Sunday, March 30, 2008

Air Radical

The Radical is once again airborne -- for those of you hoping for a sighting at the Organization of American Historians meeting in New York this weekend, no dice. I had to stay home and finish working on the talks I am giving over the next couple days. For those of you in the Twin Cities on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., you are invited: go here for details. I am also sure that super saver fares are still available for those of you who do not actually live in Minnesota but would like to come.

This visit is going to be a lot of fun: it's always nice to be wanted. The only thing I regret is that even if the Elite Eight match up between the Rutgers and UConn women's basketball teams is scheduled as the second game on Tuesday, I won't make it in time. Imagine: "I'd love to take more of your questions, really I would, but I've got to get back to my room and watch basketball." No, I don't think so. The Radical is many things, but not ungracious.

In other basketball news, it appears I am flying to Minneapolis with the Winona State University Men's basketball team, the new NCAA DII champions. Pray god this doesn't mean that I am part of a story that will be turned into a tear-jerker of a movie some years hence about how a small, gritty Midwestern school rebuilt its basketball dynasty after a tragic accident, a true American story of adversity turned to triumph. And of course they would make the movie that way, even though a far more popular plot would be the American Studies program that turned tragedy into triumph, conducting a search through a haze of tears, after the horrible plane crash that took the life of its dashing, brilliant chair. I understand it's a niche market, but imagine the great scenes you could shoot:

1) The president, provost and deans, weeping openly and unashamed as they authorize a new search for a tenure-track person, a search that suddenly reduces by half the budget allocation for my line.

2) Former enemies vowing to forgive all, and wishing only that there was time ("Goddammit! Why can't we have it to do all over again?!") to promote me to something beyond full professor -- Duke, perhaps; or fullest professor.

3) The heroic search comittee in the hotel room at American Studies Association, knowing they cannot possibly replace me without me there to help, but that they must, against all odds, try. Here, I think, we would need a pep talk from the search chair insisting that the committee go on, no matter what, because the Radical would have wanted it that way.

4) Campus visits, complete with the tension of not knowing whether an appointment will be made -- and if so -- will the provost sign off on it?

You see what I mean. I think it should be written by Mouse, produced by piggybank blues, and directed by Gayprof.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Wacky World of History

If it isn't bad enough that it is increasingly difficult to find a publisher in European history, the Bushies, in their infinite wisdom, are going to make it more difficult to write European history too. It has just been brought to my attention that the work of European historians at the Library of Congress is to be interrupted indefinitely so that the Library can put up an exhibit on a Republican president who might perhaps divert us from thinking about the current one. Yes, we are about to have more Abraham Lincoln knowledge inflicted on us, courtesy of an administration whose only intellectual or political connection to Lincoln is the suspension of habeus corpus. As Michael Sizer of the Maryland Institute College of Art recently wrote for a post that did not make it onto H-France in its original form:

"I have just been informed that the Library of Congress has decided to close the European Reading Room. This is expected to happen quite soon - perhaps within a month, so that an exhibition on Abe Lincoln can be set up. They have made vague promises to reopen in the future, but this would be in a smaller space, and only after extensive renovations that may in fact not happen due to budget and logistical issues. So it is quite likely that the closure will be permanent, and even if it is not, it will only be after a long time that a new, reduced European Reading Room would be opened. The current space is set to be converted to another exhibition hall, which would bring in more visitors and revenue, but would continue to move the Library's institutional emphasis from assisting scholarly research to serving as a tourist destination.

"As someone who has done extensive research in the European Reading Room, and who has benefited from the excellent assistance of their dedicated staff (who fear that their jobs may also be cut), I consider this to be a very sad decision. Even if you haven't conducted research in the European Reading Room, I hope that you would agree that it is vitally important that our national repository of knowledge maintain a Reading Room dedicated to European Studies. The Library of Congress has more foreign-language materials than English ones, and the European Reading Room serves as an example for foreign visitors (who come through the room frequently on special tours, etc.) of the continuing interest that Americans have in learning about European culture and history. The French holdings at the Library are enormous, and include many titles difficult or impossible to find anywhere else in the United States. While they will still be accessible to readers in the Main Reading Room, the country-specific reference materials, databases, and, of course, the European specialist librarians will be less readily accessible.

"I would encourage members of the list to protest this decision to your congressperson, and also to James Billington, the Librarian of Congress. Previous efforts to close the African and Middle Eastern reading Room, which has fewer scholarly visitors, have been thwarted by protests from the scholarly community before. The Slavic studies folks (the most extensive users of the European Reading Room) are already organizing to express their displeasure. I urge French scholars to do the same!"

I, of course, imagine (wholly without evidence, which is to say it's Not True) that my old Oligarch college nemesis, Chicken Hawk and Bonesman Robert Kagan, having been irritated (but if I remember him correctly, probably not embarassed) by the failure of his lovely Middle Eastern war, is probably responsible for this. You know, he did write that mean book about Europe, also available in large print for elderly McCarthyite conservatives. But in the Wacky World of History, anything is possible, so let's not exclude the possibility! Thanks to Jack Norton, of Northwestern, for passing this story on: Jack tells us that you can click here to join a group of activists organizing to save the reading room.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Make Mine A Double, Please

The Hartford Courant informs us that there was a big meeting at Zenith over the weekend to discuss measures Connecticut colleges are taking against binge drinking and other forms of substance abuse. If you dig to the bottom of the article, there is a quote from New President who, like the rest of us, is against binge drinking.

What do I hate about binge drinking? On the weekends the students throw up behind trees and bushes and sometimes when I am walking my dog on Monday she.....well, I will stop there. She is a dog, after all. I bet this is what New President hates most too, it's just that it isn't a very Presidential thing to say to the newspapers, so he had to say the other thing.

Here's my historical question about binge drinking: why and when did it become a distinctively different college practice from what used to be known as drinking? I remember a lot of drinking at Oligarch, back in the `seventies. We had these things called "happy hours," which started at around 10 or 10:30 P.M. In other words, you left dinner, went to the library, and then rolled out of the library and went off to a happy hour. I remember the schedule like some people remember the Stations of the Cross: Tuesday, Pierson; Wednesday, Jonathan Edwards; Thursday, Calhoun. And then it was the weekend. There were Red Cups at Mory's -- or Green Cups, or Gold Cups. There were pitchers at Rudy's (and stealing people's pitchers at Rudy's so you could take them back for the deposit and buy another pitcher.) There were the bongs; and the speed; there was the spurious knowledge that it was fine to do cocaine, because it was non-addictive. There was Tang Cup (drinking beer at the speed of light, something women almost never did, except for super cool straight girls); and there was beer pong. There was Bladderball. Oh God, there was Bladderball.

So I hope I have demonstrated that I know A Few Things about college drinking. And I am old enough to remember that if you were having a really great conversation in seminar, you could walk downtown for a beer, and the seminar topic would stretch into other stuff, and you would start to really get to know something about what the other students, or the TA, or on really special occasions a professor, thought. But what I was not aware of was anybody dying from drink, or getting their stomachs pumped, or going to sleep and not waking up. This I don't remember, and frankly, I don't think it was a regular feature of college life until colleges, pressured by the government (and probably lawyers and insurance companies), started to crack down on underage drinking in the early 'nineties.

Don't you love the way the Republicans got government out of our lives?

But because I actually do remember how much we drank (a lot), and that we just got drunk-drunk as opposed to fatal/sick/lousy/brain-damaging drunk, my guess is that there is probably way more drinking going on at Zenith and other schools than I can possibly conceive of. And my guess is also that there are professionals on every campus who are coming up with very creative responses to this worrisome trend: many types of engaging alcohol-free events abound, I am sure. But here's a radical idea for you.

Let's get rid of the experts and go back to drinking with students. Let's stop forcing them to drink in secret as if we adults on campus thought drinking was actually a vice. Let's tell them it's normal to want to drink, talk to them openly about drinking, and then -- if we have the strength -- show them how. This is a plan, no?

We should lobby our state legislators as educators to lower the drinking age to eighteen; if the state won't do it, we can at least stop enforcing the draconian anti-alcohol policies that seem to have accelerated student drinking. Why not? I think what we have done is drive drinking underground, out of sight of all adults, and it means there is no reliable barometer for most students to know when, or for what reason, you should stop drinking. At Oligarch, half the time you had a drink in your hand there was a member of the faculty around, and even though you might get drunk, you wouldn't get so drunk that you would throw up on her shoes. And if it looked like someone was getting that drunk, friends would quietly remove that person.

The Master of my college did not believe any of his charges should be allowed to graduate without learning to mix a proper martini. Did you say, "How civilized?" I thought you did. And if you didn't know it before you were invited to martinis at the Master's house, you learned, under adult supervision, that one martini was enough in polite company. Because that's all he gave you. And it was enough. You didn't have six martinis and look back on it the next day and say, "I wonder if I should have had five instead?"

Here's my proposal: I think we need to take a leaf out of the book of the safe-sex people. Sex education is based on the notion that telling people not to have intercourse until they are ready for mature, committed relationships doesn't work, so instead the dominant practice at places like Zenith is to teach young people how to have sex without hurting themselves and each other by making fetuses they don't want, or by spreading diseases that range from being inconvenient to fatal. Why shouldn't we teach them to drink responsibly too? Show them how to get moderately drunk, and not so drunk that they forget how to care for themselves, or leave their dinner behind a bush. And we can't do that unless we are allowed, or even encouraged, to drink with them.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Spring Has Sprung: The Last Six Weeks of School

Right about now we all wander the halls saying to each other, "April is the cruelest month," as if no one has ever heard that before. But I wonder if that is just history departments, and whether in English they just start throwing things at you if you say something that dumb? Those of us who went to Oligarch back in the day sneak up on each other and whisper, "Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote..." and crack up. They probably don't do this in English departments either, even Oligarch alums, but for historians and other social science types it's a funny memory of the Path Unchosen on the way to the Ph.D. Oh, the English Lit. degree that might have been.

Anyway, to use another corny metaphor, this is when the chickens come home to roost, guys. Pre-registration for next year; recommendations for study abroad (hint to new profs: everyone who gets the application in on time gets in, and all they want to know is that the student isn't bonkers); applying for visitors for next year; applying to fill lines next year; getting your NEH grant in; helping students finish honors theses (to line edit or not to line edit -- that is the question); evaluating finished honors theses; two more assignments to grade; helping students figure out how to finish the class in a respectable way when the first two assignments didn't go so well; student demonstration (hint to new administrators: if it gets warm early, there will be student activism); meeting about things we forgot to meet about all year; getting courses into the curriculum for the people we just hired....and so on.

And meanwhile, there is still the garden to get in. One of the most dramatic ways my life has changed in the last fifteen years, as I progressed from probationary newbie to full professor/Drag King of the World has been less and less time available,not just for gardening, but for talking about gardening. For the first five or six years after I came to Zenith, there was a group of us who tracked each other's gardens with great care. We swapped seeds, we discussed mulch and cold frames, we talked about whether it really made sense to plant the peas on St. Patrick's day, given how wet our springs are in Zenith. We left overgrown surplus tomato seedlings on each other's doorsteps. We commiserated with each other the years that we did plant the peas on St. Patrick's day, and it worked, and then a late April windstorm destroyed the trellises and the vines that were on them.

Screw common intellectual life: it was a really nice way to know people that seems to have disappeared along with those dinner parties where we sat up half the night drinking and dishing, and still came in the next day and taught, goddammit. Mary McCarthy coulda written about it.

Now of course, we live hither and yon: some of us have summer places, so planting a New England garden no longer makes sense; all of us have more work every spring than we can hope to know what to do with. And some of us have children who are old enough to go to college next year. But you know, every time there are complaints about how Zenith has frayed as a community, or how we have to do some kind of structured activity so that we can cohere as a community, or what have you, what I really want to say is, "Look. We have too much work. Way too much work. Maybe we need fifty more faculty lines; maybe we just need to spread out the work more fairly among the people who work here already. But you know what? We used to plant gardens in the spring...."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Notes on the End of Spring Break

Spring break is almost over: in fact, you could say it is over, since around mid-afternoon, various beloved family members descend on our normally secluded life. So, much as I would like to write something fun for everyone today, I have to take a stab at doing some of the things I have left until the last minute. Although I am pleased to say I have accomplished much over break (in addition to screwing up my right knee, so that until I got a lovely shot of cortisone under my patella I spent several days on a cane imagining myself lurching aggressively around Zenith for the rest of my career, like an academic version of Dr. House.) An yet, there are a number of items that remain on my list.

Like grading my midterm exams. Some things never change, eh? Even though I am at a stage in life where I have a grader to help me I still can't pull myself together to finish. Only my compulsive over-identification with students who actually took the exam two weeks ago will get me to do it at all before Tuesday, when I see them again.

I have, however, taken the time to add Easily Distracted, otherwise known as Timothy Burke, to my blogroll. Burke is a cultural historian at Swarthmore College. Those of you who read the comments as well as the posts at Tenured Radical will have already taken note of Burke's sane and thoughtful blogging style. If blogs had editors, I would make him one of mine. The other reason to add Tim is that both of my parents went to Swarthmore, and like nearly all Swarthmore graduates, believe that neither of their children have been entirely successful because we both eschewed invitations to attend the Pomona of the East as a way of saying that we wanted to carve out distinct lives of our own. This may or may not have been an error. Only time will tell. But in addition to enjoying Tim's posts, and believing that you will too, mother would want me to link him.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Department of Odd Coincidences

So after yesterday's post condemning tenure (again) I get back to work on the talk I am supposed to give on pornography (again) and I drift off onto the internet (again), clicking around to the sites listed on my sitemeter from whence people arrived at Tenured Radical. Eventually, I come up with a story from the Chronicle of Higher Education about:

Pornography and Tenure.

Go ahead. Make my day!

To make a long story short, a married couple out at New Mexico State University was just denied tenure, and they are charging racial bias. What they also reveal, however, was that shortly before they were denied tenure, John -- the husband part of the married couple -- received an e-mail from an associate dean that contained a "graphic sexual image." He complained to the dean; and shortly afterwards, the chair of the couple's department decided that neither member of the couple should receive tenure (in what world does the chair make this decision all by himself?). The implication -- as both the dean and the chair have stepped aside pending an investigation -- is that the two men were in cahoots in the porn e-mail cover-up, and clumsily trying to get rid of the only other people who knew about it. Well almost the only people -- apparently someone else in the department is a witness to the harassing e-porn too. S/he will probably have to be killed, since denying people tenure clearly does not shut them up in New Mexico.

Confusing, isn't it? Almost as confusing as the most recent governor of New York, David A. Paterson, letting us know, minutes after the swearing in, that he and his wife have been having affairs (in an ungentlemanly moment, towards the end of the story, Paterson suggests that Michelle, his wife started it.) And in case you were concerned about it, he did not use campaign funds to rent hotel rooms, only the campaign credit card. And the affairs ended a year or so ago, and everything is alright now in their marriage, thank you very much.

But back to the couple who didn't get tenure in New Mexico. I have to say, I think it was clever of the dean to send the pornography to the husband, not the wife, because it means he can't be charged with sexual harassment. Unless it's gay porn, in which case the dean is way out of luck and should consider being nominated for lieutenant governor of New York, because his academic administrative career is over. And in case you think, because of my last post, that I have lost my sense of humor about tenure (I never lose my sense of humor about pornography), read the comments at the end of the CHE story. Comments, written by ordinary people like you and me who are supposed to be working on a talk or something, are often the best part of odd stories published on line. This is the one that cracked me up: a guy who calls himself Art Vandelay (perhaps because that is his name) writes,

"isn’t that the way it always goes in academe? you open your email and …there it is…porn from your dean. you know what that means: no tenure. that tragic scenario is, unfortunately, repeated hundreds of times each day."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Conquest; Or, Why Do We Still Think Tenure Is A Good System?

The truth is that many of us don't think tenure is a good system, and would prefer to be in a union. Tenure is, in fact, a more or less abusive system, and one that reproduces power hierarchies as they exist in society and in the university. Many of us who make it through the tenure process with the lifetime sinecure that is promised often do so because we are really good at repressing what actually happened. It is true that women, queers and people of color are not always turned down anymore just because our presence makes others uncomfortable, or just because the kind of knowledge we produce is actually critical of what more senior people in the department do. But it is also true that the people who control tenure nearly always make us hurt for it, even when we get it. I was lucky: I got to put the hurt off until I was being reviewed for full professor.

Then I was not so lucky. And frankly, even though I have my job and my promotion, and I more or less have my career back, I am still angry about those three lost years. It didn't have to happen, except that some people who don't like me very much -- and others, who were insecure enough that they longed to be perceived as having "standards" -- decided it should. And that year, not a single woman was promoted, either to tenure or to full professor. There were five of us. And there are people who still think that was just a coincidence.

Go here for a wonderful post by Oso Raro at Slaves of Academe on the Andrea Smith tenure case at the University of Michigan. Oso inspired the thoughts that became this post. He is right: Smith will get tenure somewhere. She is brilliant -- I mean, really brilliant. She has written a book called Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide that many of us use, and she was once on a panel that I organized, and the rest of us were more or less blown away by the intensity and depth of her intellect.

But each complicated tenure case -- and we have had several at Zenith, to which I can only allude that much, since there are still people who are angry at me for writing pseudonymously about peripheral features of these cases -- leaves endless circles of damage in its wake. The number of walking wounded out there is staggering. I traded some email with someone this morning who told a familiar story: working in a department where so many people had been turned down for tenure, the senior people had forgotten how not to be abusive as a matter of daily practice. Not only does a tenure case gone bad hurt the person who has been denied, it creates havoc for supporters of that person. Furthermore, relationships crack open when an entire narrative is built up around the failed case by supporters and by opponents that, in the end, bears almost no relationship to the truth of what happened.

Years ago, when I still lived in Manhattan part time, I was out walking my dog one morning when I encountered a man, also with dog, and the dogs began walking around in circles sniffing each other's behinds, as dogs do. The companion man and I exchanged a few words, and in seconds he was blowing his stack -- not at me in particular -- but at Zenith, because 'lo and behold, he had not only failed to get tenure at Zenith, but had failed to get tenure in my very same department some ten years previously. What were the chances of that? And if he talked this way to strangers...well, you get the point. This guy's tenure case had changed his life forever. For the worse.

Who else is hurt by tenure? All the people who are friends, lovers, children and companions of those who come up for tenure. People who get tenure are harmed by tenure, often because they have had to bow and scrape for so long before The Man and the women who are also The Man that they don't know how to get back up again. Or they are so damaged by the process that they turn around and do the same thing to the next candidate coming up the pipeline.

Each tenure case, successful or failed, is an object lesson to the next cohorts coming up. Untenured faculty watch them like hawks, trying to glean information. What should I do? How many shall I write? Was K really turned down because s/he didn't live in Zenith -- went to the wrong dinner parties -- published in the wrong journals? Didn't publish enough? Did they count the articles that were out at journals when s/he was hired? Did the book come out too late -- too soon? Was s/he -- lower your voice to a hush -- "difficult?"

Of course, we are not allowed to tell. As Oso argues in his post, that would wreck the only thing that really makes tenure valuable: its mystery.

I have argued against tenure for several reasons: that it destroys mobility in the job market. That we would do better financially, and in terms of job security and freedom of speech, in unions. That it creates sinecures which are, in some cases, undeserved. That it is an endless waste of time, for the candidate and for the evaluators, that could be better spent writing and editing other people's work. That it creates a kind of power that is responsible and accountable to no one. That it is hypocritical, in that the secrecy is designed to protect our enemies' desire to speak freely -- but in fact we know who our enemies are, and in the end, someone tells us what they said. But here is another reason that tenure is wrong:

It hurts people.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

If At First You Don't Succeed: Getting A Visiting or Adjunct Teaching Gig -- And Do You Really Want One?

Since the dollar is crashing, the Democratic nominee for President is as yet undetermined and Eliot Spitzer has gone home to either a divorce lawyer or years of couples therapy, it is time to return to those unworldly things that are preoccupying us as academics. And what's at the top of the list for the next two months?

Hiring, or getting hired as, a full-time visitor or adjunct.

Yes, now is the time that unexpected resignations are upon us. Searches have folded without a hire being made. It is the time of year that grants have come through for us, but perhaps not for you. It is the time of year that – for those of you have been on the market – you know now (or strongly suspect) that you won’t be interviewed for any of the jobs you applied for, or that someone else has been hired for the job for which you did get an interview. *Sigh.*

After a year of being on several search committees, I have read a lot of curriculum vitae, so today’s post is for those of you who have gathered the strength to be dusting off your c.v.’s, checking them twice, trying to figure out whether they make you look naughty or nice. You should be adding the things you have accomplished since the fall, updating the status of manuscripts out at journals and listing conference panels that have been accepted for next year. In other words, you are generally trying to make yourself look even more accomplished than you were back in September. So here are some things to check for.

Make sure your contact numbers are listed clearly at the top of the c.v., and that you are easy to reach. If you don’t feel comfortable listing your home telephone number, list your cell phone. There is nothing more aggravating than not being able to get hold of someone about a job, or having to leave a message on an office voice mail box where the message might not even be picked up until Monday. For a tenure-track line, if we are already interested in you because of your scholarship, we will take the time to track you down. For visiting and adjunct work, we may simply go on to the next person. Believe it or not, this kind of conversation happens around the country during Adjunct Season:

Chair of department (who is dishing off work to the newly minted associate prof. who needs to begin learning to do these things but, more importantly, is available to do it): “OK, so start at the top of the list of candidates we liked. The first one to answer and give a reasonable response gets the job.”
NMAP: “What if no one answers?”
Chair: “Leave messages. First one to call back and give a reasonable response gets the job.”
NMAP: “What if they don’t call back for a day or so?”
Chair: “Go back into the files and call someone else. Use the brains the Goddess gave you! We need to get this done before the administration pulls the funding.”

Now that we have it straight that you need to answer the phone, what does your c.v. need to do for you to generate that call from Opportunity U. in the first place? I have but two more pieces of advice, and they are very simple:

Your dissertation title, and the members of your committee need to be clearly listed at the top of the first page. You might be shocked at how many people fail to do this, or how many people make search committee members hunt through the various documents in the application trying to figure out this very basic information. Do not forget this one important fact: you are not you. You are (insert famous professor’s name)’s student, and you have worked with (insert the names of other famous people.) Given your limited teaching experience, knowing who you have been trained by gives us a better idea of what you might be able to do for Opportunity U. Indicate clearly which member of the committee is your primary advisor and – since the real job season is over – you can now be honest about when, realistically, you will be finishing the dissertation. In fact, you must be clear about this point, because if you are hired, you will be asked to provide proof: Ph.D.’s are paid at a different rate than ABD’s. If you had been hired in a tenure-track job, you would have finished the diss. in a long, ugly final push that would have warped your relationship to your work forever. Now you not only don’t have to finish, but you shouldn’t – you are crafting the document that is really going to get you a job next year. Take your time, for God's Sake.

The category “publications” should not be lumped together with any other category of scholarly activity. Best case scenario: it obscures the fact that you are quite well published for an ABD; worst case scenario, you look like you are trying to hide your insecurity that you have not published at all, or enough. Presentations of your work, at conferences or elsewhere, are not the same as publications, and when you bury that single paragraph you contributed to the Dictionary of Lesbian Painters in a collection of miscellaneous scholarly activities it does not obscure the truth: that you really have no publications to speak of. If you haven't really published, be brave and let it all hang out. More importantly, if you are applying for adjunct or visiting work, your publication record doesn’t really matter because we are more concerned about what you will do in the next twelve months than in the next seven years. In fact, this once, switch the section of courses you have taught and T.A’d with the list of articles you have published or that are in process. Courses you are willing to teach will go in your cover letter.

But here’s the other piece of advice I will give you. It is a real question whether you should get a full time visiting teaching gig; or whether you should stay away from teaching for a year, delay submission of your dissertation until April, and get some articles out to journals. If you can teach and write at the same time, fantastic. But also know that full time teaching is often consuming, even for a veteran teacher, and it is also really interesting, which means that you will want to spend time on and with your students that should probably be spent on your writing at this stage of your career. If you do not yet have publications and/or a polished dissertation, writing is a better use of your time in the long run, as long as you can find some other way to feed, house and clothe yourself, and as long as your committee will agree to keep you on the books for another year.

Because honestly? Showing that you are a mature scholar who can see an article through to publication and a person who has a clear sense of how the dissertation will become a book is going to help you far more than a year of teaching when, in the fall, you pull out your c.v., dust it off again, and go back on the market.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Pain of Privilege; Or, You Thought College Admissions Couldn't Get Any Sillier, Didn't You?

Having created a ridiculous problem, which is that high school students have to build a resume and a transcript worthy of a Rhodes scholar to get into a selective four-year college, you will be glad to know that these coveted institutions and gatekeepers to success have found a solution to the stress this causes to young people. The answer is to throw money at it, imply that the students and their helicopter parents are pathological, and urge the admitted students not to matriculate until they have rested and feel less emotional and cynical about the whole thing.

That's right. Do not re-evaluate what you are doing that is causing kids to show up at college as nervous wrecks, and sometimes even leave after a month or two because they are so burned out and care so little about real learning anymore. Do not admit that, because of you, young people are running themselves ragged with multiple after school activities, course overloads, AP examinations, science fairs, commuting to college classes while still in high school, music lessons, meeting with their tutors, tutoring others less fortunate, and being three-sport varsity athletes to get a shot at going to a half-way decent school. Instead, denounce the fact that they are burned out after having done what you insist they must do to gain admission to your expensive university and encourage them to pay you even more money so that they can take a year off doing something enriching in a foreign land. By doing so, you can also help create a new class of experts -- in addition to the private athletic coaches, college application consultants, and SAT tutors who are already flourishing because of your ridiculous so-called "standards" -- who can be paid to help an Ivy League-bound teen relax in just the right way, get away from those pushy parents and regain her shattered peace of mind. All over the country gap year planners will help your child attain the maturity he had no opportunity to develop, so pressed was he with fulfilling his parents' ambitions -- not, mind you, competing realistically to get a place at a selective college or university.

That's right: as Alex Williams reports today in the New York Times,

Princeton unveiled plans to send at least a 10th of its incoming students abroad for a year of social service before starting at the university. High schools now hold gap-year fairs to teach students about the option, and companies and consultants that place students in gap-year programs (guitar-building in England or caring for injured sled dogs in Canada) are proliferating.

Full disclosure: I have had, and will have, a number of young people in my family who have suffered from the effects of what I now call the College Derby, who are actually quite privileged by comparison to most of the young people growing up here in Shoreline, and I think this story is just gross.

In addition to Williams' failure to acknowledge that it is a little nuts for the students in question to be so strung out in high school (something which is perhaps not entirely her fault, since selective colleges -- like the ones she researched for the story -- perceive all problems, even one the colleges are directly responsible for apparently, as having originated in high school or at home), the story also doesn't acknowledge that this year off costs an arm and a leg, effectively adding a fifth year of college fees. Nor does it acknowledge that working and poor people have another way of taking time off before college. It's called military service, without which they cannot hope to pay for higher education, but because of which they might leave all or part of their brains over in Iraq or Afghanistan, and thus perhaps be rendered less likely to make the most of the college experience.

I hate the war so much that it is rare for me to express the sympathy and compassion I feel for the men and women who are fighting it, and for the families who struggle financially and emotionally while soldiers are deployed. But is there a better expression of the "two Americas" that John Edwards put at the heart of his Presidential campaign than a story like this?

So some American kids will take their year off at cooking school in France, and some will take several years off (more, if the military exercises its option to keep them indefinitely; less if they get blown up or become deranged) in Kabul.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Radical Stays Home For Spring Break

It's spring break. At last. Time to clean up my study and get back down to work; time to go through the 250 emails in my in box and figure out how to clear them all before I return to school. Time to remind myself why I do this for a living: as I have said before on this blog, "It's the vacations, stupid." It won't work as a campaign slogan, but it does work as a life plan.

Yesterday was also the day to make the annual pilgrimage to our accountant: he's a former IRS special agent, which gives me loads of confidence in whatever strategy he suggests to keep as much money as possible out of the hands of the government. He manages to project limitless optimism and good cheer, a feature that I am sure helped him be successful at the IRS too. I can imagine those he investigated being utterly captivated by his personality and leading him around the house to show where they stowed the large paper bags of money they never reported. He also believes in positive reinforcement: he congratulated me on how much money I made this year in speaking, writing and consulting fees (this prevents the federal government from declaring my unreimbursed research and writing expenses a "hobby," a truly fine irony given how crucial this virtually unpaid work is to my professional advancement); and he noted with pleasure how much of my total income I managed to tuck away in various tax-deferred accounts. One of the reasons I am glad that Mike Huckabee is apparently not going to be President is that if he closed the IRS as he had promised to do, then I would have no reason to visit this lovely gentleman to be told what a clever person I am for not having used the equity in our house as an ATM as so many Americans have done. And I would miss the traditional self-indulgent stop at Trader Joe's N and I make afterwards to reward ourselves for being such thrifty and, as our guy also pointed out, well-organized, people.

For all the younger faculty out there: save, save, save. The ability to retire from your full-time job at a reasonable age and live your life precisely as you wish to is something you need to think about decades in advance.

Because it is spring, it is also time for a little blogroll updating. I have taken a few people down who never seem to post anymore, but added the following history blogs:

Edge of the American West Do not be dismayed by recent chaos, which caused a single post on a Civil War battle to be reposted several times. This is a group blog, coordinated by Eric Rauchway and Ari Kelman: you can read about them here. I am also long overdue in adding Rob MacDougall's blog, Old is the New New, which is really well-written and interesting.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Breakthroughs in Education Department

My partner N pointed me to this article in today's New York Times about a new charter school in the Bronx where one of the innovations is: teachers will be paid well. The idea is that you could get high quality teachers to commit to teaching secondary school by paying them as though they were intellectuals who did valuable work.

Jeez, why didn't I think of that? Teachers should be paid professionals, rather than robots reciting a set curriculum. Or recent college graduates looking to do a little social service before law school. Or grown-up lawyers who have made their bundle and think that teaching is going to be a snap after thirty years of doing wills and trusts. Each of these solutions, regardless of what their individual merits might be, relies on paying teachers as little a school district can get away with.

"The school," writes reporter Elissa Gootman,

"which will run from fifth to eighth grades, is promising to pay teachers $125,000, plus a potential bonus based on schoolwide performance. That is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, roughly two and a half times the national average teacher salary and higher than the base salary of all but the most senior teachers in the most generous districts nationwide.

The school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, contends that high salaries will lure the best teachers. He says he wants to put into practice the conclusion reached by a growing body of research: that teacher quality — not star principals, laptop computers or abundant electives — is the crucial ingredient for success."

Now, I would just like to say that these teachers will be making twice the salary of a beginning assistant professor, and more than many (most?) full professors at private colleges and universities. It's 25% more than my base salary, and I have been a history professor for eighteen years. Of course, secondary school teachers work harder than I do too: ten months a year, five days a week, and more or less dawn to dusk. (Well, actually, that is exactly how hard I am working this year -- but I don't have to spend all that time with twelve year olds, a job for which I am not temperamentally suited. So I will take the pay cut, thank you.) And the energy that secondary school teachers have left over for other kinds of professional development -- conferences, writing -- is miniscule. So for this reason alone they should be paid as much or more than college teachers.

But I think this raises another point too, which is what we have not been willing to think about as a path to resolving the job crisis in the humanities more generally and in some of the social sciences: giving up the status distinction between different kinds of educational careers. Why shouldn't people with Ph.D.'s be teaching at the secondary level and be respected for it? Answer: because many of us in so-called higher education regard such teaching as low status work that returns few benefits. So instead we complain endlessly about the quality of students entering college today, and help new Ph.D.'s who don't get jobs put together tenuous strategies for staying on the job market as long as they can reasonably afford to do so. Those who do not make it into a tenure-track job move around the country for one year positions, put together brutal adjunct teaching loads, and so on. Then, when that stops working for them, these intelligent, outgoing people who really wanted to be teachers go to law school. What if teaching high school or middle school were actually regarded as high status work that did not close the door to a university job in the future? I'm thinking.

A very high salary that rewards the quality intellectuals who are already teaching in public school, and that draws more quality intellectuals who have been educated to teach ideas rather than tests -- would be one step towards thinking about education as a continuum, and dismantling the professional "tracking" system that stigmatizes community college and secondary school teachers as second-rank or failed scholars.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Good Morning, Vietnam: A Shout Out From An Old Radical To Some Younger Radicals

As a historian I know perfectly well that the war in Iraq has major differences from the war in Vietnam, and it's not just because depleted uranium weapons are now used in conventional combat, or because the troops are fighting in sand for oil, as opposed to fighting in jungles against Communism. But when I was driving to rowing practice at around 5:00 a.m. and heard about this bombing of the military recruiting center in Times Square, I thought, Wow. That I should live to see this again in my lifetime.

When I was a kid in the 1960's and '70's, such bombings were associated with an increasingly militarized anti-war movement, made up mostly of white college students. I followed the doings of the Weather Underground very closely: my research on this radical antiwar movement and an unhealthy fascination with the doings of the Philadelphia mob are probably what, in the end, either led me to being a historian or -- if you want to see that as more of a rational choice --shaped my interests as a historian who wrote her first book on the FBI and federal fugitives. If the mob was a little more geographically distant, I could encounter federal fugitives who were part of the anti-war movement by riding my bike down to the local post office. In those days, one went to the post office with some frequency: postage stamps were necessary household items, since we didn't have email and we didn't pay bills on line. In addition, if you wanted to send someone a present, you had to buy it, pack it up in a box, and take it to the post office and mail it. I'm mentioning this because, other than what I read in the newspaper (we didn't have alternative radical weeklies on the Main Line), what I knew of Weatherman was what I read off the FBI Most Wanted posters in the post office. And then, a lot of those folks had gone to school in the area -- Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr -- schools where Quaker pacifism and social engagement led students naturally into community organizing and anti-war work. And a very few of those people became radical domestic terrorists.

My favorite was Bernadine Dohrn, who is now a law professor at Northwestern. Once, when no one was looking, I quietly tore her wanted poster down and took it home. I was not alone in this fascination, of course. Read any memoir of the movement, and Dohrn is the quintessential movement woman who some peopel would follow anywhere (mostly men, I think) and some people resented (because she was a powerful woman, and because Weatherman generally gave women very little power.) I dug her because she was sexy, tough and smart. I wouldn't have put it that way then, but I think I wanted her to be my girlfriend. Some years later, when I had a girlfriend, not to mention a whole life, I finally met Dohrn for two seconds at a benefit of some kind. And I have to say, all these years later, she did not disappoint.

But let me say another thing: I have been catching up on my Weatherman reading as part of some new research on radical feminism, and I have also met a few other former cadre, many of whom have careers built around nurturing children and building peace from the ground up. But they also went through a painful process, some while doing serious jail time, of rebuilding lives that were shattered by the form of resistance they committed to as young people There are very few who do not deeply regret the violence for which they were responsible, and the ideological turn that work took that made them see such violence as a reasonable response to a violent war. So here's my message for whoever bombed the recruiting station: I get it. I am even sympathetic to your rage. But stop now, before it's too late. Because careful and confident as you may in relation to your technical skill with explosives and your capacity to plan the explosion around a time when no one is around, eventually you are going to kill someone who doesn't deserve to die because you have a fantasy that you are really damaging the war effort. You will either kill or maim someone you don't know who didn't expect to walk into history that way, or you will kill a friend, as was the outcome of the 1970 explosion of an Eleventh Street townhouse in New York City, a home that five Weatherman cadre were using as a bomb factory. The anniversary of that explosion, eerily, given today's events, is Saturday, March 8.

This post is in memory of Ted Gold, Terry Robbins and Diana Oughton, who were killed on that day.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Why I Have A Million Little Reasons For Thinking That Roger Clemens Might Have Used Performance Enhancing Drugs (And Other Modern Lies)

In my experience, a great many people who lie keep on lying until they are faced with indisputable proof that they are, in fact, lying. Doctors, athletes, journalists, college professors, cops, politicians. Every profession has liars. Such people, who have lied successfully over and over, will keep doing it until they are stopped, often in a very dramatic and public way. Probably none of us who has had a plagiarized book manuscript sent to us for review ever forgets the experience of uncovering the lie and, when the shock passes, of wondering where it all started: and all of us in teaching eventually have to deal with cheating, a paper purchased off the internet, or one of the other cumbersome, time-consuming ways some students find to not do their own work.

I am willing to wager, after the most recent fraud to rock the publishing world, that many celebrities who lie come to believe the lie as a part of an image and a self that is a tissue of lies and truths concocted by others: a certain track star and her power-hitting pal who supposedly believed they were being injected with flax seed oil, for example (why would someone inject you with flax seed oil, pray tell?) Then there are those who want to become celebrities by any means necessary, who also come to believe they are telling is the truth until they are presented with such overwhelming proof that their stories crumble. What then follows is the justification for why these wanna-be's (who have already spent the advance, thank you) thought it would be okay to lie, something that may be a particular feature of literary liars, who pretend to a social and cultural mission that professional athletes or people pretending to be plastic surgeons have a difficult time claiming. Margaret Soltan, at University Diaries has one of her most hilarious commentaries ever on the latest invented memoir scandal, this time at Riverhead Books. The faux memoirist, Margaret B. Jones (pictured above left), who claimed to be a part Native American woman raised by a foster family of African-American gang bangers, was turned in by her (white) sister. The sister from the white suburban family she actually grew up in.

Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall at their next family gathering?

Who can be fooled by the fake memoir? Well, just about everybody, it turns out, even in a post-James Frey world. Try writing one and see. Apparently Riverhead sent Jones a six-figure check and invested large sums in all the expenses attendant to publication and publicity of a new blockbuster, but they claim never to have met her face to face. Like Margaret Soltan, I find this very strange.

But who am I to judge? I am the idiot who has personally known two -- count 'em, two -- people with Munchausen Syndrome who pretended to have the same tragic and fatal disease featured in the 1970's teenybopper hit, Love Story. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. And I have known any number of students who have cheated in one way or another, denied it for weeks up until the moment we were in the disciplinary hearing and I started reading from the book they copied from, and then they said -- "OK, I did it." A few years back there was one of my favorite Presidents, who lied about his relationship to "that woman," until he was has confronted with indisputable proof, and then he said some version of "Oh -- is that what you mean by 'sex'? Well you should have said so."

The faux memoir writer is, of course devastated. She has clearly has a modern college education because her reason for having impersonated a drug dealing member of a drug dealing foster family, who has all sorts of hairy adventures with all sorts of hairy people -- all of whom are made up -- is that she has met a lot of people like them, and she wanted their voices to be heard. Can the subaltern speak?

Gee, I dunno. But my advice is: next time, meet the subaltern face-to-face before you put a big check in the mail and get her book reviewed in the New York Times.