Sunday, April 29, 2007

The University Without Students

I just came home from a conference I go to every year at this time, the one that -- in addition to reminding me how many friends I have in the profession -- also marks the moment that the semester draws to a close at Zenith. There is a week and two days left until the end of classes; most faculty have papers on their desks now and will return them, only to get a final two sets of papers and/or exams in the next two weeks. A time of year that ought to be a triumph of sorts often presents us all with far more mixed emotions. There is a sense of grinding it out to the finish, on the part of both students and their teachers. The deans are in high gear, sorting the merely exhausted from the truly unhinged. Some students are getting ready to graduate, and a few are undoubtedly anxious about a course or two that might stand in the way of going on to Better Things (or Other Things.)

Some faculty, for different reasons, will be preparing to leave Zenith (Bless you, and be happy! If not now, then sometime soon!) Others are gearing up for a big push of some kind: finishing a book, getting a promotion dossier ready, or going into a lab that they won’t come out of anytime soon. A couple colleagues that I know of will use the summer to get a medical procedure done, or move a parent into assisted living. Senior faculty – like myself – are already looking ahead to next year: hiring contingent faculty, writing line requests, filing internal grants, and trying to figure out how everything will get done in 2007-08. I, for example, will be going to five conferences, which represents a combination of search committees and scholarly presentations; and coordinating somewhere between three and five searches.

And by the end of this summer I am really, truly going to be done with my book. Don't tell.

But of course we aren't there yet: there is so much more to do. Faculty – particularly younger faculty – who have had a course not go well are dreading it that they must hand out, and eventually read, teaching evaluations. Those of us who, through a combination of skill and good fortune, have had successful classes, are simply impatient to finish up and reward students for a job well done. The paradox of a good course is that, at a certain point, you realize that everyone has learned a lot and the job is finished: so why continue, just because the syllabus (or the state) says you must? And yet, I would also admit that in my view, being a good teacher also means being a good “closer:” finishing the last two or three classes in such a way that students realize all by themselves what they have accomplished.

Meanwhile, this will also be the season where various administrators and chairs will suddenly realize that there is work left to do, classes are ending, and getting an entire committee, program or department together for a meeting will be well nigh impossible, as colleagues head for the hills as early as Reading Week. And it is the season of Parties and Receptions: honoring students who have won prizes, expressing relief at another year completed; saying goodbye to the seniors, retiring colleagues and administrators; and celebrating those students who have won honors in their field. It seems that every day there is another party, dinner or reception. You could go for over a week without buying food at all if there weren’t people at home who needed to eat too.

Then suddenly there will be a day when the final grades go in, graduation will be over and done, and the big tents taken away. The Big Guy will be off sailing, having finished up as President, and New President will be getting ready to spring himself on us. Then comes my favorite time of year. I will be crossing campus and realize that everyone is gone. For three months the campus will be empty and silent, with people occasionally perambulating across the muggy, hot campus, from one air-conditioned building to another. It’s as if the whole university goes into suspended animation.

And it's fabulous. My friend Karen and I used to call it "The University Without Students."

If anyone ever asks why people go into college teaching there are many important things to say about the satisfactions this career can deliver. But there’s one thing we could all agree on, I think, regardless of our field, ideological bent, or temperament. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s the vacations, stupid.”

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Letter to the New President of Zenith

Dear New President,

Welcome to Zenith!

In their infinite wisdom, University Relations has scheduled your “get acquainted with the new President” visit for Friday, the day when it is least likely that there will be faculty present to actually meet you. In fact, they have scheduled your address to the community and the reception to follow for 4:15, when the only faculty who will be around will be the nabobs from the Tenure and Promotion Committee. The Radical would cancel almost anything to be at this event, but unfortunately it is a conference that calls, and the plenary begins at 5:00. And I worry that if I so much as glance at the T & P committee, I will turn into a Pillar of Salt.

So instead I thought I would send a letter drawn from my experience of having had three different Presidents over the course of my career at Zenith. Let me preface this by saying that we expect Great Things from you. The students seem particularly smitten at this point, and members of the faculty have heard good things from colleagues elsewhere. We at the Castle sent someone over to the archives to find out who your thesis advisor was when you were a history undergrad at Zenith, and are pleased to have found he was one of Us and not one of Them. From our perspective, that’s a good start. Even though it means nothing.

We are also pleased to see that you and Mrs. New President seem to be with it about the importance of interdisciplinary work. And you are a real scholar (although our experience with the president who came from Palo Alto and fled to Atlanta indicates that this is only a vague indicator of future success as a chief exectuive.)

Perhaps the only thing I find disturbing about you is that we are practically the same age. But that’s not your fault. And it also means I can, in the most self-interested way, regard you as Youthful.

As your introduction to Zenith in the blogosphere, I would like to do what many will do for you in person in the next few months: offer you a little unsolicited advice.

1. Be a walk around manager. Sure, being a President is time consuming. But schedule free time in your week that will allow you to drop in on people, take a stroll around the campus, and go have coffee in the new campus center. Show up where and when you are least expected. Go to talks. Come to the History Department Tea, and Pie Day at American Studies. Go over to Interlibrary Loan and order your own books so that you can say hello to hard-working people who will never be asked to meet you in a more private way. Presidents need a sense of who their constituents are before they come asking for something, or protesting something, or are Tangled Up In (some kind of) Blue.

2. Don’t inject the word “excellence” into everything you say and expect that we know what you are talking about, or that it answers any question about a course of action to be taken. What excellence actually represents is – well, nothing. It’s a buzzword, the verbal equivalent of a Rorschach test. And some of the great disagreements in education and scholarly life today have to do with prioritizing some kinds of knowledge over others and calling it "excellence." Us queer and colored folk, for example, are exhausted by the continual requirement that we exhibit excellence that conventional people can translate into their own, conventional, world view. Look at our diversity as an intellectual institution, figure out where the energy is, and jump on the bandwagon. Find out what Zenith does best and do what you can to cultivate what you find. Find out what we don’t do and how it would enhance our life as a thinking community to start doing it.

3. Take a serious look at how large our administration has grown over the last decade, who pays for it, and what justifies it. It is very hard for faculty to understand why we spend every April hiring contingent faculty (fifty or sixty of them across the university) when we seem to add numbers-crunchers, Vice Presidents of This-and-That, and student services workers one after another. If we need all these people, and we don’t need teachers at a university, fine. But someone needs to tell us why. And exactly what our mission is as a liberal arts college if it isn't having enough faculty to have the time and energy to pay attention to students as individuals.

4. Do what you can to stop the griping about Division III athletics and move on to things that really matter. This is not, whatever William Bowen says, a major problem that the liberal arts college must face. Sports are fun, and exercise is good for young adults. Over fifty-percent of the Zenith student body is involved in varsity athletics of some kind, and most of these kids are not recruited. For those that are, athletics is actually one of the few ways that working-class kids can still get into Zenith when they didn’t go to such a great public high school (which is, frankly, most public high schools), and in my experience these kids are just as academically capable as the children of celebrities and the wealthy alumni/ae legacies.

5. Start a campus-wide conversation about how much stress and anxiety students cope with, what we are doing as an institution that enhances that stress, and why, as a community, we talk about it as if it has nothing to do with discourses of “excellence” and our pedagogical practices. We wouldn’t need so many elaborate “student services” if students weren’t made so desperate during the college admissions process, and subsequently more desperate as they claw their way through college.

6. Here’s a good place to start addressing faculty stress: the tenure and promotion process at Zenith is a mess and it is taking far too much of our time for no good purpose. When you get to know us better, put together a committee of people *not* drawn from the people who have served on the T & P committee. This committee should hold public hearings, invite people from other universities and the AAUP to consult, and then put together a set of recommendations for university-wide reform of the personnel process. And while you are at it – reform the T & P committee. Many of them are (to be frank once more) zombies. And if they aren’t zombies before they are elected, they often become zombies as a result of their service. This doesn’t seem like a good outcome, and it means many of us who would actually be thoughtful about tenure and promotion would rather eat glass than serve on that committee.

7. Encourage the faculty to form an AAUP chapter. Give one or two members of the faculty a course relief to get it done. An organized faculty is a faculty that knows how to negotiate, cooperate, and adjudicate. And while you are at it -- ask faculty why they don't go to meetings. Figure out how to change that, and what kind of meeting the faculty would agree to go to. It's demoralizing that we don't, and because no one goes, it's as demoralizing to go to faculty meetings as it is to stay home. Kind of like eating in an empty restaurant (which you look too cool to do.)

8. Let the students chalk on the sidewalk. It just really isn’t that important. And the students whose chalkings were originally banned have graduated anyway. I don't think the students we have now even know how to chalk.

9. Make retirement a realistic possibility for faculty who are in their sixties and seventies. Provide incentives that signify how much you value past service and that simplify the lives of senior faculty in ways that enhance their last decade of service and enhance the quality of our community. Get faculty over the age of 67 out of the personnel process and out of governance (except in cases of extraordinary administrative competence), and provide resources for cultivating their teaching and scholarly lives. Very senior members of the faculty who are more concerned about who the next hire is going to be than how they are going to get their last book or two done before they die are not the people you want messing in decisions that affect what Zenith will be twenty years from now. These decisions belong to the younger generations who will live with them and have their careers shaped by them.

10. Zenith has lost much of its uniqueness in its quest for “excellence:” for those of us who have been here a while, sometimes you feel like you could wake up and be anywhere (except Williams. Never Williams.) Remember why you loved it here in the 1970’s, and see if you can’t bring some of that back. A good start would be to withdraw from the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings system.

OK, New President. You’re on your own for now. I’m off to my conference. But one last thing. You have to love our students. We complain about them constantly and tear our hair out over their foibles, but it’s a family thing. You *have* to love our students. And if you start there, we’ll help you with the rest.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Tenured Radical Has a Virtual Crush On.....

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. OK, regular readers of this blog know that the Radical doesn't do men, so this is a *political* crush. For those of you who remember the early stages of second wave feminism, this is a lot like being a Political Lesbian. Which I am not. I am an actual lesbian.


If you have been following the political news, you know that Congress is going to vote on a war funding bill today, and you also know *why* I am utterly crushed out on Harry Reid. I was pretty fond of him before, having been partly raised in Idaho, which allows me to utterly relate to his grim Western mentalite better than many of my New England friends do (the ones who expect peppy, charming Senators like John Kerry.) But yesterday, after Nanny Dick blasted him in front of the press right outside his own door, Harry came running out and said: "The president sends out his attack dogs often, also known as Dick Cheney, and he was here again today attacking not only me, but the Democratic Caucus."

Isn't that cool? I bet it drove Nanny Dick to use the f-word as he retreated down the hall, like he did on the Senate floor.

This would be Bowzer here on the left, a picture taken outside Reid's office as the vice president was accusing the Dems of opposing the war, not out of principle or intelligence, but to win seats in the next election. And who is standing behind Bowzer? That would be Republican Senator Trent Lott, whose speeches before white supremacist groups in decades not-so-past, and his birthday speech for Strom Thurmond, were probably *not* for cynical political gain, otherwise surely the Republican party would insist on another Senator from the Great State of Mississippi who did not seem to be a big old racist.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Brief Sports Interlude

OK, one of the things most people in the blogosphere do not know about the Radical is that she is a rower, and an extremely competitive one. Also she is the academic advisor to the Zenith men's crew, and competitive on their behalf.

And can we say that the Zenith guys (otherwise known as Wesleyan Men's Rowing) just *hammered* Williams on Saturday? Every single boat?


Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Tudors and the Radical

I was ecstatic when I learned a few months back that Showtime had produced an entire series on Henry the VIII. Conceivably, if it works out (since they named it “The Tudors” and there were lots more Tudors before and after Henry VIII), there will be sequels and prequels. My guess is that it will be a great success, since the Tudors are more like "The Sopranos" (and "Entourage") than you might think. Personally, I think Showtime would do well to go back and start with the Wars of the Roses, a ripping story if there ever was one, and a must-know for comprehending later events, such as why the Duke of Buckingham was endlessly irritable and the Norfolk bunch so insinuating.

Why am I thrilled about this well-known tale being re-packaged, you might ask? As my mother always says about a series or movie like this one, “Why watch? I know how it will turn out.” Not. You might just as well argue, why be interested in history at all? In my view, figuring out why it turned out the way it did is always the fun part, and having the hideous, tragic scab of a “known end” to pick at until the tale unfolds as you know it will adds a certain frisson to many well-explored topics: the Confederacy, all of twentieth century German history, Nicholas II, and Richard Nixon are but a few good story lines in this regard. A fine argument and good writing is what makes an academic book sell to academics; knowing that it will All End Badly is what causes the general public to buy and read -- or watch -- history.

Unbeknownst to my mother, I can boast of a long relationship with the Tudors that was exactly facilitated by her. When I was a child, my maternal unit was a volunteer for the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, an event that under her guidance and that of a friend became a permanent book store on the Bryn Mawr campus for many years. What her volunteer activity gave me access to was endless numbers of books on any topic under the sun. After school, my sister and I would walk over to whatever faintly moldy location the operation was occupying, and after our homework was done, we were free to burrow around in boxes and on shelves completely unsupervised and uncensored until our mother was ready to leave. It was in this way that, at age ten, I came upon Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” which was ripped from my grasp after I wandered out and asked the (mostly elderly) volunteers, “Can anyone tell me what a pessary is?” After that I learned to look things up in the dictionary, a valuable skill for a future scholar.

Anyway, shortly thereafter, I discovered the novels of Jean Plaidy, a.k.a Victoria Holt, and on her tax forms, Eleanor Alice Burford. According to Wikipedia, “She wrote over eighty historical novels, which nowadays tend to be disparaged by serious enthusiasts of history and more elevated historical fiction, but which served the useful purpose of bringing historical figures and events to a wider readership.” I began with the Tudor series, and soon began to impress others with my firm grasp of British political history. I moved on to her other series’ on Queen Victoria, the Stuarts, and so on, but it was the wives of Henry VIII that I came back to repeatedly, perhaps because I found the business of having so many wives and disposing of them quite remarkable, even in the ‘sixties. In fact, Burford/Plaidy wrote most of her novels through the eyes of women who had a real political role, sometimes as schemers and as vehicles for the schemes of men, but a role all the same.

I am sure this struck a chord that was only truly activated later by the committee system at Zenith. It’s hard to generalize, but reading these historical novels where women’s heads were rolling off their shoulders also probably turned me into a historian and turned me off marriage, permanently, although I may have been wired for that outcome to begin with.

Anyway, I am pleased to re-make the acquaintance of Henry VIII, in the form of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as well as all of the wives, although I only watched the first episode yesterday and have TIVO’d the rest. And it is fabulous: as people enter the action, I sing happily, “And you will be executed! And YOU will be executed! Buckingham, old fellow – does your head feel loose on your shoulders?”

I also have several observations that I will make as a professional historian, temporarily deserting my preferred role as a History Fan.

The website for the show notes: “The young Henry VIII was an artist, musician, theologian and sportsman — the perfect Renaissance prince — but the failure of his first wife Katherine of Aragon to produce a male heir brought out his darker side.” This is one way of putting it. Another would be to say that most royalty more or less did what they wanted (at least the interesting ones) until Cromwell lopped off Charles I’s head. And it took a second lesson to the French monarchy a century and a half later to drive the point home in a way no one but the Romanovs could ignore.

In another moment drawn straight from the Pages of History, before Henry ravishes yet another of Katharine of Aragon’s (a.k.a, the Queen of England’s) attendants (as the Queen is praying in her chapel for a son), the King asks this gentlewoman: “Do you consent?” “Yes,” she groans huskily, and he rips off her gown from the shoulders. Do not try this at home, children. All I can say about the historical likelihood of this having occurred is that the Antioch rules were not, to the best of my knowledge, originally articulated in fifteenth century England.

But apparently the European Union was! The show posits that the E.U. was an idea that Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey (played by Sam Neil) floated to Henry, partly as an appeal to the monarch’s “humanism” (a theme which gets a lot of play in episode one) that might help forestall a financially and politically disastrous war with France; and partly as one feature of a complicated, secret scheme to get himself elected Pope. “Won’t happen Wolsey!” I crowed at the screen. “An international alliance of all the nations of Europe,” Henry muses in response to the proposal, oblivious to me as usual. “It appeals to my humanism.”

And my favorite part so far is at the end of episode one, where Thomas Boleyn comes home to inform his family that they are all going to France with the King to negotiate the “Treaty of Universal Peace,” and the best part, he says, as he turns to his pubescent daughters and hands them each a glass of wine, “is that you girls will meet the King!”

Heh, heh, heh. Anne dearest, – have you experimented with a coiffure that gets your hair off your neck?

Friday, April 20, 2007

In Case of an Emergency, Check Your Email

Today's topic, boys and girls, is public safety.

Since the Virginia Tech shootings, we at Zenith have been in receipt of several emails assuring us that:

1. Students have been reminded of the counseling services available to them. (I already feel safer. Thank you.)

2. Zenith "has a preparedness plan" for a life-threatening crisis, which includes giving us as-yet-mysterious information via the web, email, cell phone, and text messaging. Zenith will also "work through the Residential Life staff to get the word out in person." This last means, I think sending the deans and other administrators running around the campus to tell us what horrible thing is happening, hopefully on the other side of the campus.

3. Zenith has sent out a second email ascertaining that they have our correct email and cell phone numbers. How *did* they get my cell phone number? Scary.

Apparently Zenith Public Safety has also been working with Homeland ("You're doing a great job, Brownie") Security and Middletown's Finest (don't even start) to prepare an emergency drill. I have never seen anyone drill, and I have never been asked to drill, but apparently there is a drill. Most of us just don't know what it is. But if something bad happens, a Dean who has already been drilled will come and reveal the drill. And then, presumably, we can relax.

I'm not saying they don't mean well. But it does strike me as evidence that we are missing the boat here on so many levels. The Virginia Tech lessons seem to be that: we can't prepare for mass murder carried out by an amoral lunatic; people will get guns whether there are restrictive laws or not; students who are deranged will be the last to seek counseling on their own; and communication is never perfect, particularly since people have to decide when and what to communicate. And if you can communicate with your students and faculty, what do you tell them that won't cause mass panic and make them either clump in classrooms and dorms where they are easier to kill in large numers, or send them running around campus where they might be going *towards* danger?

Finally -- if only the people in charge know what the drill is, how are we supposed to know how to obey when we are all scared off our nut? Because they will just shout at us? And what if no one shows up to tell you what to do? They don't have a dean for every classroom, or even every building. Yet. And when was the last time you saw a faculty member take a direct order from an administrator? (Dean: "Please stay in your classroom and hide under the desk." Faculty member: "Has this been voted on by a constituted quorum of the Faculty Senate? I think not.")

As for the messages I would be getting as all my electronic devices go off: thanks for getting in touch but -- what's the word, Bird? "Wacko roaming campus with guns. Stay inside. Or outside if the wacko comes inside." I knew this already.

Frankly, I got much better advice from the comments on my blog: pile furniture against the door and slow the motherf***er down. Be discouraging, so s/he goes next door to Anthropology or Admissions. Fight like hell if trapped. Protect your students first. Jump out the windows and run really, really fast. If I recall from the movies, should someone really be shooting, zig zag a little.

And don't carry a gun unless you are trained to use it and have a permit. Fortunately this is not a problem for Utah public school teachers who have had the opportunity since last October to use some of their in-service training for a free class that will help qualify them for concealed weapons permits. Woo-hoo!

Wouldn't you feel safer if *your* teacher was packing? Don't look at me: at Zenith, we will be whacking people over the head with our Blackberries and Treos.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Is the Tide Turning? Fighting Homophobia in Women's Basketball

The news from colleges and universities has been so troubling lately, let's look aggressively for something positive and uplifiting to write about. In fact, let's revisit homophobia in women's college hoops.

As D-I women's basketball programs move into the last stages of the recruiting season, catch this speculation that fallout from the Pokey Chatman scandal might have some benefits, in that people are no longer pretending that there are not lesbians in women's basketball. New York Times reporter Jere Longman had a great piece in the sports section today about how the tables might be turning -- in favor of lesbians being out and being respected for what they do well. The forced resignation of Penn State's Renee Portland, the coach who vowed no lesbian would ever play on her team and who harassed players she suspected were not straight, may be a sign of positive change, as is the way young people are telling their parents to mind their own beeswax on this issue (at least one highly recruited Philadelphia female athlete is quoted as saying lesbians on the team are no big deal.) But the willingness of leading coaches to speak out against bigotry and manipulation of the young is the most refreshing feature of Longman's article.

No one is yet saying that it is OK to have a lesbian coach, but some coaches are saying that it is wrong -- and bad recruiting -- to create a homophobic environment or use the homophobia of parents to pressure young women. And who was the go-to guy on this issue? UConn's own Geno Auriemma.

Those of us who live and work in Connecticut are mostly diehard UConn Husky women's basketball fans; after all, we have no other teams in Connecticut, and are forced to do this schizophrenic New York-Boston thing for all other sports. And we love Geno, who has not only brought us five national titles but has a personality as big as a house. And I get it he's a man, and not so vulnerable to being lesbian-baited but you could argue that he is vulnerable to being man-baited, and that perhaps this has affected his sexual politics. Anyway, Geno took the opportunity to be quoted in the Longman article that homophobia is not a beneficial recruiting strategy, and in doing so, implied that lesbians on his team can be assured of his respect. Yes, he said, homophobia can be used to sow the seeds of doubt in a young player's mind about committing to a coach rumoured to be a lesbian and/or a team where the women can be frank about their sexuality. But, as Longman characterized Auriemma's attitude on this subject, "negative recruiting carries the risk of backfiring."

"'What if the kid you’re recruiting is gay and you don’t know it?'" Auriemma said. 'You bring the topic up and the kid says, "I’m not playing for this guy; this guy’s got problems."’ He added, 'Coaches who do care about that stuff lose.'”

And Gail Goestenkors, recently head coach at Duke and the new head coach at Texas, told Longman that "The issue of sexual orientation sometimes is raised by parents during recruiting visits....Goestenkors said that the mother of Kelley Cain, a 6-foot-5 center from Atlanta who has since committed to Tennessee, asked her, 'If there are homosexuals on your team, what is your policy?' Goestenkors said she replied, 'I treat everyone the same.'"

It's nice to see successful coaches breaking ranks with the hostile silence on this issue, making the point that desirable recruits can also be lesbians, and that letting an athlete go rather than compromising the quality of life for the team is part of being a smart recruiter. And even a champion.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Would You Do? A Rumination on the Virginia Tech Shootings

For the most recent update on yesterday's tragic massacre at Virginia Tech you can go to MSNBC; this article identifies the shooter as Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a senior English major. Why the shooting happened is as yet undetermined.

Such events are both familiar and strange -- the violent death of young people who were where they were supposed to be, but simultaneously in the "wrong place," is a particularly paradoxical feature of school shootings. Perhaps this is why it is very difficult to have a cogent response to to them. One person I know pointed out that probably more people who are just trying to live their own lives will be killed in Baghdad today than were killed in Virginia (there's a cheerful thought); while news stories in the Northeast are already pointing to virtually unrestricted gun ownership in Virginia that, acording to the Brady Center, has created a more or less free market in hand guns and assault weapons. Some sales can be made legally without background checks. One of Virginia's few concessions to other states has been to restrict hand gun sales to one a month for each buyer, to hinder domestic and international arms trafficking or the appearance thereof: since the Tech shooter had two handguns, one imagines a two or three month wait before his fantasy attack could be carried out. This is apparently normal for such people anyway, since school shootings are usually planned very carefully and well in advance by the perpetrator for maximum cultural impact.

What will surely follow are new calls to restrict the sale of guns, but criminalizing ownership may really not be the answer to gun violence, particularly given the federal government's lack of success in enforcing other prohibitions and the history of those prohibitions creating lucrative, unregulatable markets that are managed by violent people. I find myself, uncharacteristically, thinking that gun lobbyists (as opposed to the lunatic fringe they enable) may be correct about regulation being a political, rather than a practical, response to escalating gun violence. Where you have to concede a point to the National Rifle Association, whose annual convention begins today (lucky them), is that it only takes one gun, legal or illegal, (in this case two and a lot of ammo) in the hands of one unhinged and highly focused person to do a lot of damage, and that illegal markets will escalate the indiscriminate distribution of guns. I say this as someone who would like to see all guns, except for sporting weapons used by people trained in the ethics and practice of sport shooting, out of public circulation entirely. But I can't kid myself that federal enforcement is the answer: I am a historian who has written about how the federal Prohibition of alcohol created violence on a mass scale and produced new forms of organized, violent crime that then required federal intervention. I am also an observer of history, who has seen the United States government's "war on drugs" produce an unstoppable international trade in narcotics; urban violence that is a direct outcome of drug trafficking in the United States and that is particularly devastating to the poor; and international interventions by the United States military that use the "war on drugs" as a partial cover for the repression of leftist and indigenous movements in the Americas. If federal prohibitions of anything actually work, do leave a comment to let me know when and where.

So I have no fantasies about the federal government's capacity to rid us of guns even if it had the political will to do so. It might be more efficient to do psychological screenings of all undergraduates currently registered as English majors.

But, distraught as it makes me to think about the students who have either been killed or suffered terrible trauma from such events, what I am continually haunted by are the teachers. So far, two faculty members have been identified as among the dead, one of whom may have tried to block the classroom door to give his students time to escape through a second story window. Another faculty member, interviewed yesterday on NPR's Fresh Air, described barricading himself in his office as he heard the gunfire below, listening to students and faculty being shot and not knowing where his two children (enrolled at Tech) were at that precise moment. And I know that I am thinking about this because the human mind grasps precisely what it can handle and no more but: am I the only college teacher wondering whether I would have the courage to try to save student lives in such a pointlessly horrible situation, knowing that mine might be taken in the process? Or the flip side: have you imagined the agony of hearing or watching students being murdered while knowing that you were powerless to do anything to help them?

It's important to know that such events are not confined to large schools where a troubled student may have little or no contact with a professor for most of his or her time as an undergraduate. Here at Zenith, a couple years before I started as an assistant professor, we had a student who constructed and disseminated an elaborate fantasy about himself as a Palestinian freedom fighter who was also dedicated to radical Black struggle in the United States. I won't go into the details, because I know them only second hand, but needless to say he was not Palestinian, and he had not been raised in a refugee camp in the Middle East, but in a pretty ordinary place in the United States. He was involved in some scary events at Zenith and, after he was gunned down in Hartford in a drug deal, it turned out that a great many people knew that he kept an arsenal of weapons in his room.

One thing that has always mystified me, other than the fact that no one effectively put together the fact that this young person spoke about political violence and that students reported having seen guns in his room, is that for the almost two decades I have worked at Zenith, this story will occasionally come up as if it happened yesterday. To many of my colleagues who worked here then it is as vivid a memory, even if they had no direct experience of this student, as anything they have experienced. My interpretation in the past has been that this is some tale that is not unrelated to the general suspicion of young people of color, a suspicion not untypical of central Connecicut and not untypical of white-dominated elite schools. I still think this can be a factor in why, and under what circumstances, this story is re-told.

But sorting my jumble of responses to the Virginia Tech shootings has altered my perspective somewhat: I now think that there are versions of institutional trauma that do not go away, no matter how tangential the connections to individuals in the community are. As tragic as this situation at my university was -- a deluded young person who didn't think it was good enough to just be himself, whose delusions led him into a situation he was utterly unprepared for, and who might have taken other students and faculty down with him -- I think what my colleagues who worked at Zenith then are still asking themselves is: Why didn't I know? What should I have done?

Incidents like yesterday's massacre at Virginia Tech open a terrible chasm of speculation and doubt, even -- or perhaps especially -- for those of us who experience them second or third-hand. What are our responsibilities towards students and to each other? We are not trained to make the kind of decisions that being confronted by a mass murderer calls for, that detecting lunatics in our midst and differentiating them from students who are simply grandiose and/or strung out, requires. Nor have many of us sorted through the ethical dilemmas that watching people in our care and friends in lethal danger might call for. There is part of me that hopes that I would be brave enough and strong enough to help my students, or perceptive enough to know that all was lost anyway and that one act in the breach could save many other lives, but I really don't know that that is true.

Would you? And horrible as it may seem that such a calamity could happen on any campus just as unexpectedly, do we need to talk about this as a community of educators?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Tenured Radical is Currently Reading....

HOW'S YOUR ROMANCE, by Ethan Mordden. This is the fourth book in what has become known as "The Buddies Cycle," a wonderful series about a family of gay men on the Upper East Side of New York. This is the perfect book for the end of the semester because it is amusing (but not frothy) and it evokes a whole world of people who do fun things constantly. I have been eagerly awaiting its arrival since early March, having checked "Free shipping" at Amazon for the first and last time. Do not ever do this, unless you are indecisive and like to change your order many times before it is shipped. By the time I checked a week ago, wondering if my books had been kited from the front step, it turned out the burro had not yet departed. I quickly agreed to pay whatever sum they required to get my books to Shoreline by the following day.

My favorite character is Cosgrove, who is the live-in of Bud, the Ethan character, and who often has to be calmed by having his hair combed. Bud is not *really* Ethan because it is fiction, a position I would support even more now than I would have a month ago. But I keep hoping that, were I to call Ethan, Cosgrove would answer the phone, and he would invite me to drop by for pretzels, which is one of his specialties. Which I have toyed with doing, since after I became a big fan of Mordden's, I discovered that he and I were in the same class in college. Oligarch being such an enormous university, however, I believe I only encountered him once, in the early 1980's, after we had graduated. It was at the tail end of a New Year's Eve party, when a large group of us had retired from a glitzy party thrown by the manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company, and gone to a vast apartment in the Dakota owned by parents of yet another friend. So I doubt that he remembers me, particularly since I would not have remembered him but for the fact that a mutual friend reminded me years later that we had been at the same place, at the same time.

Anyway, I recommend the whole series, particularly if you enjoy witty writing and/or are gay and living in a very unfashionable place. Think P.G. Wodehouse, but less silly, with no female characters, and a fair amount of discussion of male body parts. Clearly a must-read in case you were wondering what gay men talk about before going to the gym, at the gym, and after going to the gym.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

What if Everyone Got an A?

A friend of mine tells a story about someone who had been teaching at a Major Ivy and was, shall we say, permanently released from his responsibilities. As most of the people who teach at Major Ivies are eventually. Said faculty member packed up and left town, booking passage on the QEII as a farewell gift to himself. It was discovered some days later that Professor X had failed to turn in grades for the class. A wire was sent to the ocean liner in mid-Atlantic that graduation was imminent and grades imperative. (Theatrical pause.) A wire returned to Major Ivy: "Had such a lovely time at Ivy U. Give everyone an A."

This is a good story for many occasions, but an even better story when the grading season is upon us. Since mid-February, I have not had a desk without a pile of student work on it at: my hope is to clear one set of papers before the next arrives and makes the situation hopeless. Now I have five senior honors theses sitting on my desk, having just cleared a set of seminar papers; a set of papers from my lecture class is, as we say, incoming. And soon the academic blogosphere will begin to ring with grading woes, as all of us grind our way toward the finish, paper by paper.

Everyone hates grading, and we hate it for different reasons. There's the "I am putting more effort into marking this paper than the student put into writing it" reason. There's the routine quality of it -- one paper after another that is more or less the same, because the class is responding to an assignment *you* gave, Meat Head. There's the overidentification with students who haven't done well, and feeling terrible about giving a poor grade. There's the worry that if you do give a poor grade, the student will be in your office trying to negotiate a higher one. There's the nagging feeling in the background that if you don't like grading them, and they don't like writing them, why are we doing this at all?

Oh yeah, because everyone has to get a grade. But what if everyone got an A?

Or rather, what if we taught pass-fail? (Note: I have begun a long-term experiment of teaching all my lecture courses with a pass-fail option. I'll let you know what it looks like, but so far, I would say the results are promising.)

Or what if we gave three grades, 1, 2, and 3? And stopped fooling around with all the fine points that cause students to wonder what the actual difference between a B- critical essay and a B critical essay is?

And I guess my real question here is, I wonder why we who are college professors are so invested in a grading system that doesn't benefit us; that stresses our students out; that none of us really agree on (my A is different from Professor B's A, which is different from Professor C's A); in which you can't give lower than a B without the student dropping the course; and that causes students to compete for the grade rather than enjoy the work they are doing?

Part of why I started thinking in this way is that I just read a set of papers I really enjoyed, and for which the grades were quite high. And it reminded me of the Hobson's choice that the grading system often gives us, one that has resulted in the current incoherent discussion at many selective colleges and universities about whether grade inflation is a problem or not, and for whom. At the level of the individual professor, grading is always a lose-lose situation in the context of grade inflation debates, resulting in mental agony over papers and exams that might include:

Scenario 1: Everyone in the class is getting such great grades, my colleagues will think I am not being tough enough. And yet, it is possible that they are getting great grades because I am teaching well and they are learning well. So why shouldn't everyone get an A? Because everyone will think I am not tough enough. Ok, got to find some reason to lower some grades.....

Scenario 2: I've only given one A and I am halfway through the papers -- oh G-d, maybe I'm really not teaching well. There's something wrong with me! So instead of facing it that for some reason I am not succeeding in getting through to them, I will represent myself publicly as a person with "high standards," and give as many bad grades as I think I can get away with.

Now you might notice that in both these scenarios, the professor's public image is central to the grading dilemma, not the student's learning experience. A close second are the gatekeeping functions of college -- who goes on to Phi Beta Kappa, who gets the prizes, who goes to the best law schools, grad programs, blah, blah. And this, of course, is exactly what makes students nuts and corrupts their learning experience: that it is not their work, but the grades we give them on their work, that determines their future.

Then of course, we grump that our students are grade-grubbing when they don't get the grades they want.

So here's my proposal: let's get rid of grades. Plenty of schools do perfectly well without them; at least one major at my university has never given grades, and their students seem very smart and hard-working to me. What if, every time you assigned a paper, instead of grading it and writing graffiti all over it, you read it and the student came in and talked to you about it for ten minutes? This would also cut way back on plagiarism, because a student can't discuss a paper s/he didn't write. And then maybe it would be possible to appreciate students for who they are and what they bring to the table, and then maybe they would use the time they spend stressing and worrying to read and write about what interests them instead of what they think *might* interest us.

And then they would be happier, and we would be happier, and we would spend our days talking about books and ideas and not grades, grades, grades.


Footnote: I am leaving the comments on, but any comments about Lacrosse, Duke University, Michael Nifong, the Heroic Three, and "the 88" will be deleted by the management, and we will also delete anything that we think is in bad taste, including all racial and ethnic slurs. The pro-lacrosse faction had many comments on the last two posts to express themselves, and I am leaving them up as a gesture toward freedom of speech, but we do not agree with you, we are not concerned that you do not agree with us, and we are no longer, and never were, interested in lacrosse players at Tenured Radical.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

There's Got to Be a Morning After

So who knew that, in writing about race, sex and media representation and using a particular group of people who will remain nameless as a counter-example to the Rutgers women's team, that I would run headlong into a really odd coalition of people who would spam the heck out of me for 24 hours? My regular readers, from the comments left by two of them, were as bewildered as I was at this turn of events: Carine asked if anyone else thought this was like the "X-Files" -- yup, particularly the coded references to "the 88." Or realizing that you have somehow attracted the ire of a cult that is still waiting for the Confederacy to be allowed to leave the union peacefully.

Please note, if you read them (I would advocate skimming for highlights,) how quickly the comments devolve into race-baiting and race hatred, and that on the other blog, unless the blogger has had the good sense to remove them, anti-black sentiments and descriptions of me as an anti-white feminazi shifted gears late in the game and morphed into Anti-Semitic remarks aimed at no one in particular.

I thought this was pretty interesting, given that I am sheltered enough up here in the good old Northeast that I don't normally see the things I teach about play out in front of me. I also thought it was interesting how much trouble some of the commenters had figuring out what *my* race was, although the issue seems to have been decided by midafternoon (in response to a comment that I was undoubtedly "nappy headed" myself) that I "write too well" to be Black. I also liked the ones, purportedly written by gay people, accusing me of being a really bad queer. Ouch, Mary. Stop it! Stop it!

Neat, eh? I think one of the challenges this poses to blogging is how you create dialogue with an audience without simply providing a forum for a lot of apparently disconnected people to rant about things they are already upset over -- that they then pin on you, the blogger, and attempt to provoke into an argument about something that wasn't the point of the post in the first place. Some of these people, it seems, simply transferred a conversation that they have been having with each other for some time over from the blog that targeted me and into my blog.

I have turned the comments off for the post in question, although they seem to have trickled to a halt: maybe everyone just went to bed, who knows. The lunatic fringe will continue to write me until they are exhausted, so I don't think I am suppressing their freedom of speech. But I left the comments that were there both because of free speech principles (some of the writers are clearly bewildered by this) and as a lesson in blogging. They are also a really good example of what the post was talking about in the first place: why one group of people (white men and women) are recuperable as heroes despite all the negative information (true and untrue) that is out there about them and why another group of people were not allowed to be heroes at all because of who *they* were (black women), despite the information we have about *them.*

It's clear that this kind of talk is quite upsetting to those invested in the racial and sexual order that we live in. The comments in the post below, and at the original blog, are really useful context for thinking about this, as is this sympathetic story about the professional situation of the blogger, Professor Robert "KC" Johnson of Brooklyn College, which suggests why he might have taken the opportunity to go after me in the first place. What you don't get to see is one really odd email that was sent to a random collection of my colleagues (there may be more, but I was copied on this one), and a bunch of other emails I got in two of my accounts (some of which have been repeated in the commments). I also got a few e-mails from faculty at the university-I-will-not-name that said some version of, "Now you know what it is like to work here." Yeah, really. And as I began to realize that the postings were also exhibiting a particular venom toward an African American colleague at Unnamed U. who I knew years ago, only the sense that this was probably not the way to renew our acquaintence kept me from picking up the telephone.

Clearly there are many blogging worlds out there, and I stumbled into one of them inadvertantly by describing what has already been published about a group of people who have become symbolic of a host of grievances felt by those who are mobilized and energized by another blogger.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Show Must Go On: When to Cancel Class

I believe I have noted before on this blog that cancelling class -- when and how to do it, or if one should ever do it -- can be somewhat of a fetish among academics. If I had felt I could cancel class today I would have: my throat is still sore, and there is a small possibility that if I talk too much today I will lose my voice. My ears are playing a faint little bell chorus that no one else can hear. After I drove the half hour between New Haven (aka Shoreline) and Middletown (aka, Zenith) I felt that this alone should have qualified as my work for the day. Furthermore, as the day progressed, it got sunnier and warmer, a phenomenon which is always likely to cause even more absences than senior thesis students (theses are due this week) would account for on their own. But I had already cancelled class once this semester because of snow, and the paper they are writing for Monday depends on the book we are discussing today. So I taught.

What was even more disorienting was that, as opposed to most of the semester when I have prepared for class between lunch and the actual class hour in a somewhat, ahem, compressed, way (read: very focused, *very* fast), today I was ready to teach when I got to school, since I was ill all weekend, and thus couldn't bear to do anything but re-decorate my blog and prepare for class.

But back to cancelling class.

I once worked for a Famous Academic who used to boast that s/he had never, ever cancelled a class, for any reason -- much less being sick. This may have been true, but I also know that during my time in that job, I stepped in to deliver a quick lecture now and then when life was too pressing, and I suspect past assistants had done the same. I actually learned to lecture in this way: Professor Famous would look at me and say, "Could you go to class this afternoon and give a lecture about the Tax of Abominations? Of course you could." S/he would smile brightly and swish out, calling over one shoulder, "Don't forget the justification for federal intervention that was sought in English Common Law! And," (disappearing down the hall) "the foreign policy implications!" And being a graduate student who wanted to appear competent, I would smile brightly and call out to the Vanishing Self, "Sure! No problem!" and then dash to the right section of the library and swot up fifty minutes on the assigned topic, for which I would be paid -- get this -- twenty dollars.

In addition to learning to lecture, I also learned that Real Faculty never cancelled class. So I didn't for many years, no matter what. And of course, everyone knows that you have to teach with a hangover or the Goddess will strike you dead, but no illness of any kind kept me from my appointed rounds. I would teach with all manner of colds and viruses, teach until my voice disappeared, and then gesture at them wildly. Early in my teaching career at Zenith, I recall walking into the lecture room and explaining that I wasn't sure whether I was going to throw up or not and that I might have to dismiss class somewhat abruptly if it became apparent that such an event was imminent. And indeed, some thirty minutes later I was struck by a wave of nausea....well, let's draw a curtain over that. Face was saved. But barely.

Once when there was a blizzard and no one could drive, because I lived close to Zenith, I cross-country skied to class. I was effing intrepid in my youth. And you should have seen the students' faces when I thumped into the room carrying skis and poles.

This is, of course, all over. I missed my first class for illness ages ago, and now I am experienced enough to know that if I teach until I lose my voice, I don't get it back for a full week. One day of compromise is better than compromising the whole week. But there is a kernal of Professor Famous's conceit that sticks with me to this day: while I know it is perfectly ok for them to miss a class, I still have this nagging feeling that it is not ok for *me* to miss a class. So by this logic, if none of them showed up, but I did, it would be better than if all of them showed up and taught themselves without me. Which is utterly stupid.

In other news:

For a more elevated commentary on the public-private distinction, something I have been writing about in the last few posts about my blogging trials, go to this post from GayProf. This man is a gem, and a great writer to boot.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Because It Is Easter

And because I am the Spy that Came In From the Cold, and because I Have A Cold and can't focus on my work, I gave the blog a new dress.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Chapter the Seventy-third: In Which The Radical Jumps Out of the Frying Pan and Extracts Herself From a Queer And Paradoxical Situation

(with thanks to GayProf and Dean Dad for the graphic inspiration)

The overwhelming weight of reader comments suggested that it would be fine to continue blogging pseudonymously, but I have come to a decision that it is not fine for me, for reasons I will describe below. Recent events chronicled here contribute to my decision, of course, as did conversations with a social scientist and with an ethicist that have caused me to reconsider the obligations attendant to writing about live people (as opposed to dead ones, which is what I am trained to do.) So I will publish this posting at the same time as I correct my profile to reveal my street identity (don't kid yourself that this is who I “really” am.)

I am doing this in part because I am impatient to get back to writing critique, or humor, or whatever else you read this for, and while anonymity served that for a while, it no longer does. I would like to note a few things about why which may be thought provoking for other anonymous bloggers. Let me say that I don’t think everyone should give up anonymity: I just think I should. I am now well-known at my institution as a blogger, and it puts my friends in an increasingly uncomfortable position not to be able to talk to me about issues I raise that implicate them. It also puts the burden on any current and future students of not knowing whether, by agreeing to take a class from me, they are also agreeing to be written about in my blog (not). In both cases, I would have to say there is enough anxiety and drama in the world without me creating it too, even inadvertently and with the best intentions.

I would like to explain a few things about the blog up until now, and then say what I have learned as I move on to my second blogging career.

Why did I choose Tenured Radical? Well, a little bit of ego, salted with wit, critique and self-directed irony. I was shocked, when I put the blog together, that the name was still available, given how widely used it is (and of course, Cary Nelson has published a book called Manifesto of a Tenured Radical.) My intention was that this pseudonym call attention to a critique of the academy that originated on the right and that masks a peculiar reality: that almost none of us are very radical. And really, we need to think about why.

Those of us who are despised by the Right Wing are actually quite ordinary people who vote Democratic, are against the war (and were against the Other Wars) and who recognize that race, sexuality, gender, nationality and class, and their attendant oppressions, are a central fact of the society we live in here in the good old U.S. of A. That’s all. As I say, it’s really quite ordinary and middle of the road. So what I love about the name is that it is a paradox and a parodic way of identifying my own position: tenure, as I have made clear in my posts, is a deeply conservative institution that works to exclude, rather than include, suppress critical thought that falls outside an acceptable mainstream, and discipline people into being deferential. To pair this word with Radical is, then, Divine, in my view.

Why did I choose the name Zenith? Here I have to credit my old friend Clarence Walker, who refers to Wesleyan as “Zenith,” and he of course is making a multi-layered reference to Sinclair Lewis. Which you probably understood all along. But in lieu of a footnote crediting Clarence’s wit, I offer this explanation.

Why do you call your dog Sailor? Because her AKC name is Wizard’s Excalibur Sailor. Her kennel, or “call,” name is Breezy. So is her personality.

Any questions? OK, so let’s fast forward to the part, right after the Wizard has flown away on the balloon shouting, “I dunno how it works!” (which pretty much describes the swift departure of my blog pseudonymity,) but just before I click my ruby slippers; where the Scarecrow says, "What have you learned, Dorothy?" and I realize that I have been living in Kansas all along.

What have I learned?

Part of the reason composite characters don’t work, other than what I have said before, is that if you really write about a Person, make the description of that person and the events accurate, and are willing to take responsibility for it by putting your name on the blog, there will be basically one person who is or is not pissed off and may or may not talk to you about it. I intend not to put myself in this position in the future, but I think this is an accurate assessment of that choice. On the other hand, composite characters written about anonymously guarantee that there will be fifteen or twenty people seeing themselves in each player you have in any given narrative. And if you add a dash of paranoia (I know this is in short supply in the academy, but still--) many of them will be strangers, more or less, who don't know you well enough to know that you don't sit at home Sundays looking for people to crucify. So anonymous blog posts can end up being little literary cluster bombs creating that redundant thing we have learned about from the Bushies, “collateral damage.”

Another reason being anonymous didn’t work for me is really internal to Zen - er, Wesleyan, stultifying features of which I was trying to escape following the Unfortunate Events. Like being watched and talked about all the time and treated like yesterday's news for having done the teaching and institutional work I was asked to do while struggling to find time for my scholarship even as other people were chosen to be groomed as "the scholars." What happened to me during the last three years nearly destroyed me as a writer and an intellectual (I am actually not joking about this), and I had to start all over again, recreating a literary voice for myself and a confidence that I could command an audience with my thoughts and prose, from the ground up. It was either that or quit. And I didn’t want the blog to be about Wesleyan, because there are certain colleges and universities where, no matter how much you distinguish yourself as an individual outside the institution, it is always about effin’ Wesleyan. It’s kind of a weird institutional narcissism that I suspect is specific to elite colleges and universities that are simultaneously oppressive and have much to offer, where people have all the normal discontents and are so privileged at the same time that outsiders wonder what could possibly be wrong with their lives.

Do not dare feel sorry for me about this, and let me underline the point: I am a highly privileged, senior faculty member at a very wealthy institution, and many other bloggers are not. Furthermore, regardless of this messy coming-out period, my strategy actually worked. Because of this blog *and its audience*, I was able to start writing again, to finish articles that were lying about undone, to write a book review for the Village Voice, to write a book proposal, to get going on revising the book that various people and committees eliminated all over during the Unfortunate Events, to do a ton of research on a new project and to begin speaking about some critical reforms that might really help faculty – on the right and the left – enjoy their work as academics again. In other words: I Saved Myself. And I have been transformed into something more powerful as a result of my trials.

So really, I am less like Dorothy Gale and more like the Incredible Hulk.

But it is also true that in being anonymous, the blog did end up being about Wesleyan, far more than I wanted to admit before I was uncovered. I have also discovered that there are many people who simply assume that anonymity is a sign that you have something to hide, and that blogging anonymously makes you more or less an unstable, or even unstrustworthy, person. This has nothing to do with who the Radical is, or who she has been, as an intellectual or a political creature, but to a number of people this is clearly beside the point.

Therefore, in its anonymous incarnation, the blog is provoking some of the things I was trying to evade, such as gossip, misperceptions and misrepresentations that are annoying to me and to others. I have one friend (an untenured person in fact who displayed a level of maturity and friendship that should cause hir to be tenured immediately) who called immediately upon discovering the blog and said, “I love it but do not ever write about me.” This was useful – not because I was going to write about this person – but because I could actually say that and be properly reassuring. And this friend has been one of the people whose counsel has been really important as I rethink my blogging ethic. So I would like to extend that position – the possibility of speaking to me – to whatever public I have. Use it or not as you will, but now, my friends, you know everything I know.

So you needn’t say goodbye to the Tenured Radical – she will be here. The difference is that you will now also know that she is eminent nuclear physicist Dr. Robert Bruce Banner.

There I go again! Stop it!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Zenith Confidential

Well, I have my nerve, don't I? Spreading Zenith's secrets all over the internet?

No, no, no. I am not telling more tales today. What I do want to discuss is Confidentiality. This is a talismanic phrase at Zenith, and it is part of what is at stake in unexpected publicity (internal to Zenith) about this blog, publicity that has led to recent reflections, retrenching and readjustment. Central questions have been: Do students in class have the right to think that the classroom is a confidential space, thus allowing them to speak at will without the fear that they might be misperceived? And -- my topic today -- Are the workings of a university better kept confidential, to the point where critiques of the tenure system immediately create the impression of spilling the beans, regardless of whether specific beans about specific meetings have actually been spilt?

The primal scene looks like this: there are certain kinds of meetings that you are in as an academic - usually, but not always, involving personnel cases -- where the practice is to warn everyone at the beginning that nothing said in the room will be repeated to anyone who is not already at the meeting. Usually rank serves as a boundary for confidentiality, but not always. Hiring meetings, which include the untenured, are usually presumed to be confidential as well. The logic for this is that it could cause emotional harm to the candidate to hear negative things about hirself, and that people ought to be able to express themselves freely in a personnel meeting without being concerned that their relationship with the candidate and other untenured people will be compromised. The relationships of the people in the room, of course, are fair game, but that is another matter. What is also left ambiguous is this: when there is a tenure case during a semester when a tenured person is on leave, is that person entitled to information about the case anyway because of rank, and because they are part of the ongoing work of the department?

Interestingly, concerns about confidentiality are also reflected in the political sphere. If you go to a modern Presidential archive, you will see that all kinds of memos to the Commander in Chief have been prudently removed, so that future Presidential advisors will feel free to give honest, open advice. To wit:

"From: Nanny Dick

Those federal prosecutors not doing our bidding have got to go. Pronto. Don't tell that I said this or I will never give you advice again."

You get the picture?

This degree of confidentiality is impossible to achieve in the academy, in part because there is no threat of being hauled in front of a grand jury and in part because *most* academics are constitutionally unable to keep their mouths shut, particularly when they are angry about something or feel that an injustice has been done. Some people would say, "Oh Radical, it's just your sleazy friends." But that isn't true. There is one central location at Zenith that is a hotbed of faculty gossip, to the point that if you want a secret "leaked," most people know the go-to guys and gals who will get it out. And there are people who deliberately leak information who are also among the most censorious when others leak information. Again, the comparison to the political sphere is relevant.

Nanny Dick to Scooter: "Boy, if everyone knew Valerie Plame was a CIA agent, Joseph Wilson wouldn't look like such a big deal. I HOPE THE PRESS DOESN'T FIND OUT."

Later, Scooter to Judith Miller, New York Times: "Valerie Plame is a CIA agent."

Judith: "Really? Valerie Plame is a CIA agent?"

Scooter (shocked): "Gee, I didn't know that. That's classified information, and you probably shouldn't use it in a story. Keep the WMD's in Baghdad under your hat too."

Judith: "Really? There are WMD's in Baghdad?"

Now I will tell you right off the bat that one of the concerns expressed to me about this here blog was that I had let slip things about tenure cases that I not oughta hadda done. This is not the case, in fact, for reasons explained in the previous post, although I did write about my responses to certain outcomes in certain cases, that is true. And I apologize to anyone who thought sie was reading about hirself. I won't pursue this for fear of rubbing salt in it, but actually -- if everyone had the information about their own tenure cases that I would argue they are entitled to, this would not have been an issue, since it would have been clear who and what was actually being written about (me.) But this did get me to thinking about who confidentiality actually serves, in tenure and promotion cases in particular.

Guess who? You can't? It serves the institution and the people who are already tenured, not the tenure candidate at all. "I am shocked -- shocked! that there is gambling in this establishment," you cry in surprise and pain. Let me explain.

As I noted above, it is an established protocol that nothing said in the meeting should be repeated outside the meeting (this is true at all levels, from the department to the T & P) and that "breaking confidentiality" is considered to be one of the more serious breaches of the rules one can commit at any institution of higher learning. In fact, it is not a rule at all at Zenith, although people say it is; it is nothing but a gentleman's agreement, and there is nothing in the faculty handbook that mandates confidentiality -- I know because I *just checked.* Of course, since our university governance documents are on the internet and can be altered without telling anyone, I'm sure such a rule will magically appear minutes after this post goes up, but whatever.

At my institution at least, tenure regulations guarantee anonymity to referees, which means they are the only players entitled to confidentiality. But this anonymity is immediately breached by the review process. Everyone in the department knows their names (they picked them, after all); everyone on the T & P knows them; at least half a dozen administrators can identify them; and they are revealed to everyone attending the Big Meeting, where personnel decisions are reviewed and ratified. So right away, depending on the size of the department, we are talking about between 30 and 50 people (roughly 12% to 20% of the whole faculty, and 25% to 40% of the tenured faculty) who know who they are. Even the candidate knows a couple of them, because sie has the chance to name up to three.

OK, now that we have established that confidentiality is not a rule at all, it is a practice, and that referees are not anonymous, what next? Well, let's start with whether it means that if guaranteed that their identities will not be revealed to the tenure candidate, will referees really give you an unvarnished opinion of the publications in question?

The answer is yes and no, depending on the person. And having seen many tenure letters (OK -- I'm not saying in whose case, or when -- hell, maybe I found 'em in the trash at Potemkin U. when only a wee Radical) I can say firmly and truly that there are very few of our colleagues anywhere in the English-speaking world (not to mention several other languages) who are willing to write candidly critical letters. Perhaps this is for fear of law suits, and perhaps it stems from a genuine concern for the candidate, and not wanting to play a definitive role in the life of someone they don't know. Perhaps it is that slightly sleazy feeling writing a bad tenure letter must give a soul, much like the one that you get when you realize that you just spilled the beans to someone who Doesn't Want To Know That Thing, e.g. that someone's second wife is his former student, or that so-and-so is a lesbian.

Decent people cloud negative critiques in obfuscation, so that departments can have the ammo if they need it as part of a more pervasive critique of the candidate, or choose to ignore the critique if they want to make an argument to retain hir. And many referees who write positive letters out themselves in the next year or so at a conference ("Congratulations! You *know* I wrote for you!"), or are outed accidentally-on-purpose by someone who sat on the case, so that a letter for a grant can be obtained from a Famous Person. To wit:

Senior colleague: "Well, I wouldn't be surprised if Dr. Fabulous could produce a good letter for you pretty fast." (wink, wink.)

Newly promoted colleague: (thought bubble appears) "Aha."

OK. So we have established that referees are not really the beneficiaries of confidentiality either. So what is confidential? How the tenure decision is actually made.

That's right, fans of the Radical. Go back to this post and ask yourself: why are untenured people always asking us how many of this and that they need to have in a tenure dossier? Because it is the only information that is available to them, outside of two or three pages of rules in the faculty and/or department handbook. Because of confidentiality, why people do or do not get tenure is not public knowledge. And what outsiders to the process suspect is true -- decision-making in tenure cases is incredibly erratic, between departments, within departments and from year to year. I will not pursue this, for obvious reasons, but people who have sat on tenure cases will -- if they are being honest -- recognize this as A Fact. So by not allowing the untenured to see tenure cases -- heck, we could let them see the successful ones -- we reinforce their paranoia by mystifying the process. We also protect ourselves, and the institution, from litigation, by obfuscating how and why decisions are made. Thus making no "standard" for tenure apparent to anyone, much less ourselves.

Try this: ask anyone at your institution what their standard for tenure is, and see if they give a thoughtful answer. See if you can give a thoughtful answer that is not limited to empty words and phrases like "excellence" and "high standards" (how excellent? How high?) If you can, leave a comment.

In short, the problems attendant to confidentiality:

1. People can cast a vote in either direction for any reason they choose, including ignorance, fear, lack of preparation, disinterest, friendship, animus, a prejudice against the field-- and there is no accountability. And they can walk right in the next week and do it again. Why? Because they are tenured, no one can tell them not to, and anyone in the room who might believe that justice was not done is not allowed to say so in any venue that is not already part of the system.

2. The idea that tenure is a conspiracy easily takes hold among untenured faculty because -- well, an entirely secret procedure that no one explains and the practices of which are defended fanatically but are also impossible to articulate except to a group of elite insiders looks like, um, a conspiracy.

3. Even when you think the outcome is just, if it is an unhappy one, there is no explaining it to other untenured people, either for their edification in making their own professional decisions or just helping them feel better. Conversely, you can't take a great tenure case and show untenured people why it is great and how they might prepare a similar case.

4. Newly tenured people vote on tenure cases without knowing anything about process, custom or previous standards because they have no experience except the trauma of having been the object of scrutiny and secrecy in a tenure case. And if any reader comes from a university where newly tenured people are instructed in these practices, please comment about them below.

5. Confidentiality makes it impossible to counteract gossip. Gossip becomes the dominant form of information because, in reality, tenure meetings leak like a sieve. People do leave the meeting and talk, and they do it out of anger, out of self-protection, out of self-congratulation, and out of (sometimes) misplaced loyalty to and affection for the tenure candidate. I have often had conversations with people, at Zenith and elsewhere, who seem to know a great deal more about their own tenure cases than a brief update from the chair would have conveyed. And sometimes -- this is the worst -- they have wrong information, because when votes are taken, they are taken by secret ballot, so if there is a mixed vote, anyone who claims to know who voted which way is talking out of their hat. But they leave the meeting and repeat their beliefs about how people voted based on their reading of the conversation that preceded the vote. I, for example, have had the experience of hearing through the grapevine that I cast a vote that I had not cast in a particular (confidential) matter. And to correct that information would be -- well, breaking confidentiality.

What confidentiality does, then, is make sure that all untenured people are as off balance as they can possibly be for seven years, and that the tenure process itself is sufficiently mysterious that tenured people can make up their minds on a case-by-case basis without telling younger people why they do what they do. And if we were to reform -- rather than eliminate tenure, as some of my past posts have suggested -- this is where we would need to start: restoring the confidence of the untenured people in the system by making the system itself knowable.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Chapter the Seventy-Second: In Which Knowing More is Not Necessarily a Good Thing and a Purge Ensues

If you have been following the last few entries, you are aware that this blog has received the kind of challenge that tests the souls of Radicals. Student reading of the blog is even *more* widespread than I knew, so I am informed by a colleague (who I will not write about since one of the things I know now is that many people do not like to be written about without their knowledge. And this friend did me a favor by letting me in on the Big Secret.) Furthermore, as the above indicates, students have tattled (and somewhat incorrectly, I'm afraid) to faculty about *who* and *what* is being represented in these virtual pages. So some of those lurkers I have been picking up are faculty colleagues who are -- I gather -- not amused. And some of them, as I understand, see themselves in certain characters, as it turns out, wrongly.

Well, I can only hope I have added a little thrill to a dull semester enlivened only by the appointment of a new President and the loss of hot water in one of the dormitories. And frankly, no one learned anything that wasn't being gossipped about widely, I guaran-fucking-tee you, and often gossipped about incorrectly. You should hear what people just tell their students for free, without making them look it up on the web.

Once again I am considering dropping the pseudonymity, in part because I have clearly ended up in this situation that is kind of like going to summer camp and having people read your diary and know what you think, but then they don't tell you that they know, they just give you a wedgie one day for no apparent reason. On the other hand, I have also received the impression that some of my colleagues think blogging is a low art, so they wouldn't admit to reading even if my name were on it ("Oh, Patricia Spacks! Where are you when we need you, darling?")

But I started by plodding through, post by post, to see if there was anything else there that could do harm. I tweaked, I edited, I cut, and some of the writing is even better. And in one case, I cut the whole post, but characterized it in a paragraph because the comments were so good. And there were some things, I would admit, that I probably would not have written so graphically had I known I would be uncovered so quickly. There are others where I think I disagree that they are in bad taste: these are ones that mostly have to do with tenure, and mean stuff that happens in the academy. And I have to think about, not whether I will continue to write these things, but how, since now I am being observed and the room for experimentation and snarkiness has narrowed dramatically.

But I would like to clarify a few things, in classic meme mode.

Things that are absolutely true:

1. Everything nice I said about my friends.
2. Everything I said about the Unfortunate Events.
3. I do believe the tenure system is corrupt and needs drastic reform in all its practices, including confidentiality.
4. Thoughts expressed on racism, homophobia and sexism. In other words, phenomena I describe really happen(ed).
5. That I detest how our personnel committee functions, how the people on it sometimes behave, and what values are being represented in the Zenith tenure system at present. As do a lot of people. And people don't speak about it because they are afraid of having their tenure candidates retaliated against.
6. My dog.

Things that are composite truths, or narrative based on facts but not strictly factual (that is, several things meshed togather into one incident; rewritten heavily to disguise the innocent):

1. Illustrations of, or casual references to, tenure cases. These "facts" are even sometimes true, but drawn from other institutions to illustrate a point or disguise specifics.
2. People I caracature (sp?): for example, Dr. Grumpo is a figure who embraces the sins of many, as are Drs. Fee, Fi, Fo and Fum.
3. My fantasy conversations with Paul Fussell.
4. Communication with students.

I am once more debating the merits of coming out, since apparently I *am* now out (btw: I'm gay!) But I will close with what all these experiences are teaching me about pseudonymity, which is: when people find out who you are, they go through the blog looking for themselves, and so of course they *find* themselves even when you didn't actually write about them. They see events they think they recognize and believe that you are talking about them, whether you are or not, and even if there are aspects of the post that would put that identification in dispute. And of course it doesn't help to have someone run up to them and say, "Professor Radical wrote about *you* in her blog!" which plants the idea in their minds in the first place. But it is actually astonishing how *similar* experiences at all institutions are, making these identifications possible in the first place. So part of this evening's work was to go through every damn post to reduce the possibility of misidentification, or indicate when something did not occur at Zenith. Fun, eh?

And for those of you who are lurkers, if you want to see someone really out there, click on Bitch, Ph.D. A quick trip to the Combat Philosopher, a pretty respectable fellow, more or less, will also net you a link to Sonia Belle, who writes a blog about living naked on a desert island.

At least I keep my clothes on, Zenith students.