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Too Academic: A Therapeutic Approach

Aug 25, 2017 8:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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What is wrong with me

I took part in a panel at a recent conference with two of the smartest women in our field; they would be among the smartest women in any field. We received reasonable evaluations except from three anonymous colleagues who, in one way or other, judged it to be “too academic.”

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That did not trouble me too much personally. I do not seek unqualified approval (which is just as well) and I respect the opinions of some of my colleagues. Nevertheless, I found myself oddly perturbed at these comments even though they represented 3 out of 15 received (those 15 represented about 22.6% of those “present” at our session, in one sense or another). What really disturbed me was that I was disturbed. I have become very accustomed, almost immune, to a critical focus on my own manifest failings.

But, I brooded.

The only way to recover my customary equilibrium was, I decided, some kind of self-therapy. Prior to demonstrating regression therapy, I will remain unsteadily in the rational world and try to analyse what might have unnerved me (though it did not in any way discomfort my cleverer colleagues).

Firstly, it enforced my conviction that grownups should not be allowed to submit anonymous evaluations. I understand why we allow students that privilege lest outraged adjuncts on fragile contracts -- dependent on the opinions of 20-year-old Americans -- engage in revengeful vendettas (known in chess and universities as the Sicilian Defence). In my experience that is a rare scenario but so be it; let us, by all means, protect students from imaginary dangers.

Colleagues in the field are, however, mostly responsible adults who ought to own their opinions. If they would prefer these not to become public, then they ought to keep quiet. One of my (few) principles is that I will not submit unsigned evaluations. In practice, I do not often submit evaluations of events that will not happen again, unless I am driven by malicious intent or awestruck admiration. What is the point? I can see the rationale of inviting students to comment upon a course.  That is a recurrent event that could be improved over time (though what qualifications students have to make such judgements is certainly open to lively conjecture), but conference presentations are, mercifully, unlikely to recur. Evaluation, in these circumstances, can only perform one of two functions: it is a form of benediction or punishment – a metaphorical dagger in the back in an alley in Palermo.

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What also occurred to me is that the percentage of people who fill in the evaluation form is rarely much above 32.75%, and that is a good return. Respondents belong to one of four categories: a) those who love you; b) those who hate you; c) those who loved the presentation; d) those who hated the presentation. The bulk of the audience have nuanced responses and, rightly cannot be bothered to spend too much time articulating those.

 

If the colleagues who thought that what we were saying was too academic had identified themselves (if you are reading this, it is not too late) we might have had a productive exchange of views or an entertainingly frank, potentially violent, dispute.

The most puzzling dimension of all this was that, the “too academic”, session was about curriculum. I could readily accept the view that we were “too stupid” or “too boring” or “oddly unappealing” or “too unpleasantly attired” but how can you discuss curriculum without being academic? What other way can you talk about the topic?

This carries a worrying implication. Study abroad is about two things: “abroad” (not as simple a concept as it might at first glance appear) and “study”. Study in our context is not, as well we all know, necessarily constrained by the traditional environments of classroom and library. Our pedagogies customarily go beyond formal learning environments. That is not to say that what we do is not academic but, rather, it contains a broader (enhanced?) view of what academic means.

What I realise now was bothering me was that our unholy trinity of critics were using “academic” as a pejorative term. This is common enough in everyday usage but when it slips into the language of education it reveals a failure of mind. If we are not engaging in academic pursuits, what are we doing? We confirm what our conservative critics think: what we do is pleasant for students, a break from the serious stuff they do at home.

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Photo: public domain

Academic is not an error. It is a description of what we do. If not, we are condemned to being a minor, largely irrelevant, adornment in the wider world of higher education that is still, after all, called academia.

It was at this point of neuroses that I decided that I would best understand all this through regression therapy: a reverie that took me back to the dim shadow of urchinhood. It is only in my more infirm days that I have begun to understand that my childhood experiences did not necessarily or consistently align with models of optimum parenting. If what follows may not be obviously relevant, I invite you to consider it as a parable or fable that will, if you can stand it, make oblique sense.

Issy Bonn at the Finsbury Park Empire

My father – rest his soul – took my brother and I out almost every Wednesday. My mother, being a woman of sense and discrimination, declined to go with us.  On a rotating basis, we would go to wrestling at Ironmonger Row Baths, boxing at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club (where my brother and I would bizarrely beat each other up in slavish imitation of the performers), and variety (really the death throes of vaudeville: a show comprised of “acts”) at the Finsbury Park Empire.

I have only recently realized that this is an oxymoron. The idea of Empire (global and expansive) was parodied by the murky interiors of the Finsbury Park theatre – ashtrays (honestly, in those Edenic days) were regularly cleaned on a bi-monthly basis. What had been the carpet had faded, like much of the audience, from opulent rose into dirty grey. An aura of decay and non-specific discontent infected the fetid air.

The major attraction at the Empire was almost inevitably a singer of extraordinary mawkishness (even by the standards of the time) called Issy Bonn. Issy’s fan base was about 99.8% drawn from Jewish mothers who were well-represented in the immediate locality.  Issy was also my Dad’s pal and we would deliver him in my Dad’s taxi to the stage door.

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Photo: public domain

Issy was always introduced as “fresh from his starring role in Las Vegas” despite that fact that 87.6% of the audience knew that Issy had never been further west than Hammersmith: an undistinguished suburb of London en route to Heathrow, lacking any notable features except traffic jams and a bridge of special ugliness.

Twenty minutes into Issy’s set the whispering (as subtle as a police siren) would begin:

“Betsy, vill e sing it?”
“Vot if not?!, Oy,”
“Natural he vill!”
“From your mouth to God’s ears!” and so on.

For the last 20 years, Issy had inevitably finished the show with a heart-rendering, extraordinarily lachrymose, version of “My Yiddishe Momme”: a song that even, if performed with icy cynicism, is designed to induce emotional trauma among us Semites.

There was not a dry eye or seat in the house except for the 37.8% who had already left and the 16.95% who, lacking “neshomeh” -- Jewish soul in Yiddish, left during the opening two verses:

Of things I should be thankful for I've had a goodly share
And as I sit here in the comfort of my cosy chair
My fancy takes me to a humble Eastside tenement
Three flights up in the rear to where my childhood days were spent.
It wasn't much like Paradise but 'mid the dirt and all
There sat the sweetest angel, one that I fondly call:
My Yiddishe Momme I need her more than ever now.
My Yiddishe Momme I'd like to kiss that wrinkled brow.
I long to hold her hands once more as in days gone by
and ask her to forgive me for things I did that made her cry.
How few were her pleasures, she never cared for fashion's styles.
Her jewels and treasures she found them in her baby's smiles.
Oh, I know that I owe what I am today
to that dear little lady so old and gray
to that wonderful Yiddishe Momme of mine[i]

As always, the lights would be lowered and the tonsils would tremble as Issy reached for immortality. He always sang it twice in case you missed it first time round. Those remaining (circa 45.25% of the original audience) experienced their weekly epiphany.

We remained too because we were taking Issy home to his one-room flat in Stoke Newington which he shared with lost hopes.

Epiphany

All of which goes to show that it is statistically impossible to please all of the people all of the time.

I also realise that this column is not academic enough. That view is based upon my evaluation of my own contribution: a 100% return that is, as you can readily see, not anonymous.

Editors’ note

Dr Woolf has suggested that, in the spirit in which it is written, readers (assuming that there is more than one) should be invited to evaluate this contribution using the following (on what he thinks is called the “lickit” scale).

Name (required):

Home address (required):

Please answer the questions by circling the relevant response numbered 1 to 5.

1 is moderate agreement; 5 is total accord with the proposition. The points in between are for those of you incapable of making up your mind:

a) This is irrefutably better than apple pie

1          2          3          4          5

b) A profound and moving insight into the human condition

1          2          3          4          5

c) The best thing since Eden and sliced bread

1          2          3          4          5

d) An insight that evokes awe and passion

1          2          3          4          5

Please send your completed evaluation (in a plain brown envelope) to the editors who will treat it with all the respect it fully deserves.

[i] Written by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack (1925), the song became inexorably associated with the wonderful Sophie Tucker (whose version is rarely confused with Issy’s). Readers with morbid curiosity can access Sophie’s 1928 rendition in English and Yiddish on You Tube at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qmemTfIZFQ
Issy’s version may also theoretically be found on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXFB4rNQeDIHowever, clicking the link will reveal the message that “This video is not available.”

Thanks Mike!

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: Academics Abroad, Study Abroad