Saturday, October 04, 2008

Penn State: Making Life Absurd

Faculty Trading Cards appeared in a satire about the corporate future of San Francisco State University  by  N. Fielden in 2002.
The restructuring of GE was only one of a series of changes that had overtaken the university. Upon his accession to the throne in 2008, Provost Sheldon Axler had decided that each department and program needed to reinvigorate themselves and had issued a call for proposals and pilot projects.

Several departments had responded with creative ideas: Jules Tygiel of Baseball Studies had come up with the idea of faculty trading cards. Students began collecting faculty cards, which listed their degrees, SAT and GRE scores, short bios (Hector had overhead a classmate on Monday exclaim loudly over locating a rare rookie Pamela Vaughn card which he had hoped to trade for a current Frank Bayliss card with his outrageously high grant average.) The brilliant piece of the trading card idea was not the listing of information however, which did help to demystify the faculty and make their humanity more three dimensional, but what else was included besides the conventional. In addition to standard CV material. Faculty had to also list one or two major failures in their biographical sketches. Students could learn, for example, that Eric Solomon had been once fired from a library assistant position because he insisted on reading all the books before reshelving them at the university of Maine, a characteristic but singular act of defiance, but took that experience as a motivator for going onto graduate study. Faculty were urged to include failures of every description (low journal article acceptance rates, broken book contracts, failed marriages, most embarrassing public utterances, etc.) and the candor had done miracles to boost credibility. One professor, in her philosophy class had described the shift as the "culture of vulnerability." She mentioned Kierkegaard as saying that it was not possible to love without risk, and she had even taken the time to show the class the manuscript for her first book, which had come back from the publisher's copy editor with red marks and corrections all over it. It heartened the class to see that even a heavyweight published author got rough treatment from fussy grammatically obsessed types in places of power.
The idea was expanded on in another satire of  universities  by Luis Martinez-Fernadndez in Academe a publication of the AAUP in 2003.
In our celebrity-driven, star-struck culture, university professors do not receive the attention or praise—not to mention the paychecks—of movie actors, pop music idols, super models, or sports stars. Although professors' egos may not be much smaller than those of celebrities, academia lacks the promotional infrastructure of professional sports and the entertainment industry. For example, we have no televised award shows (there's a different one almost every night), magazine covers cluttering supermarket checkout aisles, or trading cards. That may explain why so many people know how many home runs Barry Bonds has hit, what Jennifer López is wearing, and who is dating Britney Spears. It also hints at why no one knows—or cares to know—much about the accomplishments of unsung professors toiling at America's colleges and universities.

To begin addressing this unfortunate disparity, I propose that university presses produce and market Trading CardsTM for the Professoriate. I have even trademarked the name in case the idea flies. Professors' cards would follow the format of the popular baseball cards that have done so much to promote the national pastime and its professional players. Both children and adults could collect and trade the cards, and our profession's image and prestige would reach new heights. Moreover, the cards should provide the financially strapped university presses with a solid source of revenue.
You had to know it would only be a matter of time before a university president thought, "faculty trading that's an idea whose time has come!".

Of course, you won't be surprised that The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the genius that decided to bring satire to life was our very own marketing master Graham Spanier. The story was picked up by the The Mac Weekly a student newspaper at Macalester College
Not your ordinary bubblegum baseball cards, the trading cards at this State College, Penn., institution are reserved for the elite. Now nerds can trade their favorite author for an evolutionary biologist.

In an effort to remind the public and the student body that they have more to offer the world than football, Penn State designed a set of trading cards with the pictures and statistics of their famous faculty.

If you're lucky you can be the proud owner of a Catch-22 author Joseph Keller card or covet your friend's card of evolutionary biologist Masatoshi Nei, who proved mankind originated in Africa.

"I did not grow up in this country, so I know nothing about baseball cards," Moses Chan, a physics professor featured on one of the trading cards, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. Chan said he has no plans to trade the card highlighting his achievements.

A special campus committee chose 20 noteworthy faculty members to comprise the second edition of trading cards. The 3,000 packs were issued at an invitation-only tailgate party held by Penn State President Graham Spanier.
And the absurdity of it all wasn't lost on The Mac Weekly.
Macalester might consider creating our own set of trading cards to distract the public from our football failings. It will give us yet another opportunity to boastfully drop the names of our famous alumni like Walter Mondale, Kofi Annan, Dewitt Wallace, Tim O'Brien, and Peter Berg.
A few years ago Graham came up with the slogan, Penn State: Making Life Better. I don't think it's used much any more. So it's time for a new slogan, Penn State: Making Life Absurd.

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