Sunday, September 28, 2008

This Week in John McCain Land: The Case Against A Man Who Would Be President

So much has been going around the internet about Governor Sarah Palin's (dis)qualifications for executive office (and she is such an easy target for the Eastern Elite Eastablishment in all its tolerance for white people who are, shall we say, earthier, than your average Bostonian) that I do not think there has been a high enough focus on increasingly distressing news that is surfacing, and being documented, about Senator John McCain. There are a variety of facts emerging about McCain's character and Senate record that are far more disturbing in some ways than what we know about Palin's difficulty in telling the truth about her past actions (although what could be more disturbing than the fact that when Palin was Mayor of Wasilla the town instituted a policy of billing rape victims for their emergency room care and for the cost of the rape kits used to collect evidence that would theoretically put their attackers behind bars?)

But it is McCain who would be President, and it is McCain about whom we must ask the hard questions: although critics go on about his age, living until 76 or even 80 is not unheard of in this country, particularly if you have access to good health care, as Senators (although not all rape victimes) do. And I think military families ought to scrutinize his record particularly closely, a record that has been obscured by repeated references to his experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, having undergone torture and prolonged physical suffering, and his refusal to be exchanged early because he was the son of a high-ranking officer. All of these things have been cited as proof of his patriotism, his character, his judgement, and his concern for the men and women who make up our military.

This is a patriotism, or actions at least, of which McCain has a right to be proud. But there is another kind of patriotism McCain has practiced as a politician, and that variety might strike the families and friends of members of the armed forces as less conducive to their interests and concerns in the current crisis. That kind of patriotism is loyalty to the state, a loyalty that may override an ethical concern for soldiers and their families. It appears that McCain may be implicated as an integral player in aiding in the effort to suppress, along with several Presidents and several intelligence bureaus, credible evidence that POW-MIA soldiers were held back by the North Vietnamese government after the 1973 prisoner exchange (including 20 airmen downed in Laos who responded via an electronic signalling system but have not been heard from since) in an effort to obtain reparations and other concessions from the United States -- reparations that the United States has refused to pay. Read an article about it by Sydney Schanberg, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, here.

What did John McCain have to do with the suppression of such evidence? Well, as a member of the Senate committee investigating the POW-MIA question between 1980 and 1993, and as its only member who had been a POW and celebrated war hero, he was, Schanberg argues, uniquely persuasive in quashing subpoenas, opposing legislation that would have allowed further investigation and keeping evidence from the public domain that might have shed light on the issue for the many military families who still do not know what happened to their loved ones.

Perhaps because I am currently reading Linda Colley's Captives, a book which takes a fresh look at the British Empire from the perspective of those Britons who were taken prisoner by their imperial subjects, I found McCain's failure to side with citizens, particularly those who had made the greatest sacrifice in war, and his desire to side with the state, particularly awful, and the position that their families have been left in, for what seem to be purely political reasons, deeply poignant. Furthermore, these military families have been repeatedly kicked to the curb as they try to resolve the decades-long, unresolved, absence of family members. For example, in the face of a 1992 request made of the committee by Delores Alfand, the sister of a missing officer and chair of the national Alliance of Families, for electronic surveillance data, McCain bullied her until she wept. As Schanberg writes,

He has regularly vilified those who keep trying to pry out classified documents as "hoaxers," "charlatans," "conspiracy theorists" and "dime-store Rambos." Family members who have personally pressed McCain to end the secrecy have been treated to his legendary temper. In 1996 he roughly pushed aside a group of POW family members who had waited outside a hearing room to appeal to him, including a mother in a wheelchair.

I am not quite yet ready to celebrate John McCain's patriotic concern for our armed forces. Are you? Because if this is true (and Schanberg's article is compelling about something I haven't believed in for years) McCain's behavior is self-serving and unconscionable. There is absolutely no strategic reason for not telling the truth about those missing soldiers, except to conceal the collaboration of John McCain, and others, in the official abandonment of American prisoners. It is nothing more, or less, than a cover-up that has been given credibility by the most famous POW since Major Andre was executed by George Washington.

But let's say you want to forget about Vietnam, just like John McCain and his Republican cronies do. O.K. In other news, check out this piece in today's New York Times that details McCain's high-stakes gambling habits, the privileges he receives from casinos in return for his patronage, and -- far more important than this -- his actions as chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, which gives him a significant role in determining which tribes may establish casinos, and which Indian groups will actually be awarded the federal status that permits them the legal standing to bypass state and local gaming laws. The article details at least eight members of the campaign who have strong ties to the casino gambling industry, donations from the gaming industry (including Steve Wynn and Donald Trump, whose casinos McCain patronizes as a privileged guest) and muliple ties between the campaign and gambling lobbyists. The article also notes that the Abramoff investigation, in which McCain was an important player, succeeded in taking out important right-wing enemies who had implemented the dirty tricks used against McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary. If even half what has been reported is true, this one could make McCain's role in the Keating Five Scandal look tame. In addition to being on the payroll of the industry, apparently McCain was also able to help his pal Joe Lieberman reverse the tribal status of the Schaticoke Indians of Kent, Connecticut. The tribe, which was annoying a lot of very wealthy people in western Connecticut, wanted to establish a third casino, which would have cut into the Pequot and Mohegan casinos. These latter two tribes are big McCain, and Lieberman, donors.

And in case you are ready to write both of these articles off as the lying rants of a liberal press, I suggest you go here, for a collection of articles by conservative journalist George Will that raise the question of whether McCain's outbursts of rage and impulsive decision making are not cause for alarm in a potential President. "It is arguable," Will writes, "that because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?"

Not at the age of 72, is my guess. Not with the best medical care in the world.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Shout Out From New York

I am here, wandering around the former City of My Dreams, with a large messenger bag full of tee shirts, underwear, books and a laptop. My main goal is to see as many movies as I can in three days, grab some face time with friends, and replenish my supply of black tees and cheap hoop earrings.

I have already seen Boogieman, a not-so-good documentary about Lee Atwater, which curiously does not feature a single member of his family. Am proceeding, within five minutes, to the new Spike Lee film about a black regiment in Italy during World War II.

I haven't been to New York since May, I think, and for the first time this city -- which I truly thought of as home for the first twenty-five years of my adult life - feels a little soulless.

Item: I could not find a single internet cafe near NYU or the New School and am now, actually, crouched on the floor in the engineering section of Barnes and Noble on 66th street and Broadway. In fact, there are almost no cafes, period, showing that the expansion of the corporate university has at least partly destroyed the urban atmosphere students to downtown New York universities to be a part of.

Item: I had lunch in a restaurant next to the Cinema Village on 12th street (also next to the building where my first therapist had an office), a restaurant that served nothing but hamburgers and fries. I ordered the lunch special --hamburger, fries and a diet Coke. Price of meal with tip: $22.00.

Item: It started to rain again while I was in the movies. I walked all the way from 12th and university to the West Fourth Street subway station without passing a single person selling umbrellas.

Item: people are parked all over this Barnes and Noble, sitting on the floor using the internet ($3.99 for two hours), because there are no internet cafes.

This makes absolutely no sense to me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Elegy For A Really Good Administrator

Over the weekend, our associate provost died suddenly and very young. Early in both our careers we had our struggles with each other. As I matured, I acquired the attitude that maybe being pleasant rather than obnoxious would help me get on better with everyone who ran the university, which, shockingly, did turn out to be a better way to get things done. As the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) always said, "Good manners can't hurt, and smile when you say that." (Or was that John Wayne who gave me that advice?) Anyway, when I became a chair, and then chair of a major faculty committee, I realized that being pleasant was the only route to go, and in the process came to understand that most of the people who run Zenith are hard-working individuals who try to do their best for the faculty and the students.

Which is how I ended up forming a relationship with Paula Lawson. Oh sure, we didn't socialize; we didn't hang out. We did business. I don't think we ever even had lunch. But she became very good at her job as I was trying to become better at mine, and I came to like her very much. I am proud to say that we learned to help each other and solve problems together. The end result was a relationship that I consider one of the great successes of my career because it wasn't so obvious that it would work. All it took on my part was paying attention to who she was, assuming we were on the same team and looking at the business we did as a two-way street.

Today, when I found out that Paula had died, I tried to absorb the e-mail message at home, wrote a couple people who had left the university and would want to know, and then went to the office with a list of things that had to be done today. Upon arrival, the first thing I did was pick up my voice mail, and there was a message from Paula, in her normal, clipped voice. "Hey Claire -- Paula. It's about 2:30. Give me a call. I need to ask you about something." It must have been from Friday.

Which was when I put down my stuff, went into the bathroom, locked the door, and just sat down and cried. Because that was our relationship in a nutshell: "Can you do this for me?" "Sure -- and while you are at it, can you check on X because I've got to talk to professor Y this afternoon, and I need an answer." "Uh-huh. And by the way, did you ever hear from Z about the new budget line?" "Nope." "O.K., I'll give her a push." "Thanks, I really appreciate it." "No problem."

Once I stopped crying, I realized that there wasn't any point in doing what I was supposed to do that day, because every item was either supposed to go straight to Paula, or to her office via someone else. She had gone from being "an" administrator to being "the" administrator whose office tracked pretty much everything. It was, as I explained to several colleagues today, as if you were trying to run the nation's air traffic with the Chicago control towers out of order.

Many academics have veiled, or not-so-veiled, contempt for administrative labor. In an earlier life, I will admit that I was guilty of this thing, something I now regret if it ever got back to the people I was being churlish about. This snobbishness towards "the administration" is, by the way, one of the few attitudes that crosses both political lines and rank in the academy. It is based on the idea that faculty labor is a cherished mystery that no one on an administrative line can possibly understand in its intricacies and privileges. I suspect we faculty act this way because we believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that administrators are "failed" academics who do not do the exacting and specialized work "we" do (although one might argue that they are the people who get it that the criteria for academic success are often the career equivalent of the Emperor's Invisible Suit.) There is, in other words, a little of the "there but for the grace of God go I" attitude, which is usually expressed in sarcasm or anger at some imagined or unimagined infringement of faculty authority. We rarely wrap our heads around the notion that some people choose to be caretakers of budgets, grades, contracts, review committees, and whatnot.

So, since this is a time in my life where I have been a quasi-administrator for close to five years, let me tell you: it's people like Paula who get things done. They get us hired and paid, they get our research accounts set up, they straighten out something confusing with the registrar's office, they squeeze the budget for an extra visitor when you need one. They are the blood and the bones of the university, and they go on doing their jobs as best they can despite the lack of recognition, or often appreciation, they get.

So here's a job for tomorrow: think of someone in your administration who has done something nice for you, and call them to say thank you. I think Paula knew how much I appreciated her, but I still wish I had gotten that phone message, and ended it the way I often did: "Hey thanks for taking the time. Yeah. I really appreciate it."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Radical of America Goes To Washington City: Part 2

OK, so in my title I am once again ripping off Lauren Berlant, who was ripping off Harriet Jacobs to evoke the historic trope of the pilgrimage to our Nation's Capital. But one of the ways you can tell I am a real political historian is that I just love Washington. I love Washington like my nephews love a Six Flags theme park. I am a sucker for that transformative moment of recognition that occurs when confronted with the instruments of my own citizenship: the White House, the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court. The Lincoln Memorial makes me weep. Sometimes I think this is because I am the child and grandchild of immigrants: my maternal grandparents came to this country in 1936, as middle-class bankrupts, with two children, and my grandfather thought he was going to die of tuberculosis. Instead, they got back on their feet with a little help from Dr. New Deal and became regular middle-class people again. My grandfather thought Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest man who ever lived, and that he had saved our family.

I wrote my first book about the New Deal.

When I am in Washington doing research, and have a little time, I go visit the Constitution. You know which one I mean: that copy that is supposed to sink deep into the ground, into a bomb-proof shelter when the red phone rings and Vladi or Nikki or Dr. Strangelove on the other end lets you know that the Big One is only five minutes out and we are all going to die. I love it that the rest of us might flame out in cinders and smoke, but the Founding Document will be preserved for eternity.

I have loved Washington since I came here decades ago with my school friend Cornelia Dayton (now also a historian) when I was in the tenth grade or so, escorted by her mother, who took us to all the things we desperately wanted to see: the Kennedy Center, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and a special treat, watching Meet The Press being filmed. You would have to ask my friend what she remembers but I, at least, was in heaven. At one point, when we were in the Senate gallery, there was a roll call vote, and all the Senators filed down one by one. Their names were called, and they voted "Aye" or "Nay," not like in the House where everyone punched a button. I saw Teddy Kennedy; I saw Hugh Scott, our senator from Pennsylvania who was the Republican minority whip. I saw Sam Ervin, the conservative, segregationist Democrat from North Carolina, who was presiding over the destruction of Tricky Dick Nixon. When they called Ervin's name to request his vote, he had just lumbered into the chamber and was making his way down the aisle. Everyone else stopped talking, he looked up dramatically, and said firmly: "AH!" Which was Carolinian for aye. It thrilled me to the core.

You think I'm kidding, don't you? Well, I'm not. It really was my idea of fun. After all, I was the one who skipped most of a summer of wiffle ball in 1973 and stayed inside, eyes glued to the TV, as the Watergate testimony unfolded before the unforgiving, disdainful eyes of Ervin. I yelled at the TV as Nixon's henchmen perjured themselves: I scorned them almost as much when they gave up and told the truth. I sat rapt the following summer as Representative Barbara Jordon, who in 1972 had been the first Black woman to be elected to the House from the former Confederacy, spoke of her love for the Constitution as a member of the House Judiciary Committee considering the articles of impeachment. Here's the first part of Jordan's famous televised speech:

And the rest:

My family thought this was more or less a very odd, although harmless, set of interests; and the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) had detested Nixon ever since he had smeared Helen Gahagen Douglas in 1950, so she thought it was about time that others came around to her point of view. Besides, other children spent their evenings poring over the day's testimony to fine-tune the chronology of events that would prove indisputably that the President knew about -- had ordered -- these illegal acts. Right?

Who knew that I would grow up to find the one career where regular pilgrimages to historic sites and rifling through the papers of the powerful would be a required part of the job? Sadly, I don't have time for research on this trip, as I have to get home and answer a few thousand emails. But tomorrow before I get on the train, having completed my work on the American Historical Association committee that I am on, I will take a little stroll down to the Capitol just to make sure the Bushies know we are watching them and we do not forgive them for what they have done to our country.

We, the people, that is.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Philadelphia Story

So I called the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) to see how she was holding up under the strain of Lehman Brothers' collapse, and we discussed the news that yet another financial giant -- Merrill Lynch -- had been snapped up at a yard sale by Bank of America. I mentioned that the BOA is where I happen to do my banking, but only out of sheer laziness: I hate them but I hate the complexity of moving my accounts worse. Over a period of years I have seen them become a behemoth: my bank was swallowed by a bank which was swallowed by a bank which was swallowed by BOA. In my lifetime it has, in short, become the financial equivalent of The Eggplant That Ate Chicago. "Well," MOTheR said,"It is just what I predicted a year ago."

"Really?" I responded, thinking: has she moved all her money into T-Bills when I wasn't looking? How did I fail to miss this and emulate the maternal unit's sage thinking? After all, during one financial meltdown she actually made money with what she called at the time her "little investments" while the paternal unit lost a fair sum.

"Yes," she said. "By next year, there will only be two banks left in the United States. Bank of American and Bryn Mawr Trust."

You will only understand the humor in this if you are from the Main Line.

As Wall Street Tumbles, Herbert Hoover -- er, John McCain -- Claims That "The Fundamentals Of The Economy Are Still Strong."

Well, thank you Mary Sunshine.

Seriously folks, the economy hasn't been sound for a long time, making it even more bizarre that John McCain made this claim yesterday, shortly after Lehman Brothers went down the tube. Even if -- as at least one source correctly asserts -- this phrase was part of a longer speech that acknowledges the current situation as worrisome, how can McCain float this fantasy when economists of all political persuasions are asserting that the economy has not hit bottom yet? That the worst may be yet to come? (Even the Radical, who does not pray often, is praying for you, AIG. And for you, WaMu.) Click here for video posted by CBS News that shows Obama finally getting aggressive; click here for video posted by FP Passport, a web log published by the journal Foreign Policy, that shows a longer clip from the McCain speech than I have quoted above.

The Radical keeps imagining that she and other historians of the Great Depression will begin to have their phones ring off the hook, so eager will news organizations be to hear their wisdom about the current crisis and the comparisons between John McCain and Mr. Hoover. But I suspect it is not to be. The Lehrer News Hour will keep going back to those tried and true Presidential historians, Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith. Once more, stardom will elude me ("Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my close-up!")

Among those whose faith in the stewardship of the Republican party seems to have been shattered for the time being is conservative columnist David Brooks, whose piece in today's New York Times, "Why Experience Matters" seems to be a sincere attempt to bring the Republican base down to earth about what the "vote for the guy you want to have a beer with" attitude has bought for both the masses, as well as the classes. "The issue starts with an evaluation of Palin, but does not end there," Brooks writes. "This argument also is over what qualities the country needs in a leader and what are the ultimate sources of wisdom." Although Brooks acknowledges the critical importance of tension between elite conservatism and popular conservatism, he condemns the Bush administration for its ineptitude, and warns that votes for "ordinary people" are not, in themselves, a path to good government as populist demagogues claim. He continues:

Experienced leaders can certainly blunder if their minds have rigidified (see: Rumsfeld, Donald), but the records of leaders without long experience and prudence is not good. As George Will pointed out, the founders used the word “experience” 91 times in the Federalist Papers. Democracy is not average people selecting average leaders. It is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared.

Sarah Palin has many virtues. If you wanted someone to destroy a corrupt establishment, she’d be your woman. But the constructive act of governance is another matter. She has not been engaged in national issues, does not have a repertoire of historic patterns and, like President Bush, she seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness.

The idea that “the people” will take on and destroy “the establishment” is a utopian fantasy that corrupted the left before it corrupted the right. Surely the response to the current crisis of authority is not to throw away standards of experience and prudence, but to select leaders who have those qualities but not the smug condescension that has so marked the reaction to the Palin nomination in the first place.

Nicely put, David, and a very gracious way of admitting that things have gone tragically, fatally awry under the Presidency of that guy a majority of voters actually did not want to have a beer with, but the oil industry and the financial industry did. And in case anyone has noticed, there is a growing movement of conservative intellectuals who are turning on the McCain candidacy because of his choice of Sarah Palin, her lack of seasoning, the ethical questions about her policies as governor, and the kind of cynicism about the electorate that the choice of such a person represents when there were so many better qualified people (many of whom were extreme social conservatives, many of whom were women.) Some of us might argue that this cynicism about the voting public is only the Reagan candidacy carried to an extreme, but as someone who is studying that period, I would say the jury is out on this one. Perhaps the great untold story of the first Reagan administration is how people around the president rejected social extremism, over and over again, while simultaneously pursuing the kinds of changes in the nation's regulatory structure that ultimately produced the crisis we are living with this morning. It is a complicated history to say the least.

Um, Jim -- I'm in the office all day if you want to give me a ring.

But let's get back to the Second Great Depression, and to its more local effects. Many of us stopped opening our investment report from TIAA-CREF over a year ago, although I am heartened to see they have not yet been mentioned in this collapse, difficult as it may be to imagine that they too are not implicated in the subprime mortgage market scandal. However, we in the academy can't begin to understand yet how the current crisis will affect us. One of the things I wonder is how many students will begin to find that their highly leveraged parents are unable to pay the bills? And do places like Zenith have anywhere near the resources to plug the gap for students who are suddenly in need of financial aid packages? And I am not just talking about the children of the super-rich, of which we have a-plenty. How about the children of the secretaries and administrative assistants and janitors and coffee vendors of the super-rich? We aren't seeing many photos of them leaving Lehman Brothers, are we? (Although, since those photos and video look more like a perp walk than anything else, that may be ok.) Their children go to Zenith too. And we are going to have to come up with the money to help all of them.

Some people are frantic right now about the future: I'm just thanking my lucky stars that I am healthy enough and young enough to work for a couple decades. And kind of fascinated that what I began thinking about as a dissertation field back in 1984 is happening all over again.

And hoping that the American people get out there in November and vote for Roosevelt, not Hoover.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Most Recent Word On Sexism in National Politics

How do people without students find anything cool?

Sitemeter Strikes Again, and Other News

In a morning that I could have been doing other things ("Yeah? What, exactly?" you sneer) I have spent a substantial amount of time migrating to the New Sitemeter. And after a prolonged effort, during which I considered options from sending out an SOS to ahistoricality (a generous blogpal who has occasionally offered unsolicited but nonetheless very valuable advice about cyber-issues) or (as I did last time) simply closing down the account and re-registering (which means starting your stats all over again) I succeeded in activating the migration. Which leads me to reveal a small source of pride: becoming a blogger has made me a more skilled computer techie.

But to return to my previous line of thought, I was happy with old Sitemeter, just as I am more or less happy with the eleven year-old Tercel we intend to drive until it dies an honorable death. But I get it, I am not typical, and I'm not selling anything -- I just have run of the mill curiosity about my visitors, and I am a run-of-the-mill academic ego-tripper who likes having lots of them. I know all kinds of things now that I have migrated to New Sitemeter, such as the fact that almost 90% of my visitors are of unknown gender (there's progress!) There is only one thing that seems to be eluding me, which is where my visitors are coming from. And I suspect that information has been moved to the next level -- the one that they want me to pay $5.95 a month for.

Well, maybe I will, maybe I won't. Too bad I can't bill it to my research account.

In other news, Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III has Gone West, at least temporarily. Although Tim Lacy seems to have only gotten his dander up, I saw a real sag in his self-confidence (a crucial personality trait for a gossip) after I called his attention to my Letter to An Anonymous Blogger. On the one hand I say, well, the guy is neurasthenic and never really recovered from the Southern Rebellion, and on the other hand, I must admit my dismay. I did not intend to have such a dampening effect. I am hoping that it wasn't me; and that a kindly Princeton colleague took him aside for some fatherly advice. This is the scenario I prefer, as I intended to be thought-provoking, not discouraging. Come back, old man, when you are feeling up to it -- even if you feel you must come back as someone else.

Finally, there has been some snarling here at Tenured Radical about Sarah Palin, which only reflects the snarling in the rest of the world. I have two words for the weeks prior to Election Day, when this will all, mercifully, be over: Facts and Policies. Let me repeat, let's talk about Facts and Policies, past and future. And let us always do our best to tell the truth, and demonstrate how much we deserve a good President who doesn't lie just to win elections or deliver oil fields into the hands of corporate giants. Re. Sarah Palin: name calling is out, as are references to her personal appearance (including shoes and tone of voice), comments about the sex lives of her children are also proscribed. "Red" and "neck" are not to be used in the same sentence and all classist modifiers of the word "trash" are temporarily banned, even if some of Palin's family members have been known to use them.

Intelligent discourse, accompanied by links to campaign documents and fact-checked stories in the electronic or printed media are more than welcome. I shall, of course, do my best to follow my own rules.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe*: Or, How to Evaluate the Candidate Pool

One of the things everyone is talking about in the presidential race is the capacity for good decision-making, who has it, and what relationship that bears to previous experience making hard decisions. OK, so you are not running for national office, nor are you a pit bull with lipstick (or was that a hockey Mom who is a pig? I can never remember.) But you are on a search committee. And you have never been on one before. And there is a large drawer of files to evaluate. You have decisions to make. So today's topic is:

How do you evaluate a candidate pool and decide which 10-12 people you want to invite to a preliminary interview for a tenure-track job?

There are a number of criteria that will be in play, depending on what kind of slot your optimum candidate is expected to fill and how broadly you advertised in terms of field. But one of the things I think is important is to have some sense of what you are looking for, prior to reading the files; a sense of who the ideal candidate is that is well-defined, but also flexible. Your approach to reading files needs to simultaneously respect the ad that was approved by your colleagues and the administration and be responsive to the individual strengths and weaknesses of the actual candidate pool you have before you.

Thus, your evaluation of a file starts with the ad criteria, but then extends to the role that this candidate will fill in the department more generally. The basic questions that need to be asked of each candidate are:

1) How well does this candidate fit the job for which we advertised, in terms of rank, field and any stated subfields?

One of the reasons I advocate a carefully written ad that addresses department needs (and dreams) is that defining, or redefining, the job in relation to the candidate pool that you have can sometimes be necessary and desirable, but it can also create a lot of chaos on the committee, and later in department discussions. A committee member is most likely to be seen by others as "pushing an agenda" when s/he tries to persuade colleagues that a candidate who is inappropriate for the job actually fits the ad. Be honest: how well is each candidate responding to the ad? Does s/he actually do research in the field the department needs, or is that field really secondary to another focus? And, while all of us are likely to shift focus somewhat in our scholarly careers, does that candidate seem to want to sustain research in the field and -- this is the sign of someone to take more seriously, in my view -- seem to have ideas that are pushing the field in a new direction?

2) Does the candidate offer something special, in addition to the field in play, that would be an advantage to your department?

This is a tricky one. In the latter days of the Dark Ages, when I was interviewing for jobs in political history, at some point I would usually be asked: "And could you teach the women's history survey?" This question came up because I was a woman, of course, since I had not yet done any research or published in the field. Because historians of women were (except for Tom Dublin) women, it stood to reason that the opposite was true as well, so there were any number of departments who saw me as a "plus one." In other words, they could hire a woman to teach political history, and never have to worry about hiring a historian of women. Ta-da! I always said yes, of course (who wouldn't? I needed to eat too), and one day, someone actually gave me a job where that was part of what I was hired to do because my assertion that I could was never undermined by their curiosity about what kind of training might be necessary to teach the history of women.

This is a cautionary tale that actually has a happy ending. I learned to teach the course, and soon began to do research in the fields of gender and sexuality within political history. Better yet, that job led to another job, which led to a career in academic blogging. But be careful: people are not necessarily interested in studying or teaching about people "like them" as a favor to you. Unless she offers to, the Chicana woman who works on French colonies in North America probably doesn't have an ethnic history survey in her back pocket that she would love to develop for you so you can get the dean off your back, and she will resent being asked about it at in the preliminary interview.

However, when you see something on a vita that suggests the candidate brings something else to the table, that is evidence (as opposed to veiled bigotry), and the only way to pursue it is to interview the person. But the ancillary field should be raised as a question at the interview stage, not a new requirement for the job, and in a way that doesn't divert from the issue at hand: how well might the candidate address the needs your advertisement expressed?

To summarize: noticing that a candidate really does offer something special could be a reason to bounce hir to the next stage if only to find out whether the additional expertise is for real, and whether the person actually is a "plus one." If you are a small department, you might not be able to afford to devote a whole position to Italian history, but a historian of the French Renaissance whose research touches on Italy, and who has taught a section of an Italian history survey, is worth taking a longer look at.

3) What has the candidate published, and where? If the candidate is still a graduate student, how close is the dissertation to being done?

I think if one article on the curriculum vita has been seen through to publication, or has been accepted for publication, this should be counted as a real plus for a candidate. It shows maturity, and it shows that the candidate has been willing to accept the scrutiny of anonymous peer review and learn from it. Because publishing is long, hard, and often tedious work, I like to know that a job candidate has mastered the rudimentary discipline of submitting, revising, meeting deadlines and actually finishing something, an act that will have to be performed repeatedly if tenure is to be achieved. The only exception to this rule, in my book, is that there are some programs that are trying to move graduate students through more rapidly than the conventional seven years, and in that case, it may be that the bulk of the labor has gone into completing the dissertation, and the lack of a published article means nothing.

Encyclopedia articles, by the way, are nice, but don't count. They are a great thing to do for the community, but they aren't the same achievement as the sustained re-writing and re-thinking that go into a refereed article. Sorry. Book reviews: same.

As to the dissertation, if the job letter says that there are fewer than three chapters completed by mid-fall, I have concerns about whether the dissertation will be done by the time the candidate hits the ground in September, concerns that need to be addressed by the referees. The dissertation director, in particular, will be very specific about the timing of a defense if the defense is on the horizon. What is worse than that is mentors pushing students out on the market and rushing them through a quick and dirty defense on a first draft of a dissertation. This can mean that the process of turning the dissertation into a book can be a nightmare, both because the candidate has never successfully "finished" the dissertation (and thus has no clear sense of what it means to complete a major project) and because s/he may have a manuscript that s/he is embarrassed about and won't show any of hir new colleagues to get help for the next stage.

4) Does the candidate have teaching experience?

This is something the committee needs to discuss in advance. Do you need someone who can hit the ground running, in a field where there is enormous demand? Is it a new field where classes will likely be smaller in the candidate's first few years, and s/he has time to develop? Is teaching the most important thing at your institution, and candidates without experience cannot, in all fairness, be considered? (Hint: if this is so, I hope you put it in the ad.) Teaching a few classes doesn't mean the individual is an experienced teacher; not having taught at all doesn't mean the person won't be a quick study and do well in the classroom. But hiring very inexperienced teachers means that there should be institutional support for helping that person get through the first year or so until s/he develops confidence. It also means that members of the department need to be prepared to do observations early on, go over student evaluations, and look at syllabi prior to the beginning of classes to make sure that the novice teacher is on target. There is nothing sadder than a young teacher floundering in the classroom, working desperately to succeed, and not knowing how; unless it is a teacher who has floundered for three years and no one knows until reappointment. Nobody's teaching evaluations should be allowed to play God in a person's career.

Hence, teaching experience is important to consider in relation to the institutional context, not necessarily as a relative factor in the candidate pool. Teaching experience, in my view, might bounce someone onto a semi-finalist list, but lack of it should not exclude someone who seems to be an innovative scholar from your interview list because such a person can be taught to teach. Great teachers are not born: they are made, and helping a terrific young scholar become the teacher s/he can be is an interesting way to spend part of the following year.

5) Has the candidate been active in institutional work and in professional organizations?

This may seem obvious, but you are hiring a scholar, a teacher and a colleague. People who have been involved with their graduate student organizations, TA unions, campus organizing and whatnot are people who "get it" that a university or college is a living thing that needs care and feeding. The lack of such experience should not be a negative, since sometimes a graduate school is not congenial, or a person's community activities may be based in a neighborhood, church or other sphere. But institutional work is learned, and being responsible to others is the mark of a scholar who will keep up hir end of the bargain when it comes to departmental work.

As for professional organizations, the only advantage this gives a candidate from my perspective is that again, it communicates maturity. This person is starting to network, make connections in hir field, and is making the transition from graduate student to colleague already.

6) Does this candidate add diversity to our department?

There are federal laws when it comes to diversity hiring. As important, your institution has regulations. Be familiar with them, with the categories of human being who need to be identified, and with practices appropriate to the full consideration of such candidates. If you are a really "with it" search committee, you will have met with your university's affirmative action officer to discuss what kind of diversity needs to be encouraged. And there may be forms of diversity that do not count under federal law that you may value all the same: an international scholar, a scholar who speaks an extraordinary number of languages, a military veteran, or a GLBT candidate. In my view, it is wise to discuss this in advance, and keep discussing diversity in your hire as long as it is relevant.

In conclusion: I have a couple pieces of advice to keep the committee functioning as it should. First, the committee needs to meet at least once prior to reviewing the files to talk about evaluating the pool, not just so that everyone is on the same page more or less, but so that when it recommends the final three to four candidates to the department it can say why. Second, keep good notes. I create a xeroxed sheet that I fill out as I am reading, so that I have the same information for each candidate. Otherwise, how can you compare them? But also, as the committee discusses the candidates, that discussion should be pinned to actual evidence of who the candidate is and what s/he has accomplished, evidence that can be easily referenced in the file.

Your optimum state is consensus, and try not to quarrel, particularly over the petty things that carry over from other moments in departmental and university life. Interview an extra candidate if you must to prevent antagonism or division among committee members. I actually think one viable strategy is to give every committee member their top pick as a semi finalist, and then fill out the rest of the list during the ensuing discussion. As a gesture, it shows respect for the expertise every member of the committee brings to this enterprise. As a practical matter, it also means no member of the committee goes away feeling so frustrated or disappointed that s/he starts to lose commitment to the process.

And finally, no candidate should be perceived as fitting into -- or frustrating -- the ambitions of a particular faction in the department. Not only is this unfair to the candidate pool more generally, but the man who looks like a conservative on paper may be exactly the colleague that you and your feminist friends would enjoy sparring and collaborating with. Furthermore, if you are doing that, you are not seeing who they are: you are judging them in relation to who they might be to you. And the search isn't about you. It's about the department, and the scholar, deep in the pile, whose career is about to take a happy turn for the better.

*The genealogy of this title which dates it to, among other things, an early Celtic sheep counting rhyme, can be found here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Department of Thin Skins

You would never know from this report in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the final decision on who the next president will be will not be up to our New Jersey political history colleague Sean Wilentz. I mean, give me a break. He works on the nineteenth century guys. Why would Ohio, Pennsylvania and -- from what I hear today, Nevada -- be waiting breathlessly on what a historian of the nineteenth century United States thinks? It's we twentieth century scholars you need to keep a close eye on to make sure we toe the party line.

Which I am toe-ing relentlessly, despite the fact that I too share Wilentz's doubts about the claims that are being made in the name of liberalism (if not his desire to do the Chicken Little thing in the middle of what most of us perceive as a life-or-death national moment.) And in better election news, my sky blue Obama '08 cap arrived today, along with my "GLBT for Obama" bumper sticker. When you want to have a real effect on the outcome of an election in this day and age, get yourself together and buy gear like you never have before.

Why people are so horrified at Professor Wilentz I do not know, unless it is that he gets a lot of air time in the more popular press that the rest of us would like to have. Our colleagues have done worse, after all. It wasn't so long ago that a lot of prestigious and very respectable historians signed up as consultants to a Disney project aimed (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) at turning a famous Civil War battlefield into a theme park.

Seriously, I know everyone is anxious because the Palin thing is so outrageous and it doesn't seem to be preventing a convention bounce. But it isn't a very big convention bounce. So can we just take a deep breath, put on our caps, and get out there to register voters?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Holy Hidden Historians, Batman!

Are you, or are you not, dying to know who this is?

Your Radical is somewhat late to the party, but honored nonetheless, since I became aware of this blog after having been "friended" (not to be confused with the more familiar "befriended") by the pseudonymous blogger, Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III, on Facebook. Of course, I accepted the proffer of friendship. Who wouldn't?

But here is the question that many of us are asking. Do I know Mr. Bierce? Not sure. American history is a small, small world. Evidence suggests that either we have friends in common, or he is (purely by accident) phishing for Facebook friends among people I know.

Or he was hoping for a plug on Tenured Radical. Well, you got it, baby.

Your game is a dangerous one, Mr. Bierce, even though initial reports suggest that you are adding spice to our otherwise dull little lives. Let me know if Princeton is considering a preemptive strike to woo me to Tiger Town as part of the campaign to add heft and wit to the American wing there.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Jumping the Tracks: Applying for a Job When You Already Have One

The Tenured Radical gmail account has been receiving a few gentle prompts asking when new installments in the job market series will appear. "Hey! What happened to the job market
posts?" one faithful reader writes. Well, I must confess that the lure of national politics and the beginning of the semester has kept me more than busy (although I have nothing -- NOTHING-- to say about the Republican convention. I have no words to express my dismay that the Republicans have finally been brought to their knees by their right wing. I couldn't even pay attention to Sarah Palin's acceptance speech for all the shots of that poor baby being passed from hand to hand in the gallery and the crowd shrieking maniacally when she delivered the line about the pit bull and the lipstick.)

However, today the series continues with:

Applying for a job when you already have one.

About a year ago there was a significant kerfuffle in the academic blogosphere that I unwittingly stepped into by suggesting that when writing a job letter you should, if you are actually employed at the time in a teaching position, use your employer's letterhead. "No!" many shouted. "This is fraud! Stealing!" It struck me as odd that anyone would have such strong feelings about what was, after all, an inexpensive piece of decorated paper. But they did. And I then came to understand, as readers linked to other posts, that there was a raging battle out there about whether, once you have stepped on the tenure track at one institution, it is ethical to jump to another track elsewhere.

May I digress for a second? Academics are so weird. They will have high-falutin' ideas about something like this, and then explain that it is ok for Professor Wingnut to be dating his teaching assistant because "lots of people in the department do it, and many of them are now happily married." I know, you never would say this, dear reader. But others would. I've heard it.

I found it bizarre that trying to change jobs could be framed as an ethical problem. I mean, after all, this is why they call it a "job," right? As opposed to, say, indentured servitude? It's why the students call you "Professor" as opposed to, say "Sergeant," "Kulak Bastard!" or "Prisoner #447865." It's why we talk about the job market -- the word market implying some degree of free agency on all sides. In fact, having once been fired from a job at an institution other than Zenith in the midst of a political squabble (when the person who fired me was deposed, I was actually re-hired) I learned something very important. A letter of appointment is not actually a contract that guarantees you a job for the period of time stated in the letter, despite the fact that we refer to these documents as "contracts." All untenured faculty are employed "at will." This means that in exchange for giving you, the employee, the "right" to break the contract, the university also has the right to break the contract. This leads me to what I would call the two major fallacies that dominate the discussion about people who already have jobs going back on the market.

1. Applying for a job elsewhere is disloyal to your current employer and to your colleagues. Loyalty is a tricky concept to impose on a probationer to whom the university has made no commitment other than the promise of a tenure review in seven years. What it suggests is that because you have had a job bestowed on you, you must never want anything other than what that institution should provide. I would put this in the category of "like it or lump it" sentiments that would include: make a bad marriage work; don't have sex if you don't want a baby; because you have always gone to Stop N' Shop you must never buy at Costco; and you have to love your parents even if they were horrible to you. Furthermore, everyone goes "ooh!" and "ahhh!" when Big Ivy comes rolling around to rip off one of your colleagues who just wrote a prize winning book. But somehow the people who have the least -- assistant professors -- are supposed to remain grateful forever that they even got a job in the first place.


2. Going back on the market adds undue pressure to an overloaded system with too few jobs; furthermore, your current job gives you a "credential" that is an unfair advantage over others. Yeah, and that article you published in a prestigious collection puts other people at a disadvantage too. Let me just say: that there are so many fine scholars without the good jobs they deserve is one of the great tragedies of intellectual life right now. But let's blame the people who need to be blamed: the federal government, and state governments, that have slashed higher education budgets, and with them, tenure-track lines. The majority of tenure-track jobs were never in the private sector; they were created in the great expansions of public education that have been occurring since the 1850's (most prominently since the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890); and again after World War II. The government gaveth, and the government tooketh away.

My point is: if you go on the market you are not ripping the food from someone else's mouth. And if you get the job, presto! Your job opens for someone else! First a visitor, and then as a beginning assistant professorship.

So let's forgo judging people who might want to go back on the market, since there are as many reasons to do so as there are people, including that you might be a basically flighty person who can't commit. So what? And there are lots of serious reasons too. You might want to choose where you are going to live, rather than have it chosen for you; you might have taken a job that you knew wasn't a good fit, but your obsession with eating and paying rent got the better of your good judgement; you may be living too far from people, or a person, who you love. Perhaps your colleagues seemed nice, but turned out to be uncontrollable monsters. Who knows? Your reasons are personal, and they are yours: you don't have to explain this to the army of the unemployed. The only thing I would say is that putting your energy into a job hunt is something you need to weigh against another priority, which is getting on with your scholarly career. I have known a very few people who are so obsessed with getting a better job that they have sold themselves short in the end.

But let's say you have decided to go back on the market. What do you need to attend to?

1. Every time you apply for a job it exposes you in a way you can't control. Some of your colleagues may feel betrayed, particularly if they worked hard to bring you there and went to a lot of trouble to negotiate a great start-up package. They put a lot of work into the search, and may not be able to hide their disappointment and resentment that you don't want to be there. So you need to know that, although you can ask for your application to be confidential up to a point (and probably should), that can't be guaranteed, and eventually you may have to deal with questions. Because of this, you will need to have a story to tell your current colleagues and your prospective new employer about why you are jumping the track, and this story may or may not be the same story you are telling yourself. My blogosphere colleague rightwing prof argued in comments to this post that applicants should tell this story right up front in the job letter. I disagree with that, but I would also say that if you are successful in your quest, eventually the story will have to be told, and possibly not on your timetable. So be prepared, and frame it in a way that leaves everyone's dignity intact .

2. It is a good idea to get in touch with a friend in the department you are applying to, or with the search chair, to find out whether your application is welcome and what the implications would be for your tenure clock. When some ads say "beginning assistant professor" they really mean it, and it could be a waste of your time to apply. And if you are moving from a SLAC or a less prestigious public institution to an R-I, be prepared to turn your tenure clock back. My very own Zenith, a SLAC that has a high research and teaching standard, is asking new hires with experience to roll back the tenure clock so that they have plenty of evidence when the tenure case is eventually heard. This may not be something you are willing to do, and I think this emerging practice has particular implications for women whose baby clock and tenure clock are competing with each other.

3. Unless you are in an utterly hostile environment, you need at least one colleague as a referee to reassure your prospective employers that there is nothing worrisome about you. This might be the person to say, "We hope we can hang on to her, but her partner is employed in Big City and the commute is taking a lot out of her." Or, "While we are excited about what he adds to our department and would regret losing him, the strength your department has in Latin American history is an obvious draw that we can't compete with." And let me say -- either of these explanations could be real, or they could be cover. No future employer wants to hear that you are in flight from tenured mysoginists, or that a gay man from New York living in Nebraska can feel like a fish on a bicycle. In other words: you may be moving for personal reasons, but come up with a legitimate professional one too.

4. What if you are on the market because you feel, through no fault of your own, that your career is in danger where you are? This is a sound reason to go on the market, in my opinion, and a good place to highlight advice I have already given above. If you are lucky, you will have a colleague at your institution with whom you can discuss this, who will help you frame your strategy, who will act as a referee, and who will agree to talk to prospective employers about things that should never go on paper and that may be too painful or unprocessed for you to discuss (racism, ideological prejudice, anti-semitism, sexual harassment, an affair that went psycho, homophobia, a horrible divorce from a senior colleague.) That said, you will eventually need a story to tell, and you need to figure out how to be truthful without potentially exposing yourself to further abuse in your department. If you are already dealing with people who are unsympathetic or cruel, you don't want it to get back to them that you are saying things that they will almost surely think are not true (when was the last time one of your colleagues self-identified as a homophobe?). But don't, whatever you do, make any of these stories part of your letter of application. If all things are equal, the committee will want you as part of the pool, and as your application proceeds to more serious stages you will know how much of your story to tell and to whom. Remember: this is why we interview people. To find out more about them; to try to judge their level of maturity and intellectual depth; and to give people the opportunity to volunteer necessary information on their own terms.

Next week: For the committee -- how do you evaluate your pool?