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Speculative Diction

More (higher ed) media madness!


To start out this shiny new year, we’ve already seen another example of something that has happened several times over the past 12 months: the Higher Ed News Fiasco. This time we can thank Forbes Magazine, specifically Susan Adams, for presenting us with an article about the “least stressful jobs” in the United States in which “university professor” is top of the list.

I have no interest in countering the Forbes article, since so many others have already covered that ground effectively. But I do think the mistakes made were indicative of a lot of the misperceptions that non-academic publics have about how universities work, which are being amplified in the echo-chamber of mass media. For example, Adams falls into the trap of assuming that professors have essentially the same job as public school teachers: “unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year”.

Of course this is nonsense. Anyone who has the summer off at this point is either close to the end of their career, or unemployed. But this is for some reason a common conflation. Looking back to last March, David C. Levy wrote a column for the Washington Post in which the same “point” Adams makes in Forbes–that “even when school is in session [professors] don’t spend too many hours in the classroom”–is used to argue that faculty simply don’t work hard enough. So the faculty job is reduced to teaching, or rather, to the time spent teaching in a classroom. But this is part of what Dr Isis calls the “lazy professor trope”, a theme that has recurred in media coverage and also in pop culture representations of university faculty.

A third example of ridiculously bad coverage comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education. In May 2012, a blog post by Naomi Schaefer Riley was published on the CHE site, and in this post she argued that Black Studies departments should be eliminated (the post was extremely insulting about young scholars working in that research area). Schaefer Riley was soon fired from CHE, though she was later given the opportunity to condemn the academic “mob” in a follow-up article for the Wall Street Journal–in which she consistently spells Tressie McMillan Cottom’s name incorrectly. Of course, coming from the Chronicle this kind of thing is doubly egregious, since higher education itself is the focus of their publication.

So, how does it happen that major, respected news sources can produce this sort of fluff and present it in all seriousness as “journalism”? What exactly is the process that gave rise to this kind of reporting on an issue that has become so much more visible politically? After all, it’s not like the information wasn’t available for Adams, if she’d chosen to go looking.

It’s possible that these writers were simply more committed to a particular position than to fact-checking. It’s also possible that some publications want a poke at the anthill, in the hopes of stirring things up and generating attention for their own higher ed coverage. Both Forbes and the Chronicle published follow-up articles that refuted the initial posts. This strategy covers two bases: it makes the publication look as if it’s amending its errors by posting “correctives” or the “other side” of the story, and it also brings even more attention to the original issue (and post), thus generating yet more pageviews and more responses, and so on. It’s disingenuous but very effective.

While we shouldn’t be surprised to see mainstream for-profit media outlets using strategic sensationalism, we do need to hold them responsible for the incredibly poor quality of some of the information they’re providing. This is a problem for the author as well as Forbes, because if you have a platform, i.e. a major national publication, then you also have a responsibility to your audience; and if you’re publishing articles to a significant audience, you should be employing some form of quality control.

The real scenario would have been sensational enough. In another simple but staggeringly irresponsible statement, Adams misses one of the biggest issues in U.S. higher ed today: “Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020” (emphasis added). This conflation of both the tenure-track and adjunct positions is a crucial error that elides the key issue, the radical decline of tenured profs as a proportion of the US academic workforce. The adjunct workforce was one of the hot topics at this year’s MLA conference, which was also occurring in early January. In fact it must have taken actual effort to ignore the wealth of information available on the subject of faculty careers and the problems faced by the academic workforce (not just in the U.S., either).

Why does this matter? I believe, as I’ve argued before, that media representations have effects on people’s perceptions and that this has political implications. That’s why those of us working in universities should be making an effort (where possible) to contribute to media coverage and public debates about post-secondary education. This isn’t about being “defensive”; often, there are “missing issues”, gaps, and arguments made that don’t seem to fit our first-hand experiences and knowledge of universities and how they work. And while there are restrictions on mainstream media articles that make writing them more of a challenge–for example, limited space and the need to translate complex issues for a larger audience–I still think we should be trying to fill in those gaps if and where we can.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Melissa / January 11, 2013 at 13:18

    Even within academia, those misrepresentations are pervasive. Take the paragraph in IHE about the recent suicide of professor James Aune: “Aune was a tenured faculty member and chair of the department of communications – that is, someone obviously accomplished and removed from many of the stressors associated with a younger professor’s career trajectory.” Really? We’re claiming that being a department chair is a low-stress job?

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