How to Read a Curriculum

We already know that higher education applicants and their families have some difficulty decoding the information available about colleges and universities to find the institutions that they want to apply to. That’s the major reason that higher tuition prices in the past have sometimes produced a more selective applicant pool. If I’m trying to hold a dinner party made from the very best ingredients, but I’m making something I’ve never made before, I may choose the highest-priced ingredients, figuring that cost is a signal of quality. If I have experience with those ingredients, I may know better.

This is why college rankings flourish, even though most higher education insiders know that they’re highly manipulable, and in any event, don’t really tell most applicants the more fine-grained things that they’d really like to know. Various descriptive “insider’s guides” do a better job at describing the selective feel of an institutional culture for an applicant who wants to know what day-to-day life is like, but even those are often based on whimsical stereotypes of a given campus culture.

I sometimes join a faculty panel to talk to prospective Swarthmore applicants, and one of the first things that I say is that a college applicant and family can only have strong control over a few really basic dimensions of the choice in front of them. You can control the cost of tuition and board by choosing between public and private, near your family or far-away. You can choose between large and small. You can choose between institutions with unusual curricular designs (St. John’s, Hampshire, Bob Jones, the U.S. Military Academy) or institutions that are more or less variations on a common approach. An applicant and family can make some rough judgments about selectivity, quality, and resources using rankings systems. An applicant can decide if there’s a region or area of the country they really like or dislike.

Beyond that, if (for example) an applicant had decided that they wanted small colleges in the Northeast with a fairly standard curricular philosophy near the top of the selectivity hierarchy, there’s a good argument that they should just write out all the names on slips of paper, put them in a Hogwart’s hat, and choose six to apply to. The features that will really change your life or matter to you once those major decisions are made are almost impossible to predict: the friends you’ll make or lose, the people you’ll love or break up with, the professors you’ll connect to or be frustrated by, the courses that will excite or bore you, the majors that will grab or repel you, the professional connections you’ll make or wish you had, the institutional culture that will satisfy or disgust you.

It’s very hard to do more, roughly as it is hard when you’re a first-time home buyer to really understand and examine the things that will make the key differences in your life with a comparative understanding of all the possible choices. I don’t think I could actually have ever seen or accurately weighed the stuff that’s been good and bad about the home I bought five years ago even if I’d had the best counsel in the world. I don’t know even now if the other houses I looked at had better functioning windows or well-installed doorknobs or fewer horrifically stupid DIY jobs lurking under the surface. I don’t know if I would have had good neighbors at other houses like I do where we are now, or if my tomatoes would have grown well in other gardens.

It’s the same with higher education.


Still, applicants and families understandably want to be diligent. One area where they often kick the tires a lot is the curriculum of possible institutions. There aren’t so many services and rankings that really look closely at curricula. You could turn to something as goofy as the current ACTA rankings, but if you’ve got that much of an obsession with a rigid vision of certain highly particular ideas about “traditional” general education, don’t worry about any of the other kinds of issues involved in choosing a college or university. (For example, if you follow that report, only one highly particular approach to teaching writing is legitimate, and only if it’s a general education requirement: everything else is an illegitimate failure within that ranking system, with nothing further to debate or discuss. If that evaluation satisfies you, you have enough fixed ideas about higher education already to drive any decision you might need to make. )

If you want a more interesting, open conversation about how to interpret what a curriculum has to offer a prospective student, this conversation at EphBlog is kind of interesting if you go down to comment #11 from Williams professor James McAllister. (The initial post is a pretty conventional bit of concern trolling of a kind I’ve talked about a lot at this blog, and it gets pretty well debunked by McAllister by the time comment #11 rolls around.)

So leaving aside the hand-waving about whither history departments and all that, let’s just say that you’re a prospective undergraduate who wants to study one subject more than any other. McAllister is talking about the study of U.S. foreign relations and comparing Williams to Amherst and Swarthmore, with an argument that Williams is the best place to be of the three for a student who has that subject as a primary interest.

I don’t really want to get too deep into the highly granular kinds of comparisons involved in that judgment, though I think McAllister’s assessment of relative strengths seems basically right to me. Instead, here’s how I think a prospective who self-identifies as highly interested in one topic or subject ought to work through the questions involved.

First, are you sure that you’re really that interested in a single topic or issue, so sure that you want to make that a primary axis of your decision about where to go to college? Why are you that sure? Do you just like the topic or are you thinking already of a profession narrowly based on it? Are you sure based on an understanding of what a likely undergraduate-level curriculum around that topic looks like, or based on what you know about it from your high school experience? Are you making that choice with a wider awareness of the subjects that even a small college will offer to you that virtually no high school curriculum can focus on?

Second, are you SURE? Really? Then you’re a really unusual applicant. Most of what prospectives think they’re interested in is not the same as what those subjects turn out to be, and most of their interests are based on a very incomplete understanding of the range of academic subjects even within a particular discipline.

Third, if you’re really that kind of unusual person, absolutely certain that your first, second and last priority is to comprehensively study a single subject area while you’re an undergraduate and that this priority is unlikely to change, then: a) don’t apply to any small undergraduate institution; b) pick a place with as few general education requirements as possible; c) find a program in your preferred subject at a large institution that is stuffed to the gills with faculty and courses and make sure undergraduates with a dedicated interest get access to the most prestigious or high-powered faculty in your area of subject interest. The relative difference between one small college and the next doesn’t really matter to you if you’re that driven, because in either case, they’re going to have a relative paucity of resources in comparison to a large institution. You don’t really care about any of the other resources at an institution if you’re that focused: just your area of study and whatever direct supporting skill areas you need (say, language or quantitative training). An undergraduate applicant who is this specifically focused is really more like a proto-graduate student, and should use selection rules much closer to what a graduate student might employ.


Let’s assume you’re not so focused, just that you’d like to know whether certain areas of potential interest are well-represented in a given catalog. How can you tell? Some rough rules of thumb if you’re reading a catalog for this kind of information.

1) Look at four or five-year course cycles if you really want to know how many courses there are in a particular area. A single year can be highly misleading because of faculty leaves, short-term fluctuations in offerings, and so on.
2) Look over a range of possible departments: many subject areas are taught in multiple disciplines.
3) Look carefully at course descriptions. You may have one idea of what a subject area is about, and not recognize a course title as associated with that subject area. A description may give you a better idea. But be aware that there may be courses on your subject area that you don’t recognize as such at all because you don’t yet really know that subject area as it is commonly taught to undergraduates. Or a subject area you recognize may lead to a subject area you don’t recognize in the course of natural progressions of study. Be prepared to be surprised.
4) Look at the names of faculty who seem to teach a course in the subject areas that interest you. Search out the rest of their offerings and see whether this is a subject area that they commonly teach in, or whether it’s just an occasional or one-off course. I’ve taught courses on new media and interactive media, but I can’t regularly fit such courses into my schedule. I’ve taught courses that interested me on occasion that I decide for various reasons not to repeat, or I suddenly decide to retire a perennial offering and relaunch it with a new coat of paint on top.
5) Also look to see if the faculty teaching in a given area are tenure-track faculty or visiting faculty. The content offered by visiting faculty shifts a great deal at both small and large institutions. Count how many faculty are teaching in that area, of both types.
6) Read the fine print about who can get into the courses that interest you, and how often they’re taught. There’s a big difference in availability between a course taught every year that’s open to max enrollments and a course taught once every four years that’s only open to 12 hand-picked students.
7) Watch out for “paper programs”: a lot of institutions create named programs of study that are more or less ad hoc collections of courses being taught in service to other disciplines or degrees. There’s a difference between programs that have dedicated faculty lines and resources and those that express a general interest by faculty who are primarily associated with other departments. Look to see where faculty positions are actually invested. (Usually this is clear if you look at a program or department’s listing of faculty: there will be a distinction between tenure-lines in that department and affiliated or associated faculty.)

If you do a bit of that, you may get a rough sense of where a given institution has invested more or less curricular energy. Even that isn’t necessarily a good guide to the viability of study in a given area: one professor that really satisfies your interest in a subject is worth more than four who don’t. Whatever you do, though, don’t put too much weight on these kinds of judgments. You or your family may have one idea about what you need to study, but in a great many cases, you’re likely to be wrong in a variety of ways.

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15 Responses to How to Read a Curriculum

  1. dkane says:


    1) Thanks for taking the time to comment on our discussion.

    2) Just what about my initial post is “pretty conventional bit of concern trolling?” I care about the courses that are offered at Williams and the faculty hired to teach them. You don’t think that I really care? You don’t think that I am knowledgeable enough to offer an informed opinion? Or are you directing your criticisms toward David Kaiser? You don’t think that he is informed?

    3) Mentioning either my name or Kaiser’s name (depending on who your “troll” comment was directed towards) would have been polite, don’t you think?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    The concern trolling is the use of David Kaiser’s piece (which is itself as problematic as some more recent essays and articles bemoaning the alleged loss of ‘traditional’ forms of historical study and teaching, see most recently my response to Patricia Cohen’s NY Times article to complain about the Williams Department of History.

    Again, see some of my own earlier posts on why I object to going about a critique in this fashion. Just to summarize: first, it turns out you’re just plain wrong about the distribution of fields in that department and about how they assess their priorities. Were I you, I’d do more than put a strikethru tag around the original sentence: being that wrong about your “bet” really ought to be an occasion where you roll the original premise into the repair shop. A lot of responses to the Cohen piece by other historians pointed out that Cohen’s quantitative data about the distribution of fields in history actually belies the premise that there’s been a shift away from ‘traditional’ fields: military history’s representation in history departments, for example, has *grown* from 1975 to 2005.

    Second, and this is where the concern trolling remark comes in, it’s not clear basically *why* you care whether Williams or anywhere else has a diplomatic historian or a military historian. Indeed, to some extent your lack of interest in the actual consequences of having a diplomatic historian on the faculty is a bit underscored by the fact that Williams has a new historian in that field and you didn’t even notice. I think this is typical of many people who complain along these lines: military history or diplomatic history or “traditional” political history is a totemic object, an icon. The Kaiser essay at least makes clear why he thinks that a particular style of writing the history of states and political elites is important and not synonymous with a social history of state power or a cultural history of diplomatic discourse, etc.

    I’m kind of at the point where if someone wants to deliver a critique of the complex institutional process through which specializations and interests in a given discipline slowly evolve and mutate, I really want them to lay out the particulars of that critique, to hear why they think a particular methodology or subject matter matters more than some other. Because all hiring decisions in departments (especially in the current budgetary environment) are zero-sum. If I’m hit by a bus tomorrow, and someone says, “Hire a military historian instead of hiring again into Burke’s field”, that’s choosing military history instead of African or comparative global or Atlantic or British Empire history (unless the ad is written for a military historian who specializes in African history, which is a crazily specific ad for a SLAC with 9 tenure lines). I’m fine with someone making that argument, but I want to see it, rather than these insinuated complaints of intellectual discrimination against some ‘traditional’ field. I’ve done two terms now on the college’s planning committee, and I have to say that my colleagues in most disciplines are pretty meticulous about reviewing the range of specializations and curricular demands in their disciplines whenever the opportunity to replace a retired or resigned position comes up, and making a good argument on behalf of the field they eventually decide to favor. I think anybody who wants to complain about those decisions ought to shoulder the same burden.

  3. dkane says:


    I appreciate you taking the time to reply. Alas, I am travelling and can’t give your comment the attention it deserves. Some points:

    Second, and this is where the concern trolling remark comes in, it??s not clear basically *why* you care whether Williams or anywhere else has a diplomatic historian or a military historian.

    Well, it isn’t particularly clear in this post because it is a topic that has come up many times at EphBlog. Short answer: For many years, Williams has had two excellent diplomatic historians (Russ Bostert and KC Johnson) and one excellent military historian (James Woods). On the whole, their classes were/are hugely popular, both because of the subject matter and because of their teaching ability. An involved alum, like me, wants to see that continue, wants to see the department continue to teach those courses. I still bet that, given the opinions and power of those involved, Williams will not hire a military historian to replace Woods. (And I am still taking wagers on that bet.)

    Now, a casual reader of EphBlog might assume that I have no reason for this fear, that I am just some ill-informed (and conservative) alum who has read to many rants from outsiders. Perhaps! But, in this case, I actually have first hand testimony from KC Johnson about potential problems in the Williams History Department and/or faculty.

    As you probably know, untenured faculty at Williams are reviewed in their third year for reappointment and then in their sixth year for tenure. I was reappointed, but my reappointment report faulted my scholarship for stressing the ??politics of procedure?? rather than the ??politics of meaning.?? At that point, my second book, a biography of former Alaska senator Ernest Gruening, was just about to be published, and I was beginning research for a book that will be published in a couple of weeks on Congress and the Cold War.

    The ??politics of procedure?? comment essentially dismissed my scholarly accomplishments. I??m a historian of Congress, and all of my books have argued to some extent that understanding institutional and procedural history is critical to comprehending how the federal government approached foreign affairs in the 20th century. I could not have addressed the reappointment report??s criticism without fundamentally changing both my approach to history and the types of topics that I studied.

    After I decided to leave Williams, I learned that the report had been primarily written by a department member who??s no longer at Williams, who was hostile to political and diplomatic history as subfields; and that the dean of faculty had in vain encouraged her to rewrite the report.

    Now, of course, just because KC Johnson says that something is true does not mean that it is true. Just because something bad was happening at Williams a decade ago does not mean that we need to worry today.

    I “care” about this topic because a) I have legimate reasons to be concerned about some of what has gone on at Williams and b) I want Williams to become the best college in the world. Is that good enough?

    Moreover, on the “anywhere” else portion of your remark, perhaps I am missing something, but do you really object to an outsider having an opinion about the general state of the history profession?

  4. dkane says:

    Just to summarize: first, it turns out you??re just plain wrong about the distribution of fields in that department and about how they assess their priorities. Were I you, I??d do more than put a strikethru tag around the original sentence: being that wrong about your ??bet?? really ought to be an occasion where you roll the original premise into the repair shop.

    1) I was unaware that Williams had hired a diplomatic historian 18 months ago. Guilty as charged! But, given how many other topics I follow at Williams (see here for tens of thousands of words about the endowment), this seems a forgivable lapse. Moreover, I have been covering this same topic for years (e.g. here). I will even note (although this is the Horowitzian part of my personality showing through) that this prediction from 4 years ago proved correct.

    Wouldn??t it be amazing if Erdmann, an alum who has both studied history and lived it, were a professor at Williams?

    Silly you. The Williams faculty does not have a spot for a white man like Erdmann who studies diplomatic history.

    2) If the issue is: Do I know everything there is to know about the Williams history department? The answer is No. But do I know enough to provide informed commentary? I think that the answer is Yes. And, given that no one else is willing to provide any commentary whatsoever, it is either me or nothing.

    3) Needless to say, it would be a better world in which I were more fully informed about the politics of the faculty in general and the history department specifically. But I think that your “just plain wrong” claim goes too far, or at least it compares my knowledgeable base — and I am someone with many contacts on the faculty, someone who knows about academic, someone who teaches at Williams during Winter Study — with some sort of platonic ideal. Yes, it would be nice if there were a (skeptical) insider who was willing to explain/explore these issues with students and alumni, but there isn’t. Don’t you think that Williams is a stronger institution because outsiders like us are so willing to die into these debates?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you choose to hear and trust what you want to hear and trust. Notice the basic difference between the way you use something KC Johnson said quite a long time ago based on his short experience at the college and what other faculty at Williams say. I defended KC about his tenure experiences but I’ve certainly learned since that he has, to put it mildly, a tendentious and very particular view of events around him and of the status of political and diplomatic history as subfields of inquiry (which he defines in very precise and exclusive ways). At the very least, given the intensity of your interests in Williams, I think you’d want to be a more scrupulously even-handed information gatherer, rather than hoarding just those nuggets of information which happen to reinforce views you’re already primed to have.

    So, for example, what makes you think that the consensus of the Williams Department of History is hostile to military history, and uninterested in replacing it as such? I’m sure there are conversations about what other fields are also missing from the department, but you know what, you can join in those conversations as an engaged participant rather than sitting on the sidelines taking bets and throwing rotten fruit. E.g., make a case for military history that goes beyond, “Is popular” against other fields of history which might compete against it. That is precisely the conversation that faculty at Swarthmore and I’m sure Williams and most institutions have every single time they have to replace a retired or resigned faculty member. Every field of study needs to re-earn its place at the table; none should be taken for granted. If you care so much about these fields and think they are essential to making Williams the best college in the country, join in a comparative evaluation of the intellectual and curricular merits of the field.

    Yet another example of where you could benefit by being more curious and stop cherrypicking information that’s friendly to a fixed conclusion: you’re interested in the popularity of courses in these fields when they’ve been offered. Ok. What’s that based on? Some past students telling you they were popular? Do you have a really complete comparative knowledge of relative popularity of courses over the past decade in history? That kind of data can be quite eye-opening. Registrars don’t hand it over to just anybody, but I suspect you can get a more comprehensive sense than just “I know these particular classes were popular”. This is quite before we get to the interesting question of whether enrollments should always drive curricular priorities.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    As an aside, the Erdmann comment is really obnoxious. What, you’re not fully satisfied unless the diplomatic historian Williams hired were a white man? As if that field is somehow intrinsically associated with white men? I’m surprised you’re resurrecting that remark as if you’re proud of it, or feel vindicated in some fashion. You should be happy and excited that field you care about is well-represented at a college that you’re proud of, and instead you’re crapping on the person who got hired because you’d rather she was a man.

  7. dkane says:

    I agree that the Erdmann comment was obnoxious. (But note that it was made years before Chapman was hired, so I don’t view it as “crapping” on her.) I was more of a rhetorical bomb thrower in my younger days.

    You write:

    Yet another example of where you could benefit by being more curious and stop cherrypicking information that???? friendly to a fixed conclusion: you????e interested in the popularity of courses in these fields when they????e been offered. Ok. What???? that based on? Some past students telling you they were popular? Do you have a really complete comparative knowledge of relative popularity of courses over the past decade in history?

    Excellent point! I asked for this data just a few months ago and the Registrar was happy to provide it, until senior administrators forbade him from sharing it. I think that you dramatically underestimate how hard it is for anyone, especially a knowledgeable critic, to get any sort of information out of a place like Williams (and, perhaps, Swarthmore).

    Don’t believe me? Here is a test: Ask Swarthmore to provide you (and give you permission to publish) the last 20 years of salary for the president of the college. I bet that they won’t give it to you, even though this data is, in some sense, public since the last few years are available via the Form 990.

    It is very hard for an outside critic to do anything but cherrypick because the institutions are so loathe to provide information.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, salary data at virtually every kind of organization, educational or otherwise, is generally viewed as confidential. But salary data for college presidents is actually fairly public as you note. I don’t think it would be too difficult, actually, to get 10-15 years worth of comparative data about presidential salaries if you wanted to just do a bit of legwork. If I had some reason for wanting that data, I could get it myself with some research: I don’t expect my administrative colleagues to be at my beck and call to provide data whenever I have some personal need for it. One of the advantages of SLACs is that our bureaucracies are relatively human in scale: if I’m asking for some information, I’m usually aware of the real human being I’m asking to do work, possibly substantial work, on my behalf. Which tends to put a damper on asking for stuff unless there’s a serious institutional process that requires it.

    About enrollment data, my point is that if you can’t do anything but cherrypick, then it’s often better to do nothing at all. At the very least, when that’s all you can do, it’s best to make exceedingly modest claims.

    So, for example, the fact that you believe a certain type of class at Williams is or has been “popular” is a claim that’s worth virtually nothing if you don’t really know how popular those classes were in relative comparison to other classes. I’ve had a chance in my administrative duties to see a good amount of enrollment data across the college, and I can tell you that individual faculty I know sometimes mis-estimate whether their own courses are typical, less or more enrolled than most, and so on. Knowing that, I tend to be politely unconvinced by anyone claiming they’re teaching unusually heavy loads until I have something to measure that against. I’d advise you to the same skepticism: if you don’t know, don’t claim.

    Besides, it’s a relatively weak kind of claim for why you think a given field of study is essential to include in the Williams curriculum. If I go into a conversation with colleagues trying to argue for why I think we need a particular field of study and all I’ve got in my quiver is, “It’s popular with students!”, I’m going to lose out on two fronts. First, that puts my claim into a large generic pool of fields that can make similar claims, and offers no distinction between my favorite and those others. Second, I’m not offering anything about the intellectual or practical merits of the field of study I prefer, which is central to how scholars legitimate the study of any given subject or the use of any given methodology. You want to persuade academics, you need to have some of the coin of the realm on hand. “It’s popular!” is a weak and impoverished claim if you don’t have anything else to offer.

  9. dkane says:

    I agree with virtually everything in your last comment. Yes, “it’s popular” is not reason enough for a class. Yes, professors often misjudge how popular their courses are. Yes, there are a lot of factors that go into deciding what to include and exclude from the curriculum. Agreed on all.

    So, let’s take a step back. You write:

    About enrollment data, my point is that if you can???? do anything but cherrypick, then it???? often better to do nothing at all. At the very least, when that???? all you can do, it???? best to make exceedingly modest claims.

    What is your definition of “modest” in this sentence? My claim is that Williams ought to hire a military historian to replace James Woods when he retires. I make this claim without access to enrollment data (the college won’t provide it). I admit that, if I had enrollment data, I could make this claim stronger. I concede that I am not 100% certain that this would be a good idea, that resources are limitted, that reasonable people might dsiagree and so on.

    Is it reasonable for me to make such a claim? Or is this not “modest” enough? It sure seems that your argument is not that my particular claims/opinions are immodest but that anyone who is not an employee of Williams (and has access to the key data) is not in a position to offer any opinions about what courses Williams should offer, what sorts of faculty it should hire and so on. What would be an example of a modest (and non-trivial or overly subservient) claim that someone like me might offer?

    Recap: I think that there are two reasonable opinions that one might hold.

    1) Don’t offer strong opinions on topic X (like whether or not Williams should hire a military historian) unless you take into account the key data (like historical enrollments) associated with that topic.

    2) Colleges (like Williams) should not share data about enrollments (and other matters) with outsiders. (In this particular case, Williams restricts enrollment data to “policy makers” at Williams.)

    I think that both of these are defensible positions. You seem (?) to believe both. But, in that case, doesn’t it follow necessarily that alumni like me should not offer any opinions on topics like faculty hiring and course opinions, that we should just write our checks and shut the heck up?

    That seems problematic to me.

  10. dkane says:

    You write:

    I don???? think it would be too difficult, actually, to get 10-15 years worth of comparative data about presidential salaries if you wanted to just do a bit of legwork. If I had some reason for wanting that data, I could get it myself with some research: I don???? expect my administrative colleagues to be at my beck and call to provide data whenever I have some personal need for it.

    I bet that you are wrong. I bet that, were you to ask the Swarthmore administration for presidential compensation for the last 20 years, they either a) Would not give it to you or b) Would not allow you to share it with others, even though this data was publicly filed with the federal government in the year that it came out.

    In fact, I will donate $100 to a charity of your choice if I am wrong.

    Now, this may not be reason enough for you to bother. You are correct that about the need for sensitivity when we ask our colleagues to do something for us. You are right that we should not ask someone to do “substantial work” for us for no reason. But two points:

    1) I predict that this will require no substantial work on anyone’s part. Once you ask, they will tell you “No” even before they do any work to try to gather the data. So, in this case, there will be zero effort expended, except some e-mails among administrators bemoaning that trouble-making Burke fellow. Why not just send an e-mail asking if this data is available/publishable (while telling them not to bother to gather it just yet)?

    2) Needless to say, I don’t care much about presidential salary at Swarthmore. I just use this as an example of the sort of opaqueness that is endemic to places like Williams, Swarthmore and so on. Not just presidential data but almost everything remotely controversial is under lock-and-key, at least as far as outsiders are concerned.

    I think that Swarthmore is much less open about data-sharing then you think it is. If you want other examples, I can provide them.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I didn’t say that it would be easy to get it from Swarthmore. I said that you or I could do the research yourself. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a presidential salary survey every year that goes into considerable detail. I’m not seeing what your hang-up is about having data that you could obtain yourself through independent research given to you by administrative staff on a silver platter when you request it.

    All private institutions of all kinds (businesses, non-profits, community groups, hospitals, etc.) treat most of their institutional data as private. This is not news, nor does it distinguish higher education from those other institutions. I think greater transparency for all such institutions is a good idea, and I’d like to see it come about. But preparing some kinds of data for people to read and interpret requires non-trivial labor. So if we expected private institutions of all kinds to make more kinds of information available, we’d still want to be responsible about not burdening them with a task that would effectively require a full-time position to carry out. (Among other things, you’d need an administrative computing system that readily pushes ready-to-consume data out, and I know the balky system we and many other institutions use is not really suited to that.) Moreover, at least some of that data is potentially entangled in federal privacy laws or other privacy requirements, and you’d have to figure out how to not to run afoul of those.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    On the other issue, the modest claim is: when you’re challenged as to *why* Williams should replace a military historian with a military historian, don’t offer “Because his courses are popular” as the reason unless you know in fact that his courses are in fact distinctly more popular than other courses in that department or across the college. Don’t use any argument that rests on enrollment unless you have enrollment data. You are, as you say, unlikely to have that data. So avoid the whole discussion, which is for the best as it is the weakest possible argument you could make.

    My original observation was that given that you care so much about that position, and believe so strongly that it is something vital for a college like Williams to have to be a quality institution, you seem remarkably bereft of an intellectual or programmatic justification for the urgency of your belief.

    If Williams does things roughly like we do, upon retirement of a tenured faculty member, the host department of that person will prepare a request for replacement of that position. Whether they want to replace that person in the same field that they taught or some other field, they’ll generally touch on the following points in their written argument for replacement:

    1) The status of the field(s) they’re requesting in the discipline, and why current research and teaching directions in that field are intellectually exciting and important. Even if you’re replacing the retiring faculty member’s field, that field has doubtless changed somewhat since they began teaching at the college, so you want to describe what’s new and exciting in that field as well as what’s continuously important about it.

    2) The synergies which a person in this field might have with other departments and programs at the college. Sometimes you do this by describing the service that the retiring faculty member provided to other parts of the curriculum, sometimes you sketch out some new possibilities or describe needs which have arisen more recently. This is really important for SLACs especially: we really need people who can wear more than one intellectual and institutional hat.

    3) Long-term enrollment data for classes in this field taught by the retiring faculty member; maybe also if there are classes in this field taught by others at the college, you’d include those to get a complete survey of student interest.

    3 is often the least important part of the argument unless there has been a dramatic and long-term upsurge of student interest (a good example of this in recent years at most high ed institutions is Arabic language courses) or there has been an equally pronounced ebbing of student interest over a long period of time. In the latter case, it’s still often possible to make a highly confidential argument to a provost and planning committee that this loss of interest is more due to the individual faculty member than the field.

    You and anyone else can make arguments on 1 and 2 easily enough, no proprietary information required. To be convincing on #1, you’ll have to do enough legwork to understand how military history fits into the academic discipline of history, what the exciting intellectual trends in that field are, and so on. But if you care about the field, you should not only be willing to do that work, you should have done it already. Otherwise, why are you so convinced of its importance? #2 is also easy to think about without any special inside data. Just look at Williams as a whole: what other departments, programs and fields already benefit or potentially benefit through the presence of a military historian?

    So don’t get hung up on #3: it isn’t where the strongest arguments lie anyway. If you actually care about this issue, do the work for #1 and #2. If you don’t care enough to do that work, don’t complain about this issue, because you don’t have any particular reason to be obsessed with it except that you’ve heard somewhere that academics supposedly hate military history.

  13. dkane says:


    As always, I appreciate the time you take with your answers and the insight you offer as to how the process works. I suspect that we agree on 90% of all of this. Some clarifications:

    My original observation was that given that you care so much about that position . . .

    I care some but not that much. This isn’t even in the top 20 things that I would change about Williams. It has come up only a handful of times in 6+ years of blogging. (If you want to read about something that I really care about, consider the books-worth of material that I have written about the Williams housing system.)

    The Chronicle of Higher Education has a presidential salary survey every year that goes into considerable detail.

    True, but irrelevant. I am pretty sure (corrections welcome) that this survey did not, at least 20 years ago, provide the data for every single College president. And, even if I am wrong about that, the issue is not the availability of that specific data-point, but the willingness of Swarthmore/Williams to be transparent.

    All private institutions of all kinds (businesses, non-profits, community groups, hospitals, etc.) treat most of their institutional data as private.

    True, but the non-profits among them should not, especially the educational ones. First, if I want data from McDonald’s and they won’t give it to me, that is OK. But then McDonald’s won’t keep on asking me for donations like a non-profit would. Second, even though a community group like ACORN or the NRA won’t give me such data, that don’t claim to be an organization committed to the academic virtues of open discussion and intellectual inquiry. So, I think that Williams/Swarthmore have much more of an affirmative obligation in this regard.

    More on your points 1-3 later.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Transparency is good. Just keep in mind that it’s not free if you’re talking about data which is not constantly generated in ready-to-consume form. It’s best to ask which kinds of data, at what intervals, various outside publics really need in order to make an informed assessment of a given institution’s work, value, etc, and not just assume that anything that attracts your attention is something that an institution should have to provide.

    If something like “Williams needs a military historian” is low on your list of interests, you need to attend to your tone when you raise it. When I’m talking about something that I think is modestly interesting but non-urgent, I really try to be more tentative, exploratory, curious, etc. in my tone so I don’t mismatch my rhetoric to the level of my actual engagement. The more demanding, urgent and adversarial my tone, the more that I think the issue I’m talking about is at the top of my list of priorities. And thus (hopefully) the more I’ve done my homework before ever raising it in the first place. That’s a consideration we all owe each other.

  15. Katie Davenport says:

    Hey Tim. Disregarding the convo above (not my field), your original post was really interesting to me. I’ll definitely share it with my junior and senior students who embarking on the college quest. Thanks for being one of the unpredictable features of Swarthmore that mattered to me. 🙂

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