Monday, December 31, 2007

The AHA for Dummies; or, A Guide to History's Oldest Annual Meeting Designed for the Novice Conference Goer

Is she in Heaven? Is she in Hell? That damned, elusive Radical!" (A cry often heard at conferences, originated by the Baroness Emmuska Orczy.)

This is just to say: if you are pseudonymous, anonymous or a lurker, I insist that you come up to say hello to me at the AHA. I would love to meet you. I can't tell you precisely where I will be at any given time, and the blogger meet-up is, I think, scheduled for a lunch I am supposed to eat elsewhere. But I can certainly be found at my own panel, Sunday at 11 (pray god it doesn't start to snow at 9 as it did in Atlanta a decade ago); and I can also be found at the interviewing workshop Tony Grafton has organized for Friday during the 9:30 a.m. session where, as I understand it, there will be role playing of various kinds. I am looking forward to learning a few things too, so come one, come all. In between, I can only specifically promise a sighting at the Radical History Review/CLGH reception on Friday night.

You'll recognize me. I'll be wearing black.

So instead of giving you a list of what I aspire to in the New Year (Item #1: "Diversify blog beyond posts that yank on the testicles of right-wing gadflies") or my ten favorite books of 2008, the Radical is going to spread a little light on how to function socially at the AHA. This is expressly aimed at those who either have never attended this meeting before, or who were so traumatized by their first AHA that they can't decide what shampoo to pack.

So here goes:

Please remember that we go to the AHA to socialize. Yes, there are panels, I know. God knows, I'm on one. And there are sometimes panels, or individual papers, that knock your socks off. But mostly we go to AHA to see friends and colleagues, hang out in those open bars in hotel lobbies and drink overpriced booze -- or worse -- a $2.00 glass of bubble water with a lime in it. We go to the AHA to go to dinner with our friends. We go to the AHA to hang out in the book exhibit, to go to lavish book parties held by the big presses, to go to receptions. Please do not forget this. You are now one of us and we expect great things of you.

This might cause the skeptical to think that the AHA has deteriorated as a primarily intellectual venue since its inception 122 years ago, but that is actually not the case. Almost from the get-go, it was an extraordinarily social event, where networks of men promoted each other's interests, and hired each other's students, all the while consuming vast amounts of cigars, rich food and booze. In 1912, for example, the conference committee scheduled a special train, with sleeper and dining cars, to go from Boston to Richmond, and at every major stop -- New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington -- more historians got on board and joined a huge party in progress, a party that ended with a pre-convention formal dinner -- served on the train. The dinner followed a grand tour of the battlefields outside the former Confederate capital, with genuine Confederate veterans available to tell of their heroic deeds first hand. And if you have done some work in the AHA archives, you will know that, for our founding fathers, planning the "smokers" (to which female historians were not invited --for their own good, dammit) and putting together the invitation lists was at least as important as putting together the program. In fact, one might argue that a major cause of the 1915 AHA insurrection was the fact that southern and western historians were not invited to the best parties, and they came to resent it.

So actually, we have always gone to the AHA to socialize. It is a tradition. And we are not going to let the side down this year. Particularly in Washington, where there is so much to do.

It is from this crucial piece of knowledge that all other knowledge flows for the novice conference attendee. To wit:

Good conference contacts are well-orchestrated conference contacts. There is nothing wrong with approaching people you don't know, or people you know only slightly, to solidify or initiate a relationship. In fact, I encourage it, particularly really famous people in your field. But you must imagine these as brief encounters, encounters that you will dominate and control. For example, when you are talking to someone of higher status than you (which if you are a graduate student is almost everyone,) watch that person's eyes as you are talking. At the moment those eyes start to drift over one of your shoulders, interrupt and say, "Oh jeez, I'm late for that meeting with my editor." Or, "I am supposed to be in a panel right now! So nice to see you!" Then bustle off. In other words: do not be a dump-ee, be a dump-er.

Watch out for your main chance. What do I mean by this? OK: scenario. You have arranged to go out to dinner with a friend in your grad school cohort. Suddenly you fall in with a fun group of people you have just met at a reception, and they invite you to go to dinner with them. Do you:

a. Say "I'm sorry, I'm meeting someone else for dinner," and beetle off;

b. Call your friend and say you have been taken ill and cannot go to dinner;

c. Say to your new acquaintances, "Gee I'd love to -- I am supposed to met a friend for dinner, but is it ok to add one more?"

The correct answer is: c. There are some people who I have subsequently become fast friends with who I originally met at a conference dinner where I was included at this last minute, either on my own or through someone else.

Imagine what you will say when, at a reception, someone asks you what your dissertation/book manuscript is about. Now remember, they do -- and they don't -- really want to know. For some people this is a sincere question; for others, it is a default question when they don't know what else to say to you. Because you can't know which it is, you must attend to two main rules.

a. Be able to say it in a sentence, and not as if you are in a job interview, but as if you are in a social situation. Don't, for God's sake, drop your eyes to the floor, take a big gulp of air, and say something really complicated and long. I repeat -- it's a party. For extra points, relate your work to the other person's research interests.

b. Do pay attention to whether your new friend's eyes light up (indicating genuine interest) or whether this person's affect remains unchanged and flat (indicating that it was only a polite question.) Proceed accordingly.

Do not, for God's sake, save money by not registering. This is what we call a false economy. Why? Because the book exhibit is the center of the action. The book exhibit is where you go when you have time to kill. The book exhibit is where presses throw parties for fabulous authors and their fabulous friends. With free food and free wine. The book exhibit is where you are most likely to find a scholar you want to meet, temporarily cut off from her glittering herd, and vulnerable to a swift introduction. To wit:

a: "Professor Hofstadter, I just wanted to say hello. I'm a student of your old friend X at Prestigious University, and she is always recommending your work to me."

b. "Professor Radical, I just want to say that I love your blog! How do you put up with the trolls? Yes, I'm in Shoreline for a year on fellowship. You know, I am working in an archive you probably know -- oh, you don't? Well, sure -- if you are interested, we could grab some coffee back in Shoreline."

c. "Professor Dunning, I just finished your book on Reconstruction -- yes, I really enjoyed it, but don't you think you were a teeny-weeny bit hard on the freedmen? Of course, who am I to say -- you know, Dr. Phillips gave a talk at Big State U. and he couldn't say enough about you."

Invite yourself to parties. I once invited myself, as a newly minted Radical, to a great party where I found a Famous Historian happily nestled in a bottle of bourbon, and he offered to take me back to the Smithsonian and show me John Dillinger's penis. Although I declined, this is definitely one of my favorite conference memories, as it was followed by an hour or so of witty repartee with one of the most fun historians alive. Take points off if you view this encounter as sexual harassment, since I was at the time writing a book that involved John Dillinger. And it was really funny. And it is a long standing rumor that the Dillinger member resides, preserved in formaldehyde, in the Smithsonian.

This is how you find the parties: first of all, smokers will be advertised on the lavish message boards. But many are not advertised. If someone mentions a party you have not been invited to, consider yourself invited. It goes like this:

Historian: "maybe I'll see you later at the Michigan Party." (Remember; this is an exit line, and this person does not specifically want to meet you at the party.)

You: (who know nothing of this party) "Oh yeah, I'm definitely planning on it -- where is that party again? I left my book upstairs."

The Radical will, of course, be blogging the AHA -- I hope on a daily basis, depending on what kind of pressure social life imposes. Anyone who wants to see conference blogging to die for should check in to Flavia immediately. Flavia's dry wit is appealing no matter what it is aimed at, but this series of three posts had me giggling until my forehead hurt.

And check out this spoof of MLA program materials. Hat tip to Margaret Soltan at University Diaries. It is one of the best grad student capers I've seen since the JUDY! fanzine.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

AHA Annual Meeting: It's A Great Way to Fly

Received yesterday in the Radical's university email account Inbox:

"Dear [Tenured Radical]:

"We are delighted you have registered to attend the 2008 American Historical Association Annual Meeting.

"We are again offering a 'Self Registration Check-In' for all advance registrants and this will minimize your time in line. If you are advanced registered you can use the self registration terminals to print and pickup your badge. The Pre-Registered Badge Pickup Terminals will prompt you for your BADGE NUMBER: XXXXXX. Bring this note so you have your number with you when you check-in. Staff will be there to help you through the user friendly process. "

Yes, this will be so much easier than how I usually do it, which is to stand in line chatting with people I haven't seen for months (without having to worry about printing and carrying an email with me) and then just telling someone my name and getting a packet.

To put it another way -- methinks this is actually easier for someone else who doesn't have to pay someone to stuff those packets. But wherever the AHA can save a nickel or two to put to its various good works, I'm for it.

And speaking of nickels, youngsters: if you are a historian, and not yet a member of the American Historical Association, you should join. Not for the journal -- you can get that at the library -- but because it is one of our major professional advocates for preserving our access to archives. Membership fees are adjusted for rank, beginning at $37.00 for graduate students. This is slightly more than half the cost of a good pair of sneakers.

(Photo taken royalty-free from this site.)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Dead Time of Year

This is the Dead Time of Year. The week between Christmas (or, if you prefer, the end of school) and New Year's Day is a time of reckoning, during which we in the Radical household have a tendency to obsess about what we didn't get done during the calendar year, as opposed to praising ourselves for what we actually accomplished. Thus, this week tends to be taken up with neglected household projects: repainting that last bit of molding in the downstairs bathroom, attending the annual sale at IKEA, washing the dog, putting up the mirror that has been balanced precariously in the upstairs hall for seven or eight months. Or endlessly re-organizing our notes on writing projects that we have, to date, resisted the charms of, well, actually writing. Everyone knows that once you get all the books re-alphabetized, the notes in the right piles with paperclips at the exact same spot, and the pencils well sharpened, the revisions might just do themselves in the middle of the night.

Yeah, sure. After a visit from the Revision Fairy.

Our other strategy is to leave town. One year we left on January 1 for San Cristobal, in Chiapas, and stayed for five months. Last year we left for Kauai the day after Christmas, which was a blast, and stayed for six weeks. This year, because of massive administrative duties, the AHA and some urgent scholarly deadlines, the Radical will be staying put in the Good Old Continental U.S. of A., watching the Republic dissolve around her, thanks to the tender ministrations of the Bush Administration. But my companion N is heading off to Unnamed South Asian Country, where she will be virtually incommunicado for three weeks and doing worthwhile things while I hold the academic and political fort here.

Now, this creates a different paradigm for Dead Week, from my point of view, which is that it is now part of a twenty-one day hiatus in life, a monkish interlude, that can actually be a turning point in the year. I will have so much time on my hands (because domesticity does take time, my friends) both for the idiotic things I aspire to during winter break (how to fix the draft coming under the front door because the guys laying the floor in the front hall never bothered to and it was summer and I never noticed until they had left town? How to make maximum use of the post-holiday sales so that I will look my best at AHA? What would be the perfect reorganization of my study?) and for the non-idiotic things on which I have actually made a lot of progress in the last year: finishing several pieces of writing without overly obsessing since, like bad nickels, they will surely come back again for more revision; getting my spring course organized so that it can more or less run itself; actually writing that paper for the AHA, the one that I am giving in nine days (oh yeah, that paper!) And is now the time to learn Power Point? To do those perfect visual presentations that I always wish I had ten minutes before the lecture?

And I need to think about what direction this blog will take in the New Year. Because for all of the ups and downs on the last post, it has caused me to think about a lot of very interesting things, and I now think that I haven't even scratched the surface -- after successes and failures; errors and corrections; anonymity, pseudonymity, and coming out as myself (whoever that is); positioning myself as a professional advisor to others; struggle with complete strangers and reconciliation with some -- of what blogging can accomplish as a literary or political form, or as a critical space that compliments print. That's pretty exciting, and some peace and quiet around here will help me think about the next stage in my blogging -- or could we just say writing? -- life, I'm sure.

Oh, and dear reader? If I owe you a grad school recommendation, and it's not done yet, it will be in by 5:00 today. Promise.


Please note that I have edited my blog ethic slightly, to explicitly add "name calling" as an element that will get comments deleted in the future. It's a really mean thing to do, and doesn't advance a conversation one iota.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Sally Hemings Perplex; or, What Do We Know When White Men Need to Be Protected from Black Women?

I started this as a comment on an earlier post, since I am taking my friend Tim Lacy's suggestion (talk about what we can learn from the younger set -- dignity, kindness and civility come to mind) that I move on to the topics my regular audience prefers to read about. But, with apologies to Tim, it got too long, and I had to post it. And I also think some of these ideas, and the critique I am trying to develop here, contribute directly to what responsibilities academics, and historians in particular, have for thinking about the ethics and practices cohering in that public square called the blogosphere.

The first issue I would like to speak to is my argument about resentment, in the paragraph where I theorize about what Durham in Wonderland is "really about" (it's always interesting to me what gets picked out and what gets ignored. Most of the post is usually ignored, not just by DIW people, but by most commenters. I do it too.) Let me say that, as I noted in the post, there are the "facts" of history and then there are the stories we tell about historical events using those facts. Historians and lawyers (among others) know that you can tell a number of different stories from the same collection of facts, depending on how those facts intersect with other imperatives. Several of those versions will, perhaps, be true, but audiences (juries, academic fields, fans, activists, voters) will tend to coalesce around the arguments they find especially compelling. And this is what, connected to my strong feelings about needless harm done in the name of acquiring "justice" for the falsely accused at Duke, is culturally interesting about the DIW story -- it is not the "fact" of the accused men's innocence that is the source of so much intensity, although DIW was committed to establishing that -- it is the nature of their innocence, and its absoluteness, that the story both elaborates on and makes the source of intense feeling.

Consider this: it was not the fact that Eliza and Tom were slaves that caused Harriet Beecher Stowe's white readers to weep openly before strangers; after all, some of them saw slaves on the street every day, and they knew the shirts on their backs and the sheets on their beds were made from cotton cultivated and picked by actual, not fictional, Black hands. It was those readers' conviction that they could, through Stowe's words, feel Eliza's and Tom's spiritual and physical anguish in their very own bodies and souls. That was the source of their tears.

So we need to ask ourselves, why is one particular story -- a tale about men whose honor and purity is articulated in complete contrast to the criminal role they were falsely cast into -- largely by black women, if we are to believe the rhetoric -- so intriguing to the DIW crowd? Why not another story? One might imagine the possibility of this, very different, narrative: in youthful exuburance, naivete, pounding hormones, inebriation and an ignorance of the human condition, young men who have everything in the world to lose make a dumb mistake. They compound their mistake when they realize they have invited a desperate woman who is under the influence into their home, she fails to perform, and they refuse to give her all the money she wants. They respond to her threats that she will get revenge on them, not by removing her gently (perhaps with the aid of the campus police), but by shoving her out the door. She makes good on her threat by charging them with one of the worst crimes imaginable, and the system, to their horror, seems bent on convicting them -- not of foolishness, but of rape. And yet, justice prevails, all the same. The young men emerge wiser, more mature -- if battered -- and vow never to forget that citizens must always be vigilant over government to ensure that the principles our democracy stands for prevail. They will dedicate their lives to this evermore. The end.

I find this story completely believable. And, much as I find parts of it tawdry, I find it sympathetic in a number of ways. But it is not heroic -- it is comedy, turning quickly to tragedy.

It is striking to me that the DIW crowd has had its imagination so completely captured by a heroic story of stark good and evil, one in which the conspiracy is unimaginably huge, that they prefer to understand what happened in Durham as almost entirely local in its significance. And yet, all kinds of things are happening around the country that are equally dreadful, and all kinds of injustices done -- many at schools and universities, but many in the thousands of courtrooms that make up a justice system that favors the prosecution almost exclusively. And it is also happening at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, Iraq -- need I go on?

However, connections to those other systemic injustices (some quite horrendous, involving murder and torture) are almost never made, the extension of the ideas expressed at DIW to larger ideas about the justice system or prosecutorial misconduct virtually never articulated. That many respondents felt a moral and ethical compulsion to come to the defense of young men who were being wrongly prosecuted in Durham for a spectacular crime doesn't surprise me, since they have written about it in heartfelt and sincere ways. What does intrigue me is the level to which the faculty and administration at Duke have been targeted by DIW for not "saving" the young men themselves as if, in fact, this was possible, and as if any prosecutor gives a rat's ass what the Duke faculty thinks. And they have been targeted using (highly disputable) interpretations of actions, documents, emails and speeches, interpretations that have been produced by a group and a scholar who more or less reject interpretation as a credible way of producing knowledge.

As I say -- it's only a theory -- but you have to think that there is a strong desire among the DIW commenters to be intimately linked to Duke itself, through the lacrosse players. Their need for justice does not include, for example, the desire to help a man on Long Island, also railroaded by a prosecutor, who has been in prison since he was a teenager for a double homicide that may have been committed by his father's business partner in 1990. I find it striking that only the falsely accused Duke students themselves have made that kind of connection, and it has had very little impact on the general tenor or interests of DIW as a virtual community.

To return to the almost wholesale rejection of argument and interpretation as a mode of thought by the DIW crowd: their strident positions about the Duke faculty and administration, based on Johnson's often selective readings of texts produced by Duke faculty, actually constitutes an argument -- laced as it might be with racism, mockery and name calling -- not a mere collection of facts and sources, as DIW commenters and Johnson assert. The invective they prefer is crucial to the interpretative field that they have created, and it is critical to positioning Johnson as the voice of reason who creates a rhetorical space between the "extreme right" and the "extreme left."

Furthermore, rejections of the position that the "the Listening Statement" was not an attack on the accused students per se also rest on this invective. The invective argues that the faculty who signed are, always were, and always will be, liars and incompetents, independent of their actions in this particular case. These arguments, mediated and authenticated by Johnson as an "insider" critic to the culture of academia, are stylistically representative of longstanding right-wing movements to "take back" knowledge production from the egghead academy from faux intellectuals hiding behind ten-dollar words that obfuscate their thinly-veiled contempt for "real" Americans. But the rhetoric of guilt and innocence has played another role too, and it is the prominence of African-American women as objects of contempt on DIW that is a critical piece of evidence here. The absolute "guilt" of (Black Woman) Wahneema Lubiano, the faculty member who has been positioned as the leader of the "guilty" 88 and the Duke administration, is a necessary, symbolic and practical corollary to the supposedly absolute legal and social "innocence" of the three white men who were falsely accused of the crime.

In other words: Sally Hemings was a liar and her children bastards; hence, Thomas Jefferson was a paragon of political masculinity and the father of our freedoms.

To move on. This is a useless correction, I'm sure but -- I never said in the other post that the DIW crowd can't get into college, or that middle-class people in general can't get into college: they can get in, they just can't pay for it anymore, many of them. I was writing not literally, but metaphorically. What I do believe about DIW and its readers' emotional connection to both Johnson and the act of taking continuous revenge on the so-called "Group of 88" is that imagined connections to elite universities are talismanic and magical in a day and age in which many people, for good reasons, are deeply insecure about the future. The veneration for places like Duke is acted upon almost exclusively through fandom in a day and age when student or alumni status is harder to achieve and there are fewer alternate routes to wealth and social power. In addition, the difficulty of getting into elite colleges has escalated at a historical moment when the economic need to have that credential seems dramatically enhanced. Fantasized connection to places like Duke, particularly through varsity sports, is one way to become part of a community that won't take you otherwise. Athletes also sometimes come in for special veneration because they are seen as people who have made it to the top, not through namby-pamby, untrustworthy bookishness or their wealthy parents' connections, but through traditional masculine virtues: hard work, toughness, and strength. Or, in the case of lacrosse, whiteness. DIW readers have a lot to say about how the lacrosse team's overwhelming whiteness and maleness made it an object of hatred by "others" -- they have nothing to say about what seems to some of us very important: being white and male makes some athletes objects of cultural love too. Pointing this out is, of course, how my involvement in this whole mess began in the first place.

DIW, in my view, represents an attempt to "take back," for the People, an elite place like Duke, a place that ordinary folk long to be connected to but despise for their lack of actual access to it. Some people enact that connection through buying game jerseys (drug dealers in New Haven wear Yale gear.) Many DIW readers, and Johnson himself, acted on their desires through what they perceived as an heroic crusade -- saving three "innocent" men -- that for the readers, if not for their leader, also required devoting a lot of volunteer time to the project. Hence the crucial importance of the word "innocent" to this group, because by recognizing and defending the accused men's innocence, they demonstrate their own moral fitness to be part of the Duke community and -- more importantly - the moral unfitness of their enemies, the faculty and activist students protesting campus racism and sexual violence, to be privileged with an actual, material association with Duke.

"The bottom rail is now on top, Master," the black Union soldier is reputed to have said to a Confederate officer at Appomatox.

Here's something else that I think should be highlighted on the credibility chart: virtually all the DIW commentators who really run the show and set the tone on the comments are anonymous. The hate mail is anonymous. The phone calls are anonymous. This has caused me to wonder at times whether some of these characters are someone we actually do know by name posting under different pseudonyms (and some of the tactics and rhetoric suggest that they are) to whip up the interest in and narrative value of the blog. Who is crazed Debrah? Gregory? And why does he go "MOO!"? Who is the dignified Amac? Steve from DC? John? The vicious Polanski? beckett03? The multiple anonymous posters? We don't know. And yet it is the so-called "credibility" of people who do use their real names, who write in ways that allow people to respond to them, that is repeatedly called into question and abused through invective, letters written to university officials, the call for "facts" and the like.

Finally, Professor Horwitz's point about free speech is well taken, and I think it is an important principle. Let me extend it: the right to free speech does not extend to unlimited anonymous speech, or to cyberbullying, and no reputable publication prints anonymous letters. The only reason I tolerate anonymity at all on Tenured Radical is because I know that some bloggers I know and respect feel they need it. I began as an anonymous blogger, and that may be a necessary step for some people as they gain confidence. In addition, I want to encourage my students, and untenured faculty over whose careers I could potentially have some say, to engage in dialogue with me.

The DIW crowd is always yelling about who is going to get sued next, but they have all protected themselves from any consequences for their behavior by not revealing who they are. And threatening to harm someone using the mails, the internet, or the telephone is a federal crime, in case you think I am just referring to the ethical implications of such acts. I have received a number of hate letters at my office, for example, and at one point I started writing back to them to see if the addresses were good, and guess what? I got the letters back. No such people at those addresses. On the other hand, Horwitz, myself, Burke, Lacy and Zimmerman - not to mention Piot, Lubiano, and the others linking their work to the anti-KC Johnson blog -- all publish, blog and comment under our own names. That the masses at DIW and their hero KC can exercise what they see as their right and duty to "hold us accountable" is only possible because you know who we are.

The point about a blog having only its credibility to offer may be something I disagree with to the extent that I think DIW's criteria for that are very self-serving and can't be universalized. There are many people who don't think the New York Times is credible (can you say "Judith Miller"?) although mostly I do. But what, exactly, is completely credible about a blog whose integrity is proven by the presence of large numbers of vicious people who are afraid to tell us their names, and a blogger who claims to have no responsibility for what they do or say? I ask you.

(Photographs were taken from this site by permission.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Little Sweetness and Light; or, Three Reasons To Be Jealous of Jill Lepore

To speak briefly to the Blogger Ethic: Jill Lepore is a real person, a historian of early North America, and a very good one. And I, as you can tell by the item on the left, am currently reading her first book, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. Now it won the Bancroft Prize, so you would think I had already read it, but I hadn't. In 1998, I was happily celebrating having just gotten tenure and (sadly) burying my dad, so I only read the two or three hundred books I needed to read to get by.

But next semester I am teaching a core American Studies course that is about comparative colonizations in the Americas, one that I teach regularly, and one that causes me to go back and brush up on a period outside my research field (and brush up on the history of eleven or twelve other nations in the hemisphere, and fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe.) And I have always known that I don't teach King Philip's War very well (mostly, I suspect, because when I was studying for my general exams, someone else in the study group read whatever book we twentieth century specialists thought we needed to know about to make it through the test. Or, as we used to say, "I didn't read the book. I read the article." Or I read the review of that book. Or someone else did. I dunno. All I recall is the vivid pink of the Pepto-Bismo bottle that we passed from hand to hand.

So I thought this year, "Why not teach Lepore, Radical? Worst case scenario, you read it and decide it's not a good pick, and you call the long-suffering bookstore and cancel." So I ordered it, and the review copy came yesterday. Do you know that moment when, as you take a book out of the box, you want to sit down and start reading it? That there is something in that book that calls to you?

So last night I sat down with a cup of tea and started reading, and I am hooked. I have to say this is one of the best written history books, and one of the smartest and most elegantly argued, that I have read. Ever. And it is entirely relevant to our own current war, in Iraq, since the book is about how Americans narrate war. So this is my list of the three reasons to be jealous of Jill Lepore, in ascending order:

1. She lives in Cambridge, MA, near a number of friends of mine who I wish I lived closer to.
2. She gets to write for the New Yorker which is, in part, I think because she is a completely tireless and engaging writer and can be counted on to write to deadline. Unlike me, for example.
3. As part of an argument about how Indians and English construct categories of cultural difference that allow each group to remain distinct from the other, she wrote the following sentences, about the sacking of English towns in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut by Native warriors in 1675, which left the colonists without food or shelter and without the boundary that kept them from slipping into "savagery":

But there was more to the colonists' concern than simple practicality: English possessions were, in a sense, what was at stake in the war, for these -- the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, and the things they owned -- were a good part of what differentiated the English from the Indians. These were not simply material differences, they were cultural, for every English frock coat was stitched with civility, each thatched roof rested on a foundation of property rights, and every cupboard housed a universe of ideas.

Honestly, that's where I put the book down and came upstairs to evangelize - I mean, blog. I have hardly ever read such a wonderful passage that captured an argument in metaphor like that.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

We're Having More Fun Than A Barrel of Crackers; or, What We Do When We Blog

You may not understand this post if you don't read the comments to the previous one. I'm just warning you.

But if you don't have the patience for that, dear reader, I can give you the short version. I am responding here to several important questions raised in the recent (or ongoing, depending on when you tuned in) controversy at Tenured Radical. The questions are: what is a blog supposed to do, and what makes it credible? And should the Radical have revealed her associations with certain reviled faculty at Duke at an earlier stage so that readers might evaluate the objectivity of the blogger and -- it is implied -- her capacity to tell the truth? "Are you or have you ever been?" shouted the committee chair, pounding his fist on the lectern and glowering at the witness and her attorneys.

Well, here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: I have friends at a lot of colleges and universities, which is the kind of thing that happens if you are professionally active and interested in others. I can't always be telling you who they are, in part because you would think I was a swell-headed name-dropper for having so many of them, and in part because people might start writing me and saying, "Hey, you know that friendship thing? Well I hate to break it to you, but, ahem; uh -- well, when you didn't return that phone call...." And I think it is an open question whether warm, or even merely respectful, feelings toward a group of people undermines one's "objectivity" about them more than, say, hostile feelings and bad experiences with other academics might. And friendship is no more undermining to your objectivity than getting a big book contract or a movie deal: if you don't believe me, ask Simon Schama or Stephen Ambrose, why don't you? And even if it does cause people to worry about my capacity to tell the truth, I'll still take the big advance on the next book, thank you very much. Ka-ching!

For the non-historians who are readers here, I would also like to note that, among the Sisters and Brothers of the Past, objectivity is no simple thing and it is not a word we normally use as a curse, or to define political battles. It is, in fact, a major source of disagreement between some conservative historians and -- let's just say "others," to avoid polarizing - whether it is either possible or desirable to present only "the facts" and let the reader decide "truth" for him or herself. Facts without narrative are either dull and unreadable or unintelligible; and narrative, as Hayden White and others have argued, is inevitable drawn from a set of readily interpretable story lines: comedy, tragedy, romance and heroism.

These thoughts on objectivity draw on a useful and vibrant discussion among historians over a decade ago, and in my own department, triggered by the publication of Peter Novick's very intelligent and controversial book, That Noble Dream. Novick, who could generously be described as a centrist (and who I perceive as more conservative in his views than not, particularly in his views of social history and cultural history) came to the conclusion that objectivity wasn't something one could "have," but only something one could aspire to. In the ensuing discussion, in hallways and in journals, it became clear to me that there is no dominant consensus in the profession at all as to whether objectivity is either possible or desirable, since one always has to place evidence in a narrative, temporal or theoretical context. Historians were never objective, and looking back fondly to an imagined past before feminism, race, sexuality or post-colonial theory made their impact on the discipline is only nostalgic (for some people, at least), not a reflection of our actual history as scholars of the past. Arguments -- and in order to write history or any scholarship you must have an argument -- always rely on a theory, no matter how subtly drawn upon.

To relate this subject to blogging, I understand that KC Johnson tells the "truth" as he understands it. But even setting aside the abysmal quality of many of his readers' comments, Durham in Wonderland was never objective and it made a powerful argument. It was, drawing on White's thinking on the subject, a heroic narrative about a set of complex events that were difficult for outsiders to understand without that argument because those events took place in an elite, closed world that was more or less alien to them, a fact that Johnson reassured them they could be proud -- not ashamed --of. It relied on a set of recognizable characters for its appeal, its intensity and its credibility: it was a story with villains, self-serving bosses, fools, Keystone Kops, man-hating feminists, white-hating black and brown people, arrogant college professors, a Jezebel and "innocent" white men victimized by chance and circumstance (I once compared the intensity of feeling about the lacrosse players among DIW readers to the cult of the Confederate dead, and if you are a southern historian, you will see the similarities.) KC crafted a tense, readable narrative, one that also made his readers into "heroes" as they were inducted into the role of detective and led through the labyrinth of fact and law by their leader and teacher. And I can't tell you how many people have written to me privately to say that KC Johnson, whatever else he may be to you or me or his fans, is a great teacher. Go back and read some blog entries with that in mind and it will jump out at you. Do a little research on Google and you will understand that he also brought a great deal to this role as teacher to the masses. But I want to emphasize my point here, even as I bring this professional accomplishment to your attention: being a great history teacher is not necessarily about being objective -- it is about creating a powerful, implicit and explicit argument as you convey facts about the past. It is about being credible and compelling, it is about possessing an intuition about who the audience is and how to get to them. It is about crafting a classroom persona that is sufficiently heroic to compel attention and cause learning to occur.

How do I know this (I can hear the howls already)? I know this because I am also a great teacher, and I recognize another great teacher when I see one, even though I intensely dislike what is being taught and think it is ethically, if perhaps not always factually, wrong. And as for attacks on my own credibility by the DIW crowd: people who don't like my work, and don't think it teaches them anything, don't have to read it. It's really easy. Get rid of the bookmark on your browser, Dawg.

And the heroic narrative has obscured one thing that deserves to be highlighted, as we write the history of this thing. As I noted earlier, part of the pleasure of DIW for its participants has been in "playing detective" -- being part of an imagined community (as Benedict Anderson would say) that now sees itself as a "winning team" and a necessary adjunct to the "winning" Duke lacrosse team. The job of continuing to batter new "enemies" is the only way to sustain that euphoria for DIW's readers, and they will do it here and anywhere else for as long as they can. But the heavy lifting on the lacrosse legal case was not done at Durham in Wonderland, regardless of claims among readers that the blog author played a decisive role in the case. Corruption was defeated -- as it usually is, not by "the people" but by well-paid, experienced attorneys and their staffs, and by the fact that the defendants had access to such people in the first place, not underfunded public defenders who had no money or time to challenge the system. That is the world most people -- poor, of color, immigrant -- in America live in, and the Duke lacrosse case has not changed the system one iota.

But to return to the question of my credibility, KC's view of what a blog, and a teacher, should do to retain and maintain credibility is something I would describe as highly corporate, the theory being that readers can stop worrying about whether the story is true, in whole or in part, once they come to trust the hero-narrator. For example, to shift away from academia for a parallel argument: we should read some blogs for the same reason we buy Nabisco products -- because Nabisco has accumulated, over time, a reputation for making delicious, healthy food. And yet, this too is a highly constructed narrative that is only partly true and has shifted over time. Historians may recall that Nabisco, in eliminating the "cracker barrel" at the turn of the 20th century and wrapping its products individually, did so to create an illusion -- by assertion -- that their food was safe. No one actually went to the factory and looked: rather, the gaze of the consumer was re-directed to the shop owner and the shelf. And of course now we know that Nabisco products are full of crap ingredients that many of us are quite certain are no good for us. Food can simultaneously be "healthy," "safe" and "delicious," but one category does not guarantee the others. Some of us believe that preservatives, transfats, refined flour and sugar are more or less safe, others of us don't: but they are all legal. And large numbers of people are completely unaware that what tastes so delicious -- an Oreo, say -- is lacking in any food value whatsoever. Others know this and don't care, while some of us would prefer to drink raw corn oil than eat an Oreo.

Now I am not saying that KC is an Oreo maker (given my experience, it is wise to be clear about such things.) But some people believe Durham in Wonderland is credible and some don't: some people believe KC's facts are complete and convincing, and others are quite clear that is not so. DIW readers would say the blog is credible because the facts satisfy them of what they already "know" but didn't have the evidence for -- for example, that some hard-working people live in the world and others are just over-educated, overpaid academic liberal do-nothings -- but that is a far too simple read of what goes on there, of course. DIW is a highly ideological location, deliberately so, where people who thrive on what it offers go to read things that give them deep pleasure in the telling and re-telling of a story they already know.

But the difference between my blog and DIW is not between who is ideological and who isn't. Everyone has an ideology here. The DIW ethos is to create a dense terrain of facts that inevitably make a highly ideological argument about "liberal rot" in the academy that is familiar to all of us, regardless of political affiliation. And it is why all of us respond so strongly to it. It isn't really about those lacrosse players at all, even though they are the "heroes" of the story that give it so much pizzazz. And sadly, it isn't really about the Group of 88 either, although it has caused them a world of pain. Taken as a whole, in the end, DIW is about why some people get to go to places like Duke and other people don't -- it is about class rage, it is about the collapse of opportunity for middle-class people who actually had wonderful college educations in their grasp a generation ago, and have now been shut out of them. It's about how some of us made it in, and slammed the door behind us.

So in conclusion, it is not KC's actual views about me or anybody else that should be of real interest here, or mine about him. The impact of the Sunshine Band (so glad you like the name, guys!) is minimal regardless of how they clutter my in box. KC is also absolutely entitled to be a cultural crusader if he likes, and wear his marginality to the larger academic culture like a medal, although I would argue that there are boundaries of civility -- like accusing people of lying, something that should be rare in my view -- that need to be respected if people are to have conversations rather than shouting matches, be colleagues rather than soldiers in a culture war.

Some people will believe Tenured Radical is credible and some will not, in large part because of what they bring to it, not because they are in search of objectivity or because I want to please all of the people all of the time. I accept that. But I would say that -- even in the absence of printing lists of my friends, as KC thinks would be the ethical thing to do, the actual title of the blog should create an interpretive field for the reader that is worth attending to in thinking critically about what is posted here. My readers come here because it gives them pleasure, just as his readers come to him for pleasure. If, on top of that, people learn things here that enrich their lives and make them want to talk to me and to each other, then that is a real bonus.

Comment moderation has now been turned off and we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Radical Provides a Reasoned Response to Past Events

Dear Fans of the Radical and Others:

Normally I do not respond to comments with posts, but in this case I would like to. First of all, thanks for all the supportive comments on the last post, and thanks to Ralph Luker for visiting.

Ralph said in the comments to the previous post that I bait KC Johnson, and although I appreciate the spirited defense of my writings by others, I have to agree with Ralph -- in a sense I do bait KC, although I wouldn't have put it that way. The easiest way not to draw KC's attention or his scorn is not to write about him, or respond to his attacks, and to let him continue about his business undisturbed. A lot of people do that, and I can't say I blame them. That said, for many of the reasons cited here, and in my post, I find his attacks on others deeply disturbing and wrong, and I often feel a moral obligation to stand up for people because of the manner in which he attacks them. Ralph and KC are, I believe, friends, and Ralph has every right and moral obligation to stand up for a friend -- we don't know whether Ralph also makes some attempt to intervene informally as well, and we should probably reserve judgement on that score. Some conversations are -- and should be -- private. So please be polite to Ralph when you respond to him here and give him the benefit of the doubt.

That said, here are my friends: Duke faculty members Wahneema Lubiano, Sarah Deutsch, Robyn Wiegman, Claudia Koonz, Irene Silverblatt, Maureen Quilligan and Bill Chafe. Call me pink right down to my panties, but they are. I would add to that list members of the Iowa history department: Linda Kerber, Kevin Mumford and Leslie Schwalm. And I stand up for my friends. My guess is that most of us agree that when someone who is a friend does something wrong, you might be obliged to say so in a constructive way, and even oppose them in a public forum if need be, but you don't stand by and watch that person get machine-gunned on the internet for everything they stand for intellectually and politically.

In the case of the Duke faculty, queers and faculty of color have been subjected to disgusting attacks, and if the mail I have gotten is similar to what they have gone through, they have been threatened with personal violence; KC's posts on the Iowa department seemed to me to be a precursor to the same thing. That is why I posted on it.

KC may have been correct that Duke did not handle the lacrosse case well (although the mind-numbing wealth of details are the kind of thing you put aside a year's worth of reading in your field to absorb, and I can't say for sure) but this was not a symptom of the university's liberalism as an institution -- quite the reverse, in fact. It is the flip side of a university governance process, almost ubiquitously shared among institutions of higher education, that more or less declares the campus a "rights-free" zone. This elimination of civil rights in university processes is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue: it is a question of whether the private sphere -- whether that be Walmart or Harvard -- can make its own rules to protect its own interests as an institution. The law says they can, and they do.

Now, I want to be very clear here to say that I know those men accused of rape were acquitted. I am crystalline on that, and I have said it before. I am also clear that the prosecution of the case was fouled, as criminal cases involving poor people of color are also fouled in a prosecutor's attempt to add big wins to his or her record. But what I am also clear about was that these men got caught in a perfect storm: a prosecutor who needed a big case before the election and a university that was unable to cover up the ugliness of what happened in the way they are used to covering things up.

This latter point, in his zeal to whip up a culture war against elite universities with himself as the general, is something KC has not concerned himself with. Although gathering evidence is his forte, context is not. And the contextual frame that makes the Duke case incredibly complex is this: quick as the administration was to throw the lacrosse team members under the bus, this incident occurred in a historical and cultural context in which drunkenness, theft, queer-baiting, racially discriminatory speech acts and violent, damaging behavior has become a huge problem at Duke and other places (I do not exempt Zenith from this.) University administrations, as a group, continue to draw a curtain over these problems rather than address them in substantive ways. Were they to address sexual violence and substance abuse, for example, as the criminal behavior it often is, they would -- by federal law -- have to report significantly higher crime statistics to prospective students and their parents than they do, and risk losing federal funding. Instead, students who do awful things are brought up before university discipline boards, punished internally, and victims of violence are often persuaded to give up their right to pursue judicial redress in exchange for getting some "justice" from the university. At Zenith, an administrator told me, they budget $500,0000 a year for student theft and property damage -- which, the last time I looked, was 5/6 of the financial aid budget.

What this means at Duke -- as it has at Zenith -- is that in any potentially felonious confrontation, the perpetrator is just as likely to be privileged as the person who has been harmed, because the interest of the university is that the crime not see the light of day at all. This is what the so-called 88 at Duke were responding to. And if, in the instance of the lacrosse case, the response was inappropriate to the actual circumstances, if students were unfairly stigmatized in classrooms, that should have been the object of civilized critique as well.

What should not have happened is a carnival of racism, hate mail, queer-baiting, and open season on academic fields -- and scholars --that have gained an important place in the academy, not at the expense of others, but because they are smart critical thinkers. KC's field of foreign policy has not been made irrelevant by feminists, queer theorists and critical race thinkers -- it is immeasurably better for the work on gender, race and culture that has been brought to it in the last two decades. And yet, these fields have exactly been the point of the critique, in intensely personal ways. When I made my first appearance in DIW, commenters had one long discussion about whether I was black or not because I wrote about race -- "nappy headed 'ho" was the phrase used -- ultimately deciding that I wasn't, because I "write too well." I have been mocked for being a lesbian, and for being a woman. I have been mocked for the courses I teach. I have received hate email and snail mail; and university administrators, trustees, and colleagues have received these hateful messages about me. I don't think that this blog, Tenured Radical, supports or harbors the same level of venom that Durham in Wonderland did.

So while I agree with Ralph that blogging tends to support a general social tendency toward "clustering" among those with like opinions (much as newspaper reading, and TV watching does as well), I don't think that the commenters here are the same as the DIW crowd.

That said, Ralph's Cliopatra blog is one effort to try to wrestle with that, KC or no KC, so don't insult him please. I consider him a colleague, and I am glad that he showed up here.



It has been pointed out to me in the comments and by email that the accused Duke college students were not acquitted, the charges were dropped: I misspoke here, since that is in fact what I meant. Since I am not a criminal attorney, a defendant, or passionate about the legal and forensic issues at work in the Duke case, the distinction is less important to me than perhaps it should be. It has also been pointed out to me that I, and others who have been targeted by KC, have never been willing to say/admit that the accuser was not raped. I can't speak for other people, but why it would make an iota of difference if I did say such a thing -- since I never claimed that I knew a rape had occurred in the first place; since I have no authority over this case or any of its victims; and since either an acquittal or the dropping of charges through the fair use of scientific evidence should indicate to any casual observer (including me, who has not exactly been asleep for the past eight months) that the felony in question was doubtless not committed by those accused of it -- I do not know. But if it makes anyone feel better, by all means.....and btw, there are some long, thoughtful comments on this post that are worth taking the time to read.


Wednesday morning postscript: Once again, except for one comment that will give readers a taste of the others, spiteful and/or vicious comments have been removed, especially those comments that continue to misread the original April post. Talk about potbangers.....

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Radical Presents an (Unnecessary) Defense of the University of Iowa History Department

I want to start this post by saying that I admire the History News Network. It is one of the few recent attempts any group of historians has undertaken to make our profession relevant to a larger audience, and to offer some kind of public forum that links us to each other and to the world. The first time they listed me was long before I became a blogger: it was several years back,when I gave a paper at the OAH about that big homo J. Edgar Hoover, and that, I would have to admit, was a thrill. Although I sometimes wonder why they publish what they do (one of the subjects of today's post) they link my blog occasionally and I am on their permanent blog roll, so there is an ecumenical spirit at HNN that is quite rare in the media and ought to be applauded. The publicity and the new readers this brings me is something I will be the first to acknowledge -- although the last couple of times I have been linked by Cliopatra it has re-energized a howling mob of sans culottes who hate academics and whose bully of a leader, KC Johnson, leads them from target to target as he seeks out perpetrators of thought-crimes.

But before getting to this bone I have to pick with them, let me emphasize that, despite my mixed experience with it, I think the people who work on HNN do us all a service, and they do so for no compensation, as far as I can tell. Therefore, because I support the mission of HNN I urge all of you to go to this link before the tax man shuts down your deductions on December 31, and give them a couple bucks to help support the enterprise. In addition to giving them money, for the holiday season I am also going to shelve my snarky remarks about the HNN column "Top Young Historians," edited by Bonnie Goodman, because she has begun to choose my friends as top young historians. Okay it is still a very white and very male crew, but Santa's elves are white and male too, and you don't see the Radical trashing them, do you? Not before Christmas, at any rate.

One of these Top Historians is not only a friend, he is my very first Honors Student from my very first year at Zenith, Todd Shepard of Temple University. You can read about him here. Furthermore, in the last three weeks Goodman has also honored John Wood Sweet, who I can't say I know well enough to call a friend, but we had a sandwich together last year up in Cambridge during Southern Intellectual History Circle, which allows me to claim that we get along well and that we both know All the Right People. And then there is also Amy Greenberg, the most recent honoree, who I met briefly when I was in Happy Valley giving a paper in October, who would probably also be my friend if we didn't live a long, nauseating ride in a small plane apart. So brava, Bonnie, and Happy Holidays to you. Keep up the good work.

In other news, however, it seems that KC Johnson, a regular Cliopatra blogger (and I believe a co-founder) has shifted his attention from cleaning up liberal filth at one university he doesn't work at (Duke) to striking deep into the heart of corruption in another place he doesn't work (the University of Iowa) in order to expose the practices of a search committee he is not on and evaluate the depth of a candidate pool he knows nothing about. It is, however, a known fact that one person who Johnson considers qualified for a campus interview in a current Iowa search did not receive one. Very strange.

The thinly disguised political biases of the University of Iowa's History Department are at issue here because KC has vetted the candidate and deems him worthy of a campus interview despite intellectual differences in their mutual field of foreign policy. Iowa's choice not to bring in this candidate (out of perhaps the hundred or so who applied for the job) is, therefore, being "exposed" as possible discrimination against the candidate's politics: read about it here. The key to this situation seems to be (gasp), that that the history faculty at Iowa is almost exclusively registered with the Democratic party: read about that here. A description of the candidate's politics, and the politics of his work, cannot be found in the piece.

Now, I realize your head is probably already spinning with this wealth of irrelevant information, but my question is this: Why won't somebody at HNN stop this man? That KC Johnson even spends his time finding out these things strikes me as, well, odd, and more symptomatic of generalized, manic resentment rather than the focused, constructive critique our profession undoubtedly deserves and should encourage. But that the Iowa History Department's collective party registration should be something that the members of that department are asked to defend at all in an ad hoc professional context seems nothing short of McCarthyite. Others have described KC's style of scattershot attack as Horowitzean: invent a threat for which you have no direct evidence and then beat people over the head with it in a way they cannot possibly respond to. And I must say, even given the extent to which Republicans have embarrassed themselves in the last eight years, the Democratic party seems not to be poised for National Domination, much less World Domination, so even if the department at Iowa has been conspiring to do something more pernicious than write and teach history, they have done a rotten job of it.

Now in case you are not getting the importance of Johnson's muckraking in this instance, and since you too dear reader are probably a Democrat, and since Johnson himself claims to be a Democrat (for reasons that are not entirely clear to me since his ideological bent seems indistinguishable from standard cultural conservatism, something one of KC's biggest supporters seems to imply here), the charge is that these Iowa Historian-Democrats vet candidates for ideology during the hiring process; and that Our Hero -- although a Democrat -- is out to expose this unprofessional and dishonest suppression of conservative historians.

This, my friends, is a very serious accusation to make against one's colleagues, it is a matter of professionalism and of discrimination law, and it ought not to be made by inference, something KC and his supporters have been screeching at me about for months.

The Iowa History Department has no answer to this charge because, of course, they didn't know they were all Democrats and I doubt party affiliation has ever come up in their discussions about hiring, nor should it, according to AHA professional standards. I mean, who the heck knows these things about their colleagues? Who wants to? I don't. We never discuss political party registration in our department, much less in our job interviews. That said, I am quite certain that all my colleagues are registered Democrats (except the Canadians, who smile sweetly and find something else to do, like offer you a nice cup of tea, when politics come up) because being a Republican in Zenith is a lot like being a Snowball in Hell, whereas the Democratic party offers a nice cozy home for conservatives of all kinds.

But other than printing articles that invent controversy and encourage uncollegial, irrelevant attacks on other scholars; and other than allowing itself to be used as a platform for creating a cause celebre at the expense of decent historians in Iowa, HNN should be concerned. Why? Because telling us that our midwestern colleagues are all registered Democrats is not news, and hence, not a worthy item for something called the History News Network. Here are the things I want to know about the History Department at the University of Iowa that I would consider news:

1. When they have department meetings to hire a job candidate, do they vote, or do they gather in corners trying to persuade others to leave one caucus and join another?

2. How many run their cars on gasoline, and how many on ethanol? Or a gasoline/ethanol mix? Huh? Wouldn't you like to know.

3. Are they part of what seems like a larger plot to hide it from us that Barack Obama's staff seems to be made up entirely of Democrats? I wonder. I haven't contacted the chair of the department to find out what she has to say about it, but if I did, I bet she would say "No comment." I just bet.

4. Are any of them polygamous? Oops -- that's the history department at Utah. Never mind.

5. Was that "yellow cake uranium" Saddam was buying really just a big piece of --corn?

You see what I mean? This, my friends would be news. A disappointed job candidate (who will, by the way, probably have a tough time getting any job anywhere if he becomes the centerpiece of a baseless ideological attack on a well-respected history department) is not news. It is slander: and I feel that I can say this because for months now this man has been attacking me because of two or three lines of a blog post last April which I refuse to retract because, in fact, he deliberately misread it for the sole purpose of providing another object of scorn for his readers. We are not for suppressing First Amendment rights here at Tenured Radical, and God knows we benefit from them, so we are silent on the question of whether HNN ought to be preventing this man from publishing such trash under their auspices. But there are a growing number of us who think the answer to this question would be important news, Professor Johnson:

"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In Memory of Allan Berube

I just received word that Allan Berube, one of our pioneer gay historians, has died at the young age of 61. This obituary lists the cause of death as complications from stomach ulcers.

I never knew Allan, but I have taught his book, Coming Out Under Fire: the History of Gay Men and Women in World War II several times and honestly, even though it was published in 1990 there is still nothing on the subject that surpasses it. I particularly liked using it in the twentieth century survey, back in 1996, because it was the first exposure most of the students had had to the history of queer people, and linking that to a great historic event that they were familiar with opened them up to thinking about what else they didn't know about queer history. Allan's thorough research, his respect for people who opened their lives and personal collections to a researcher, and his graceful, lucid writing style were a model for what professional historians should aspire to, and a great reminder of the standard scholars working outside the academy can set for the rest of us. And Allan also set a standard for using one's intellectual gifts to enrich the public sphere. An activist at heart, he had a traveling slide show that for many years allowed diverse LGBTQ audiences to access their past, something that should remind all of us working in this field and others that scholarship is often at its best when it enlarges the worlds of individuals outside the circle of traditional scholarship.

Hasta la vista, Allan.

Hat tip to JKK.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

In Case You've Ever Wondered: the Radical Testifies on Gay Marriage

I wrote this essay back in September, at the request of the Zenith student newspaper, which had posed the question of whether I thought gay marriage would ever be legal. Since I am trying to fulfill several long standing writing commitments this weekend, I offer you this turgid little polemic, only slightly edited, in place of a new post. It will, in fact, be new to you -- unless you are a member of the Zenith community; or my attorney, who is working on the gay marriage legislation in our state; or one of the many queer intellectuals who have written about marriage and whose thoughts I have inevitably learned from/cribbed from here.

It also seems like a timely essay to re-print, given yesterday's decision by the Rhode Island State Supreme Court that Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston, having married in Fall River, Massachusetts, may not divorce in Rhode Island, where they live and where gay marriage is not yet legal. Here goes:

I think gay marriage will be legalized in the United States, but not because it delivers equality to gay and lesbian people, although that is one way of understanding marriage -- as simply a matter of one’s legal status that is governed by the equal protection clause of the Constitution. However, marriage itself is also a social institution that does not, in and of itself, make one set of people equal to another in a society characterized by class, racial, gender, age, physical and national inequalities.

For example, although marriage conveys rights to a spouse that are often material (health care, rights of survivorship, citizenship, community property, and legal relationships to children adopted during the marriage are good examples), these are “rights” that only people who already have property, full citizenship or high-status employment can convey at all. Marriage will do nothing to improve the status of homeless, unskilled, migrant or under/unemployed LGBTQ people: the majority of us in other words. Marriage will do nothing to ensure access to healthcare for queer people in relationships where neither partner has health insurance benefits as part of their employment package.

However, gay marriage will be legalized eventually, although not because it would be a theoretical move toward social justice. It will be legalized because marriage itself is an extraordinarily conservative institution, and a method by which the state has limited the distribution of civil rights and economic privileges over time to those citizens who agree explicitly or implicitly to derive some, or all, of the economic support necessary to sustain life from a nuclear family structure. That marriage is also perceived by many people, straights and queers, as a more “moral” status is in fact a way of restating the previous idea, in which "morality" is constituted by independence, or the appearance of not being dependent, on public welfare structures. Neoliberalism, as well as conservatism, works on this principle: the political emphasis of the last thirty years has succeeded in reshaping United States society, and much of the world, to conform to an economic vision that valorizes independence, rather than interdependence.

Gay marriage will also not be legalized because marriage is a particularly successful institution, because it offers principles for living a life that are easy to adhere to, or because it is comprised of personal commitments that most people truly understand or agree to. As an activist colleague of mine once said in conversation, after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, “If they like gay marriage, they’ll love gay divorce.” But despite its many failures, marriage continues to be understood as a platform from which complete personal happiness will follow, an idea that is not new but which resonates to our particular historical moment, one where securing private happiness dominates popular success narratives.

That said, the political importance of marriage as a conservative institution is this: it is both a legal status and a symbolic realm that can stand in for equality, so that social inequality need not, in the end, be addressed through state redistribution of resources. Marriage, in other words, is not just the natural outcome of a romance between two people, as many gay and lesbian marriage advocates portray it: it is a political romance about what constitutes a well-ordered, and just, society.

For a much less polemical, and more original, take on gay relationships in general, go to this post by GayProf. For pro-marriage positions in my liberal state, which has recently legalized civil unions and where a marriage bill has been presented to the legislature several times without success, go to Love Makes a Family. And here's a link to a short film about gay marriage in Massachusetts, sent by the first commenter to this post, Charlotte Robinson, of OUTTAKE, that gives you a pretty accurate picture of the arguments and strategies of advocacy groups.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Chorus Line: Preparing for the Preliminary Interview

There are two songs that run through my mind at this time of year: one is the Blondie tune, with the blistering opening: "I'm in the phone booth/It's the one across the hall." Ok, graduate students have cell phones, but still. It conveys the sense of urgency that those of you who have job applications out there are feeling right now. You are waiting for the phone to ring but pretending you aren't while wondering if maybe someone else's phone......oh God, please let it ring.

But there will be interviews. There will. You have to believe that. Which is why my other song is from "A Chorus Line," but later for that. So I am going to take a little vacation from my unexpected engagement with the neocon world, and get back to what I do best: Giving Career Advice.

First of all, here's something you can control at this out of control moment. Do you have a message on your voicemail that is cute? Funny? Your favorite song maybe? Or perhaps it is your darling child who says, "Mahmee an' Daddeee an' - an' -- Fluffeee an' -- meee not home say who you are an' give a message. At da beep."

Get. Rid. Of. It. Now. Ok, it will not put you out of the running for the job: I want to emphasize that no little thing will put you out of the running for the job. But this piece of how you are perceived is something you can control without any significant damage to your essential self. A brief message like, "Hello, you have reached the cell phone of Marylou Graddie; please leave your name and phone number after the beep, and I will call you back as soon as possible," conveys the impression of a calm, serious person who is ready to be interviewed. And no, I am not a child hater, nor do I think it makes you unemployable if your essential self really is Mommy or Daddy: it's just that it is just as irrelevant as revealing your inner P!nk right up front in an interview situation. Your child is not being interviewed for the Cuteness Contest this December and January; you are in the first stage of being screened for the Intellectual Demolition Derby, where only one car drives away with the prize.

OK, now we have that settled. And the good news is, you have gotten the phone call, you are getting the conference interview! Now what do you have to think about? And since I just did a bunch of conference interviews with candidates who collectively did a stellar job, it has caused me to gather my thoughts about how you can prepare to do a good preliminary interview.

What to ask when you get the call. Let me just say -- all search committee chairs do not know what they are doing. So make sure to get the following information: Does the committee want to see more of your work before the interview? Should it be sent to the same address as the application? How long will the interview be and what other committee members will be there? What topics will the committee want to cover? What hotel will they be in and how will you find their room?

And by the way -- practice this, because when you get the call, your heart will leap and you will become momentarily dazed. What normally happens is the person on the other end says "Hi, this is Dr. Committeechair, and I would like to arrange an interview at the MLAHA," and the breathless candidate says weakly, "Oh -- hi." Try this instead:

"Why, hello, Dr. Committeechair," you say in a firm, confident tone. "I'm so happy to hear from you!" As if you expected to all along.

What should you wear? The most frequently asked question by female-bodied people who aren't particularly feminine in self presentation is, Do I have to wear a skirt? The answer is no, you do not: furthermore, I would argue that if you do not normally wear skirts, you should not even dream of wearing one because you will probably feel -- and look -- uncomfortable. For men and women, tailored trousers and shirts are basic items of apparel. Jackets are optional for both genders, and for my money a tie for men is optional too, although you need some way of making yourself look like someone who can be read as professional without one (a collarless shirt buttoned to the top is one solution.) Shoes should be polished and well-cared for. Female-bodied people who do like to dress in feminine ways, and effeminate male-bodied people, should also not butch themselves up for the interview: if feeling pretty also makes you feel smart and capable, go for it. Anyway, federal law prevents us from discussing what you look like, so the wise committee members will keep their opinions about your clothes to themselves or risk appearing unprofessional to their colleagues.

I have known men who have agonized about whether to take the earring out or whether the ponytail should go; women who worry about how high a heel will make them look like a hooker, or whether they need to invest in a suit. I think much of this, for a school like Zenith, at least, is irrelevant fretting, and that all clothing questions need to meet the following criteria: Am I comfortable in these clothes? Is anything I am planning to wear distracting to others -- in other words, am I wearing something that will cause the interviewers not to listen to what I am saying? And finally, does my physical self-presentation reflect the fact that I have prepared carefully for this interview?

Your entrance. Hopefully you will get to the hotel room door a little bit before the interview, but after the previous candidate has departed. It's hard to know whether your timing will be right, and if you should run into another candidate in the hall, smile graciously, as Bette Davis would if she were in your pumps. Before you enter the room, the following items should be stowed: hat and gloves, cellphone (turned off), iPod and water bottle. Even your Dr. Radical has capitulated to modernity to the extent that she walks around campus with white wires hanging out of her ears or pockets, but she wouldn't walk into a meeting of the dreaded Tenure and Promotion Committee that way, or leave the impression with New President that talking to him was a momentary break from listening to Pink Floyd or hydrating properly. These things are Distractions. Eliminate them. And you need to be able to walk into the room with at least one hand free for the conventional manual salutation, not fumbling with your various belongings.

The interview. This is a tough one, because there is actually no training that faculty receive in interviewing people, and some do it badly. I once became nearly hysterical during the course of a preliminary interview when the individual asking me the questions could not seem either to frame them coherently or to stop talking, and I saw my time to leave a good impression dribbling away as the odd interrogation proceeded, uninterrupted by me or anyone else. At the fifteen minute mark, I interrupted, seized the initiative and said, "Excuse me -- we haven't got much time left, and I'd like to make sure I tell you about my dissertation and some of the courses I would teach for you." Which I did. I then left the room and cried inconsolably because I had really wanted that job. And to my astonishment they gave it to me, and thus launched a Radical career.

But let's assume the interviewers know what they are doing. You should:

Have practiced a five-minute version of your scholarship, in which you describe your research, why it is important, what it does for the field, and its current state of completion. Why so short? Because after you give them the basics they will ask questions that speak to the specific intellectual requirements of the job and the department you might be hired to work in. They will get more of the information they need if you allow them to seek it in their own way.

Know something about who they are. This allows you to connect to them and convey that you are interested in working with them; it also demonstrates that you are not entirely self-absorbed, which is an attractive quality in a future colleague.

Talk about several courses you might teach. This can sometimes be the moment to remove sample syllabi from your backpack or briefcase: there is no reason you need to speak about courses without notes. This shows that you have done your homework about where you fit in the department, and that you are ready to teach next fall. At the end of your course descriptions say "I'm sure you have lots of stuff to carry home -- I can give these to you, or I could send them on later if you would prefer." You should absolutely be prepared to talk about courses mentioned or inferred in the ad, but also -- particularly for a school like Zenith -- a course out of your dissertation research that gives them a sense of your creativity and your potential as a teacher-scholar. It also gives you a sense of them: if you have a fabulous course in your head, and they don't respond by saying "Our students would love that!" you have important information. Because I hate to put this thought in your minds, friends, but in the end you might have choices too.

Make sure you pay attention to everyone in the room. Even if a member of the committee doesn't have much to say, make eye contact, or deliberately turn to that person and say "I noticed that you teach a course on...." Silent people are not necessarily people without influence; candidates who don't seem to care what women or scholars of color or untenured scholars think can be misperceived as self-involved, or sucking up to the most powerful person in the room. And the person who is the most powerful might be the one who is being self-effacing.

Keep your eye on the clock. Although you are not responsible for running the interview, make sure that you leave the room satisfied that you have told the committee what you want them to know. And finally.....

Be yourself. I understand why the question "What do they want?" haunts so many job candidates. But really, you wouldn't have gotten this far if there weren't a lot of things right about you. The strongest candidates will present in a genuine, not a contrived, way: some are a little shy, but articulate and thoughtful; others have an intellectually traditionalist, conservative or radical bent (departmental diversity comes in many forms you know); some don't know the answer to a question that has been asked and ask the questioner what s/he thinks; a really relaxed candidate might be able to share a laugh with the committee and cause them to say after s/he has left the room, "I can really see X in our department, can't you?"

But no one little thing will get you the job either.

OK, so here's the other song, the one from Chorus Line, that I think about at this time of year, because this is how I remember being you: no, it's not "Dance 10, Looks 3," silly. You know it -- the last verse goes like this:

God, I hope I get it, I hope I get it!
I’ve come this far, but even so:
It could be yes, it could be no.
How many people does he...?
I really need this job
Please, God, I need this job
I’ve got to get this show.
I have to get any moment
I knew I had it, from the start

Who am I anyway?
Am I my resume?
That is a picture of a person
I don’t know.
What does he want from me?
What should I try to be?
So many faces all around and here we go
I need this job
Oh God, I need this show.

I hope you get it. Good luck.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

At Last.......

Tenured Radical, and yours truly, have been linked to the National Review, courtesy of the Blog Whose Name We Dare Not Speak. How brilliant. And in the week I was teaching the Reagan Revolution too. Woo-hoo! I am definitely moving up the conservative food chain. My grandfather, a great admirer of William F. Buckley, and who never missed Firing Line if he could help it, would have been proud.

Do you think there will be a bump in tee shirt sales?

I hope my regular readers are not too dismayed that I am not letting through the comments from the People With Balls and Sticks: maybe I'll post a selection at some point, so you can get the general idea. Most of them are the same. Some of them --purportedly from different authors -- are the same. Or you can go to the Ur-Blog and read them yourself.

But let me just say that, although the NR author, Mark Bauerlein (who is a tenured professor in the English Department at Emory) says that the "tone of smug nastiness" I employ at Tenured Radical "only comes with tenure," it absolutely does not. In fact, by the look of things, smug nastiness is so pervasive that they must be selling it at Wal-Mart. Go to the Ur-Blog and read the comments. Those people do not, I think, have tenure. They spit on tenure. Phth-tooey! They wipe their shoes on tenure! And probably various body parts too!

And I thought I had nothing to blog about today.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Home Again: Driving Dr. Radical

Although the AAA was not the last conference I am going to this year, it is the last one I am going to this calendar year. Phew. And my return home was marked by the oddest taxi ride ever.

Those who are familiar with Shoreline's taxi history know that it is a somewhat recent event to have taxis at the train station at all. Back in the 'seventies, I remember slogging up to the Oligarch campus with my duffle bag on my shoulder, block after block, usually in the cold. There were often troops of us going up together, and this before the days of suitcases with wheels even. Sometimes we would have to stop for a drink or two on the way. It was that bad.

In any case, there are now lots of taxis: whether all those medallions existed before and were being held off the market in hopes that Oligarch University would relocate to another town, or whether the city did something to create them who knows. That they are there is all that matters. So, as at most transportation centers, when you emerge from the train station, you line up in the cold, driving rain and wait to get into a long string of cabs, one by one, as they pull up.

My driver, who looked a lot like Samuel Beckett, said after my bags were stowed and he had started to pull out of the station driveway: "I hope you don't think you are going to pay me with a twenty."

"I don't know," I said, pulling my wallet out, although I had been holding onto the option of paying with a twenty. "Would you like me to check?"

"Yes," he snapped, "Because I don't have any change!" Meanwhile, he is driving down the main drag outside the train station and heading in the general direction of my house. "This is about a five dollar ride. Do you have a five? Or a ten? People always want to pay for short rides with big bills on Sundays when you can't go to the bank."

I pay with twenties every day of the week, but hell, I was game. I pawed through a wallet full of the various receipts I will staple to my travel reimbursement report tomorrow. Nada. "Uh," I said, "I think I only have four ones."

"SHIT!" he yelled.

"Well calm down," I said, firmly but soothingly. "We can go to my house," since we were already halfway there; "and I'll go in and get you a couple more dollars. Then at least you'll have some change for the next customer."

He was not mollified. "An hour ago a girl tried to pay for a three dollar cab ride with a fifty," Beckett snarled. "Can you beat that?" No, actually, I couldn't. The base price of a ride is $2.50: this customer must have wanted a ride around the corner to buy crack, or to be driven into the parking lot to pick up her car, since you can't go anywhere for three dollars in Shoreline.

"Dreadful," I said, trying to place myself on the side of the working stiff. "What are people thinking?" Just then the driver tapped the brakes and skidded sideways a few inches before coming to a stop.

"SHIT!" he yelled. "That just takes the cake! Black ice! GODDAMNIT!" We were now within four blocks of my house, Thank Goddess. "This is the lowest point in 49 years of driving a cab!" he ranted. Egad, 49 years? Is your Ph.D. in English or Philosophy, my friend? (Just kidding!!!)

"Well," I said softly, "Maybe it will be all uphill from here." We turned the corner into my street.

"Yeah," he muttered. "Maybe I'll just dig a fuckin' hole and jump in and pull the dirt over my head." OKayyyy.....

We pulled up in front of my house, and he got out and unloaded my bags. I handed him the four ones and said, "Now wait here and I'll go in and get more money," since of course, it wasn't even a five dollar ride, it was a seven dollar ride. What I didn't tell him was that he would be receiving the other four dollars (who could resist tipping such a charming guy?) in quarters because no one else was home and I would be getting it out of the Bottomless Dish of Change that accumulates in a bowl on my dresser. The prospect of handing him sixteen quarters was causing me some anxiety, until I noticed -- to my astonishment and relief -- that he had gotten back in the cab and driven away as fast as the sheet ice would allow.


Prompted by Acephalous, I went to the list of New York Times "100 Notable Books of the Year," and realized that I have read exactly four of them. And two I used for an article I am writing. How can this be, given that I probably read around 200 books in 2007? And that I read for pleasure more or less at every available moment? Am I reading too few popular books? (I meant to read the Tina Brown on Princess Di.) Too many academic press books? Too many books that were published in 2006 or before? And who made up that list anyway? I think the academic bloggers should do their own list of Notable Books.