Saturday, November 12, 2005

What to do?

There seems to be a great deal of consensus that the move is problematic. Mike makes the excellent observation that if IIT really cared about Shimer, the offer wouldn't be: "we have space to rent, take it in a couple months or forget about it."

So what do we do? It looks like there is very little time to stop this train and that the only way to do it is to present the board with an alternative plan to raise money and enrollment. Simply pleading that the Shimer Way is at risk probably won't turn things around - if it could, there wouldn't have been such secrecy behind the plan (clearly there's a lot of pressure/desire to end the just-barely-scraping-by experience).

I suggested some group of alumni propose new programs that would be natural outgrowths of the existing curriculum and for which there might be some funding out there (that group of alumni might also have access to some of these potential donors).

Are there other ideas? Ways to move forward on this idea? I'm happy to write something up for the group if there's interest - maybe a conference call before I start drafting?


Snorey said...

Yes, this is definitely a direction we need to go in. Regardless of whether the move goes through or not -- we owe it to the world to make
Shimer's voice heard.

In the field of language education, in which I have somehow found myself, I have become increasingly convinced of the value of the Shimer experience to this large professional community. The entire movement for learner autonomy is simply stumbling towards ground which Shimer staked out long ago. It has taken me much too long to realize how much Shimer gave me for dealing with educational problems. I spent a lot of time struggling for pedagogical insights which I could have gained much more swiftly by simply reflecting on my Shimer experiences.

In all fields of education, there is a growing interest in dialogical and facilitative ways of teaching. Most with an interest in this field have no idea that anything like Shimer has ever existed. I think that Shimer hosting a conference on dialogical methods in education would do a lot to bring it out into the world.

Someone else (was it you?) mentioned that Shimer also has a lot to contribute to the world of politics, in terms of providing a truly participatory political education.

Frankly, I think that the years of de facto isolation have greatly reduced the faith of Shimerians in the real-world validity of the Shimer education. We need to break out of this self-imposed cage.

Snorey said...

Of course, none of my long-winded rambling speaks to your actual proposal. I'll try to come up with something a bit more concrete.

yael said...

I work at a public access TV station where pretty much anyone can get their video on the air after filling out a free membership application and going to a 1-hr orientation class, and I was thinking if Shimer put out a video (SOMEbody's got to have a Camcorder around, and I'm sure someone knows how to edit) it is likely that many public access stations would air it (most of them will air anything, but some of them want local sponsors--but if we put our heads together we may be able to figure a way through the logistical issues that come up). Of course it couldn't be exactly an advertisement, but a short "for more information, please contact" with a phone number and the Shimer web address would be acceptable.

Also I know a lot of magazines (smaller but still ont he newsstands type o' rags) that may be interested in publishing articles about Shimer if we could spin it the right way (again, something that I think most Shimer alums would be quite adept at).

This would of course be a long-term strategy to get the word out and may not have immediate effects, and since my phone call with Dave Shiner isn't scheduled until late next week, I'm not sure how dire the situation really is...

Vicky said...

I heard about this blog in a message from Sara. I don't know any of you guys, but I am a Shimer graduate, and I do have something to say (rather a lot…)
Since most of you already seem to be set against the proposal to move, this long message probably won't persuade you otherwise, but I'll post it anyway. Feel free to e-mail me if you want any more details about anything.

First, to introduce myself, I'm Vicky Muehleisen, and I attended Shimer from 1982-1986, which were probably some of the darkest years for Shimer. (There were about 20 people in my entering class, and I think only about 6 who graduated). I went on to graduate school (MA in linguistics from Temple, PhD from in linguistics from Northwestern), and now I teach at a big university in Tokyo. I've been in Japan for 11 years, and I plan to stay here, but I still have ties to the Chicago area. In fact, my brother teaches at IIT (at the College of Engineering, and I've visited the campus a few times. For a long time after graduating, I didn't go back to Shimer (the usual love-hate thing that many Shimer graduates have, I think), but I've gone back to visit a few times in the past few years, I read the newsletters and check out the web page from time to time. From my perspective, I think the proposal to move to the IIT campus is a good one.

The biggest reason is that it would give so many advantages to Shimerians in terms of curriculum. I absolutely loved the Shimer curriculum--I took as many credits as possible each semester, doing all the classes in Soc Sci and Nat Sci, and doing a lot of independent studies in sociology, philosophy, and botany. But although I really wanted to do more science, there was just no chance to do it at Shimer. These days, there must be many Shimerians who are interested in environmental issues, and IIT has interdisciplinary course on the environment. It's true, as someone said, that IIT is a tech school, but technology can be useful. Aren't there Shimerians who'd like to be able to take classes in computer programming, web page design, etc. as a way of expressing themselves? My brother also pointed out to me the Center for Ethics in the Professions and the Math and Science Education Program, both of which are nationally known and which could be of interest to Shimerians.

Another reason in favor of the move is that the general facilities would be so much better. It wasn't until graduate school that I realized how great it could be to have access to a real library, not just a collection of books stored in the basement of the Waukegan public library. And the dormitory! I know people have a lot of attachment to that run-down building, but it was already dangerous when I lived there. From what I saw the last time I was there, in the summer of 2004, there have been some cosmetic improvements (the scary basement is not so scary anymore), but basically, it still seems to be falling apart. It's true that the Shimer dorm rooms have kitchens, but since they have the same stoves that were already no working right 20 years ago, I'm not sure how useful they really are.

What are the specific arrangements for the dorms at IIT? Will the Shimerians be living together in the same dorm? Are there some communal kitchens available? If so, then people can cook and eat together sometimes, as one way of creating a sense of community. (That's what the Chinese students in Tokyo seem to do, in whatever dorm they are living in, and it works for them. And don't they still have community lunches and potluck dinners at Shimer, even though the dorm has kitchens?)

The Chicago location would be great! IIT is much closer to the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Chicago Symphony, all those used bookstores, not to mention the restaurants and the Chicago Blues Festival. Back in my Shimer days, I was lucky to get down to Chicago once or twice a semester. It would be so cool for Shimerians to be just a short El ride from the Art Institute. Maybe the neighborhood surrounding IIT is dangerous, but I don't think it's nowhere near as dangerous as that of Temple University, and students seemed to adjust to that environment pretty quickly. And what does "dangerous" really mean? When I was going to Northwestern, I lived in Edgewater, another "dangerous" neighborhood in Chicago, and it was really not as bad as the reputation would lead you to believe. My brother hasn't had any problems commuting to and from IIT, even when using public transportation in the evening. What does Waukegan have to offer? As far as I can see, Waukegan has never been especially welcoming to Shimer, and it certainly isn't very attractive to potential students. I went to Shimer in spite of the fact that it was in Waukegan, not because of it.

I can understand the worries about Shimer losing its identity, but I don't think it will really be a problem. Right now, I am at a big university (50,000 students), divided into many schools; I'm currently teaching at two undergraduate schools, the School of Law, and the new School of International Liberal Studies which just opened in 2004. Even at such a big place, the students quickly feel an identity with their school because of the shared curriculum. Even at our new school, which doesn't even have it's own "space" within the university yet, (we're just using empty rooms at various locations aroundthe campus), students feel a strong identity just because they are studying something that the others aren't. As long as Shimer sticks with its core curriculum, people will feel that they are Shimerians, and if they "Shimerize" the space as they intend to, it will be even better. My brother also thinks there would be no problem with Shimer keeping its own identity. He says most of the techie-type students don't especially identify with IIT, and the ones who do want to be part of a group join one of the student organizations. From the point of view of the average IIT student, then, Shimerians would easily be able to keep their distinct identity. He also says that Vandercook feels like a clearly separate entity, but that regular IIT students really enjoy being able to take music classes there.

About the only thing that I don't like about the proposal is that IIT doesn't seem to offer many (or maybe any) classes in foreign languages, something which is sorely lacking in Shimer's curriculum. But at least there are plenty of international students on the IIT campus.

Shimer has been in Waukegan for more than 20 years, and it just is not thriving. I think it's time to try something new.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the intrepid 45 students & faculty who moved the College from Mt. Carroll to Waukegan over a quarter-century ago. At the time, forced out of our home, with no where else to go, many students and faculty just gave up, refusing to believe Shimer could exist anywhere except in Mt. Carroll--certainly not in the academic backwater of Waukegan.

A few of us, however, believed (or perhaps convinced ourselves) that Shimer could, indeed, survive elsewhere; that the integrity of the program could survive among the unimpressive urban setting of Waukegan; that, indeed, a tree could grow in Brooklyn. When we looked at the two decrepit buildings we were relocating to, it seemed most likely that, in a few short years, Shimer would be no more. I doggedly told those who ridiculed us that the greatest academic entity in the history of the world had no buildings at all; and that while its contemporary institutions, great edifices teeming with faculty and students, had long since been relegated to the dustbin of history, that group of people, without a building to call their own, who wandered the streets of Athens lost in converasation millenia ago, formed the foundation of Western thought for the next few thousand years.

The lesson I learned, as Shimer did survive (though it never really thrived) in Waukegan, is that location does not a college make. Mt. Carroll was beautiful, but Shimer could not survive there. When I visit Waukegan, I see the spirit of Shimer. But I realize that there are far too many potentially great Shimer students who will not consider Shimer in its present state. "That's their loss" you may say. True; but it is also Shimer's loss. Now I am a parent. I wanted my oldest child to attend Shimer. She is, frankly, brilliant. She received her first college degree at 14. She is also normal by Shimer standards, if a bit different than most other teenagers; not into clothes, cars, money, etc. Shimer was just too small for her. At 200 students, she probably would have attending; at 300, there is almost no doubt. Instead, she is attending the college rated #1 in the country for academics. And yes, it is Shimer's loss.

Does Shimer have the strength and integrity to survive at IIT? I think so. Of course, I was one of the few who thought it could survive in Waukegan. Will Shimer grow and prosper at IIT? There are no guarantees. I do know that parents of prospective students will not drive by Shimer College at IIT, take one look at the physical facilities, and keep going, as they do--like it or not--in Waukegan. I think Shimer's chances are much greater in Chicago than in Waukegan. Recent history tends to support that; Shimer has not grown in Waukegan for at least a decade.

And now, a challenge: Will those who oppose the move raise the funds necessary to maintain and improve the facilities in Waukegan? Will they do the work necessary to attract qualified new students? In 1973, when the College was slated for closure, the students and a few faculty members raised in excess of a quarter million dollars in a month--equivalent to well over a million dollars today. And they recruited a number of new students--including me--to a college that seemed destined to die within weeks. Will you do the same as they did then? Or does anger substitute for action, for commitment?

A final note: IIT does not need Shimer. They can lease the vacant space to any number of public or private organizations. What is surprising is that they are not expecting more from Shimer in offering us space on the campus. They appear very interested in hosting Shimer, though frankly, I am not sure why. Yes, I know how wondeful Shimer is, but virtually the entire rest of the world does not. And I suspect it will be quite some time before memories of Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc. die out, and only Shimer is still remembered.

Think. Analyze. Look at this from many perspectives--not just your own. There's a lot at stake.

Psyche Z. Ready said...

Dear Anonymous:

I personally appreciate your comments, and this unique perspective. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for keeping Shimer alive when it was so close to dying. In response to your comment: "Will you do the same as they did then? Or does anger substitute for action, for commitment?"

We are certainly trying- we have created this blog, and attempting to band together in some way to help out the school we believe in. What advice can you give us?

Anonymous said...

To Psyche: I try not to give advice, because good Shimerians don't take advice; they weigh opinions, facts, ideas, thoughts, add their own perspectives and emotions, and come to a--hopefully reasonable, though certainly not always--conclusion. All I can present is some insight into a tumultuous time in Shimer's history that perhaps has become shrouded in the mists of time...though for me, it was the most real time of my life.

I will throw out some random thoughts:

Shimerians have always been mistrustful of the Board and Administration. In my day, this seemed valid: They were trying to close the College, we were trying to keep it open. The Board appeared to have money but was unwilling to contribute significantly to the College; they wanted to run the school but were unwilling to pay for the privilege. That doesn't work. The ironic part is that Shimer does not turn out wealthy alumni; instead, we turn out people aspiring to change the world (a worthy goal) for whom money is filthy lucre. Socrates was always poor and struggling; somehow, by its very nature, most Shimer graduates tend to be somewhere between "surviving" and "destitute." What we understood in 1973 was that if we could do what the Board could not--raise large amounts of money--we, not they, would have the power. But back then, there were no students or faculty on the Board, and almost no alums; basically, no one who particularly gave a shit if the College stayed open or not. Now the Board, from what I can tell, is pretty much ALL students, faculty, and alumni. I think they are committed; but because they are Shimer alums, they are not your standard Board--they can't give 50 or 100K per year. They are, frankly, middle class at best. But I'd rather have a Board committed to Shimer that gives a little than a Board that doesn't care and could give a lot. In other words, I have at least some faith that the current Board will "do the right thing." Or at least they will try to act in the best interest of Shimer.

It is also important to separate out what is real from what is perceived. Shimer has two real options: Stay in Waukegan or move to IIT (though there seems to be some consideration to keeping some programs in Waukegan and having most of the College in Chicago--which may actually work, depending on finances and interest). Other colleges/universities have expressed no interest in Shimer, except that they would be happy to take our students; in 1976, when the Board voted to close the College, we were raided by numerous vulture colleges (and one of them, which grabbed a bunch of Shimer students then, went bankrupt and closed three years later, which pleased me no end). Most colleges and universities--most of the world--not only has no clue what Shimer does, if they do understand it, they have no idea why we are wasting our time, and student's lives, on such drivel, when they can teach advanced computer programming that will GUARANTEE you a job upon gradution that will put you in a cubicle for the next 40 years. Until Shimer reaches the level of St. Johns (not understood, but respected) or Reed (recently rated the best academic institution in the country, and though they are small and use the Socratic method, they lack the coherence of a Shimer education), we are at the mercy of forces currently beyond our control: economic trends, unattractive campus, little to offer students beyond an excellent education. In Mt. Carroll, there was little available also--certainly no concerts, theatre, museums, or any culture beyond what we created. Eventually, we could not overcome that; our society is still becoming more urban (though many among us eschew that, it's a demographic fact). If one must choose an urban setting, and the choices are Chicago or Waukegan, most will opt for Chicago. In the struggle between you and the world, the smart money is on the world.

I also take some solace from the fact that the president of IIT has a master's degree in philosophy. It's a hell of a lot better than a master's in computer science. It doesn't mean he understands Shimer, but at least it means there is some chance he does.

All of which is not to say a move to IIT will "work," whatever that may mean. It has for the music school (Vandercook?). They were going down, now they are more successful than they ever were before. Incidentally, there is a lot of talk about safety. I left Waukegan after being mugged in broad daylight with at least 50 people watching (at Belvedere and Sheridan Road). Not a single person even called the police. They got $2.50 from me, which came to 83 1/3 cents for each mugger. Is it worth risking your life for that? I decided it wasn't, and quite frankly, my feelings about Waukegan will always be tempered by that experience. Can IIT be any less safe?

What do you do? I don't know. I do know change is scary. We leave home. It's scary being on our own. We get into relationships. Again, scary. Will it work? We break up. More change. We move somewhere far away. It's exhilarating, but also lonely, scary. Winston Churchill was wrong. We don't "have nothing to fear but fear itself." Some fears are very real, very justified. I do know that change can be good; and if we don't change, we stagnate. If you aren't moving forward, you are not staying in the same place; you are losing ground. What can you do? If you haven't been to the IIT campus, I think you should go there, look around, and absolutely talk to students there, as many as you can. Especially any who have been other places. Shimer provides an amazing education--we know that. Without that, the College would have long since ceased to exist. Find out all you can, but when it is time to decide, vote your hopes, not your fears. And good luck to all of you.

Alan said...

Devils Advocate
I think Shimer would have a lot to contribute to the near South side of Chicago and that Chicago would have a lot to offer Shimer. Shimer students would have greater access to museums, and theaters and all of the amenities of a powerful city/state.
These tech students would have to take our classes in order based on prereqs. They would likely take maybe 4 or 5 of our core classes along with their specialised classes. Perhaps an architect could run through the Soc curriculum and gain a better understanding of how their designs impact the community and environment. An Engineer who took our Nat Sci cources would certainly be shaped in his thinking. We do have something to give in Chicago.
Shimer can be a hard pill to swallow whole. I'm glad I did. And we all know the benefits of a Shimer Education. I see the Shimer "Voice" as the echoes of Platos academy drifting through time. I think it would add to our voice if we are able to give part of our knowledge to the young industrialists. In fact, influencing the minds of engineers and architects etc. brings our ideas and wisdom into the 21st century which is still largely undefined.
Partial tuition coming from these students fulfilling either their minimalistic core requirements or even as electives would be added income. Plus their unique perspectives would add things to our dialogue that may otherwise go unnoticed by those of us full time Shimerites with our heads in the clouds.
The campus appears pretty safe to me. It is well lit. The security is like a small police force. They have several cars and bicycle patrols along with radio contact to the Chicago Police department. There are Emergency call boxes on campus. They will even escort students after dark to several campus locations, housing, el station, etc.
I think there may be the potential to recruit part time faculty from the area as well. Perhaps UofC professors or graduates who feel like teaching a core class to a bunch of misfits. More part time professors and fewer full time professors might be a way to lower costs.
It would be nice if the forced marriage between administration and faculty could be severed. Perhaps the old timers could semi retire to administration duties and teach at their leisure and rely more on part time faculty.
As far as the assembly is concerned, is it necessary? What is sacred and nearly untouchable to me is the Core Curriculum and the dialogical method. There is a possibility that the function of the assembly has run it's course and it is time for it to dissipate into the final stage of student communism.
Perhaps the future of Shimer could be a place where Administraters administrate, Teachers teach, and Students study.
I'm still frightened by the idea of this move. But I do have faith in Shimer. I have faith in out method and our place in the modern world. If Shimer does relocate I hope they do it with optimism and hope.