Who Rules Minnesota?

Link to the interview EXC Fall 11



This post first appeared on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Thursday, July 15, 2010. I adapted this column from remarks I made upon receiving Metropolitan State University’s 2010 Alumnus Award.

Teaching, learning and hemlock

Creating capacity for dialogue — with one’s self

Gov. Tim Pawlenty used a recent appearance with Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’ to promote his market elixir for the purported ills of higher education. If his idea of an ‘iCollege’ were to become the norm, liberal arts professors like me would have little choice but to join Socrates in drinking the hemlock.

“Can’t I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from wherever I feel like?” he said. “And instead of paying thousands of dollars, can I pay $199 for iCollege instead of 99 cents for iTunes?”

Implicit in this sound bite lurks a philosophy of education: College is primarily a consumer transaction. Pawlenty’s business model makes no mention of quality, rigor, or critical thought. In his iCollege, the development of well-educated persons and well-informed citizens would take a back seat to the convenience and cost of buying credentials online.

Gov. Pawlenty: Socrates and I beg to differ. If only teaching and learning were so effortless. Let me assure you, as a college teacher and lifelong learner, they are not.

Education does not occur within the head of a teacher or between the ears of a student. Instruction takes place in that mysterious space between educator and pupil. The teaching-learning process is a dialogue — and nothing demonstrates this truth like its absence in a classroom, or online. The educator speaks and gestures inarticulately; the pupil sits mutely, mystified by the charade. The teacher pretends to teach and the student pretends to learn.

Monologues like this are a perversion of teaching and learning. What is more common in classrooms and online is what the social philosopher Martin Buber calls “technical dialogue.” In this circumstance, the educator transmits knowledge and skills and students receive and utilize these tools. The transaction is only skin-deep. Technical education seeks competence, not the meaning of life.

In genuine dialogue, teachers bring not just knowledge and skills but their deepest selves to the encounter. The purpose of this vulnerability is to reduce the distance between the instructor and the pupil. This dialogical moment creates a sacred space, what Buber calls the “between.” Within this realm — for both the teacher and the learner — intellect encounters heart and soul. “Good teachers,” writes the educator Parker Palmer, “join self and subject and students into the fabric of life.”

Once the student embarks on this journey of self-discovery, the quest for meaning is transcendent. A true educator does not impose but seeks only to further the student’s personal destiny. For Buber, this ends the educational process. I would argue that he neglects a crucial final step in teaching and learning.

Whether it is an introductory course or a senior seminar, I begin each class by telling the students that it is my intention to help them kill their teachers. (Since my demanding nature always rubs a few students the wrong way, I take the precaution of explaining that my meaning is metaphorical, not literal.) This invariably baffles beginning students, as it should. My remark is like a Zen koan, a riddle to ruminate upon until understood. If it still puzzles a senior, I realize I am only one semester away from failing as an educator. What is the point of my tutelage? Pursuing their own counsel, students must leave their teachers behind, no matter how cherished or respected. Teachers, on the other hand, should welcome such autonomy, seeking intellectual peers, not disciples.

Socrates describes this last stage as “a discourse that the mind carries on with itself about any subject it is considering.” Carrying on a dialogue with oneself is the hallmark of becoming one’s own teacher. This capacity for contemplation has always been the ideal outcome of a liberal arts education. The most valuable endowment that any university possesses is a wealth of such graduates — and wise the society that invests in their education.


This article appeared in yesterday’s Minnpost.com, “a thoughtful approach to news.” It is one of the nation’s most successful daily online news sources that was started by the former publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and is staffed by former senior “Stribe” journalists who either took buyouts or were laid off as the newspaper became a shell of it former self due to hedge funds failures and poor external management.

Monte Bute’s circuitous route to winning 2010 alumnus award from Metropolitan State University

By Casey Selix | Published Tue, Jul 6 2010 8:30 am

Monte Bute must be one of the most-unusual winners of Metropolitan State University’s annual alumnus award.

His teenage rebellion landed him in Red Wing’s reformatory school for boys. He dropped out of college in 1967 and dropped acid in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. He earned his peace stripes as an anti-war activist. He toiled for laborers as an organizer for Jobs Now! of Minnesota. He’s labored for the union representing faculty for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Bute, an associate professor of sociology at St. Paul-based Metro State, took not only the road less traveled but also the long and winding road to his bachelor’s degree. Even Metro State’s award bio notes that he became a “a social scientist by the seat of his pants.” Excerpts:

Monte Bute

Monte Bute

“Bute began teaching at Metropolitan State as a community faculty member in 1984. He finally finished a long-delayed B.A. at the university in 1991. After a 20-year career as a community organizer, he realized that his next mission in life was teaching. To fulfill that calling, Bute began graduate school rather late in life.”

The official bio also describes Bute as a “prolific writer” and “first and foremost, a master teacher.”

But Bute’s account of his life is far more entertaining. His 2004 speech, “The Making of a Backstage Sociologist,” travels to the far-out corners of his life and reminds us of Metro State’s experimental roots. He gave the speech upon winning the Distinguished Sociologist award from Sociologists of Minnesota. A few excerpts:

“To be honored with the Distinguished Sociologist award is alone enough to leave one somewhat tongue-tied. Further compounding this sense of being dumbstruck is the eerie coincidence that this year’s meeting of the Sociologists of Minnesota (SOM) is being held at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing.”

“I inhaled my sociological moxie the old-fashioned way — as a deviant, a dissident, and an organizer. I will probably never receive the American Sociological Association’s seal of approval.”

“Founded in 1971, Metropolitan State was an experimental college for adult learners. Finding myself at a school known for thumbing its nose at the academic establishment, I devised a course that was befitting — ‘Interpersonal and Social Power: A View From Below.’ While this was a pleasurable avocation, I kept my day job.”

The deviant, the dissident, the organizer and the sociologist come through vividly in his speech. Definitely worth reading. Too bad there isn’t video.

Update: No video link has shown up yet, but photos of Bute from the 1960s and later are on “The Monte Bute Fan Club” page on Facebook. Bute, who is undergoing chemotherapy for a rare form of lymphoma, says he still isn’t sure who among colleagues, friends and students set up the page. But he’s getting a kick out of it.


(#1) On July 6, 2010, Author Editor Nancy Hokkanen says:

I’m pleased to see Monte Bute’s educational contributions thus recognized and awarded. His vivid real-world presentations easily hold the attention of his weary, overcommitted working adult students.His provocative sociological discussions were in-depth, open-ended, inclusive. Participating in his class was a refreshing intellectual workout. He’s a gem.

(#2) On July 6, 2010, Author Editor Ken Peterson says:

Bute is a madman. That’s what several people have told me in the thirty years I’ve known Monte. Maybe. He’s also an inspiring teacher; an old fashioned search for truth,non-ideological public intellectual; an excellent organizer; a fine family man; and a loyal friend. The world should have more madmen and madwomen like Monte Bute.

(#3) On July 7, 2010, Author Editor Russ Stanton says:

Monte is indeed a madman, who revels in speaking truth to power. A teacher by instinct, he has the rare ability to unfailingly turn five minutes of testimony before legislative committees into a half hour of meaningful dialogue with legislators. His background and unconventional style are a prefect fit for Metro state and the students it serves.

(#4) On July 8, 2010, Author Editor Edward Malecki says:

Monte Bute and Metropolitan State have followed parallel paths. Both began as irreverent, radical experiments in higher education thumbing their respective noses at conventional wisdom and academic tradition. But over the years both have embraced enough of those traditions and enough of that wisdom to create a unique educational environment for adult learners. Students in Monte’s classes are challenged to think critically, which is the hallmark of classic liberal education and the core element of lifelong learning that is at the heart of Metro State’s educational philosophy.
Monte Bute embodies the passion, critical thinking and lifelong learning that Metropolitan State faculty seek to instill in all its graduates. Naming Monte as the 2010 recipient of the Alumnus of the Year is a tribute to the thousands of students who have graduated from the University and embody the traits of a well educated person. The award for Monte is also a tribute to the outstanding faculty in the Social Science department– Professors Nancy Black, Janet Enke, and Thomas O’Connell–who have not only tolerated this madcap academic, but also supported him and nurtured his students who do not always understand his passion for learning means that they will have to struggle with difficult materials and with critical self-examination of their own beliefs.
Everybody who has met Monte knows that he wears his passion for learning and teaching on his sleeve. If you are afraid about somebody bursting your balloon of hallowed beliefs, you might think it wise to avoid Bute and take an easier route. But you would be wrong because underneath his passion and strong beliefs is a gentle person who has learned that a life without pain is a life without learning. By struggling with and coming to terms with his own personal demons, Monte has served as a role model for countless students who came to Metro State doubting their ability to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. Like Monte, many of these thirty year olds started the journey earlier in their lives and had failed to achieve their goals. But Monte over the years has greeted thousands of new Metro students, young and old, at orientation meetings with an inspiring message: if a crazy guy like me can start late and succeed so can you.
Make no mistake, the Alumnus of the Year award is not a popularity contest. If that were the case, Bute would never receive the award. He has broken far too many eggs at Metro to make a seamless academic omelet. When I was the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, I could have earned my entire salary simply cleaning up the muddied waters Monte left behind in his drive to right wrongs and defend rights which were not universally perceived by others as rights and wrongs. Those stung by his barbs will probably question his selection as Alumnus of the Year, but even some of his harshest critics have to reluctantly concede that they too have occasionally benefitted from his willingness to attack pomposity and provide leadership at crucial moments in the life of Metro. Without his passionate leadership for a wide variety of causes, Metropolitan State would be a much different institution than it is today. And Monte’s selection as the Alumnus of Year is living proof that Metro State does indeed follow the beat of a different drummer.

(#5) On July 8, 2010, Author Editor Nancy Black says:

The stereotype of a university professor is a rather pompous, somewhat stuffy individual with elbow patches on jackets, a head in the clouds, who dithers around a campus. A single glance at Monte Bute explodes all such images.
This “madman’s” passion has many students soaring to reach intellectual heights they never dreamed possible. Not only does he continually hone his teaching style to engage and inspire students, but his contributions to Metropolitan State University over the years have been immeasurable in shaping the institution’s mission. As my colleague for the past 22 years, he has supplied endless material for social science courses. For example, when illustrating the term “socialization” to undergraduates, I often ask them to think of a professor in the Social Science Department who was “socialized by a pack of wolves.” They immediately understand the concept.
Working with, for and against Monte for the past two decades has never been dull, and I would not trade it for anything in the world. Thanks Monte.

[I want to let my readers know that I have not been posting much for the past six months because I am fighting an extremely rare, late stage form of lymphoma. Accompanying this disease is a particularly nasty neuropathy, which is slowly crippling my legs and feet.]

If sociology is to have any relevance for everyday life and ordinary folks in the 21st century, then it needs to produce instantaneous definitions of the situation that will help inform our social interactions. This “e-mail as essay” is an application of the Thomas theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.This essay interprets events that have occurred in the previous 72 hours, and prescribes civic action for the next 72 hours.

Gary and Faculty Association colleagues

Thank you, Gary, for the sincere effort to restore collegiality and solidarity within the union ranks. The powers-that-be, whether intentionally or not, have managed to divide us. Let us not forget what has caused this regrettable exchange between colleagues over a scarcity of space –the administration’s refusal to meaningfully share power with other stakeholders within the university.

As long as the President and the President’s Council  believe that they have a God-given right to rule arbitrarily and without adequate prior consultation, we are destined to either fight among ourselves—or to began fighting back against those who, due solely to their own egregious behaviors, are rapidly becoming our enemy.

I have added below an embellished version of a statement that I rather bluntly made on behalf of the Faculty Association at the last Planning and Budget Committee (P&BC) meeting. I ask that union members study this analysis. Without an adequate understanding of our current situation, we cannot begin to forge the strategies and tactics required to compel respect and shared power from the administration. What happens in the next 72 hours concerning space reallocation within the university will be decisive for both the future of the union and of Metropolitan State. Be vigilant and be active.

The unions, and particularly the Faculty Association (FA), feel that the administration has ignored pleas for a more grassroots collaborative model. Faculty members are demanding that the president and her administration be more willing to share power. When I sat on the P&BC in the early 2000s, the group felt more like a community, the power wasn’t necessarily equal, but it was shared. The unions are ready to draw a line in the sand. If the administration refuses to collaborate, they had better be prepared for a more adversarial and conflict-ridden future.

The FA Executive Committee is apprehensive that a redesign of our university plan poses the danger of becoming nothing more than new window dressing. I would argue that the real problems of this university are not the plan or the budget reductions we face, but rather the rigid hierarchy and status system that are at work in this institution.Some have the authority to give orders, while others have the obligation to obey orders.

“Orders” is the operative word. I liken Metropolitan State to George Duby’s study of medieval France, The Three Orders. The three orders in the 12th Century were the medieval knights who fought and ruled (administers who govern), the priests who prayed (faculty who teach), and the peasants who supported the other two orders (the other Metro State unions who do our heavy lifting). That system of status inequality finally collapsed with the coming of the French Revolution. Enough said.

Even the best-laid plans of the administration too often break down in implementation, and that will continue as long as the President and her Council continue to see their role, in the words of George Bush, as the “Decider.” As examples of arbitrary and capricious “deciding” I cite the following: the scheduling redesign, website redesign, Gateway redesign, budgeting redesign, and commencement redesign. [Now we can put space reallocation at the top of the list.]

While the university does make use of the governance process of meet-and-confer in decision-making, it is often too little too late—and it has become essentially meaningless. Why has this happened? To put it baldly, some members of the President’s Council are making decisions without forewarning and feedback.

Realize that aside from the Provost, all members of the President’s Council have been at the university less than three years. Most practice a corporate or bureaucratic style of leadership and management. This culture, which we have seen steadily encroaching upon our community since the days of Susan Cole, has taken even deeper roots during the past two years. This is an alien appendage on an institution with a more collegial and collaborative heritage.

I see no malignant intent on the part of any member of the President’s Council. I do see some folks naively bringing along their previously acquired taken-for-granted beliefs and acting as if those assumptions prevail at Metro State as well. I also see some folks who believe that their positions confer upon them a certain authority to take unilateral action. This may be what they experienced in previous bureaucratic organizations and they just assume all institutions follow this seemingly ubiquitous model. The honeymoon is over.

Several recent fiascoes within the university are a result of vice-presidents not listening to other stakeholders and/or not understanding the implications of what they were doing. I am ‘up to here’ with these preemptive strikes—each of the three orders at Metro State deserves to be a full participant in university decision making. In the future, we can pull together and develop into an exemplary urban university, or we can enter into an era of class warfare among the three orders.

The administration expects us to obey their “order(s),” but they do not take the time to seek out, or to understand, the positions of the faculty and staff. The Faculty Association urges the administration to seek our counsel, and to take into account that we may have something to offer—we did not just fall off the turnip truck. We are tired of having things explained to us only after the fact at meet-and-confer. The train wreck, by then, has already occurred.

Yesterday’s administrative forums demonstrate a significant tool for communication and some generic feedback. I have no doubt these efforts are sincere and that the administration finds them useful, as do faculty and staff. However, the administration has grown excessively fond of (and dependent upon) these dog-and-pony-shows as the principal form of communicating and seeking feedback.

Unfortunately, forums are essentially one-way forms of communication. The random individual responses at these events are just that, individual responses. We need a new structural mechanism that will provide real give-and-take between the formally recognized bargaining entities prior to meet-and-confer. This applies particularly to new initiatives coming from the members of the President’s Council that have not yet scrutinized by other relevant stakeholders.

To end on a positive note, what we now need organizationally is to restore some facsimile of the old Joint Initiative Groups. Those bodies were temporary ad hoc groupings, bringing relevant stakeholders to the table to design and beta test ideas before implementation. When their work was finished, they dissolved. Their vetted proposals then went through the traditional governance process.

What these ad hoc groups of stakeholders do particularly well is to hold managers feet to the fire. Administrators must bring their proposals to the table and field-test those plans against the experiences of people who work where the rubber hits the road. There is an old-fashioned name for this process—grassroots democracy.

The highway is alive tonight
Nobody’s foolin’ nobody as to where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of Tom Joad

“The Ghost of Tom Joad”                                                                                          Bruce Springsteen & Rage Against the Machine

Public Spaces–Disappearing or Transforming?
Sunday February 28, 3:30pm to 5:30pm

The Book House in Dinkytown
429 14th Avenue SE
Minneapolis, MN  55414
(612) 331-1430
(Located near the East Bank of the University of Minnesota)

Michelle Filkins, Associate Professor, Library and Information Services, Metropolitan State University
David Unowsky, Founder of The Hungry Mind Bookstore
Jay Walljasper,  Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces and editor of OnTheCommons.org

Moderated by:
Monte Bute, Associate Professor, Sociology, Metropolitan State University

“Was McLuhan Right? Gutenberg’s Galaxy and the Future of the Book”

Sunday, December 6, 2009, 4:00 pm at The Book House in Dinkytown

If you are in the Twin Cities area, put Sunday, December 6, 4:00 pm on your calendar. I would like to invite you to an event that should be lively and entertaining. I am flattered to be on a panel of folks far more distinguished than myself. I anticipate a provocative discussion. The forum is designed to maximize audience participation.

The Book House in Dinkytown is sponsoring a public conversation on the future of the book entitled “Was McLuhan Right? Gutenberg’s Galaxy and the Future of the Book.” How do new technologies, like Kindle and e-Books, change the experience and culture of reading?  Will the physical book become obsolete?  What ramifications will this have for the publishing industry, libraries, bookstores and authors?

Just to add to the sponsor’s blurb, this discussion is not just about books versus alternative forms of reading. The larger question is whether we are at the end of a 500-year epoch that Gutenberg’s printing press and mass literacy helped shape and define. This is the essence of McLuhan’s assertion—are we moving from a print to an oral galaxy? It should be an interesting conversation.

Featured Speakers:

* Monte Bute, Associate Professor, Sociology, Metropolitan State University
* Don Lepper, founder of Book Mobile and Stanton Publication Services
* Eric Lorberer, Editor, Rain Taxi
* David Noble, Emeritus Professor, American Studies, University of Minnesota

I am an experiential creature. When I find myself facing an existential dilemma within a group or an organization, I draw upon the populist hunches I’ve refined over the years—and then I take action. Only later do I indulge in reflecting upon that experience. The following few paragraphs provide context and give meaning to the circumstances and social interactions captured in the exchange of e-mails recorded below.

Minnesota has perhaps the most over-centralized system of public higher education in the nation. With the best of intentions, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe in 1991 orchestrated a consolidation of three independent systems—state universities, community colleges, and technical colleges—into an über-bureaucracy called the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).

Moe and his legislative colleagues were oblivious to the unintended consequences that would follow. Established in 1995, MnSCU is now fittingly ensconced in the palatial and well-secured Wells Fargo Bank building in downtown St. Paul. This behemoth has now mushroomed to over 500 bureaucrats who implement policies and dictate procedures to its 32 member institutions.

A Board of Trustees, appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty, governs MnSCU. Business leaders, including current and past executive directors of the Minnesota Taxpayers League and the Minnesota Business Partnership, dominate the board. The implicit philosophy that guides the board’s leadership is that MnSCU’s mission is to provide the vocational training that meets the needs of Minnesota employers.

Given this ideological bias, cost-benefit analysis trumps all other criteria for teaching and learning. The business model that the Trustees promulgate, and MnSCU’s minions implement, is one of mass production for mass education—resulting at best in employable masses, and at worse masses that are unemployed.

The good employee is, consequently, a well-trained worker bee. As you might imagine, the leadership qualities fostered by a traditional liberal arts education are, at best, an afterthought. The development of well-educated persons and well-informed citizens still does occur on our local campuses but in spite of, not because of, the Trustees and their over-staffed chain of command.

The first European universities developed in the 11th and 12th centuries in Italy, France, and England. By the 13th century, Peter Abelard had established at the University of Paris the progenitor of the modern college and university. Modeled on the medieval guild, Paris exemplified the principle of autonomy, a federated and self-regulating community of teachers and scholars.

Paul Goodman wrote The Community of Scholars in 1962. He saw an unbroken lineage between those medieval institutions and contemporary colleges and universities. He argued that there is one dominant ancestral trait in the genealogy of higher education: “The community of scholars is self-governing, and has never ceased to regard itself as such.” Nearly a half century ago, Goodman had already pinpointed the most toxic threat to this venerable tradition.

Will the community of scholars survive its present plague of administrative mentality? The ultima ratio of administration is that a school is a teaching machine [online learning is the latest iteration], to train the young by predigested programs in order to get pre-ordained marketable skills . . . Such training can, and must, dispense with the ancient communities, for they are not only inefficient but they keep erasing or even negating the lessons.

Am I living in Catch 22, or is it One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

I received notice that you would like LIB 301 or LIB 218 for the following classes for Spring 2010 as a special request:
SSCI 452/01
SSCI 501/501G

Unfortunately these two spaces are designated as conference and meeting rooms rather than classrooms. Without getting into detail, there is a negative impact on our state utilization data when we use these as classrooms and the fact is our room allocations do not include them. If you are looking for small seminar spaces, I suggest FHL119, FHL120, or FH L121. We would be happy to work with you on assigning one of these spaces.
Jean Alaspa
Educational Services and Special Events Director

Jean,                                                                                                                                                                                                    Please understand that you are merely the recipient of this message [my e-mail was also copied to top administrators and faculty union leaders]. I realize you are only the messenger and are not responsible for this decision. Nevertheless, the implications of your message are an affront to every teacher and academic program at the university.

The values embedded in this decision to suddenly take two precious classrooms off the grid to meet the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s (MnSCU) perverse notion of education should be reprehensible to the leadership of any university worthy of the name. I only ask Metropolitan State’s administrative leadership one question: whose side are you on?

Let me see if I have this right. The university is in perpetual crisis over the shortage of classroom space. This is particularly true for space appropriate for seminars—there is none on the St. Paul campus. Suddenly, we take two of these rooms out of circulation, used only episodically for meetings and left sitting empty for the vast majority of the time. Why is this? To give the illusion of space allocation efficiency.

This is an absurd shell game—we are developing well-educated citizens, not producing widgets. The space allocation policies of the MnSCU Board of Trustees, none of whom to my knowledge has ever taught a college class, result in policies and procedures that resemble the accounting system of Enron.

The tail again wags the dog. It is outrageous that MnSCU utilization data requirements dictate the use of Metro State’s classroom space. Senior seminar rooms are for seminars. Once more, bureaucratic priorities trump teaching. Are we here to help, to the best of our abilities, students learn? No, we are here to meet the cost-benefit analysis of some bean counters that were obviously sleepwalking through their own education.

I ask that every administrator receiving a copy of this e-mail tour the three rooms that Jean mentions. These large lecture classrooms are entirely inappropriate for the purpose of senior seminars. I also suggest you read the appropriate literature about the importance of space in the process of teaching and learning, particularly for seminars. If you are unfamiliar with that literature, I would be pleased to develop a reference list for you. In lieu of that, let me quote the foremost proponent of the seminar format during the last half century, Mortimer Adler:

The seminar should be the very antithesis of the ordinary classroom or lecture hall, in which the teacher or lecturer stands in front of auditors who sit in row after row to listen to what he has to say. That kind of room may be ideal for uninterrupted speech and silent listening, but it is the very opposite for good two-way talk in which everyone is both a speaker and a listener.

Educational facilities should be a means to the ends of teaching and learning; at Metropolitan State, teachers are rapidly becoming mere factotums for the ends of a bunch of Suits in the Wells Fargo Bank building who know as much about quality education as GM executives knows about quality cars.
For your edification,

Dear Monte:
Thank you for your message. When we met on Thursday afternoon and you remarked that you were about finished with indignation, I was thinking of your latest message, rather than Philip Roth’s latest book (Indignation) and rather hoped things had cooled down. But your message deserves a response and what follows was drafted, principally, by Barbara Keinath, who has a good, working knowledge of the issues involved in the situation about which you wrote. This message is sent in behalf of both Barbara and me.

Your response to Jean Alaspa (who is very clear about working with you to find appropriate space for your classes) is, in part, right on target. It is also, in part, based on an incomplete understanding of the complex relationship between the use of our current classrooms, the MnSCU Space Utilization Score, and the need for more and more kinds of classrooms.

You are on target in reminding all of the importance of the physical environment to the teaching and learning environment. A room designed only for lecturing to a large number of students does not lend itself well to a seminar course. Your quote from Mortimer Adler says it well. The desire to match the room to the pedagogical needs of the course and instructor is one we all share.

Unfortunately, we have neither the numbers nor the kinds of rooms we need to achieve that desire for every course and every instructor. Further, we operate within a larger system that has the authority-and uses it-to establish processes and measures. And that is where a better understanding of the relationship between use of classrooms, the MnSCU Space Utilization Score, and our ability to get new buildings and classrooms becomes useful.

As required of all MnSCU institutions, we have designated some rooms as classrooms, some as labs (computer, science, etc.), and some as meeting or office space. The room you requested for your courses has always been a designated meeting/conference room. Although it may sometimes have been used as a classroom, it has never been designated as such.

One of the important factors in MnSCU’s ranking of institutional requests for new buildings and classrooms is the Space Utilization Score, which is a measure of the extent to which we fill our classrooms with courses and students. Only rooms designated as classrooms are considered in the Space Utilization Score, which means that scheduling a course into a room designated as a conference room, instead of in a designated classroom, results in a lower Space Utilization Score.

A lower Space Utilization Score means, potentially, lower ranking of our requests for new buildings and classrooms and delays in new construction (e.g., the classroom/office building we have been trying to build on the site of the condemned structure on the Saint Paul Campus),  which leads to a continuation of the status quo number and kind of classrooms. Obviously, this is a simplification of a complex process, but I trust it serves to convey the notion that Metropolitan State is better served if we can improve our Space Utilization Score.

That said, and coming back to your main point, the learning environment is important. As Jean Alaspa’s message to you indicated, she would be glad to work with you to identify the best available classroom space to meet your teaching needs and your students’ learning requirements for spring semester and beyond. If you are interested in doing that, please let her know.
Thank you.
William J. Lowe
Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Bill.
Your intuition was correct. As John Maynard Keynes might have put it, my “animal spirits” have diminished considerably since the original e-mail. Your response is a most rational and reasonable one. However, this rationality and reasonableness in response to the catch-22 that MnSCU and Governor Pawlenty have placed us in may, in fact, be the irrational compliance of a subjugated and cowed institution.

I chose the title of Joesph Heller’s novel to describe our situation with considerable forethought. One explication of the meaning of that novel’s title is as follows:

The title is a reference to a fictional bureaucratic stipulation which embodies multiple forms of illogical and immoral reasoning. That the catch is named exposes the high level of absurdity in the novel, where bureaucratic nonsense has risen to a level at which even the catches are codified with numbers.

MnSCU’s Space Utilization Score (SPS) may be, in itself, a catch that is “codified with numbers.” Even if we were to suppose that this is a rational and reasonable system, it remains impotent except as a means of punishing Metropolitan State. Let us not forget, the rationality of a bureaucracy counts for nothing when confronted with the animal spirits of the legislative process. Long before most of you were here, Governor Carlson first vetoed the building that was going to somewhat alleviate our classroom shortage. Despite our high rankings according to MnSCU’s bureaucratic stipulations, our classroom building has since been vetoed twice more. Before we engage in “happy talk” about the upcoming legislative session, remember that Gov. Pawlenty’s animal spirits toward Rep. Alice Hausman, St. Paul, and Metropolitan State show no signs of abating.

We need to exercise our own subversive creativity to overcome this catch-22. Like the Cowardly Lion, Metro State needs to overcome its fears and find the courage to fulfill our mission of teaching and learning.

MnSCU and the legislature process have held the needs of the faculty and their academic programs hostage since the mid-1990s. Enough is enough. There is nearly unlimited demand for classroom space in St. Paul. The Social Science Department is just one example: we get one classroom most nights of the week. We could easily fill three classrooms each night on this campus. Nearly every program based on the St. Paul campus would likely replicate this pattern.

Paradoxically, we have managed to take every potential seminar room off the grid. Because we have no seminar rooms, numerous non-traditional offerings are using in classrooms as traditional classes. There is still a sign outside the room on second floor of New Main that reads “Senior Seminar Room.” Ironically, administrative files fill this space. The St. Paul Room, formerly used for seminars, is empty nearly every night of the week, every week of the year. These rooms, and L218 and Lib 301, if advertised to all academic departments, would fill every night of the week. This would free up at least four other classrooms every evening.

If filling these potential seminar rooms nightly punishes us, then perhaps we are no longer in the world of Catch-22—we are actually incarcerated on a ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Dear Monte:
Thank you for your reply. I would have responded sooner, but, particularly at my advanced and accelerating age, it is not a simple to thing to get off my knees and back to the keyboard. You have pretty well covered the literary and theoretical waterfront, but please do not overlook Jean’s willingness to help to find an appropriate for your courses.

The classroom/office building that we are trying to get built here in Saint Paul will help to make more seminar-style rooms available. And, as you point out, the history of that project in the last couple of years has certainly not been especially encouraging. But, since you mention “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, something comes to mind about our efforts to finally get our new classroom building. Was it not McMurphy who said: “At least I tried.  At least I did that much.”

I am still working on the Cowardly Lion image.
Thanks, again, and all the best.
Subjugatedly yours
William J. Lowe
Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Bill,
Thanks for the best belly laugh I’ve had in weeks. I do appreciate your sense of humor in these matters. Like McMurphy, I had little idea of what I was in for when I managed to get my sentence stayed by entering an insane asylum. I anticipate that in the final act my Chair, Nancy Black, will be playing the role of Chief Broom, finally putting me out of my misery and allowing life to go on as usual around here.
P.S. Perhaps while we are awaiting the state’s largesse, facilities might creatively search the inventory for two or three “designated” classrooms that could serve as seminar rooms. That will require the purchase or movement of some large oval and/or rectangular tables and the acquisition of 15-16 comfortable chairs for each room. Perhaps some of our well-appointed meeting rooms could provide such resources, replaced, of course, with some uncomfortable chairs, lined up a row. At least then no one would doze off during important staff meetings.

So it goes. (Kurt Vonnegut)

[I violate all the rules for a successful blog. I have occasional pangs of guilt about being an episodic blogger. Defiantly, I sit silently until my conscience leaves the room. I periodically have an impulse to justify my behavior but somehow never find the words to rationalize my sloth. Today a blogger at The New Republic saved me the effort. My only disagreement with his analysis is that I believe his argument applies equally to blog posts. I do hope you still enjoy my occasional essays, even if they may be infrequent and idiosyncratic.]

Writing and Velocity

Damon Linker

Sorry I’ve been silent (again) for so long. In addition to teaching two writing seminars at Penn, I’ve been busy with book revisions. Those are now done, so I should be back (again) to more regular blogging.

Given the glacial pace of my contributions to TNR in recent months, perhaps it makes sense that I’d return with a post about . . . the pace of writing. Back in late September (an eternity ago in Internet time, I know), Ezra Klein—along with Matthew Yglesias, the boy wonder of high-speed blogging—wrote a post about the new partnership between The Daily Beast and the Perseus Books Group that will publish books on a highly accelerated schedule. Here’s the plan:

On a typical publishing schedule, a writer may take a year or more to deliver a manuscript, after which the publisher takes another nine months to a year to put finished books in stores. At Beast Books, writers would be expected to spend one to three months writing a book, and the publisher would take another month to produce an e-book edition.

This inspired Klein to remark on how much easier it’s gotten to write quickly:

Writing doesn’t take very long. Quoting doesn’t take very long. But assembling information used to take an awful long time. It required a lot of phone calls and microfiche and faxes and walking over to Brookings and paging through newspaper archives and begging a source at Gallup. Now it doesn’t take much time at all. That   allows me to be the equivalent of a very fast columnist, and there’s no reason it won’t allow others to become very fast book authors.

“Writing doesn’t take very long.” I suppose not. I mean, I’ve written some long emails in the amount of time it takes me to type. Perhaps the next time I’m starting a book I should open my word processing program, imagine it’s an email, start typing, and keep typing until I’ve gone on for two hundred or so pages, taking momentary breaks to surf the Web so I can gather some needed information along the way. I bet at that rate I could finish it in a couple of months.

But would it be a book? Or at least what, until quite recently, we understood by the word? You know, a lengthy, sustained argument about, interpretation of, or engagement with a topic, one meant to be of lasting value—would my 200 or so pages of typing be that? Would it be worth reading six months—let alone ten or more years—after it was published? Or would it instead be something very different—merely a 55,000-word blog post, as ephemeral as the latest news cycle?

I like blogging. I enjoy its informality and instantaneousness—the way it provides me an opportunity to spout off publicly about this or that outrage of the moment. Opining is fun, and so is ideological combat.

But a book is, or should be, something different: A chance to slow down. An opportunity to raise one’s sights a little higher. To stop focusing so incessantly on the moment and strive, instead, to step back a bit, to take in a wider view, perhaps even to rise above the fray. To reflect instead of react. To ruminate instead of respond.

And what of style? Klein’s statement implies that the only thing that might keep a writer from producing a book in a couple of months is the time it takes to conduct research. As if writing were a process of compiling and arranging lists of facts and figures. Maybe when blogging about public policy, that’s what it mainly is. (Though surely even Klein has paused for five minutes now and then to make sure he nailed a put-down of George W. Bush?) A book can, and should, strive to be more than a list of information. At its best, a book of non-fiction can even aim to be a form of literature.

What Beast Books is proposing, and what Klein is promoting, is (in Truman Capote’s words) the reduction of writing to typing. The typing might be clever, and witty, and informed, and politically useful. But in most cases, it will also be hurried and harried, merely echoing or negating the conventional wisdom of the moment, not placing it in a wider context or viewing it from a broader perspective. And that will be a incalculable loss to our culture.

I just returned from four days at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) annual meeting. While on the flight home, I tried to recall some events that might be timely to blog about. Unfortunately, the two items that immediately came to mind were perennial issues—or in the immortal words of Yogi Berra,“this is like déjà vu all over again.”

First, there remains no market in today’s publishing world for volumes of sociological essays by little known authors, no matter how edifying or well written those occasional compositions might be. There seem to be three genres alone that interest sociological publishers: textbooks (the 800-pound gorilla), empirical monographs, and theoretical encyclicals from superstars. I acknowledge that the lack of interest shown by acquisitions editors for my work might just be due to a lack of merit. But then how would I know? Nearly all the editors I approached refused to review my manuscript solely because it was an anthology of essays. In retrospect, it seems deliciously ironic that my paper submission for the conference landed in a low-status roundtable sessionits title, “The Public Sociologist as Essayist.”

Regardless, I will burden you no longer with what Mills called “private troubles.” However, I suspect a linkage exists between my private trouble and the second topic I want to discuss—the public issue of status distinctions within sociology. An irreverent unveiling of our profession exposes this dirty little secret, a duplicity long shrouded in a complicity of silence.

I have been attending these meetings for 16 years. At my first meeting in 1994, I lacked the veil of socialization conferred by a sociology graduate program. My participant-observations of this alien culture were those of an uninitiated but street-savvy stranger; in other words, I wasn’t yet house-broken. With each annual pilgrimage, I re-affirm the reliability of my initial findings. If I had to provide an abstract for this work in progress, it would read as follows:

There is no discipline so morally sensitive to social inequality, or as analytically rigorous at unmasking the social machinations that create and perpetuate these inequities. Conversely, there is no profession so hypocritically insensitive to a specific form of social inequality within its own ranks, or as intellectually inept at recognizing how its taken-for-granted presuppositions and practices create and perpetuate this particular caste system.

I published an early synopsis of this “research” project in 2004 as a column in “Footnotes,” the official newsletter of the American Sociological Association. By the time I landed in Minneapolis on August 11, 2009, I had concluded that little has changed in ASA since that original essay appeared. The oligarchy is still alive and flourishing, and the business of enforcing latent status distinctions continues unabated.


I attended my first meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1994. I went to Los Angeles as a middle-aged outsider, hoping to gain a little disciplinary knowledge from the natives. For five days, I was mesmerized by phenomena that were not listed in the official program—a perpetual display of Goffmanesque rituals of deference and demeanor.

These customs are by no means limited to this tribe of sociologists. All academic disciplines are defined by what Robert K. Merton called their manifest functions. The obvious and intended function of scholarship is the production and dissemination of knowledge. These professional practices also have what Merton identified as latent functions, consequences that are unintended and frequently unrecognized. The scholarly enterprise has one latent function that dares not speak its name—status stratification.

The professional culture and reward structure of our discipline have evolved gradually over the past half century and are now so much the taken-for-granted-reality that most sociologists are oblivious to their functions. Ralph Linton once observed that the last thing a fish in the depths of the sea would discover is water. The late Stanley L. Saxton was a particularly perceptive denizen of the deep. In A Critique of Contemporary American Sociology (1993), he noted, “The conditions of work for a small but powerful minority of sociologists at research universities need not and should not imprint the whole discipline” (p. 247). Unfortunately, they do. The practices of this disciplinary elite have produced a stratification system for both individuals and institutions within the profession of sociology.

Those who believe that the existing academic labor market is a meritocracy might well challenge my central assertion. Defenders of the status quo do not lament this latent function of status stratification. In fact, they claim that whatever prestige is bestowed upon these luminaries is richly deserved. What fairer system could be devised for the manifest function of knowledge creation than one that rewards “the best and the brightest?” In addition, I might well be accused of sour grapes. What am I but a provincial from the periphery who has failed to measure up?

It is not so much the reward structure that I question, but rather how this social order manages to perpetuate itself. I question that an oligarchy of sociology departments at research universities holds sovereignty over the entire discipline. How does this occur? Let me give you just one example.

ASA is the premier professional association for the discipline. All ASA officers for 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 come from schools belonging to the Carnegie Foundation’s most selective category of research universities. Only 150 of nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States are included in this exclusive club. With just a couple of exceptions, the members-at-large on ASA’s Council for those two years also possess this rare pedigree.

Defenders of the status quo will argue that these leaders won competitive elections. True, but if we examine the Committee on Nominations for those two elections we would find that those doing the nominating are disproportionately affiliated with the same elite institutions as those whom they nominate. A similar analysis of the Publications Committee speaks volumes as to why all the current editors of ASA journals are also from Carnegie’s most restrictive list of research universities.

The manner in which this disciplinary elite defines and privileges a certain type of scholarship—and the “conditions of work” that it entails—is the linchpin of supremacy. The old bromide about how one gets tenure now holds true for promotion, external professional recognition, and even superstar status: publish, publish, publish. The highest rank accrues to those doing esoteric research, with subsequent authorship in prestigious journals and academic publishing houses. This “gold standard” diminishes other types of scholarship, reduces teaching and service to second-rate activities, and reproduces a regime of status stratification within the discipline. If most rank-and-file sociologists continue without question to concede this criterion, it only serves to legitimize the oligarchy’s dynastic succession.

An outsider to the disciplinary canon, Alfred Schutz, developed a sociology of knowledge that poses an alternative to this elitist paradigm of practice. He distinguished between scholarship aimed at the “expert” and scholarship directed to the “well-informed citizen.” American sociologists once saw the well-informed citizen as their primary audience. Conversely, the disciplinary elite today sees fellow experts as their only audience.

How do we restore sovereignty to that large majority of sociologists who toil under a more populist paradigm of practice but remain second-class citizens within the profession? The state professional association is one important venue. As an apprentice to the craft, I found congenial homes, first in Sociologists of Minnesota (SOM), and later in the National Council of State Sociological Associations (NCSSA).

I was welcomed by colleagues who refused to be constrained by the “expert” model but were engaged in scholarships of integration, application, and teaching. I was mentored by master teachers who prided themselves in conducting three to five sections of undergraduate classes each semester, devoted to developing a sociological perspective in students who may never take another course in the discipline. These folks practiced service the old-fashioned way; a “good citizen” took on those often-thankless tasks on campus and in the community that needed doing.

I am only saying aloud what has long been whispered. The intent of this essay is to initiate a conversation, a dialogue of equals. Sociology’s latent function not only divides us but also hinders our ability to engage wider audiences—we need to practice what we preach. We invite more of our research university colleagues to join us in state organizations, just as we have joined you in the ASA. Our local associations and practices might make, once again, our discipline relevant to the well-informed citizen. Let 50 flowers bloom.