: the rise in black students at the university has been accompanied by an apparent rise in incidents where white students direct racial slurs at black students on campus.

The most notable challenge, however, might relate to what goes unsaid among decision makers at the university. What would it take to have more conversations and resulting programs that address the academic and intellectual interests of African American students?

Kevin Spacey, a Rowboat and Queen Elizabeth by Kim Archer

Kevin Spacey, a Rowboat, and Queen Elizabeth by Kim Archer

I am a third generation teacher. My father and his mother spent a combined 50 years in elementary school teaching, curriculum design, and administration. As a child, I rode to school with my dad and waited in his classroom at the end of the day, watching him tutor, grade, write lesson plans, talk with colleagues, and do paperwork. The parking lot was usually empty by the time we left together, bearing the implicit message that when you care about your work, you do your best no matter how long it takes. You give your time gladly. That’s the mark of a professional, the character of a good citizen, and the difference between a chosen “career” and a mere “job.”

My first teaching position was directing a high school band. The contract day was 8 hours with 30 minutes for lunch and zero minutes to get coffee – which was fine because there were also zero minutes to use the restroom. (On football Fridays, it was 6:40 AM to the following 12 AM.) After my doctorate, my first two university positions were 4×4 and 5×5 loads. That still seemed easier than a high school load! I couldn’t believe my good fortune at SIUE: a tenure-line position and a 3×3 load. Doug Eder led my orientation group, where he gave us his list of Ten “Commendments” for New Faculty. First on the list was “We are professors and we are spoiled.”

It doesn’t seem like it lately. How can we feel anything but beleaguered, devalued, and anxious in the face of perpetual “budget exercises” and a potential 31% cut to funding? Even if the cut is less, I’m already working without an office phone and buying my own supplies. Now it’s going to get worse?

I called my dad when this started, looking for reassurance from a veteran survivor of state funding. He snorted at my tale of woe and said, “Honey, the public schools have dealt with this for the last 25 years. I’m surprised it took this long to get to your level. Welcome to reality.

In CAS, I see two problems with negotiating this reality: Kevin Spacey and a rowboat.

In Season 3 of House of Cards, Kevin Spacey, as President of the United States, tells the nation:

Let me be clear: you are entitled to nothing. America was built on the spirit of industry. You build your future; it isn’t handed to you.

What does this mean in CAS? Frankly, we are not entitled to our jobs, no matter how hard we worked to get here. Tenure and full promotion are not a guarantee of perpetual employment, either. After all, a program without enough students is a canceled program, and canceled programs do not have salary lines, no matter how renowned or experienced the scholars or artists once teaching in them.

Still, not everyone hears this message. How many faculty do you know teaching a minimum load, or relying on under-enrolled courses because “they’ve always been allowed before”? What about buying pre-made courses or using an outdated degree plan, instead of designing a modern, relevant curriculum – as is our responsibility and privilege? Can you think of colleagues who are on campus only a few hours per day, claiming to “work from home,” but who somehow never have more than the narrowest window of time for meetings?

In the new reality, we in higher education are in the same boat with K-12 teachers, and indeed, with all working Americans. What will define our survival is what we do right now to keep our jobs secure and robust. The more experience and seniority we have, the more our responsibility to lead the way with innovation and restructuring. That means recruiting students even if we’ve never had to before, and then retaining students even though we must increasingly incorporate remediation into our courses. It also means giving students the educational environment they want, even if that means doing some of our scholarship, prep, and grading on campus, simply to be seen during the day. Students want a community atmosphere – a family atmosphere – and we are “parents” in that metaphor. Appearances matter. Now, nobody can be an absentee parent anymore or it will start to sink all of us.

A cartoon was going around on Facebook a few weeks ago. Two men are standing in the sinking back of a rowboat, frantically bailing water. In the front of the boat, one man looks to another and says, “I’m sure glad that hole isn’t on our side.”

What does this mean for CAS?

First, we need stronger connections with the other Colleges so they can help us bail out the back of the boat. CAS is not just the “service” college for Engineering, Business, Pharmacy, Dentistry, and Nursing – but if we believe that, it is our responsibility to prove it. Plenty of research says their faculty, graduate programs, and future employers all value our arts & humanities contributions, so we should better take advantage of that: arts students collaborate with nursing and dentistry students on therapeutic images, sounds, and play-acting for outreach; engineering and English students collaborate on truly science-based and innovative science fiction writing; mass communications and business students collaborate on the best way to market a new app to a national audience. The possibilities for IS courses across Colleges are both huge and largely untapped. In short, CAS needs to become institutionally indispensible – thus, more powerful – so that the huge amount of tuition dollars we generate is better directed to our needs.

Second, we need to stop the conspiracy theories. There’s no incentive for the CAS administration to damage programs or mismanage resources. The Dean and Associate Deans exist to relieve the rank & file faculty of administrative burdens, while faculty exist to design curriculum and teach it. That means the deans have certain decision-making authority, yes, but also responsibilities dictated by the Provost and Chancellor. There are no secrets; for at least 10 years the Dean and Associate Deans have explained things in detail to Chairs Council, as well as published minutes of those meetings every week. (I happen to know that in cases of extreme anxiety, at least one Associate Dean will also attempt to comfort faculty.) As far as I can tell, what seems to frighten some CAS faculty about the deans is that they operate above the department level, so they must consider the bigger picture. In order to normalize the wildly disparate abilities, needs, and contributions of so many departments, they rely on objective data about enrollment, growth, and faculty productivity. Why should it be any different? It’s exactly like the rest of the working world, in any field: all they want from us is personal responsibility and we need only fear if we’re not meeting those responsibilities.

Third, it’s important to remember that anything less than an 8-hour workday is a pampered existence. For all the reports we fill out about our activities, from green & yellow sheets to Digital Measures, it’s easy to get caught up in “Oh, I’m so busy.” Yes, everyone is busy. Everyone has private life and interests. However, we are no longer seen as the “intellectual elite” by the taxpayers and legislators who fund our institution. Instead, we are seen as highly trained employees. It is for that reason the deans have been nudging the faculty mindset toward a standard 8-hour day – not with an increase in teaching, scholarship, or service requirements, but merely for our appearing to operate like the rest of the working world. It’s a shame that this has been met with indignation, suspicion, and hostility by some, because it’s for our own protection!

Reality is here and we are at a precipice. We have the ability to act, to change, and to make things better, or to do nothing and end up like universities in Wisconsin. We, too, are under attack from our state legislature. In fact, our new governor openly proclaimed his admiration for Wisconsin’s governor, so this is unlikely to be the last year for such attacks. If we intend to protect ourselves and our work, we need everyone to grab a bucket, start bailing the water, and consider how we’re going to survive together.

In the words of Queen Elizabeth II, “Whatever life throws at us, our individual responses will be all the stronger for working together and sharing the load.”

Is Teaching Dead?


(Apparently, universities in the eighties only had white, males, but that’s an issue for another blog)

In the late eighties Trudeau published the comic you see above. As the professor makes continually outlandish comments, the students write everything down in wonderment as the professor questions, “Is teaching dead?”

Thanks to an English instructor’s office door, I pass this comic every time I teach on the second floor of Peck and when I walk by, I ask the same question, “Is teaching dead?” — especially when I notice that most of my students today don’t usually write down anything the professor says — unless it is written on the board or available on Powerpoint – and sometimes not even then.

I think faculty often want to blame apathetic students for this apparent lack of vitality in the profession of teaching: students don’t come prepared, students don’t do the reading, students leave everything to the last minute.

But as we brace ourselves for another round of budget cuts, I think that if teaching is dead, it’s not because of our apathetic students — they’re just the symptom — the real culprit is the culture and structure of our economy. We’re living in an economic era of, “What’s in it for me right now?” Unfortunately, it seems that question often gets in the way of teaching.

The problem, the way I see it, is that teaching is better conceptualized as a process, rather than a short-term goal.   How long does it take, for example, to nurture critical thinking and thoughtful, written communication? How long does it take to ease students into becoming life-long learners? A month? A semester? Four years? Can we nurture these skills on-line or with a classroom of 500 students? What worries me is that I don’t think answering these questions really matters to most people any more — in the “What’s in it for me right now?” economic era — as long as we can move students in and out of the institution quickly.

Look, I get the focus on outcome. I have a kid in college and while I’m not too happy paying the 125 grand for the diploma, I’ll be even more upset if she doesn’t get a job afterwards.

But that’s just it — why are universities, especially public universities, so expensive? That question is best answered by uncovering who benefits most from the “What’s in it for me right now?” economy. The answer is business institutions, and they benefit in a couple of ways.

First, while public universities are given more and more unfunded state mandates and drastically reduced state funding, public higher learning institutions have to cut somewhere and that somewhere is quality in the classroom. Instead of the labor-intensive job of teaching critical thinking, professors must spend their time juggling large class sizes and increased service demands. Many businesses perceive this trend to be beneficial because professors and students who are too busy to apply critical thinking translate into workers who are easier to control. And in the “What’s in it for me right now” economy —many businesses would rather have busy, compliant workers than thoughtful ones.  Thoughtful workers might question and resist continued economic disparity, lack of job security, and dwindling paychecks.

Second, in the “What’s in it for me right now” economy, businesses have somehow gotten workers to pay for their own training (including working for free in the form of internships). And not only do they train themselves, workers get into considerable debt to cover the training.   Debt is actually a huge benefit for businesses, because burdened with debt, workers are less likely to complain since they need their jobs to pay the bills.   It’s brilliant, really — students spend oodles of money for a good they don’t really want in order to keep a job they don’t really want.   And, we’re all going along with the plan, blaming each other rather than the real culprit – a “What’s in it for me right now” economy that benefits mostly the wealthy.

It seems like as long as our economy is organized around the “What’s in it for me right now” plan, we’re going to see continued movement against the long-term project of teaching and towards the continued short-term economic model of compliance and control.    Does that mean teaching is dead? Well…

What do you think?

Securing External Funding: The IRIS Connection by Jessica DeSpain and Kristine Hildebrandt

Depending on the news source, the projected statistics for the future economic state of Illinois higher education range from disturbing to downright apocalyptic. Contributions to public higher education in this state have decreased steadily over the past 10 years, and additional proposed cuts are sure to have a negative “domino effect” on both student and faculty morale.

What can CAS faculty do to survive (in fact, to thrive) in such a landscape? We take as our launching point one scenario proposed with increasing urgency, and most recently articulated in SIU President Dunn’s February 11 “System Connection” newsletter: securing external funding to support research activities. While Dunn’s larger message is complex, his bottom line is that increasing federal investment in the research initiatives is essential to our university’s survival and growth in these times.

We would like to introduce the Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship (IRIS) Center at SIUE to new CAS faculty, and to share information more generally about what IRIS offers and why IRIS matters in this (new) world of external funding pressures. The IRIS Center is an interdisciplinary facility designed to support individual and collaborative scholarship (at faculty and student levels) that applies digital content as a primary methodology. The aim of IRIS is to facilitate projects that involve re-conceptualizations of computing and information technology in the humanities and social sciences, to support these projects via access to tools and human resources, to foster mentorship and collaboration between faculty and students, to encourage the development of curricular innovation in this area, and to promote digital endeavors that intersect with community initiatives and organizations.

IRIS was “born” in 2010, with support from CAS and from resources brought in from internal and external funds. As of 2015 it houses specialized workstations for a variety of digitally embedded research activities. Additionally, since opening its doors, IRIS has undergone significant growth in users, and students are recruited to work on projects in IRIS from both internal and external funding sources.

For example: Imagine collaborative digital research where literary theory, theatre history and transatlantic culture intersect. Imagine work to digitally preserve and archive historically significant images that contribute to the narrative of African American experiences in East St Louis. Or, imagine collaboration between linguistics and GIS mapping to produce a free, online and interactive atlas of language endangerment. Or, imagine faculty-student cooperation on the construction of audio-video archives of indigenous traditions or the creation of digital tools towards repatriation of cultural materials. Or, imagine a project involving local cultural history in which SIUE faculty and students and area middle school teachers and students work together with computing tools. All of these scenarios describe current projects making use of IRIS facilities and resources, and different faculty and students bringing their interests and skills together to create something more significant than would be possible individually. Fuller coverage of IRIS can be found here at the blog page:

IRIS provides some unique benefits to our university community. SIUE is comprised of a complex population of traditional students, commuters, first-generation students, and transfers, and IRIS provides new avenues for an introduction to digital scholarship, shortening the “digital divide,” and introducing students to discipline-specific technology applications that can enrich their major fields of study and play a valuable role in their careers. Furthermore, IRIS is uniquely placed amongst other state-funded institutions in the region; we offer services and facilities that no other regional university can currently offer.

These initiatives are highly attractive for external funding agencies because collaborative research such as this builds clear connections between the humanities and social sciences and the larger contemporary local, regional and global communities that agencies see as carrying a high rate of return on investment. These types of projects are also interdisciplinary, with specialized roles filled by experienced individuals; everyone has a voice in the design and implementation of this type of scholarship. Additionally, the budget allowances with grants from external agencies include a variety of incentives: tools, student assistant support, travel, teaching releases, supplemental salary, all critical dimensions of our professional success at SIUE.

Examples of this growing interest and investment can be found throughout national funding agencies. The National Endowment for the Humanities opened the Office of Digital Humanities in 2008 and has since funded over 400 digital projects that consider some aspect of archaeology, anthropology, history, language, and literature, or provide tools with which to do so. The American Council of Learned Societies now offers a grant category specifically for digital projects. Faculty members and students involved with the IRIS Center have themselves obtained funding from the NSF, the NEH and from international agencies.

To be sure, there are ongoing tensions in how the division between teaching, university service and scholarship should be balanced in CAS and in the university. IRIS provides one type of answer by recognizing that inspired and innovative undergraduate teaching overlaps significantly with our broader professional goals. Such activities can avoid the “forced choice/either-or’’ scenario of undergraduate teaching vs.research-intensive professional goals. In fact, the old adage proves even more true in the digital humanities and social sciences, that our best teaching is informed by bringing current trends, debates and accomplishments into instructional contexts at all levels. IRIS wants to be a part of funding initiatives that go directly into the classroom in these ways, that intersect with curriculum design and practice, that make significant and meaningful use of undergraduate and graduate student participation, from conceptualization to output construction.

We welcome contact from faculty who want more information about the IRIS Center, or would like to discuss project ideas further with us.