Critical notations on the new GODZILLA

I went to see the Godzilla reboot yesterday with Anne-Marie and A, and we all enjoyed ourselves, especially A, but I do have a few critical thoughts and feelings to share.

  1. Director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, and their collaborators in special effects, get right one of the essential points from the original kaiju movies, which is that many of these “monsters” are sympathetic characters. Most of what they do, they do not out of malevolence, but simply as a result of their natures: they mate and breed, hunt and feed, and fight other animals that they see as threats or rivals. People are largely irrelevant, which may be what also makes them terrifying even as you can also sympathize with these creatures simply trying to survive and reproduce.
  2. I also appreciate how the new design for Godzilla references the classic “person in a suit” while also updating the character for contemporary aesthetics and expectations. There is one shot of Godzilla where he takes in a big breath and exhales that prompted A to remark that he looked like a person, which to me, was just perfect. The “humanity” of Godzilla is important to acceptance of him as something other than just a “monster.”
  3. Like others, I thought about Pacific Rim (2013) a number of times during this film, and, on the whole I enjoyed last year’s movie more. I found the creature designs to be more interesting, and, I suppose, I also liked the spectacle of having the giant robots as well as the giant monsters (although as A pointed out to me, the kaiju in Pacific Rim are alien while the ones in Godzilla are terrestrial). Mostly, I think that my reaction here has to with the difference between remaking an existing work and creating something new from familiar material. Guillermo del Toro made something new and the larger universe of his film is richer and more interesting than that of the new Godzilla.
  4. Another important difference for me was the fact that Pacific Rim featured two people of color (Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost and Rinko Kinkuchi’s Mako Mori) in the principal cast, while Godzilla defaults to the far more common young white male and his white family for the primary human characters. Indeed, even though the story starts in Asia and Japan is given a central location in the narrative in a nod to the source material, somehow a white American (or EuroAmerica) family has narrative prominence in Godzilla. Anne-Marie also made the good point that the primary family relationship, and loss, for the white guy protagonist in Pacific Rim (Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket) is a brother, not a wife and kid or even a parent. This is a less common dynamic for these kinds of films.
  5. For me, the most interesting, and underused characters in Godzilla are Ken Watanbe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins’ Vivienne Graham. The story of Serizawa’s decades long pursuit of Godzilla seems more interesting to me than the monster/disaster movie spectacle we get at the end of his pursuit. As far has Hawkins goes, I’m not sure that her name is mentioned once in the film or that we are told that she is also a scientist. But she seems to be Serizawa’s partner in the search and I want to know more about that (I gather that this is the focus of the prequel comic). Both Watanabe and Hawkins are charismatic actors who draw your attention when on screen, and I was more compelled by them than I was by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Elizabeth Olsen did not have much to do, but I am interested to see her as the Scarlet Witch now).
  6. Obsession with Godzilla is also a narrative through line for James Stokoe’s “The Half Century War” mini, and, honestly, as far as contemporary re-imaginings of this story goes, it is hard to do better than what Stokoe did with that book (I wrote about the way that Stokoe adapted Godzilla for comics, particularly his roar, for PopMatters).
  7. I left the theater with an uneasiness over the reworking of the origin story which removes American culpability for creating the kaiju as a result of the testing of nuclear bombs in the south Pacific. The original Godzilla (1954) picked up threads of anger and resentment among many Japanese for the American use of nuclear weapons in World War II and the subsequent occupation. This is also an important reason for Godzilla being a sympathetic, even, ultimately, a heroic, character: he, too, is a victim of the American bomb. There is a brief acknowledgment of Hiroshima in the new film between Serizawa and Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), but that only served to remind me of what has been lost in the new telling in terms of being a critique of American militarism and nuclear weaponry. Now, at worst, the American deployment of military and nuclear force just seems stupid or ineffectual rather than existentially threatening to ilife as we know it (I am drawing on Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters, University of California Press, 2006, for the gist of this interpretation of the original Godzilla).

What’s in a number (or, trying to understand the minds of university administrators)

After seemingly retreating from obsessive micro-managing of student numbers, certain administrators at my university have recently returned to routinely flagging “low enrolling” sections term-by-term while now also pointing to numbers of majors when citing decisions about faculty lines and other forms of program support.

I, like most faculty I know, understand the need for sound financial management and also the value in periodically assessing faculty lines and the distribution of university resources. As part of that, I accept both that not all programs will be viewed equally by administrators, and that there may be a variety of bases for determining the value of programs. As faculty, you find ways to deal with administrative priorities in whatever way you can.

However, it is difficult to understand these kinds of judgments where the logic of administrative assessment and decision making cannot be followed or is not articulated to faculty. I can think of a few reasons why there might be an intense focus on “low enrollments” and “program size” on the part of administrators on my campus right now, but I don’t actually know which, if any, of these might be the correct answer to why the metrics that are being valorized are, in fact, being valorized.

To begin my guesses, the Oregon University System is being dissolved. The larger institutions, University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State, have already been freed to establish independent boards. For smaller campuses like mine future governance it still to be determined. Our president has submitted a proposal to the legislature for an independent board.

It is possible that the obsession with enrollment minutiae has to do with either demonstrating “strong management” to members of the legislature to bolster the case for independence or is more practically concerned with scraping up nickels and dimes from, particularly, reducing adjunct hires, but also from not renewing tenure track lines, in order to finance the prospective board.

Second, after growing from 4,889 in 2006 to 6,233 in 2010, enrollments at Western have essentially settled to around 6,100. It is possible that the concern with micro-enrollments is a reaction to this macro-level contraction and leveling off (my data is from the Fall enrollment reports to OUS). The idea being, I suppose, to rationalize course numbers to what appears to be the popping of an enrollment “bubble” since 2010.

Third, and similar to the first, there have been a number of personnel changes in upper-level administration in the last year, particularly on the academic side of the university. What may be happening here is an attempt to establish some kind of “hard” management style or administrative united front. We have a strong union and a tradition of faculty control over curriculum. Focusing in on term-by-term enrollments and number of majors could be a strategy to divide faculty in competition over students.

A fourth possibility is that the concerns here are not so much about the present, but are about laying groundwork for future hiring decisions, that is, if administrators are on the record now expressing concern about “low enrolling courses” and “small programs”, then later, when decisions are made about faculty lines and adjunct sections on the basis of these metrics, no one can claim ignorance regarding the criteria for allocating faculty resources.

To extend this speculation further, maybe the targeting of section enrollments and rumbling about numbers of majors are expressions of an un-articulated plan for re-shaping the university, one imagines around a few select professional, pre-professional, or simply “practical” programs with currently high enrollments, while gradually downsizing, by attrition, many of the traditional liberal arts and sciences to supporting roles, with no majors and only a few upper-division courses as deemed necessary for the full programs that do remain.

This last point seems the most likely, not just because it imparts a clear logic to the imperatives at work here, but also because it seems consistent with recent actions on hiring. However, as noted, nothing like this reasoning has been directly or clearly shared with faculty.

For me, and many of my faculty colleagues, one of the biggest sources of frustration in this process is not knowing why we have to engage in the exercise of cutting or defending all sub-twelve sections every term. Assuming that the goal, or, okay, let’s say, “outcome”, is one that faculty can at least sympathize with, I am sure that many, maybe most, would be willing to reassess our course schedules and make whatever practical adjustments we can to maximize enrollment each term.

But right now no one particularly understands why every section of every course is expected to meet the same enrollment threshold every term, regardless of program, purpose or enrollment history (I’ll just note here that there are sections of courses on the schedule that are routinely capped at less than twelve). There are, perhaps, vestigial OUS directives being responded to, but that hardly explains the current level of intensity over course enrollments (and I don’t think it explains the attention being paid to number of majors at all), expect, perhaps, as part of my first guess, where dutifully fulfilling system mandates, even as the system is being dismantled, will be looked at favorably in making the case for an independent board.

Of course, if I were in upper-level administration and I had a plan to change hiring practices to favor programs that met certain metrics for section enrollments and program size, or an even more radical plan for remaking the university around those numbers, I probably wouldn’t want to share that with faculty in a direct way either. That is, if the desired outcome is contraction of most of the academic programs at the university, I would not expect most faculty to embrace that outcome.

In an immediate political sense the unspoken rationale or rationales behind both the focus on section enrollments and numbers of majors is that, currently, for faculty to make even the most minor of curricular changes requires detailed explanations (“we must have a culture of evidence!”) and an assessment plan for determining if the stated purposes, excuse me, “outcomes”, are met.

Right now faculty have no idea what the administrative outcomes are, what goals are meant to be achieved, by imposing an enrollment threshold of twelve and insisting that majors be of a certain size, or how those outcomes are to be assessed (and, it should be noted, the exact number for size of major has not been articulated).

Without that information these imperatives seem arbitrary. It isn’t difficult to think of other ways of measuring departmental health or vitality or value – whatever term you like – besides section-by-section enrollments or number of majors. Why not total section enrollments? Why not student credit hours? Why not annual enrollments? At a small school like mine, why look at the departmental scale, why not Division or College? Why look at number of majors instead of student contact hours? Why employ the same measurements or standards for all departments when different departments serve different primary functions, e.g., there are departments that are primarily service departments and there are departments that primarily serve majors? Why is teaching majors more important than teaching in the core?p

My point isn’t that these would all be better measures than the ones being deployed. My point is that how you measure value or success should depend on your underlying purpose and not the other way around, that is, I don’t think what we do as faculty, or as a university community, should be driven by metrics that are selected prior to understanding what kind of a place we want the university to be. There is no prima facie or obvious value to section enrollments, or to twelve students, as opposed to any other number of students, or to numbers of majors. The fact that we don’t know what value is being ascribed to these measures is a far bigger problem for me right now than is the insistence that they be applied in the first place. It makes me wonder why these numbers are not being presented for discussion, but are simply being imposed.

Two thoughts on Oregon’s Pay It Forward tuition experiment

I am not entirely sure what I think about the Pay It Forward approach to tuition for public higher education in the U.S., but I do think that the Oregon legislature passing a bill to study the idea is a a welcome spark of creativity in the ongoing debate about costs and affordability.

At first look, I am drawn to the idea for its apparent progressiveness, but it is hard to say how well, or how progressively, Pay It Forward, as proposed here, would actually work in practice. If the proposed study is well crafted and executed, and a solid pilot is recommended and launched, there should be answers to these questions in the next couple of years and perhaps some meaningful action on at least college affordability as a result, whether in the form of Pay It Forward or some other approach that might emerge from the discussion being started here in Oregon.

However, I do have two more specific thoughts on the early debate over the idea.

First, I am singularly unpersuaded by one of the central arguments being made against the concept of Pay It Forward, namely, that the approach is either unfair to or a disincentive for students intending to, and who do, enter high-paying jobs or professions after college.

Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, sums up this argument in a Time Business article by Martha C. White, “‘It’s a real moral hazard problem,’ she says. ‘If you have no intention of doing anything other than staying home with your kids, this is great for you. If you think you’re going to be an investment banker, you’re going to think really hard,’ and might decide not to participate with ‘Pay It Forward’ or attend a state school.” At The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann, calls this the, “engineer problem.”

Baum’s invocation of “moral hazard”, suggests that, on one level, this is an argument about the ethics and politics of “redistributive” social policies. Where one stands on this question depends on one’s political commitments and vision of a just society. Some people will insist on seeing Pay It Forward as a system that punishes the rich, who are, implicitly, hardworking, and rewards the poor, who are, implicitly, lazy. Comparing a stay-at-home spouse to an investment banker is a framing that seems deliberately designed to make this point.

Writing as a professor, I’m thrilled by the prospect of the odd student who is not fixated on what job they’ll get after graduation. Presumably, that individual is seeking a college degree to be a more fulfilled human being, citizen and member of society and not just because they’ve been told, repeatedly, that higher education is necessary to securing, “a good job.” If it takes a few investment bankers – or a few more university professors – to subsidize that person, fine by me, and, on balance, better for my classes.

More realistically, there are very few individuals who choose to go to college without some job or career intentions, and in that case, where everyone has a job and everyone is paying back into the system, identifying “takers” and “makers” becomes less clear. I think you have to look at his issue from a particularly abstract perspective to see much of a problem with Baum’s investment banker paying more, over time and in absolute terms, than, say, a teacher or home healthcare worker.

And if you do consider the principle here in abstraction, I think that you then also have to consider the broader question of value in relationship to different educational and employment choices, and not just how much someone ends up paying back to their college or university. Does Baum really think that the well-educated stay-at-home parent contributes less to society than the investment banker? (I’m not even asking for consideration to be given to the damage that actual investment bankers have done to other people’s livelihoods when using their educations solely for their own enrichment. Imagine an ethical banker, if you want).

The other side to this argument, Weissmann’s “engineer problem”, is not so much that Pay It Forward sets up a moral hazard, but rather that individuals with high-income aspirations simply won’t like the idea of ultimately paying more than those whose job goals or prospects are less lucrative. These feelings of unfairness or resentment will lead the engineers of the world to avoid Pay It Forward schools, leaving those institutions with a revenue problem.

Unlike the moral hazard question, the “engineer problem” is an empirical matter and until there is an actual trial of Pay It Forward no one will know if this problem is, in fact, a problem. That being said, I do think that arguments like these are rhetorically powerful for many Americans, but that, in practice, most people don’t actually base many of their important life decisions, like where to go to college, solely on calculations of whether their choices will result in them coming out economically “ahead” or “behind” other people.

Studies of the effect of tax rates on both households and businesses largely suggest that these play little to no role in individual choices regarding where to live or do business. That isn’t to say that there aren’t those who will decide to move, whether themselves or their business, because of perceptions of being unfairly taxed, but as Matthew Yglesias has noted recently, even in contexts where you might expect individuals to act as rational profit-maximizers, they often don’t, choosing instead to give greater weight to other values or outcomes.

While the ability to choose a college for reasons other than cost and affordability is substantially tied to class in the U.S., this is also an intensely personal choice for many students. Closeness to, or distance from, home, where one’s friends are, or are not, going, family ties to an institution, sports and geographic allegiances, quality of academic programs, appeal of campus life and activities, are some of the more obvious factors that can and do influence where an individual might go to college in addition to cost and how to pay. In other words, and by way of example, it is hard for me to imagine an aspiring engineer from a long line of engineers, all of whom attended Oregon State, turning their back on the family legacy simply because Pay It Forward leaves a bad taste in their mouth, which is how I understand the essence of the argument articulated by Baum and Weissmann.

I first learned about the Pay It Forward proposal in the Oregon legislature from Think out Loud on OPB and on that broadcast one of the arguments in favor turns the “engineer problem” on its head. The position here is that the status quo causes students to value earning potential over other considerations when choosing a program of study and looking at options for employment after college. The result is that many individuals end up majoring in fields about which they care little and entering into jobs that might pay well, but are not very fulfilling. More particularly, individuals are dissuaded from choosing jobs and professions in socially valuable, but lower paying, fields such as teaching and social work or, even, less remunerative specialities in otherwise higher paying areas like law and medicine.

In the absence of evidence one way or another, it is difficult to say whether the status quo’s “teacher problem” is greater than Pay It Forward’s “engineer problem”, but I do think it should be noted that the proposal under consideration is not classically progressive in that the tax that would be levied on post-college income will be flat, working out to 3% annually for individuals who finish their degrees in four years. This is clearly intended to make the system appear “fair” and to garner support across party and ideological lines, but it does make Pay It Forward less progressive than it could be if there were different tax rates for different income levels. I also think that this decision has implications for my second thought.

Pay It Forward is clearly aimed at addressing the problems of student debt and college affordability, but, in regards to U.S. public higher education at least, those issues are not isolated, but are the consequences of declining funding. Simply put, rising tuition and fees, and therefore student debt, are responses to state legislators cutting support to public institutions of higher education.

My sense here is that following a Pay It Forward model for tuition is probably an excellent idea where there is an adequate baseline of funding for services and the physical plant, but that where tuition dollars are being counted on to provide that baseline, the model turns risky. This sense is reflected in the recurring question of how to pay for the first generation of students, if and when Pay It Forward is adopted. In effect, state voters or legislators will have to be willing to provide funding to the public system at a level much higher than they have been willing in order to implement Pay It Forward. The question then becomes one of how serious everyone is about the potential for the model to bring down debt and make college more affordable. Maybe the Oregon study will reframe the funding issue in a way that gets the relevant individuals thinking about funding in a realistic and productive way or maybe members of the legislature who voted for the proposal are hoping that somehow the study will provide a magic key for solving all of OUS’ financial problems. It won’t, obviously.

Even if at the end of the study process in Oregon there is a consensus that Pay It Forward would reduce student debt and make college more affordable for more people it still seems likely that no one will have the will to address the problem of funding. In that case, the real shame won’t be the failure to implement Pay It Forward, but the confirmation that platitudes, and studies, are about as far as most people in positions of political and economic power are willing to go in support of higher education.

On back fences and public space

A little over a month ago our back fence fell over. We’d been talking about replacing the fence – it was not in the best shape, we have dogs, our property backs up to a small city park- but its collapse took us by surprise. After talking to a couple of contractors, we accepted a bid and then waited for them to get to work and then to finish. The net result was we were without a back fence for about five weeks.Peanut Park

In the day-to-day, what we mostly felt was stress in the way that this changed routines for and with the dogs. You cannot, of course, explain to a dog why they can’t just go outside like they used to, and now had to be on a leash whenever they wanted or needed to go out. But after a few days they seemed to make the adjustment.

After the fence was finally completed a couple of a days ago, I felt a great relief and was happy to let the dogs back into their yard on their own terms. However, in the day or so since, I’ve also had a different reaction: I miss seeing the park and street from our back windows.

Even before the fence went up, I’d started to get used to the openness and ready access to the park, as well as getting to see how well used the park is, getting to know some of the other neighborhood people with dogs. Now, I have a feeling of being cut off from a part of the neighborhood, which is related to, but not the same as, the countervailing feeling of privacy that we’ve reclaimed.

I also noticed a sense of heightened anxiety, at least at first, which is, I imagine, similar to what social scientists who have done research on gated communities have found, which is that living in gated neighborhoods can increase one’s sense of insecurity (see, for example, Setha Low’s Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, Routledge, 2004). Not knowing what was happening on the other side of the fence, and putting our padlock back on the side gate into the yard, made me, at least momentarily, aware of “outside” as a source of threats.

Of course, this is not entirely hypothetical in our case. Our house was broken into a couple of years ago, over Christmas, and, according to the police, the park provided an escape for the thieves. The old fence had a back gate, which we opted not to replace in the new fence. After the burglary, one of the changes we made was to padlock the gates to the back yard, which made the back gate inconvenient to use and, in the end, expendable. In any case, access to the park via a gate is not a substitute for the openness I became accustomed to over the past few weeks.

Our prior experience with our house being broken into initially made not having a fence anxiety-producing, particularly as we left on a trip just a day later. That feeling was fleeting and the period of not having a back fence will likely bolster my sense that, despite the one incident, we don’t live in an “unsafe” neighborhood. Drunk students yelling late at night or setting off fireworks is far more likely to happen on a daily basis than is actual crime. A dog or two wandered into our yard during our fenceless month, but, as far as we can tell, no people.

I’d be interested to live without the fence for an extended period to see how my feelings might develop over time and what implications that might have for how we use and design the backyard, but the reality is that that would not be ideal for our dogs. We’ve had dogs in apartments, and there is no question that simply being able to let your canines out in the yard is far nicer than walking them out on a leash on a regular schedule. More to the point, our dogs, and one in particular, love their yard. She will explore, sun, and patrol for hours on a nice day. She could not do that without the fence.IMG_2253

Having our backyard open to the park highlighted one of the paradoxes of property ownership in the U.S., which is that being near public amenities like parks and schools add value to private houses, but, mostly, Americans also want to be clearly separated from such spaces. The value of such places likely comes from the way that they act as checks on further development than as public space (how many people want ample yard space or private pools, where it makes sense, instead of using parks or public waterways and beaches?).

IMG_2257Obviously, I’m conflicted on this matter, too. But, now that the fence has been restored, I can reflect on how this episode and how there might be different ways to imagine, and mark off, the private space of a house from the public space of a park or the street. I talk about these themes a lot with many of my classes, but mostly in the abstract and from safely within the bounds of dominant practices. The chance happening of our fence falling down disrupted that sense of “normal” and gave me an opportunity to think through these questions in a uniquely concrete and personal way.

Maybe the people aren’t the problem: an alternate take on Portland-area wages

Betsy Hammond has a story up on OregonLive today reporting on a study released by a Portland-area business group, the “Value of Jobs Coalition“, which concludes, in part, that Portland metro area wages are being depressed by an overabundance of college graduates who are either, or both, working in lower paying jobs or for fewer hours than their compatriots in other cities. As reported in the article, the authors of the study frame these findings as signs of a broken or underperforming economy. While acknowledging that there is a question to be asked as to whether this “problem” is largely the result of economic conditions or merely the aggregation of individual choices, what is also clear is that, for the authors and the quoted economists and business figures, there is something inherently aberrant about Portland’s relatively lower wages and fewer people in higher paying jobs (read: STEM and finance).

Not surprisingly, given the current context for discussions of this nature, the study emphasizes that Portland is home to “an extra-large population of humanities [and social science] majors”, and that workers in the city disproportionately hold jobs or have careers in fields like art, design and media, at least in comparison to other places, where there are higher numbers of people in higher paying professions and occupations such as those in business and health.

To me, there is one substantive effect of this pattern of employment and the associated lower wages identified in the article, and that is a reduced ability to pay for services from lower income tax revenues.

However, not only does this contention elide the fundamental problems we have with the tax system in Oregon, the most salient being state-wide property tax limitations that already make funding local services difficult, but there is also the larger question, unasked in the OregonLive report, of whether the problem here isn’t so much with individuals choosing to major in the humanities and social sciences and taking relatively lower paying jobs to live in Portland, but with a political and economic system that is tied to an assumption that wages should go up, or that the point of getting a college education is to maximize one’s personal income (by way of illustration, the article concludes with a quote from Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance, exhorting the city to, “get strategic to get more people with finance, management, science, technology, engineering and math. We are short in these key areas that are moneymaking areas”).

The research that I did with my subjects and informants for Comic Book City offers some insight into how this study appears to miss, or ignore, certain nuances to the Portland economy and why the city attracts the kind of college graduates and professionals it does, while perhaps being less attractive to people looking to “make it big”, where that primarily means lots of money, but also fame and advancement.

As implied by Amy Vilet, the Oregon Employment Department Economist quoted at OregonLive, Portland is a relatively low cost of living location. Not only does the comparative data cited in the study include substantially higher cost locations like New York, thereby skewing the wage comparison, but the underlying point is that you don’t need to make as much money to live decently in Portland as you do in many other cities.

Among the writers and artists I surveyed and interviewed, most made mention of being able to do things like buy a house or go out to eat regularly while still working in a modestly paying field like comics, or in a “day job” that affords them time and energy for writing and drawing, or that is fulfilling in its own right.

Furthermore, it also seems clear that among those individuals choosing to stay in the city, material reward and advancement are not primary values. While no one expressed a desire to live an ascetic life, being able to have satisfying work and time and opportunity to participate in community and non-work related interests are values that the people I spoke with seem to hold over and above standard measures of “success”. These findings are consistent with what researchers at the Portland-based Artisan Economy Initiative have also found in their investigations of the cultural and economic lives of the city’s “extra-large population of humanities majors”. Indeed, I would recommend Charles Heying’s book, Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy (Ooligan Press, 2010) for a different view of how Portland’s economy works to the one underlying the OregonLive report. I’ve embedded an excerpt from Comic Book City below that features Heying and co-researcher Shanna Eller addressing this question of “values” for Portland’s community of artisan producers.

While Hammond’s article includes recognition that, for many in the city’s multitudes of humanities and social science majors, job and career satisfaction is just as or more important than earning potential (though, to be sure, this is viewed as part of the problem with the city’s economy, if not seen as being outright perverse), my research suggests that, for some at least, this kind of thinking also extends to the “luxuries” they want from where they live.

Repeatedly, the individuals I surveyed and spoke with indicated that being able to live well without relying on, or even owning, a car is a primary reason for choosing to be in Portland. While in one sense this is a reflection of the values noted above, in another sense, for someone on a career path unlikely to result in higher average wages, not owning a car is also an economically rational choice, as is living in a place that makes that choice possible. According to AAA, in 2012, the average cost of owning a car in the U.S. was $8946/year, which roughly translates to $745.50/month. For anyone looking to work in a field with modest average pay or that entails working freelance, that is a significant expense to be spared or mitigated.

That Portland affords individuals alternate forms of compensation, some material, some not, and that’s why many who choose to live there are attracted to the city, suggests that seeing a dichotomy between a) an economy that forces individuals to accept lower hours and pay and b) an economy that simply reflects individual choices may be an overly simplistic framing of the city’s workforce.

As cited on OregonLive, I have no doubt that there are individuals who are frustrated by what they see as too low hours and pay, but it also appears to be the case that many of these same individuals nonetheless choose to remain in the city. Some are likely tied by circumstance, health, family, but for others, quality of life considerations probably offset, or trump, such frustrations. In other words, it is possible that some people are both “forced” into lower paying jobs and also willing to accept such jobs in order to stay in Portland. None of the comics creators I spoke with were purely concerned with the income potentials of their jobs or careers or with their personal finances. I have a hard time imagining any of the individuals featured in the film moving away simply because they thought they could earn higher wages someplace else.

The puzzle for growth-advocates, and I think you see this reflected in Hammond’s article, is that the structure of Portland’s economy seems to be largely the product of market forces, but with results that contradict the assumptions of mainstream economic development models that place a priority on rising wages, both for urban economies and for individuals. What the Value of Jobs Coalition seems to represent is an organized effort to pushback against an actually existing economy where many individuals simply don’t care about the usual metrics of economic vitality or success.

I don’t want to overstate the significance of Portland’s difference or uniqueness in this regard, the city is still part of the global capitalist economy and the base fundamentals of the local economy are little different from anywhere else in the U.S., but at the same time the city does appear to be filling a niche, and successfully, for people who want at least marginally different things from the typical American dream of big job, big house, and big car. What or why you would want to see that as a problem to be fixed is beyond me.

Florida’s proposal to set tuition by major: crazy, yes, but also too close to home

At The Atlantic this week, Jordan Weissmann posted a story about a proposal in Florida to set tuition at state institutions according to major, with students choosing “high demand” fields earning a discount, while those choosing majors less in demand would pay more.

This is the kind of proposal that is easy to scoff at, and to write off as being the product of one place’s peculiar politics, but, in truth, the underlying logic is one I see at work everyday at my institution and in the Oregon University System more broadly.

Currently, for example, there are clear mandates to direct scarce resources for faculty hires towards departments with professional or pre-professional, or even just practical-sounding, majors. Meanwhile, faculty in departments with more traditional academic majors are forced to fight just to keep existing tenure lines, or to hire adjuncts to cover course releases and leave, let alone to supplement regular course offerings.

In considering the Florida proposal, Weissmann notes the difficulty in trying to peg what constitutes a “high demand” field and how to keep up with ongoing changes in labor markets. Whether setting student tuition or constructing programs and hiring faculty, playing the market seems like a foolish risk for colleges and universities, no matter how appealing it may sound to state legislators and governing boards. Systems risk sinking investments into fields of study that may or not be relevant a few years down the road, if they were ever relevant to begin with.

Like Weissmann, I can imagine a system of data collection to try to make these kinds of decisions be as economically rational as possible, but it seems equally likely that these decisions are or would be made for less grounded reasons, such as what appeals politically or some vague sense of what an employable major does or does not look like.

Taking faculty hires at Western as a case in point, I haven’t seen any indication that decisions about new programs and allocation of resources are being made with clear data on employer demand or the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. For the most part, these decisions seem to be driven by legislative mandates, which, as Weissmann puts it, are just as likely to be based on assumptions of, “Science: Good! English: Bad!”, as they are to be founded on thoughtful study, by what sounds career-oriented, or fits in with some influential person’s general picture of the economy.

In each of these cases, what I see is an expansion of one of the central myths of higher ed in America, namely that the purpose of choosing a major is to secure a specific job or to get started on a particular career path.

This is nonsense.

For starters, and to state what should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, choice of major doesn’t guarantee any form of employment. A student can make all the “right”choices and still end up working in some other field or in jobs that don’t appear to make direct use of the content of their college major, or not able to find work at all. Simply majoring in a STEM field or in some narrowly drawn program like Heath Care Management (or whatever) doesn’t guarantee specific or gainful employment anymore than majoring in a “loser” academic field in the social sciences, arts or humanities fates one to a life of drawing espresso.

Increasing one’s prospects for decent employment is a perfectly fine reason to go to college, and there is certainly no shortage of studies and data about employment, unemployment, and earnings to demonstrate the economic value of having an undergraduate degree. The misapprehension that springs from this general point, for students, for parents, for legislators, for members of boards, for, even, administrators, is that if it’s better to have a degree than not it must be even better to study something “practical”.

One obvious risk to Florida’s proposal that Weissmann notes in his article is that many students will be tempted to declare majors for which they may not have a true aptitude or passion. Those students are likely to either fail out of their programs or end up being less competitive in the job market in comparison to those who are better prepared and more talented.

When it comes to actual funding decisions, little value is assigned to what a college education can do for students beyond the promise of specific employment. Very few people have aspirations that stop at their job. In our lives as friends, neighbors, members of families, and citizens, and in our non-employment related pursuits, there is value in having had breadth built into our higher educations. There is value in cultivating broader habits of the mind that make us better thinkers, readers, information-seekers, and communicators. Even in the context of economistic arguments about higher ed, it is worth noting that these qualities are also useful in seeking employment, and, over the course of a lifetime, likely more useful than any specific career-related or technical knowledge one may have acquired in a particular moment, e.g., when one was an undergrad.

The danger inherent in a proposal like the Florida tuition scheme or the current approach to hiring at my institutions is that, over time, “low demand” programs will die on the vine. If that happens, institutions will be left with the problem of how to actually educate, as well as train, all of those scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There would also be the question of what to do with students who, despite all the incentives, choose to major in fields outside of the STEM or professional and pre-professional areas. I don’t think it can be overstated that there will always be students for whom science, math, engineering, and related fields, will not be good or viable options. And yet if the general economic case for a college degree holds true, state systems should have an interest in ensuring adequate alternatives for students choosing to pursue higher education, and, at some level, that means supporting academic majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences alongside those in the STEM fields and in explicitly career-oriented programs.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately about how my institution works is while the largest majors do tend to be in professional, pre-professional, or explicitly career-focused, in the main, these programs only serve their majors. While departments in the traditional liberal arts and sciences may not have that many majors in comparison, in any given graduating class, more students will have taken courses from faculty in those programs than in the aforementioned majors, which are found in Business, Criminal Justice, Education, and Computer Science.

I don’t have a problem with this, nor would I disagree that a department with tens or hundreds of majors merits a faculty adequate to serve their students, but what I do object to is the manner in which demand seems to only be assessed in terms of markets, whether at the university or in the larger economy*. Yes, many of the social sciences, arts and humanities may have small majors, but faculty in those programs teach a lot of students from across the university. That service, that kind of “demand”, is routinely discounted, I think, because it is primarily the result of how the general education curriculum is designed.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think this is some accident or quirk of history. Disciplines like mine, geography, are meant to provide generally useful knowledge about the world. Modern professional fields are primarily intended to educate students with specific job and career aspirations. While I would not want to suggest that there is no value in, say, non-business majors or minors taking Business courses, in my experience, faculty in fields like that are primarily interested in teaching students who are looking for preparation in that field. The fact that Business, etc. are not explicitly represented in the general education curriculum, especially at the lower division, is because faculty in those programs have opted out of participation, and not because they have been excluded.

At the same time, most faculty in the professional and pre-professional areas rely on faculty in other departments to provide breadth and fundamentals to their students. Most faculty in those areas realize that their students are better off for having taken courses in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And yet proposals like Florida’s, or decisions like those being made around hiring at my institution, seem to be made with little understanding or appreciation of how higher education actually works in practice for faculty and students.

*I also think it should be noted that “demand” is a slippery concept in these discussions. Majors like Criminal Justice or Business often do show high levels of demand on many campuses in terms of enrollment, and they do guide students into specific jobs or careers, but students with degrees in those areas largely do not command the same kind of demand in the job market that majors in the STEM fields do. So, in some ways apples and oranges are being lumped together in this blog post, but that’s largely because they do in practice, too. On many campuses, the STEM fields are likely small in terms of enrollment, but are supported because of apparent demand in the job market. Many professional, pre-professional, and career-oriented fields are supported because students want to major in those areas. In either case, departments in the middle are left to fight over whatever crumbs are dropped on the campus floor.

Why Mitt Romney deserves #bindersfullofwomen

Talking to Anne-Marie this afternoon about the “binders full of women” meme that sprang from last night’s presidential debate, and in particular about the pushback coming today from self-identifying feminists and feminist allies, we reached a few points that, to me at least, suggest that Mitt Romney deserves this response even if it is arguably reductive or making too much of an awkward turn of phrase.

The most important point here is that Romney’s binder remark was made in response to a question about pay equity, and whatever credit Mitt Romney might deserve for seeking out women for cabinet positions (see Amanda Hess’ blog post at Slate today), his statement is a bad answer to that question. In effect, he is saying, well, I hired some women once. At best this is a non-sequiter. At worst it’s a dodge that betrays a lack of concern, or lack of understanding, for the well-documented discrimination that women face in the workplace.

On its own, “binders full of women” probably doesn’t merit the attention it has received, but there is the larger context in which that phrase can be seen. I think that it is the context for the remark, and not the remark in and of itself, that explains the fast emergence and popularity of the meme.

To begin, Romney consistently went back to a vision of families with heterosexual partners where women do the cooking and childcare. As Amanda Marcotte points out, pivoting to the question of employers providing more flexible work schedules shows some progressiveness in regards to women in the workplace, even as it sidesteps the original issue, but he clearly has no room in his head for men wanting or needing the same kind of flexibility (one assumes that a household with two male or two female parents or a single male parent is beyond the pale for anyone capable of securing the Republican nomination for president).

Second, his most direct response to the original question was to argue that as president he would grow the economy to a point where employers would want to hire women. Amanda Marcotte makes a good case that this free market vision for achieving pay equity is belied by how women actually get paid in the workforce. But additionally, the way Romney made his argument implied that employers would start hiring women only after they had lots of jobs to offer. Scarce jobs, I guess, go to the men, who, in Romney’s world, probably merit them more as the primary breadwinners, if not entirely because they are obviously more qualified.

Finally, there was his blaming single-parent, and especially single-mother, homes for gun violence. The stigmatization of single mothers is a tired trope in American politics and one that any thoughtful person should be questioning rather than deploying as an alternative to gun control.

On the whole, Romney’s vision of progress might be notable if this were, say, 1980 (consider him in comparison to Ronald Reagan on these matters), but while I think that he clearly sees women in the workforce as a reality, he also clearly sees that as a novelty.

Next to the question dodging, I think the above points to another reason why Romney is being derided for “binders full of women”. While it is, of course, good that someone in Romney’s position would make an effort to hire women into government, the binders image, especially when seen in the context of his entire debate performance, brings to mind both mail-order brides and tokenism, rather than a genuine commitment to equality. In both cases, women are seen not so much as people, but as tactical objects waiting to be summoned or deployed as needed by their male patrons, whether in the home or in the cabinet.

Chuck Tryon points out that the politics underlying both this meme and the earlier one arising from Romney’s Big Bird comment in the first debate are far from coherent. However, what the macros in both instances do is highlight the inadequacy of Paul Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s responses to tough questions about big issues, which is to reduce them to anecdotes from their personal lives as if stories about individual acts of thoughtfulness or compassion or personal preferences are the same as articulating policy. The Romney-Ryan campaign is essentially based on the premise that we should just trust them to get the job done; let them worry about the details once they are in office.

For anyone seriously concerned about issues like pay equity or equal rights, the fact that Mitt Romney may have personally reached out to hire women into prominent positions is good to know, but unless he means to imply that he will use the office of the president to ensure that all women who want work will get work and at pay commensurate to men in similar positions and with comparable experience and qualifications, his story about “binders full of women” is no more a serious response to a question about women’s equality than is cutting PBS a serious response to a question about making his tax plan work with reducing the deficit.