Monday, July 16, 2007

Maybe the Department of Irony Needs an Endowed Chair?

In a conference paper that I wrote about the plagiarism-detection program, "Honor Coding: Academic Honesty and Brute Force Solutions," I complained about reactionary on-campus thinktanks that are devoted to returning universities to pre-digital honor codes and to ignoring the work of Internet researchers about hybridized online patchwriting practices. Although it's not one of the major offenders, I've been irritated by the subtle conservatism of the pablum dispensed by supposedly peer-reviewed Journal of College and Character, which is currently soliciting submissions from students about the prospect of having college administrators regularly monitor their Facebook and MySpace pages in search of signs of illegal behavior.

Imagine my astonishment to find that disgraced former President of Eastern Michigan University John Fallon was lionized several times by The Journal of College and Character and even included in their section on public diaries, in which highly principled university presidents open up about their day-to-day experiences of moral reflection and leadership in the spirit of transparency and as a form of academic blogging from the group.

Fallon, who orchestrated a massive cover-up of the rape and murder of an undergraduate student on his campus, is not surprisingly omitted from the Journal's current index of the university presidents' diaries. Astonishingly, Fallon and other university officials didn't even tell the young woman's parents the true cause of their daughter's death.

Fallon's "Day Twelve" in the Journal is particularly terrible, his would-be submission to the NPR series "This I Believe," which is full of pompous "I" statements of the kind away from which we usually steer undergraduates. I have nothing against the rhetorical legitimacy of personal credos, when done well, as a fan of the NPR show and the parent of a credo-writing kid of my own, but -- speaking as a writing program administrator -- I have to say that this prose is just plain excruciating to read. Here is a representative sample:

My thinking and behavior are grounded, fully and consistently, in 10 general perspectives and values. These can be discerned in my style and substance, in how I act and how I can be expected to act. When people ask, "What makes John Fallon tick?" I tell them that:

1. I abhor arrogance, pretense and all other vestiges of human superiority.
2. I believe that the educational case for diversity mitigates against tolerance and toward unconditional acceptance.
3. I believe passionately in the power of education and the personal and moral obligations that derive from it.
4. I believe that interpersonal trust is simultaneously the most important and most elusive element of human relations.
5. I believe strongly in the concept and institution of family and can be expected to work toward a family-friendly community and institution.
6. I believe strongly in the preeminence of ethics, honesty, and integrity. And have achieved a record that bespeaks this belief.
7. I believe that active listening is the most important element in interpersonal communication.
8. I believe that organic influence, as a source of social power, trumps formal authority in both theory and practice every day.
9. I believe that people are gifts from above and their precious basic nature both requires and deserves unrelenting respect.
10. I believe strongly in optimism and confidence. In my view, there is no such thing as failure, only successes yet to be achieved.

As if this decalogue weren't enough, then there is another one, which is even worse than the first.

Then again, none of the other university presidents at the Journal's website seem to understand the genre of academic blogging any more than Fallon did. Their entries lack links, paraphrases that explain central conflicts, and a sense of timeliness to engage the reader. Their generic academic problems and players are too generic to appeal to the niche audiences of the Internet, and there is too much navel-gazing being described given their public policy roles. This surprises me, because I think the e-mails and other electronic writing of university presidents as a group tends to be very good, and I believe that senior administrators who rise to these posts are generally strong writers. Still, blogging appears not to be a forte for this group. They may not be as weak as stylists as Fallon, who begins entries with one-word sentences like "Faces." and "Football." But it looks like many of the other university presidents were typical bloggers, at least in that they abandoned their blogs early in the writing process, even before the designated fourteen-day period had elapsed.

Alas, for fame-seeking Fallon, the university is already working to erase his legacy. Even Fallon's public explanations and apologies for the whitewash have been expunged by the university's webmasters, so that Fallon's very mea culpa statements were deleted. The President's Page at Eastern Michigan shows that he has already been supplanted by a senior administrative official. Unfortunately, the university has yet to make the kind of comprehensive FAQ that parents and the public would be seeking at this time or to address the issues about disclosure for which the Clery Act was written into law by the federal government, even with a staff of five in their university communications office. Instead, we learn that they are busy "brand testing."

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