Saturday, January 31, 2009

What Will Be The "Obama Effect" for Women?

Over time the American conservative movement has actually agreed about few things. But ultimately, one might argue, it came together largely over a combined hatred of the New Deal and its children, Harry Truman's Fair Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. This hatred --which was ultimately expressed in polemic form as the need to defend the traditional nuclear family from the state -- coalesced over the course of three generations and came to embrace a broad social and geographical constituency over time.

We who are on the left, while we do not believe that the state is unequivocally our friend, also believe in the capacity of the government to legislate our protection and support as a people: national health insurance, civil rights protection, pensions and employment equity are important categories where we think government intervention has been, and will be, successful. But progressives would also do well to pause and think before they ask Barack Obama for the 21st century equivalent of the New Deal. It was the Roosevelt Administration, as Alice Kessler-Harris has noted in her book, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men and the Pursuit of Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America (2003) that, as it sought to empower working men in a capitalist economy, wrote social discrimination against women into economic legislation. Indeed, they saw this as recognizing the different role men and women already had in families and communities. Feminists who had worked for years in cross-class movements, many of whom lived with other women and believed marriage and family to be incompatible with a career, transported these ideas to Washington in 1933 (see Susan Ware, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism and New Deal Politics, a book which appears to be flying off the shelves at Amazon right now.)

One member of this network (all friends of Eleanor Roosevelt who had unique access to the administration as a result) was Frances Perkins. The official website of the Social Security Administration, where I found the above framed image of Secretary of Labor Perkins, the first woman to fill a cabinet level post, quotes her thus: "I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen." Eager to reinforce male bread winning as the foundation for "normal" families, fair labor standards, social security, the federal tax code and unemployment benefits all undermined an equitable workplace for women. And this was not just a question of gender discrimination, since although white working-class women did not have access to equal pay they did sometimes have access to unions. But women of color did not. By deliberately excluding domestic service from labor legislation, the Roosevelt administration specifically, and knowingly, undermined the economic citizenship of women of color, most of whom worked in what would now be called pink collar occupations.

And in her study of Social Security and AFDC, the two New Deal programs that, between them, "created the contemporary meaning of welfare," Linda Gordon argued over a decade ago that the state articulated poor women as widows and/or mothers, but not workers. As Ruth Crocker of Auburn University noted in a review of Gordon's book in 1995, the view that men were supported through wages and women through charity prevailed, "even though most poor women were also wage workers" (Gordon, 145) Gordon also cautioned us to remember that female policy makers, who had come out of a long middle-class feminist political tradition that saw working-class women's labor as ideally contributing to the economy in shoring up the nuclear family and raising children. As Crocker writes:

A central purpose of this history of policy-making is to explore why "welfare" or ADC programs took the shape they did -- how they emerged as one alternative among many. Black welfare thought provided one such alternative source of solutions, ignored rather than rejected by policy makers, and by historians of New Deal policy-making. Black welfare leaders were not consulted nor were their interests protected in the 1935 Social Security Act; their "alternative vision" was ignored by policy makers who also omitted domestic workers and agricultural workers from the Act's coverage. More disadvantaged than white women and disenfranchised even after 1920, black women nevertheless articulated a powerful "welfare vision" that was distinct from that of whites. Gordon provides a valuable summary of black women's welfare activism between 1890 and 1935. For African- Americans, the issue was not programs for the needy, but access for blacks of ALL classes to public services. These women organized, built, and sustained private institutions of health and welfare, defied stereotypes, asserted leadership, and struggled not as women, but as race leaders. Gordon makes the important point that for these women, welfare meant civil rights -- indeed, the assumption by policy historians of a dichotomy between welfare and civil rights stems from "a white notion of welfare" (Gordon, 119).

So in other words, it isn't an accident that we have not yet achieved equal pay for equal work, that women are more likely to be poor than men, and that the fastest ways for a woman to exit the welfare system before the state gives her the boot is to marry a man who has a job.

So let's not make the same mistake twice, shall we? In the wake of a petition circulating in the feminist blogosphere reminding President Obama that "shovel ready" projects in construction, transportation and public works may not employ women on the scale that they employ men, this great article by feminist labor historian and committed public intellectual Eileen Boris, Hull Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California -Santa Barbara appeared in Salon on January 16. Infrastructure is important, says Boris, who is writing a history of home care workers (many of whom are organized by SEIU) with Yale's Jennifer Klein. "But we also need to enhance the social infrastructure, bolstering not only a green economy but also the carework economy, by generating and improving pink jobs in home care, health and education." As Boris argues, this will not only employ women, who represent 46% of the work force in the United States, but it will deliver services to the people whose need for services is often enhanced in times like these: the elderly, the sick and children.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Another One Bites The Dust

Richard Perez-Pena* reports in today's New York Times that conservative columnist William Kristol, by mutual agreement with the paper, will not be renewing his one year contract as a columnist for the Op-Ed page. Kristol will be writing for the Washington Post and contributing to its blog, Post Partisan. Note to the Post, where the Radical's old buddy from Oligarch OCD days, Ruth Marcus is holding down the fort: this is almost as cute a name as Tenured Radical. But not quite.

Ah Bill, we hardly knew ye. But Kristol could not have been happy at the Times. It's one thing to see your hideous little political world go down in flames, but quite another to be surrounded by a bunch of insanely happy liberals while it is happening. Perhaps because of constant liberal crowing, Kristol has seemed increasingly delusional since the Obama candidacy became an actual presidency. In yesterday's Will Obama Save Liberalism? Kristol asserted that "conservatives have more often been right than not." Do you mean on the right, dearie? Because if you mean correct, I have to ask you why our military is in pieces, our education and health systems are a laughing stock, the constitution has taken its worst body blows since Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, a quarter of the world is in flames, more Americans lose their jobs every day, and the American economy is in the worst shape it has been in for eighty years? I have to ask that, Bill. And lest we forget, how about the December 22, 2008 column in which Kristol shrugged his shoulders about Dick Cheney's historically low approval rating (15% at the time of the inaugural) and asserted that Cheney is a just and civil man. How does Kristol know this? Because when asked by Chris Wallace about whether he had any regrets about -- not the war, not torture, not subverting the Constitution -- but about telling Patrick Leahy to "bleep" himself, Cheney replied: "No, I thought he merited it at the time. (Laughter.) And we’ve since, I think, patched over that wound and we’re civil to one another now." Kristol reflected:

No spin. No doubletalk. A cogent defense of his action — and one that shows a well-considered sense of justice. (“I thought he merited it.”) Indeed, if justice is seeking to give each his due, one might say that Dick Cheney aspires to being a just man. And a thoughtful one, because he knows that justice is sometimes too harsh, and should be tempered by civility.

Bleeping awesome, Bill. Hold the tar, hold the feathers. And have fun in Washington. I hope your party doesn't hold the Palin thing against you for too long.

As a coda, I hope that the New York Times and other liberal media outlets will re-think the informal policy they apear to have adopted over the last eight years of hiring pet in-house conservatives simply because they are conservatives. In the first place, it's not something any conservative newspaper or magazine would do, and if my small experience as a blogger is at all representative, right-wingers will never, ever be convinced of the intellectual legitimacy of anyone outside their circles. But if you must hire a conservative, to keep poor, overworked conservative journalist David Brooks (currently house conservative at the Times, NPR, and the Lehrer News Hour) company, hire one who is willing to think rather than repeat and defend the same old cant. That's what will add real diversity to the Times Op-Ed page. Kristol's tenure at the Times was ridiculous from beginning to end (so ridiculous that this is the first time I believe I have written about it) because he is nothing but an ideologue who bends history and facts to his sunny, right-wing world view. The time for such people is over.

*SOS to GayProf: how do I do proper accent marks on Blogger?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Newsflash: Ned Blackhawk to Join Yale Faculty

This latest in from our friends on the Native Studies Listserve:

On January 23 the chairs of the Department of History and the American Studies Program at Yale University circulated email announcements stating that Yale successfully concluded negotiations with Ned Blackhawk and Birgit Rasmussen. Blackhawk, a leading scholar of American Indian history whose first book Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West garnered awards from the Organization of American Historians, the Western History Association, the AmericanSociety for Ethnohistory, the American Studies Association, and the Western History Association, will join the Department of History as Professor of Native American History. Birgit Rasmussen, as scholar of early American literature, will join the American Studies Program as Assistant Professor. (Hat Tip.)

Birgit Rasmussen's work I know less well, but your Radical is a huge fan of Ned Blackhawk, and in addition to congratulating her friends in the History and American Studies Departments at Yale for pulling this off, is running up the Radical flag in celebration of soon having Blackhawk and Rasmussen as neighbors. In other Native American Studies news, anyone in the Zenith vicinity is invited to attend a public lecture by Phil Deloria, American Studies, University of Michigan, this Thursday, January 29th at 8 p.m. The talk is titled "Crossing the (Indian) Color Line: A Family Memoir," and is at the Center for African American Studies Lounge, 343 High Street, Wesleyan University, Middletown CT, 06459. Deloria is the outgoing president of the American Studies Association.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Barack Is (Not) Responsible For Making All Things Good: The Radical Disputes The Proposal That There Is An "Obama Effect" On Education

Much as I would like Barack Obama to sprinkle magic dust all over the country, fixing racism, poverty, and absolutely everything we hated about the Bushies, each policy question will have to be tackled thoughtfully, one by one. Today's topic is the national education agenda.

A crucial issue here is the continuing mania for using public school children as a vast pool of customers for corporations specializing in both mass curriculum distribution and in the endless testing through which students -- on pain of humiliation, summer school, and being held back a grade -- are asked to regurgitate these educational products. (I use the phrase "educational products" consciously: currently, a standard curriculum in the United States is to education what Cheez Whiz is to cheese.) The sad backstory of test scores going up in any given school are the number of students who drop out, or are encouraged to drop out, because of their low test scores.

No Child Left Behind, built around a testing mandate, is a great example of "an expensive government program" (to use a distinction our new President made himself) that does not work and ought to be eliminated. While few federal tax dollars are spent directly on NCLB, its unfunded mandates put a huge financial burden on state and local education budgets. Under systems driven by high-stakes testing, students learn by rote, rather than becoming critical thinkers, many students drop out altogether rather than be left back a grade, and we are no closer to creating equal access to a good education than we were a decade ago. And yet, today's New York Times buries this issue with yet another assertion that the symbolism of an Obama presidency, rather than radical policy interventions, will fix what is broken in our nation by lifting up the self-esteem of African-American people. Our paper of record reports that education researchers tested a group of children before and after the presidential nomination. The test before the nomination demonstrated what is commonly called the "achievement gap" between African-American and white students. But in the test after the inauguration, presumably because their self-esteem was raised by watching an African -American man become president, the African-American students stepped up their game. On that second test, racial differences in the children's test scores were "statistically insignificant."

This, the researchers imply, potentially reinforces previous studies showing that white students do better on standardized tests because they believe that they will succeed; and that African-American students do significantly less well on the same tests because they believe they will do poorly. I am sure I am over-simplifying a large body of research, but as a historian, to design one's research around such a notion seems pointless, particularly since this longstanding belief has never done anything to actually make Americans a better educated people. I am reminded of Booker T. Washington's firm belief that education was useless to formerly enslaved people until they had acquired self-esteem through physical and moral uplift (personal hygiene, and specifically proper deployment of the toothbrush, was one way to develop self-esteem; another was to learn how to make an excellent brick.) Such arguments have been by no means solely the province of African-American social scientists and educators. Post-1945 white liberals like historian Kenneth Stampp were entranced by the notion that persistent social inequalities are a result of low self-esteem, rather than ongoing racial and class inequality. By the 1940's, self-esteem arguments had moved into progressive, anti-racist social science through the black doll-white doll test designed by influential African-American psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark, used as evidence in Briggs v. Elliott (1952) and other lower court cases folded into Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As Waldo E. Martin has noted, this test was not without critics on both sides of the issue, many of whom saw methodological flaws in the Clarks' experiments. However, the gravity of the moral issues at stake, Martin writes, meant that arguments about self-esteem resulting from the study nevertheless became powerful visual evidence in what stands out as a classic liberal decision by the Warren court.1

Brown, of course, eliminated de jure segregation, which was important. But it failed to address other educational questions that contribute to what we now call the achievement gap, because the scope of the decision, influential as it was, left undisturbed the connections between segregation, institutional racism and economic inequality. Furthermore highly theatrical demonstrations, filmed and widely distributed, of serious African-American children unerringly choosing the white doll, became one of the great reproaches to liberals of interventions too long delayed and compromises too often made, just as southern whites with hate-twisted faces spitting on African-American grade schoolers is a past that conservatives will have to endure as part of their history. To this day arguments about self-esteem dominate our discussions about the education available to children of color. While not entirely unimportant, they have a tendency to occlude other kinds of questions that should be asked about why our public education system is in such terrible shape.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we at la casa Radical wish that Obama had selected someone for this important Cabinet-level position like Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond, who was briefly considered for the post and had been chosen to head up Obama's education policy working group. But things could have been much worse. Joel Klein, superintendent of New York City's school system was under consideration, and of course, there is always Michelle Rhee, a strong proponent of free market solutions for public education (read: siphon tax dollars to corporations) right outside the White House gates.

So it could have been much worse than Arne Duncan, formerly CEO (yes, that was his title) of the Chicago Public School system. Time Magazine recently characterized Duncan as friendly to several camps of school reformers. That is all good, and it will help him be effective in a highly contentious and ideology-driven professional world. But one of the challenges Duncan needs to be asked to deal with is the dominance of standardized testing as an assessment method. Under the Bush administration, high-stakes testing has been the centerpiece of education policy. Literally billions of education dollars now go into creating, administering, and grading these tests -- dollars that could go into the teaching of critical thinking; that could be keeping libraries open; that could be funneled into tutoring programs and smaller classes. Perhaps we could use a billion to provide regular dental and health clinics for children in each school so that they can see the blackboard and are not in physical pain in the classroom.

In conclusion, I would argue that the research cited by the New York Times is useful, but probably not in the way the researchers imagined. Forget self-esteem for a minute, as well as the problem of using the so-called achievements of white people (good test-taking skills) as the measure of intellectual success for everyone. If the inauguration testing experiment means anything, it certainly tells us something about the researchers. The resilience of assumptions about the importance of self-esteem in educational research design has caused them to leak information, as if it were an exciting new intellectual path, about a piece of research that even they admit is incredibly scattershot. But more importantly, this little experiment shows that testing children doesn't tell you what they actually know, and therefore, testing is failing at the most basic level that any policy or practice can be evaluated. If test scores are so dramatically affected by social and psychological factors like whether a child is excited that someone of his or her so-called racial group is President of the United States, then in fact, the one thing we know is that standardized tests are a bad tool that do not give us any reliable gauge of whether teachers are teaching well or students are learning.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.


1 Waldo E. Martin Jr., Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History With Documents, Bedford Series in History and Culture (New York: MacMillen, 1998), p. 28.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Gay Agenda

Dear Barack,

First of all, congratulations on the end of one journey and the beginning of another. We are all looking forward to your presidency, and many of us, I am sure, are thinking about how to share your burdens. So much of what happens next is about activating what already works: I was thinking about this after our third snowfall in so many days here in Shoreline. I didn't want to get up and shovel again -- but I did, because there are a lot of elderly people in my neighborhood who have worked hard to be independent and stay in their own homes, and a bad fall could end that in a matter of seconds. So I was out shoveling and scraping, along with the Italian sons, who drive in from the suburbs to make sure their parents' walks are clear; and the Black and Latino kids from the projects around the corner, who were trying to make a little money before school started. Then a couple guys came down the street and said to me "Put that shovel down Dr. Radical!" and it turned out they had been sent by my old college friend, Tim, an African-American man from Louisiana who used to play professional football, and has invested the bulk of his earnings in Shoreline neighborhoods. By doing this, a great many of his efforts go towards providing decent housing for poor people. Tim also hires guys from Shoreline who have been in prison and gives them the jobs they need, both to get parole and try to make new lives. Did I mention that Tim is busy developing land for a school back in Louisiana, and that he is particularly concerned about the educational prospects of girls?

So you see what I mean? There are a lot of people who are ready to step up, because they are stepping up already by thinking about somebody else every day and doing something about it. I think you know that, or you wouldn't be investing so much of your presidency in talking to us about it.

But I don't think you know much about the gay agenda. Oh yeah, yeah, there is one -- it's not just some right-wing scare tactic. There is. And part of what makes me think about this is the story in today's New York Times about queers of color and their allies picketing Pastor Rick Warren's Martin Luther King Day appearance in Atlanta. King's message of tolerance, protesters said, would have included gay and lesbian people. But actually, that is not true. It did not. We know that Bayard Rustin was marginalized from the movement because of his homosexuality, and only brought back to coordinate the 1963 March on Washington because of the highly-principled A. Philip Randolph, president of the influential Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

My point is that on that day when Martin talked about his dream, Bayard had a dream too, which was that the sexual acts he performed and his love for other men, Black and white, would not subject him to the double jeopardy of being a Black gay man. And that dream has also not yet been realized.

So without further ado, let me tell you what the gay agenda is:

That when anti-gay activists talk about special rights that queers are asking for, you remind them of the special wrongs we have endured. Like losing our jobs, being subject to arrest for gathering socially, being beaten and raped by the police, having our intellectual life censored, being imprisoned, being committed to mental asylums, having our children taken away, being thrown out of our homes as children and being forced to survive by selling sex acts to strangers, being bullied and beaten at school and on the street, electroshock treatment, being killed, being expelled from school, being subjected to endless public denigration and hatred as a group, having our belongings and money be stolen by the families of our deceased partners, being evicted from our homes, being excluded from hospital rooms when our loved ones are ill, being dismissed dishonorably from the military and losing our benefits, being permanently excluded from all benefits, financial and legal, that accrue to people who are married, and employment discrimination. To name a few. You tell them that, ok?

That you put all the reports that have been commissioned over the years that have reluctantly concluded that GLBTQ people are not only as good, but better, soldiers than straight people, in the public record; and by executive order, end all discrimination against GLBTQ people in the military. While you are at it, you might remind the Joint Chiefs that people in the military do not have access to freedom of speech as civilians do. You can order them to immediately issue a standing order to all commissioned and non-commissioned officers that they will no longer be permitted to voice their opinion that gays in the military are disruptive to a good national defense. They will convey explicitly, if they feel the need to discuss us at all, homophobia in the ranks, and all forms of prejudice and discrimination, is disruptive to a good national defense.

You can solve your Rick Warren problem by getting religion the fuck out of politics. Everybody is entitled to hir own faith, but they are not entitled to bludgeon the rest of us with it, and that act should not be facilitated by the President, the Congress, or any other elected official. This is not about being against religion per se; it is about the separation of church and state. Church and state may, and should, speak to each other; they should not speak for each other.

Issue an Executive Order canceling the Defense of Marriage Act. Leaving marriage "up to the states" when the federal government does not recognize gay and lesbian marriage as a legal contract is a punt. When people cannot take advantage of federal tax laws, transport their families over state lines, keep their health benefits, or know that they can retain custody of or access to children when they move to another state, their marriages are not equal to the marriages of straight people.

Tell the IRS to immediately investigate the non-profit status of churches that are investing large sums of money in anti-gay initiatives. Tell the IRS to agree back off when they agree to stop engaging in discriminatory activity.

There's more, but you have a lot to do, my friend, so I will stop here. So as you move forward, Barack, don't be tolerant like Martin Luther King, Jr., great as he was in so many ways. Be tolerant like A. Philip Randolph, who truly knew how to accept a person for who s/he was and the talents s/he brought to this great country.

This post goes out with love to Cheryl Clarke, poet, activist, intellectual and friend. Popsie did not live to see today, but he left his great lesbian daughter to carry on the mission.

Monday, January 19, 2009

This Land Is Your Land: The Return of Educated People

Among other things we are celebrating this week is the enhanced public presence of people who actually think it matters whether you know anything or not. One of the curious things to me about many conservative intellectuals (David Brooks, Lynn Cheney, Robert Kagen, William Kristol, Phyllis Schlafly -- let's leave out folks like Ann Coulter for now, shall we?), people who were (and are) highly educated and read a lot, is that they insisted for years that it wasn't necessary to have much of an education to run the United States of Amurrica. All you needed was an "instinct" for what the people, in all their glorious parochialism, wanted. Ideas just arose from good old common sense -- like that because Saddam Hussein was a bad person who had once had weapons of mass destruction, he must have been responsible for 9/11 -- and when they didn't work out, it was, well "a disappointment." As opposed to a disaster. Although Brooks began to criticize, and then explicitly walked away from the Republican Titanic as it was going down this fall, the others have either faded away without explanation, or, like William Kristol, continued to insist that they were right, right, right, and that the last eight years have been a triumph for democracy and the free market.

Fortunately that has ended. See Michiko Kakutani's article, in today's New York Times about Obama's notion that reading thoughtfully expands a person's world. The article also includes a curious factoid that George Bush's reading was part of an ongoing competition with Karl Rove to see who could read the fastest. Dear God.

As a wonderful touch that symbolizes our return from the Land of Stupid People, did anyone but me think about what a terrific symbol it was that elderly Popular Fronter Pete Seeger sang Popular Fronter Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" last night on the Lincoln Memorial, with the President-elect in the audience? Did anyone else imagine Joe McCarthy and his tribe of egghead-hating anti-communist zealots spun in their graves, while Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and all the leftist intellectuals who were ruined by 1950's campaign against left intellectuals (because that is where it all began, friends) laughed and sang along?

I'm thinking of getting a sticker for my Mac that says "This Machine kills Fascists." No, maybe I'll read a book in public instead -- now that it's safe to come out of the library.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Magnificent Wind:"* In Which The Radical Begins Receiving Excuses From Her Students Even Before The Term Begins

Yesterday I, and a number of other colleagues who work at Zenith and other colleges, began to receive a steady stream of emails from students. They said some version of the following: "Hey, Professor, I am going to Barack's inauguration and won't make it back in time for class on Wednesday afternoon. I am sure you support my presence at this historic event. Hope this is ok -- let me know if it isn't, (signed) Siouxsie Q."** I had several crabby, middle-aged responses to the emails I received, including:

"Hay is for horses" (I had a kindergarten teacher back in 1964 who was fond of this one.)

"If I am not going to the inauguration because I have a prior commitment to be at school to advise you on Tuesday, and teach you on Wednesday, why shouldn't you actually have some commitment to be there and receive these services?" As the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR), a font of wisdom on matters of playground justice, would say, "So who told you life was fair, Radical?" Point taken.

"In the twenty-four hours between the end of the swearing in ceremony (which you will be watching on a Jumbotron, simply another kind of TV) and my class at 1:10 the following day, you could get back from San Francisco, London, and perhaps even Moscow; you can certainly get back to my classroom from the District of Columbia, so actually you are staying so you can party all night and not get up at the crack of dawn to put your sorry, hungover behind on public transportation." Now this is something I could have sympathy for, as opposed to the claim that affordable and timely travel arrangements are impossible.

"Oh grow up Radical" (said to self) "Who gives a crap what they do? Particularly when it offers you a topic for a blog post?"

Then I sent an email to my class telling them that I expected to see them there at 1:10 sharp on Wednesday, and I went to a lovely dinner party where we talked about what a relief it was to finally hear a (prospective) cabinet member say, in so many words that water-boarding (aka, simulated drowning) "is torture."

But I do wonder whether the Bush administration's penchant for acting like mutual obligation was a waste of time and money, for telling obvious lies as if they were true, and pretending that bad decisions represented the only possible option, has infected all of us in some indefinable way that will take time to recover from, no matter what breed of dog the Obamas eventually adopt. As a much younger colleague from another institution who was at that dinner party agreed, this kind of exchange is common between teacher and student nowadays, at least among those of us who teach at elite private colleges. "I have to go to the inauguration, which unfortunately conflicts with your class," is yet another version of, "I just found out I can't be in class tomorrow because my parents want me to come to Paris for the weekend" (I mean, whose parents really tell them on Wednesday that they expect to see them at dinner in the Marais on Friday?) Or try this one: "I need to take the exam early because my dad's travel agent bought me a non-refundable ticket to L.A. and I'm leaving the Tuesday before break." But my favorite one is this. Every once in a while students at Zenith organize a campus strike to raise consciousness about some serious issue. Inevitably, I am then asked -- well-known left-winger that I am -- whether I would please cancel my class so that my students can go on "strike" and not have to worry that they will miss anything that will affect their final grades. Some of you, dear readers, might say that there are students less interested in the political issue at hand who have actually (I know this is gross, but I am going to say it) paid for that class, and might think I have an obligation to teach it if they plan to be there. This is one good point. But a second is that the point of a student strike is to interrupt business as usual, and it doesn't work if business as usual has been, well, canceled, by lefty profs sympathetic to the cause.

All of these interactions have several common themes, in my view: powerlessness over one's own schedule; an assumption that the activity to be substituted for the academic obligation is not a preference or choice, but an unavoidable conflict with fixed parameters; and the request that permission be granted, after the fact, so that the student can feel good about the choice to do something fun that displaces the obligations attendant to being in school. "I hope this is ok" is another way of saying "what kind of unjust person would you be to kick me out of a course I need for my major just because I went to DC to party my butt off at this unique, historical moment for partying?" I agree that probably would be too steep a penalty for missing the first day of class; but it would also be fair to let you know, that I know, that for $15, you can catch one of many Fung Wah Bus departures from the District of Columbia after 3 P.M. Tuesday. Tickets are still available!

I could kick them out of class if I wanted to, but they are banking on it that a reasonable person would not do such a thing. Looking on the bright side, it is even a compliment that I am perceived as a reasonable person. But the corollary to that, in my view, is that I should not be required to endorse their failure to meet their obligations to me; or to reassure them that meeting these obligations was clearly impossible, given the odds stacked against them. This last can be tricky when, for example, we all know that there are parents who are exactly so narcissistic that they make fixed, and expensive, plans without consulting their children at all; and that, because of various divorces, joint custody arrangements and remarriages, children who are not at all wealthy are buffeted by impossible scheduling demands from an early age and might just find it easier to submit to family demands. Yet, would not some of those parents be able to hear it, and even be impressed at the sign of new maturity, if Biff responded to the notice from the travel agent by saying: "Gee Dad, I'm so sorry you are going to have to change the ticket, but this economics midterm is just too important to me to screw it up. And it isn't fair to the teacher to put her to the trouble of making up a new exam and setting up a proctor just for me. If you want me to pay the difference, I can, but next time, could you ask me?"

Part of what I would like to salvage from these encounters -- which in the end, mean little in terms of a semester's work -- is what they have to teach us about the changing climate for instruction more generally, both in elite schools like mine and at schools where students are more highly conscious of the conditions by which hard-earned cash is exchanged for knowledge and credentials. And how do we talk about these things as faculty without trashing students, and in a way that examines our own responsibility to meet students where they are? Part of what is shifting dramatically, and what we do not know how to talk about except in the crudest, most reactive terms, is the notion that a college course represents some kind of fixed, but unspoken, contract between teacher (authority) and student (subject), in which the student is bound to a particular schedule, and a social relationship, that respects the traditional power imbalance between teacher and learner, grader and gradee. It is very rare that I find myself enforcing all the terms of my syllabus nowadays; but it is also rare that more than a few of my students feel bound by the terms of the syllabus, or that any expectation, great or small, cannot be altered to accommodate their "needs," great or small. How, and why, these power relations between professors and students are shifting; what constitutes a successful negotiation about expectations between teacher and student; how electronic communication has facilitated and/or ameliorated those shifts and how we speak to each other about them; and how new expectations about power and authority play themselves out in daily, casual encounters between teachers and students -- all of these things deserve a great deal more thought as we enter this bright and shining new day.

* According to Wikipedia, "Magnificent Wind" is a loose translation of "Fung Wah." Perfect, no?

**This is an amalgam of several, surprisingly similar emails, received by me and other colleagues. The emails were so similar that I actually went to the Obama-Biden Transition Team web page to see if there was a standard excuse being made available to students skipping class to attend the inauguration.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Jobs and the Jobless: Listening To The Underemployed

Sterling Fluharty, who blogs at PhDinHistory, writes (in response to this post where I urged job-seekers to stop attending panels that seemed to be only increasing their anxiety about ever being employed): "Do you really feel it is pointless for the AHA to have panels on the job market? What if ideas for reforming the market and fixing its problems emerged from these sessions?"

Well, OK, if you put it that way. And anyway, saying that those panels are pointless would be doing a disservice to those who put them together, as well as to those who benefit from them. This advice -- like my advice to stay off the wikis -- was only for those of you who use sessions organized by the Professional Division as concrete venues for self-destructive obsessing about your powerlessness. I hope it didn't cause the intended audiences to run to the over-priced hotel bar instead, or prompt any of you who were interviewing to spend what remains of your latest student loan on Yodels and Ho-Hos rather than on getting your shoes shined.

Oh Sterling, I'm just pulling your leg. Because I now know that you participated in such a panel, and that you posted your contribution on your blog. For those Readers of the Radical with too little time to click on the link, I have pasted in Sterling's summary of the situation currently facing historians who are, who are soon to be, or who have been, looking for a teaching job:

It should go without saying that the vast majority want to become tenure-track history faculty. Let me describe how difficult this process is before I tell you why the overall goal is impossible. Did you know that only half of the students who entered humanities doctoral programs between 1992-3 and 1994-5 completed their degree within ten years? By comparison, the dropout rate is 10 to 15 percent in business, law, and medicine professional programs. Now let's focus on those who survive their history doctoral program. According to the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF), nearly half of the assistant professors who were hired between 1999 and 2003 had earned their PhD in history five to nine years previous. The average time between graduation and the time they landed their current tenure-track position was 3.3 years. Academic job seekers in history now have to prove themselves worthy to job search committees by spending several years after graduation teaching and publishing. Furthermore, my analysis of NSOPF data shows that only 31 percent of all the individuals who earned a PhD in history between 1966 and 1992 were tenured faculty as of 2003. Some of these doctoral recipients may have left academia by that time, but even the AHA agrees that only about one third of history PhDs will ever achieve tenure. One reason why this is happening is that the overall proportion of college faculty who work without any chance of tenure is now at 65 percent and keeps rising. The academic system is rigged against PhDs in history, and the rest of the humanities for that matter.

The essay, which I do recommend you read in full when you have a chance, concludes with a series of excellent questions:

How long will we continue to blame students in and graduates of history graduate programs if they don't succeed? Are we denial about the structural changes that have happened in higher education over the last several decades? How long will be persist in doing history that brings us prestige rather creating history that has value in the eyes of undergraduates and the public? Are we content to teach an ever decreasing proportion of college undergraduates? Do we believe that we can expand our associates and masters programs? Are we willing to let tenure-track positions disappear? Will we fight back against the for-profit colleges that started this trend of hiring the cheapest teachers they could find? What will it take to learn the skills of public and digital history? Can we make our type of history relevant to the American public once again?

To focus on perhaps the least significant of these questions: I don't know who the "we" is who "blame" the unemployed -- although the stream of advice that emanates from blogs like mine, and the invective towards candidates who do risible or weird things during interviews that has appeared elsewhere, certainly implies that one's success (or lack thereof) on the conventional academic job market is determined by doing the "right" things. And for all I know graduate advisers emanate displeasure towards and begin to avoid the unsuccessful. But certainly those of us who have jobs know perfectly well how many good candidates never even get a chance to strut their stuff; how many of those who do end up unemployed failed to get a job for reasons entirely out of their control; and how, when departments are ranking lists in post-interview mode, many people vote to hire in complete ignorance, or disregard, of the scholarship and credentials the candidates have worked so hard to display. It is often said that one of the great, ghastly, come-downs in academic life is observing the chaos and insane, internal power struggles attendant to the first hire after you yourself have been hired: "How in God's name," you think, "did this department ever get it together to hire me? What awful things were said? What worthy people were sent packing as if they were so much trash? Who here smiles to my face but really hates me??!!"

But it is true more generally, and not just in academia, that people who are unemployed do, in the end, blame themselves even when they know it isn't their fault, or that the odds are heavily stacked against them. Acknowledging this latter point is where, despite the ways Fluherty's essay will be controversial, I think he makes a particularly useful intervention. Using a couple of excellent graphics, Fluharty argues that according to his data, fewer than half of history Ph.D.'s can expect to either be on a tenure-track or to have full-time work teaching history over the next decade. Is this a question of overproduction of Ph.D.s by doctoral programs? Not necessarily. It is also the effects of history itself: the increasing disregard of "history" as an influential force in national politics (hell, for the past eight years the White House couldn't even cope with the present); the marginalization of the humanities in higher education more generally, and particularly in the two-year colleges attended by most post-secondary students; and what Fluherty suggests is a close link between widespread, or narrowed, interest in history among undergraduates and the condition of our democracy more generally. I find this last point particularly intriguing and wish he, or someone, would write more about it.

The point is, however, that given the actual numbers -- Ph.D.'s versus full-time teaching jobs -- it isn't possible for everyone with a PH.D. in history to have full time work, it never was, and it won't be any time soon. The profession needs to deal with this reality, as opposed to putting all its energy into workshops on interviewing, grooming, and putting together the best dossier. Fluherty has two concrete proposals in the attempt to turn the conversation away from the question of what is fair, to the the question of what is possible. One is that the AHA create a searchable data base into which graduate students could upload their materials and a new personality test which measures the " non-cognitive qualities that make a historian successful in the world of work," and which could be used colleges and universities to fill available jobs; the other is that historians need to be trained for and imagine themselves working in sectors of the intellectual market that are actually growing, specifically the digital industries.

The data base idea is not a horrible one, and god knows, searches as they are currently structured are possibly one of the most inefficient activities of an inefficient profession. They are huge time-wasters for everyone involved, and cost vast amounts of money that could be better spent actually educating students. But right now most full-time faculty can't even wrap their heads around why you would hire in fields that actually represent the cutting edge of the historical profession, much less altering the arcane, prejudicial processes of the traditional search, through which "the best" historian out of a pool of several hundred well-educated candidates is seen as deserving of a job. So good luck with that one. And actually, I don't believe in testing, or that what it takes to be a good teacher and colleague can be quantified, much less in any non-biased way. So I would scrap this one.

However, that the historical profession has not responded adequately to real changes in how what we do can be packaged and sold (sorry to be so crude, but that's the actual trend in education, not just a way of talking about it); that, as a profession, we in the humanities continue to sell the romance of careers in classroom teaching to graduate and undergraduate students, despite the fact that we live in a world where other forms of learning, formal and informal, are increasingly dominant; and that as educators, we haven't responded in a proactive way to new forms of digital democracy that might make the liberal arts usable of accessible to a broader group of consumers than those currently enrolled in four-year colleges, is spot on.

What we continue to do, according to Fluharty, is react to shrinking possibilities in a college and university world we thought we once knew, a world that we keep imagining will return some day. Fluharty not only argues that this world isn't coming back, but that it never existed in the first place, and that endless tinkering will not make that so. These ideas will be contentious ones, but they are well worth putting on the table. And if I don't entirely agree with his solutions (which revert to a kind of pragmatism that the essay itself undermines), I think the critique is a sound one. In fact, I think he should be nominated to the professional division on the basis of this essay alone.

And by the way Sterling, good for you for dropping your anonymity, thus allowing others who will find these positions contentious to argue openly with a real person. I don't know whether you did this on principle or not, but one way for young scholars to get some credit for the academic blog world that they are the principle contributors to and innovators in is to start telling us who they are so we can start including in professional and institutional conversations that cross the boundaries between conventional and unconventional career paths.

Photo Credit.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Radical's History Reviewed: When I Was Bad, I Was Horrid

Mostly because they have been linked by my history colleague Historiann, I have of late been drawn to the luridly enraged and cruelly hilarious posts at Rate Your Students. A blog response to the notorious, RYS, from my point of view, is a kind of academic pornography: it's outrageous, and it relies on cruel caricatures of students that have enough truth in them to make them universally recognizable -- the terrible students described at this blog can be found at a community college, an Ivy, or any stop in between. It doesn't stop at pillorying undergraduates, but produces the occasional post that skewers graduate students for being whining, careless little piss-ants.

You will notice that RYS is not on the list of blogs I follow regularly (see widget on the left), but in fact I do follow it regularly from a bookmarked link in my Safari navbar. While there are many blogs I follow from bookmarks, RYS is there as the internet equivalent of sliding a dirty magazine between the mattress and the box spring. I don't want to read it, but I do -- or more accurately, I don't want to want to read it. Every time I do it feels like the time a feminist colleague of mine urged me to read Jane Gallop's Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (Duke: 1997): "It's like a horrible traffic accident," she said; "You can't not look."

Yet RYS, compelling as it is, reminds me that one characteristic of the blogosphere is a kind of self-righteous rage that often gets focused on students, colleagues, institutional politics, varsity athletics, or "the administration" -- a rage that is more complex, surely, in its origins and context than whatever rant I am reading wants to admit to. Many of us are frustrated, insecure, overworked, under-rewarded, and uncertain about what the future will hold. We were told in graduate school that if we worked hard we would succeed, and we did work hard - so why are some of us teaching adjunct and some of us on a jet plane to a contract for a crossover narrative history of the Nixon presidency and a named chair? Why do some of us get up early and stay up late, publishing and teaching our hearts out in visiting positions, only to be told that we are "too far along" for the tenure-track assistant professor slot we would take despite our age and accomplishments to get our careers back on track? Why do some of us resolve every year to put our scholarship first, only to be loaded down with committee work, course overloads, and the excess grunt-work of the university?

Enter the clueless student who, through carelessness, narcissism, and often unconsciously rude and over-privileged behavior, becomes the fulcrum around which all of our rage and frustration about Planet College congeals. This is the student who disputes every grade below an A-, and tells you in the teaching evaluation that you have liberal bias; the student who walks in ten minutes late, misses every question you answered about the assignment that is due tomorrow, and expects you to repeat it all one-on-one in a special appointment outside office hours; the student who drinks pints of water in class, and then needs to leave abruptly in the middle of your lecture to refill the water bottle and, inevitably, go to the bathroom.

Well dear reader, I was once that student. Not always, or even most of the time, but sometimes. And like the girl with the curl, when I was bad I was horrid.

I was reminded of this because I was recently assigned the task of either disposing of several large boxes of personal papers (which we have hauled from home to home for almost twenty years) or finding a place to keep them other than the front hall of our otherwise gracious home. Clearly decisions needed to be made. Upon opening one box, I discovered an accordion file that contains what must be almost every college paper I wrote and -- I kid you not -- thirty notebooks full of lecture and seminar notes from the classes I took as an undergraduate at Oligarch University.

The courses I liked are obvious: "E. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels," I scribbled on one notebook cover, after a hasty post-lecture conference with one professor. In a different color ink, there is a library call number: clearly I actually got this book out of the library and read it. Similarly, on the inside front leaf of the notebook for a course on the Third Republic, I noted advice given to me over a beer by one of my favorite professors: "Find Charles Tilly/could be critical to future." Little did I know that fate would deliver Tilly and his wonderful wife Louise into my hands (actually me into theirs, but I am the hero of this story) when they took a position at the New School in New York. They, in turn, would invite me to join a proseminar where I spent a semester developing a dissertation on American bandit crime with Eric Hobsbawm. Wheels within wheels, man. You couldn't make this up. And it all started with a professor who liked to sit down and have a drink with his students.

Then I pulled out a notebook from a political science course called "Culture, Class, Revolution and the Intellectual," and one vivid -- but not the only -- blemish on my undergraduate past flashed before my eyes in nauseating detail. You see, we had virtually no advising at Oligarch, which means that the vast number of us chose the courses we took by a method that was governed by an entirely personal calculus. For example, my roommate and I, most semesters, signed up for a lecture course that required us to read novels: the Victorian novel, the Eighteenth Century Novel, the Modern American Novel. I was an English major, she was an Art major, but why did we sign up for these classes? Because we liked reading novels, and we liked to talk to each other about them. Duh. My other method was to sign up for courses that were either taught by people I knew to be good, or cool (a technique for making intellectual choices that my students at Zenith practice to this day), or courses that promised reading or insight on a hip topic that I knew nothing about. I also signed up for what seems now, for someone who became a twentieth century historian, an excessive number of courses in Renaissance literature, where my huge and unaccountable crush on the professor was entirely and fully satisfied by excelling at close readings of Spenser and his contemporaries week after week, and imagining how my insight and critical skills might ultimately lead to a romantic encounter with this scholar.

But until the fall of my junior year, at a certain point in every semester, I -- not very consciously -- decided which courses deserved my full attention (Spenser, for example) and which ones I could blow off. And I blew off, I'm afraid to say, more than enough courses to produce an undergraduate transcript that would raise fatal doubts about my capacity for graduate study were I to apply today.

"Culture, Class, Revolution and the Intellectual" was one of the courses I ultimately blew off. The early pages are promising: "Can intellectualism bridge the gap between intellectuals and reality?" I mused on September 13. "Look over last year's notes on [Raymond] Aron." The following week we read Camus' The Rebel: "in the final analysis," I wrote, "being an intellectual depends on autonomy -- but is autonomy possible? Is money a practical problem?" I was so deep.

By the following week things had, imperceptibly perhaps, started to fall apart. Underneath a few sketchy ideas about the role of art and artists in a revolutionary movement (I told you I was deep), I had written to a classmate: "I heard in the dining hall that a freshman tried to kill himself in the seventh floor men's room in Sterling Stacks last night. This is unsettling." No shit, Sherlock. The following week, underneath disjointed scribbles about C. Wright Mills ("the activist intellectual," "constant need for critique," etc.), I wrote: "I've got to stay awake. This class has only ten people in it, and I'm falling asleep, about to embarrass myself. Three girls across the table are doing it too -- one was really asleep for a while." And later: "She's done it again. I'm going to sleep, and it doesn't help that the two girls next to her are yawning quite a bit. How embarrassing."

Reading this ancient notebook, I was identifying entirely with the instructor, who I have to tell you, I do not remember at all. But she was a woman, teaching at Yale when there were almost no women teaching at Yale -- I probably took courses from all of them, in fact. Dear God. What a monstrous little bastard I was. I turned the page to the following week's session.

"Proposed Camp for Deposed Dictators," I had written at the top of the page, not even bothering to note what the reading assignment was -- had I done it? "Campers: Shah of Iran, Idi Amin, Somosa, Richard Nixon. Games campers will not be allowed to play: capture the flag, Monopoly. Books campers will not be allowed to read: How To Be Your Own Best Friend, The Good Soldier, Mad Magazine, Look Back in Anger. Required Reading: You Can't Go Home Again." Once an English major, always......

Oh, what a card I was. Two weeks later, I had clearly stopped listening in any meaningful way. Sketches of beatniks, gerbils and people throwing up alternated with the New York Times crossword puzzle carefully pasted into the notebook. Looking up occasionally with a feigned frown, I hoped to appear serious, present and engaged as I did battle with Eugene T. Maleska -- in pen, thank you very much, just to prove how much confidence I had in my own brilliance, despite the fact that I was now learning nothing. Oh sure, there were occasional, feeble stabs at being engaged with the course. "For next week read How Much to Catalonia (?????)," and a page of notes labeled "preparation for oral report on Bakunin" (I gave an oral report on Bakunin?) The notebook ends in mid-December with a crude cartoon of a prisoner in a cage saying: "Help! I am trapped in this class and I almost laugh all the time it is so silly!"

Lucky for this professor that a semester must, eventually, come to an end, eh? And how lucky that this was prior to the routine use of teaching evaluations. And yet, having carefully documented all my misbehavior as if it was a rational response to her poor teaching, I don't recall the professor ever treating me with the disrespect I clearly deserved, calling me out from behind the crossword puzzle, or taking revenge of any kind. Maybe she knew she wasn't teaching well, or maybe there was more of a laconic attitude towards seminar work among Oligarch undergraduates than I recall and there was nothing she could do as we withdrew singly and as a group. Maybe the deadening, tortuous pace of this class was not something she felt she had much power over. Who knows?

Strangely, a quick look at my Oligarch transcript, also in the box, shows an A- for the course. Must have been the oral report on Bakunin.

As I say, I don't remember this professor at all, which in a way is truly horrifying -- only her last name survives on the outside of the notebook. If she remembers me, and wants to report me to RYS in an ex post facto kind of way, I think it would be fair. But I would like to close by remembering, very briefly, another class that I blew off: the first gay and lesbian studies course I ever took, taught by a famous gay poet, who we queer students all admired because he was handsome and witty and smart, was publicly involved with another famous gay poet, and appeared to be having the romantically perfect intellectual life that we all craved. Inexplicably however, or at least inexplicably to the youthful me, I did all the reading for this course but could sometimes not bring myself to actually go to class for a week or so at a time. Now, of course, it seems very clear that I was more than a little conflicted about my own sexuality, blah, blah, blah; and what that had to do with me taking the class in the first place, blah, blah, blah. But I worked very hard to compartmentalize that knowledge then because it would have interfered with my pose, which relied for its effect on a feigned indifference to the emotions and responsibilities felt by ordinary, boring people; my biting, sarcastic wit; and what I (tragically funny this) believed was my intellectual uniqueness.

At one point, when I had missed about two weeks of classes in a row, I ran into my professor on the street.

"Sorry I haven't been in class," I said in what I thought was a sophisticated and nonchalant way, "I've been very ill." This professor, to my surprise and horror, turned around and fell into step with me, thus enhancing my discomfort. He encouraged me to talk in detail about the illness that had kept me home from class, day after day, and yet left me free to roam the streets only an hour or so after the most recent meeting. Quickly regaining my composure, I drew on some details of illnesses that I was, in fact, regularly plagued by, hinted at the possibility of a walking pneumonia, trips for chest x-rays and what have you. The more I talked about it, the more convinced I was that I had pulled myself back from the brink and was, in fact, on my way home from another tiring trip to Radiology.

"Hmmm," he said, and stopped walking. "Well, let me give you a piece of advice. I don't mind if you lie to me about why you aren't coming to class. I expect it, really. But don't lie to yourself. That's a very bad habit to get into. See you next week." And then he walked away, leaving a rather stunned and humiliated me behind. I didn't miss any more classes.

I suppose there should be a moral to this story, but I don't think there is: it's probably unwise to draw morals from partly digested snippets of one's own life anyway. Speaking bluntly to students as if they were adults doesn't always work, which I know better than anyone. In fact, it almost never works, because we are often speaking about something important that only time can reveal to them. But I do wonder about the motivations of those who convert their classroom experience to raging, mean, (often hilarious, I admit) posts on Rate Your Students. Often we have no idea what is going on behind the facades erected by students who use politeness and good behavior to fend us off while they collect their average or better than average grades. But we might learn something about good teaching from the students who fail, the ones who go out of their way to flout our authority. Or at the very least, we might see their rudeness as an opportunity to teach to more than the text once in a while. And if we understand their arrogance, their bravado, their selfishness, their narcissism and their cluelessness as critique or resistance, we might even gain some insight as to what we have at stake in our role as classroom authorities in the first place.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Hello, American Historical Association: My Name Is The Tenured Radical And I Am Here To Recruit You

So today I am home from the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, and instead of re-reading job candidate files, I am thinking about transgender activist Sylvia Rae Rivera, who is pictured on the left (as she always was.) I am thinking about San Francisco organizer Harvey Milk, pictured below, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office and the person from whom I have ripped off my title. As those who have seen the new Gus Van Sant movie Milk or read Randy Shilts's book The Mayor of Castro Street know, the signature opening line of Harvey's political speeches played on the stereotype of predatory criminal queers obsessed with "recruiting" the young into their "lifestyle." He would hop up on whatever platform was available and screech, "My name is Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you!"

Thanks to a commenter, one of my first reads today (after the New York Times) was this post by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed, reporting on the failed resolution at the AHA business meeting that sought to move next year's conference from the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. The hotel is owned by Doug Manchester, a financial backer of the Proposition Eight campaign that successfully (for now) ended gay marriage in the state of California. Instead, a compromise resolution was passed that would create programming to address the issues at stake in Prop 8, averting the financial disaster that moving the conference would be. Note to allies who see this as a spineless outcome: the Organization of American Historians is still paying for a similar, politically well-intentioned and financially disastrous, decision in 2005.

According to Jaschik, "Arnita Jones, executive director of the AHA, said that under the contract with the hotel, the association would owe $534,000 for breaking the deal now. The association would also lose another $181,000 in lost discounts negotiated with the hotel for meeting room equipment and related services." Barbara Weinstein of New York University, a past president of the AHA, pointed out usefully that Doug Manchester gets our money whether we like it or not at this point (what she doesn't point out is that he also gets to re-sell the space), while opponents of the substitute resolution argue that no one should be forced to enter space owned by a homophobe (forgive me if I am too reductive in describing Mr. Manchester, but I'm one of those love the sin, hate the sinner types.) The AHA assures us it will go to great lengths to make sure that no one will have to be around homophobes against their will, which is admirable given that this is a real trick - and I don't mean trick in a good way! -- in southern California. The local arrangements committee will, we are told, provide alternative housing, and will move the job register and other essential services to an adjacent hotel.

Now let me say, with all the sympathy in the world for people whose marriages may be annulled by the success of Prop 8, I have a bone to pick with this strategy. I'm not even going to ask why, while millions of people lose their jobs and civilians are being slaughtered in Gaza (joining civilians from Afghanistan and Iraq in whatever afterlife they are destined for), and given the profound failure of mainstream gay and lesbian organizing to move forward a single civil issue since the 1970s, we are raising the future of gay marriage as a critical issue for the American Historical Association. I know why we are talking about gay marriage more generally -- even I, the relentlessly anti-marriage Radical, is so outraged by Prop 8 that I thought briefly about getting married in the good old Nutmeg State (where, unlike California, Republicans are often Democrats in sheep's clothing) on principle alone. But I do wonder if we who are members of of the GLBTQ Caucus That Dare Not Speak Its Name* ought to be asking questions about why some of our members, and our trusted allies, are responding in such a reactive way at this late date. Who didn't know who Doug Manchester was prior to Prop 8? In fact, if you are going to boycott conservatives, why go to San Diego, one of the most reactionary, racist cities in the United States, at all? Or the state of California? Or indeed, anywhere but Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont? Because basically what is being proposed is not a "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign -- a labor strategy that was directly tied to a Fordist logic of economic justice that workers should be permitted a standard of consumption and a standard of economic equity that were tied to each other -- but a "Don't Buy Where You Can't Marry" campaign. Which makes no sense, in my view. No sense at all. A boycott of the Manchester Grand Hyatt is just another feature of the peculiar, incorrect and unworkable logic of gay and lesbian statist politics: that all civil rights struggles, for all oppressed peoples, are simply an extension and translation of African American social justice struggles.

Furthermore, it isn't clear to me why what happened in California is more homophobic than what is happening in New York, where Governor David Paterson is not willing to move on gay marriage until after the next election. Or that Prop 8 and its supporters have created a more homophobic legal environment than what prevails in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, something Barack Obama has not announced any intention to change. All state and local gay marriage laws are effectively trumped by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed and signed (by Bill Clinton, with one eye on the upcoming election) in September of 1996, that pretends to enshrine Biblical law in federal law. So why don't we protest this by moving the AHA central offices to Canada, where gay marriage is legal? And by the way -- the number of professional settings I have been in lately where white people ignorantly blame black voters for the outcome of Prop 8 (rather than the No on 8 organizers who bypassed communities of color almost entirely) is deeply disturbing. I think the current failures of mainstream gay and lesbian organizing, that routinely marginalizes queer of color, economic justice and trans issues to solidify the privileges of white and/or middle class folks deserves the attention of at least one panel in San Diego.

It's not that I don't share the outrage. Even though I oppose the regulation of intimacy and family formation by church and state, and the inequitable distribution of resources and privilege, that marriage constitutes, I would also agree that "the people," in all their bigotry and ignorance, do not get to decide what is and is not a civil and/or constitutional right. So I would like to propose an alternative for next year's AHA: I think we should go. I think queer folk and their allies should go to San Diego in unprecedented numbers. I think we should occupy Doug Manchester's hotel, and I think we should hold mock weddings in the lobby. I think we should pass out literature to his guests educating them on civil rights issues and their connections to queer citizenship. I think we should move our queer programming out of the meeting rooms and into the public spaces of the hotel -- the lobby, the restaurants, the shops.

In closing, I would like to reflect upon what I think was the most disturbing, and unnoticed, subtheme of Van Sant's film biography of Harvey Milk. The movie, that ends with Milk's assassination and the great long shot of peaceful, silent protesters in a candlelit march on City Hall (not the riots that followed the march), should move us to ask a question about what queers have achieved by moving into the political system. The answer is, I think, comparatively little, when it comes to altering the basic institutions that represent the ways all citizens' lives are shaped by the state. How we turn the attacks on citizenship -- which go far beyond limiting the rights of queer folk, my friends -- is not clear to me. But a good start for queer historians might be to go to San Diego in vast numbers and queer the convention, and queer that hotel, big time.

How about that, you big old homos?

*I say this because it just changed its name, but because I wasn't at the meeting, I can't tell you what it is. I can tell you that lifetime memberships in this organization are still available for the low, low price of $150.

(Cross posted at Cliopatria.)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

AHA Day 3: A Cautionary Tale

Helpful advice to graduate students: stop going to sessions about the job market. My sense is that it is simply making people unnecessarily hysterical. Yes, the job market this year is very, very bad. But whether it will be next year no one knows. I repeat no one knows.

So please, stop going to these sessions. Go home and write instead.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Wrap-up of AHA Day 1: The Radical Hasn't Been To A Session Yet

And doesn't really expect to. I'll be lucky to make the book exhibit. Much as I would like to see some scholars perform their scholarship in groups, this year I am fated to see them do it one at a time in hotel rooms. Which is interesting, but not exactly the community experience one expects of a scholarly meeting. However, since Zenith seems to be one of the few schools that did not cancel its searches, it makes us minor celebrities. Thanks, (Not So) New President.

Yesterday's highlights outside of the hotel room where my search committee was meeting included brisk walks up and down the Avenue of the Americas (quickest cutover to the Doubletree, where our interviews are being held, is on 47th street - that way you exchange the clots of tourists on Broadway who stop and take pictures of each other in front of the ESPN studios for the not much lighter, but moving crowds on Sixth Avenue.) For reasons I am unclear about, since I lived in New York for years, my 24 hours at the Hilton has caused me to think back to my post-college days as a writer for an advertising agency, lodged on the 40th floor of a skyscraper two blocks north of this singularly unattractive hotel. I spent my days writing about what we did at the agency -- writing press releases for our clients, and articles for the company newsletter (entirely written and published by me) that kept everyone up to date on the latest AT&T campaign. Then one day this job, which I had imagined from the movies would be glamorous, came to resemble the Hanoi Hilton rather than the New York one down the street, and I went to graduate school. The rest, dear readers, is History.

Highlights of this meeting so far include a chance meeting in the registration center with Tom Sugrue, whose new book, Sweet Land of Liberty: the Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North I hope to receive free in the mail this spring as part of this year's Beveridge Prize reading. The day was concluded not, as you might imagine, by going to what looked to be an outstanding plenary sessions, but by cabbing it to Chelsea, where my Conn College neighbors James Downs and Jennifer Manion hosted a gay party. Topics of conversation included: the beautiful view from Jim's balcony, the economy, how long Jen should cook the pigs in blankets, canceled searches, how unbelievably beautiful Jim's apartment is, flatlined salaries, and how nice it was that Jim and Jen had had this party in the first place.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

It's A Radical New Year!

I awoke this morning, read a couple June Jordan essays (now there's a woman who could be a blogger), and opened my email to find that:

Tenured Radical has won the Cliopatria Award for Best Post of 2008! The post was published on June 19, and is entitled What Would Natalie Zemon Davis Do? A Few Meditations on Women's History and Women in History.

Wow! OK, I'm not going to embarrass you by doing a Sally Field. But sincere thanks go to the judges for including me in a group of prize-winning bloggers I couldn't admire more. And a special thanks and Happy 2009 to Ralph Luker and all the guys at last year's AHA Cliopatria dinner who were so welcoming in 2008.