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From the Editor: "But Let Us Cultivate Our Garden"

By Aaron Barlow

The last words of Voltaire’s Candide should become a rallying cry for faculty, even as we confront forces that threaten to convert college into vocational training or a profit center. Yes, we do need to protect American higher education from outsiders desiring to turn it to their own will, but we must never forget that it is from the inside that our colleges and universities became the best in the world—and that it is from the inside that they can be most easily destroyed. The US system of higher education became great through the work of faculty who had the freedom both to govern their activities and to cultivate their classrooms. Significantly, it grew great, also, because faculty were willing to face their own shortcomings and address them.

We must make sure that the protection remains and must continue to use it in a positive fashion. Yet if our response to external threats comes at the expense of attending to internal affairs and duties, we could soon discover we have nothing left to protect. In this issue of Academe, we address some of the issues on campus that we cannot afford to ignore. As the articles make clear, our responsibilities do not end with protection from external forces.

The lead essay in this issue, Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s “The Monument and the Wrecking Crew,” explores the way a growing lack of respect for age and experience is harming our colleges and universities. Following that, we present two articles on the problematic use of student evaluations of teaching. John W. Lawrence makes the case that very little accurate information about teaching comes out of such evaluations, and Ronald Cordero argues that the dangers of reliance on student evaluations go far beyond mere inaccuracy. Together, these articles make clear that a serious reconsideration of the instruments employed and the uses of student evaluations is needed, and quickly.

It is never in our best interests to tell people to “go do” without providing tangible support for the doing—especially when there are cultural roadblocks to success. In their article on women’s writing groups, Joyce Alexander, Laura Plummer, and Jane McLeod detail one effective method for providing necessary support to new scholars. Though too many of us ignore our faculty senates, these bodies remain one of the only open avenues to real shared governance. In his article on serving as faculty senate chair, Ben Trachtenberg offers practical advice based on his own experience, his observations illustrating the importance of both the chair and the senate to our campuses. Following that, Peter N. Stearns argues for a reassessment of our uses of letters of recommendation. The final essay in the print edition, Missy Watson’s “Contesting Standardized English,” challenges our assumptions about “proper” English and why we insist upon it.

The online edition of this issue features two additional articles. James W. Russell, drawing on his own experience of reaching sixty-five, warns us that assumptions about retirement income may not pan out, particularly for faculty whose retirement savings reside primarily in defined-contribution plans. And, in a slight departure from our normal practice, we present a chapter from Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains on economist James Buchanan and the origins of the radical right’s attack on higher education.

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