Friday, October 30, 2009

How To Do Your Job: Stanley Fish, Save The World On Your Own Time

Save The World On Your Own Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Hardcover, $19.95.

Stanley Fish is a crank. An erudite crank, an influential crank, but a crank all the same. Which may be why I was inclined to like Save The World On Your Own Time, because although we are a different kind of crank, I occasionally found myself laughing and -- even when in strong disagreement -- refreshed to read someone who simultaneously cares deeply about the future of the academy and is willing to challenge us to re-think our key assumptions about our work. Even though I am not as well paid, or as accomplished, as Stanley Fish, I like to think that this blog plays a similar role and that I write in a similarly constructive spirit. Finally, I like him for being married to Jane Tompkins, who once wrote an engaging and truly wacky book about teaching, and I imagine that they must have a really interesting life together.

But the truth is that I have never read anything except an op-ed piece by Stanley Fish until yesterday, and that may change.

Fish, a literary and legal scholar, and one of the foremost authorities on the work of John Milton, first came to the attention of many of us beyond literary studies during his tenure as chair of the Duke English department, which he either ruined or took to transcendent heights, depending on where one stood in the culture wars. There, he was given an almost entirely free hand to hire and pay extravagant salaries to those who he considered to be the most cutting edge literary theorists: queer studies, for example finally got legs nationally in part because of Fish's support for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Moon. From there, Fish left to become the dean of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago from 1999 to 2004, which gave him an even wider scope to annoy people, and to hire a lot of really interesting people. Faculty hired under Fish's watch included Walter Ben Michaels (another opinionated literary scholar who has taken to broad-ranging critiques of the academy); and John D'Emilio, one of the finest scholar-activists in GLBT history, who had actually quit his academic job to become a full-time activist. Having read this book, my guess is that Stanley thought that was cool.

When I did a little research, I also found that Fish, who has a New York Times blog, is somewhat of an equal opportunity irritant, having been critiqued for his "radical relativism" by feminist Martha Nussbaum and anti-feminist Camille Paglia. That captures the spirit of Save The World On Your Own Time: in a hectoring tone that must have been self-consciously chosen, he gives us all a good piece of his mind, drawn from decades as a prestigious scholar and powerful administrator. There is something there for everyone, and I strongly advise you read it (particularly since, at Amazon, this little book only costs $13.00, and you can't even get most paperbacks as cheap as that.)

The book answers a simple question -- "What is the job of higher education and what is it that those who are paid to teach in colleges and universities are trained and paid to do?" The route to answering this question, in Fish's view, is embraced by three imperative that form a single ethic: "do your job....don't do somebody else's job and don't let someone else do your job."

My answer is simple. College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: (1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience, and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills -- of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure -- that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over.

If you think about it, that's a lot to ask.

Darn tootin' it is, but by the end of the book I was persuaded that it is not too much to ask. This simple statement (arrived at without a year of committee meetings, endless jargon and documents that faculty have fought over for a year in numerous venues) has a lot of appeal in a world where the job of a faculty member has grown more and more complex. Over seven short chapters, Fish repeats and elaborates on this mantra through three basic principles: faculty should not confuse their own political commitments with their teaching mission; faculty and students should not try to run the university or ask the university to act on their political commitments; and administrators should both govern effectively and act as forceful, and if necessary, aggravating advocates for the university and its mission.

During the course of the book, Fish goes after a lot of key issues, and the politicized classroom is foremost among them. Doing, or advocating for, whatever one likes in a college classroom is not protected by academic freedom, he argues, just because the person responsible is an academic: rather, studying, critiquing and writing about whatever one likes is protected by academic freedom. The central question about pedagogy should be similar to the question one would ask about such scholarship: is it good or bad? Is it effective? Has it conformed to the principles of responsible inquiry? Political issues are entirely suitable for the classroom when studied intellectually; these are also the criteria for what would constitute "good" or "bad" teaching of any subject, field or theoretical approach. In fact, Fish advocates on behalf of detaching "explosive issues" from their "real world urgency" and "academicizing" them for deployment in the classroom.(27) One would engage the question of whether George Bush was a good or bad president, for example, not by trading ideological barbs, but by asking students to debate what it means to be a good or bad president, and on what grounds one might make such a judgement.

But the teacher would not deliver herself of an opinion on the matter, nor would s/he encourage students to develop a consensus view that leaves one group of students an embattled, seething minority. To emphasize, Fish would argue the teacher's job is not to advocate, organize, or use the classroom as a place to persuade students of a particular political point of view. (87) Fish extends this critique to what is now common among liberal arts colleges like my own: trying to persuade potential parents and donors that what we do prepares students for twenty-first century citizenship and its dilemmas in any way that is different from what we did at the end of the twentieth century. Skewering what is now known as the "mission statement," he contends that it is not the purpose of the liberal arts education to produce better workers, mold an informed citizenry, send students out to work for social justice, or advance any kind of agenda whatsoever.(55) It is merely (and he would say that this is a big job) to educate students so that they can go out into the world to decide what they will do and how they will do it. To constantly be re-thinking and arguing for the "relevance" of the liberal arts education is to ignore what may be a larger truth: that such arguments with legislators, bureaucrats, parents and education "experts" are unwinnable, foolish and a waste of time. There may be no guaranteed use or exchange value to a liberal arts education. Despite this, we can still assert that the liberal arts plays a critical role in nurturing humanness and perpetuating civilization. In other words, stop marketing the liberal arts, and focus your time, effort and resources on teaching them.

I like these ideas, and I think everyone should read and think about them. I particularly like the idea of administrators doing their job well so that I can pay close attention to what I was educated for: teaching, scholarship and providing sane advice on who we ought to hire, not shadowing and carping at administrators. Like Fish, the older I get the less attached I am to shared governance. In part this is because I don't think there are many examples of faculties who have exercised it effectively and usefully, and in part, I don't think it exists except as something we gesture towards. I prefer a clear set of regulations that are effectively and fairly enforced by objective parties who are truly interested in what is going on at the level of the department and willing to intervene when people are being screwed. I would prefer pay equity. I would prefer a union. I would also prefer, as Fish suggests, to get all the information possible, to make the preferences and reasons for those preferences known, and then to forget about it while a set of competent administrators settles the issue in a way that is fair.(115)

OK, so we don't yet live in that world, but I would still like to. Under current systems of shared governance, vast amounts of energy go into tasks, small and large, that are delegated to faculty committees. There, initiatives that are usually hardly bold rot for months at a time and are decided on principle, not on whether they can be practically implemented or whether they support the teaching mission in a practical, legible way. In the rare event that interesting and unusual outcomes are agreed upon, such outcomes are not put into action effectively because even when faculty have agreed to something in principle they have done so on the assumption that any colleague who disagrees can exercise "academic freedom" by opting out. Preventing a member of the faculty from opting out of a curricular mandate passed by the faculty and listed in the catalogue is viewed as treachery if done by a faculty colleague and abuse of power if done by an administrator. And what a small minority of faculty do, or do not, believe can cause an initiative to be abandoned altogether.

I think this book is right about a great many things, although I think Fish often sees issues as "simple" or "easy" that are neither thing. As a scholar who has spent his career in large universities, he doesn't see the ways in which a principle like shared governance could be rehabilitated for a small college, where it can play an essential community-building role, and where administrators are a daily presence in the lives of many faculty, untenured and tenured. The desire to make issues clear-cut hits a particular nerve when Fish describes the line between teaching about politics and doing politics in the classroom as clear, and governed by ordinary rules of appropriate speech and behavior that are well-known to all. As he writes,

if I harass students, or call them names, or make fun of their ethnicity, or if I use class time rehearse my personal political views or attempt to win students over to them, I might well find myself in a disciplinary hearing, either because I am abusing my pedagogical authority or because I am turning the scene of instruction into a scene of indoctrination.(83)

Well, true enough. But, although this isn't a bad standard by which to judge one's own behavior, that is not usually the nature of the complaint or the problem. And while Fish reserves plenty of bile for conservative critics who pick apart syllabi for "balance," and comb voter registration list for faculty names, he ignores a large middle ground of struggle between faculty and students over what constitutes useful knowledge, how people teach and learn, and what role changing students' minds about what they already believe must ultimately play in a classroom for them to be receptive to a syllabus or set of readings at all. He spends little time on the art of listening, something that is sadly neglected in most academic settings. He completely neglects what I consider a big issue when one is considering the politicization of contemporary classrooms: that many academics have been inspired by politicized classrooms and don't have much perspective on why some students might be intimidated or angered by them. Worse, very little effort is put into teaching doctoral candidates, or young PhD's how to teach, what is an appropriate classroom ethic, how one might "academicize" volatile issues that are of great importance to students, and how one might make decisions about what is appropriate in the classroom. I am not suggesting that it isn't possible, but rather, that the assumption is that smart, accomplished people don't need to be taught how to teach and that is not true.

A final thought: it is interesting to me that so much work about the politics of the academy comes from literary scholars, and I wonder whether taking these questions to people in other fields would help us with that big middle that isn't holding Fish's interest. For example, how do we academicize good and evil? Teach Milton! Easy, right? Well perhaps not for the twentieth century historian, since that big middle is often populated with subjects and people who are not easy to depoliticize: whether, for example, to use communism, fascism, Peronism or American foreign policy for your discussion of good and evil are highly politicized choices in and of themselves. And while I respect the work of literature very deeply, I do get a little tired of constantly being told how easy or effective it is to do X, or Y, or Z by teaching a poem. But that aside, whatever you have heard about Stanley Fish, read this book and talk to your colleagues about it.

It's part of doing your job.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Next Week, For My Benefit, President Obama Will Play Basketball With Lesbians

What, exactly, has happened to feminism?

If Joanne Lipman's peculiar rant in yesterday's New York Times about why women should only blame themselves for the lack of gender equality in the so-called "post-feminist" world was not enough to inspire this question (see Historiann for extended commentary), read today's paper. A front-page story by Mark Leibovich features former Clintonista Dee Dee Myers wagging a finger at President Obama for playing sports with men. Forget it that a grown woman who calls herself Dee Dee, and whose job description seems to be pundit, is accusing the President of not taking female people seriously. Forget it that Dee Dee would know better than anyone that it is not always a good thing for the President to relax by playing with girls.

No, I am going to lay those issues aside and cut to the chase: who the President plays basketball with has nothing to do with key feminist issues like the right to choose, equal pay for equal work, violence, homelessness, child care, health care, social security, welfare or institutional discrimination.

That's right, you heard it here first. Back in the 1970s, feminists never really cared about whether the boys had a tree house or not, they cared about whether men were running the world and ruining women's lives from the tree house. Gender segregated social spaces, while they reinforced male privilege, were in fact only an effect and a fringe benefit of what virtually all men, of all social classes and political convictions, believed prior to women's liberation: that it was their natural, biological, divine and constitutional right to run the entire world and keep all the money, jobs, property, education and power for themselves. Men, as well as women, were encouraged to believe this by law, theology, psychiatry, and science. These fields were almost exclusively male because of schools that admitted almost no women; global churches that gave women no authority to interpret scripture; political parties that didn't promote women for public office; unions that didn't organize women or fight for their right to work; and corporations, universities, police forces, law firms, construction projects, brokerage houses, fire departments and hospitals that didn't hire women. Men hung onto their exclusive right to run the entire world until feminist politicians, attorneys and grass-roots activists (as well as male politicians who suddenly got it they could be elected by actually serving the interests of women voters) forced them to give it up by making gender discrimination illegal.

To return to the New York Times for a moment, what seems really sexist to me is the article itself. For narrative flow, Mark Leibovich relies on crude gender stereotypes of boyish boys who play sports and do guy-guy stuff; meanwhile the girly-girls at the White House plan showers and tea parties that the menz are excluded from. Describing Obama as a "an unabashed First Guy’s Guy," Leibovich notes that since he was elected the President "has demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of college hoops on ESPN, indulged a craving for weekend golf, expressed a preference for adopting a `big rambunctious dog' over a `girlie dog' and hoisted beer in a peacemaking effort."

Can I just say, Mark, that aside from the fact that they rarely get elected to anything, this would describe a lot of lesbians I know too? Or Sarah Palin?

OK, you might ask, what is Leibovich's take-away political point in this story? It is that "women" (the word feminism does not appear) will not trust the President to respect them or take their issues seriously because, when not with his wife and children, he socializes primarily with men. "While the senior adviser Valerie Jarrett is undeniably one of the president’s closest White House confidantes," he writes,

some women inside or close to the administration complain that Mr. Obama’s female advisers are not as visible as their male colleagues or, they suspect, as influential.

"Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer.

Is the point of the story to remind us that Hilary Clinton is not President? Enquiring minds want to know.

For Myers, "looking like" -- or what I would call proxy politics -- would be an acceptable substitute for serious policy commitments that might promote women's rights and/or proof that they exist. But hold your horses, my friends! You might remember that Bill Clinton looked like a feminist, and he filled his administration with women. But as it turned out, he treated individual women badly (including his very intelligent and capable wife, now Obama's Secretary of State), and promoted economic policies that were bad for women around the world. Recently I made an argument that it was a strategic error to mistake the mere inclusion of "people who look like me" for intellectual and institutional transformation, but I've got to say, Valerie Jarrett and Dee Dee Myers sure don't look like me. If Obama hired Nan D. Hunter of Georgetown Law we could get closer to someone who "looks like me," but to really nail it you would have to go for....oh, a gas station attendant in a Cold War film noir.

But to get back to politics, women's liberation, as a movement, relied on structural critiques for its great successes, not social critiques or gender essentialism. The idea that men who are in the company of other men are inherently incapable of reaching conclusions that are good for women is not a correct feminist analysis, or a logical one unless you believe in universal male stupidity, and it gives a great many men a big pass for a long history of discrimination. Feminist history teaches that one can, theoretically, trust a president who is not, at all times, accompanied by a simulacrum of "me." Why? Because who the President plays basketball or golf with (and I've got to ask, I know I have bad knees, but how many women over 35 are actually competing to be bumped and stomped at lunch by a bunch of menz?) does not need to be an issue, as long as the President works effectively with people -- women and men -- who take gender equity in all spheres of life seriously.

Like much of what passes for the media's coverage of national politics, Leibovich's article masks social commentary as political news and by doing so, drowns the potential for a feminist agenda in symbolic issues and hurt feelings. In the 1970s, feminists like Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the ACLU understood that breaking the barriers that kept women off the basketball court and out of the policy-making room required lawsuits and legislation, not socializing. By turning feminist ideas into pragmatic political action, they changed laws and policies that prevented women from access to all forms of work and education. Gender-segregated social space became important to feminist attorneys, not in and of itself, but when it facilitated the exclusion of women from participating equally in work (holding business meetings at men's clubs), or when women paid equal dues for unequal access (private athletic clubs, where women were barred from swimming so that men could swim in the nude or restricted to tennis and golf reservations in non-working hours.)

True, men often countered challenges to exclusive social spaces and schools by waxing eloquent about the importance of male-only spaces to manhood itself, justifications that feminist attorneys countered by pointing to the critical role these spaces had in corporate decision-making and professional networking. So I admit that social space and political space do overlap, and if competent, willing female Congressional aides had been overlooked when Obama's people were picking golf and basketball companions (the article presents no evidence that this is the case, only that it might be) I would be a little pissed. But I would probably still care more about the President's position on DOMA, ENDA or the Helms Amendment. What is wrong with sex segregation is when the men involved actually believe that women are not in the room because they are less intelligent and capable, not that men (or women for that matter) might play some pick-up hoops in between a foreign policy meeting run by Hilary Clinton and a skull session on the health care bill run by Kathleen Sibelius.

What this article best illustrates, once again, is not a political problem, but a distressing standard for what counts as good journalism in what is purportedly one of the nation's finest newspapers. Other than the fact that I am sick of the New York Times pandering to its right-wing critics by criticizing the President for something -- anything! -- and pandering to the soft news market with human interest stories about politicians, I would like to point out that in this post-JFK, post-Clinton, post-John Edwards moment, this feminist Democrat sleeps better at night knowing that, when not with his family, Obama relaxes by playing competitive sports with the boys, and is not wasting political capital that might otherwise be spent on health coverage for women and children on schtupping interns, videographers and campaign volunteers. As a feminist, I think that this is not only better for "women," but for the United States, and perhaps the world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Here's A Place To Begin Reforming Health Care: A Letter To My (Former) Primary Care Physician

Dear Dr. PCP,

I called your office this morning at 9 a.m. because I realized this morning that a cold I had yesterday had triggered an asthma attack. I am currently on maintenance medications for asthma (Singulair and Zyrtec), which means I am almost never actively asthmatic. The corollary to this is that when an asthma attack commences I know that the situation is potentially serious, and I explained this to the woman who answered the telephone at your office. I asked for a prescription refill for an albuterol inhaler and an Azmacort inhaler, and told the administrator that my history of asthma, and the drugs I have been prescribed in the past (including these) could be found in my file. This is what followed:

I offered to come in to the office if a doctor wished to see me before refilling my prescriptions.

The administrator said that you were out of the office, but that there was an appointment open at 9:45 with another doctor if I wished to come in.

I said I had no need to come in, but that I was free all day (and certainly at 9:45) and she should ask whatever doctor would see me if he wanted to see me prior to prescribing (since we are all being told, because of H1N1, to stay home when we have undefined flu-like illnesses) and because you yourself advised me not to come into the office when I called with a high fever less than three weeks ago. The administrator said she would call me back and let me know whether to come in or not, and she took down all the information necessary to prescribe.

At 10:15, having heard from no one, I assumed the doctor had simply called the prescription in. I called Walgreen’s because I could tell my asthma was getting worse and I needed to begin to treat it more aggressively before it became more critical. After 15-20 minutes of being on hold at Walgreen’s I discovered that no prescriptions had been called in.

I called the office back to ask about the office visit and the prescription, and was told that because I had not been in the office for four years (which I actually do not think is true, as I have seen you at least twice since Dr. X left, but I realize I could be wrong about this) the doctor could not prescribe without me coming into the office.

At this point, I became exasperated and asked why she had not called me back and told me that so that I could have come in at 9:45. She said she had left a message on my office voice mail. In fact, she had never asked me where I could be reached; my office is in Zenith; and I was at home (sick) in Shoreline. She told me that there was an appointment at 1:50 and I could have that. I told her I was having an asthma attack now, it needed to be treated, and that wasn’t good enough. She put me on hold.

The administrator returned to the telephone to ask me if I was insured, something a look at my file would have clearly revealed (as well as the fact that she had just left a message at the job listed in the file), but which seemed more than insensitive given the circumstances.

Subsequently Dr. XY got on the phone and explained that was the best that could be done, and that if my asthma was really so bad that I could not wait three hours, I should go to the emergency room. He too reproved me for a four-year gap in visiting the office. I recounted the sequence of events in which I had attempted to come to the office earlier in the day and had not been contacted by the office, and he failed to acknowledge that this had even happened. I told him to forget it, that I would obtain an emergency prescription from my gynecologist, Dr. XX of Zenith, who makes it her business to be aware of my total medical profile; that I was inclined to find another physician because of my experience today; and that I thought I was at least due an apology for how the office had bungled this. He declined to apologize for the non-responsiveness of the office, reiterated that the responsibility lay with me for not having come to the office recently enough, and reiterated his advice about the emergency room, suggesting that I call 911 if I was truly in distress.

Now, from my perspective, what went wrong here?

I had offered to come into the office twice in the first phone call, and it would have been the work of a moment for your administrator to look in my file and discover that office procedures would prohibit the prescriptions being refilled without an office visit. I would have made the appointment and come in immediately, without asking for a callback.

The administrator might have put me on hold, talked to the doctor briefly, and asked me to come in; or just asked me to come in, as a precaution, without talking to the doctor.

Failing either of these, the administrator ought to have ascertained, at minimum, where I could be reached in person. For all she knew, when she left a message I was blacking out for lack of oxygen and unable to reach the telephone. I have never heard of a doctor’s office not asking where a patient can be reached. I have never heard of a doctor’s office simply leaving a message on a machine after having been notified of an ongoing, potentially serious, medical condition and not making an attempt to reach the patient at another number listed in the file.

No one seemed to be inclined to look at my file.

Because of errors made by your office, had I not had an attentive gynecologist who makes it her business to know the state of my health, what could have been cared for in a short office visit might have ended in an hours-long, expensive visit to the emergency room. I have never had a physician act as though seeking emergency care from Shoreline EMS and local hospitals was a reasonable way to resolve a health problem that could be at least temporarily resolved without emergency care.

I was not asking for opiates or any drug that might indicate a substance abuse problem: I was asking for asthma medications as a patient whose condition is documented at your office. They could have been prescribed at the time of my second call when it was clear that the administrator had not reached me. If Dr. XY felt he needed to see me, I would have been happy to come in at 1:50 to consult. But that was not offered as an option, and instead I was treated as though I was cruising around town trying to score asthma medications (for what reason I or any other person would do this, I am not clear.)

No one in the office, from the administrators I spoke to up to Dr. XY, seemed inclined to admit that I had any reason to be distressed about how the situation was being handled (which I was, very much so.) Even when I told Dr. XY that his staff person had inexplicably left a message on my office voice mail and had never asked where I could be reached he did not acknowledge that the office had made a mistake; nor did he indicate that he or I had any reason to really be concerned about my asthma short of an attack so severe that I would end up in the hospital. Rather, it was the clear inference that I was unreasonable in my demands, and he too reproved me for not having been to the office recently enough. And yet, consider the following:

When I scheduled a physical with you, Dr. PCP, after Dr. X left town, I asked if I should return yearly. You said no and were vague as to when another physical would be prudent: the clear inference was that you would be reluctant to see me unless I was actually ill. Your office has never contacted me, on the telephone or in writing, to ask me to come in for another wellness visit. My other physicians do tell me when it is time to schedule an appointment, and I see my gynecologist (at her request) once a year.

If it has been four years since my last office visit, I have called at least four times to have my asthma maintenance medications renewed for 12-month refills, and your office has complied. Although I do recall one person I talked to noting that I had not been in to the office for some time, she did not tell me that this was a significant issue for my relationship to the practice. At no point have I been told that it was necessary or desirable to come in for an office visit, even though I am clearly being treated for chronic asthma.

Several weeks ago, I had a sustained fever of 103 for several hours and called your office for an appointment, because at that point public information was that this might be an indicator of an H1N1 infection. I received a prompt return telephone call from you, in which you told me that since the fever had subsided there was no need for me to come in. Again, this would have been an opportunity to suggest I schedule a wellness appointment with the office.

Asthma is one of the underlying conditions that can cause a potential H1N1 infection, or any flu-like illness, to become deadly, even in an otherwise healthy middle-aged person.

In short, rather than being treated like a patient today, I was treated like a problem, and a person who has neglected her responsibilities towards your office – when, in fact, I have not been encouraged to visit the office, even when I call to say that I am ill or need prescription refills. Only once was this mentioned, and it was in the form of a reproof that I did not know how to interpret.

I am sure it was very unpleasant for the administrator and Dr. XY to have to talk to me today once I became upset. I would be inclined to offer an apology of my own, but for their failure at the time to acknowledge that I had reason to be distressed, or that I had a right to care short of a critical medical situation that might require attention on an emergency basis; and that today’s delay in treating a developing condition had been caused by them. Their continual insinuation that this was really all my fault for not having met a responsibility to the practice was insulting and hurtful, as was what now seems like the desire to dispose of me altogether if I turned out to be a person without insurance.

I realize that the current state of medical care is difficult for all of us, doctors and physicians: as the daughter, granddaughter and niece of physicians I am well aware that the state of play has changed in a way that benefits neither patient or physician. But that does not alter what seems to me a series of problems I have encountered with this practice since Dr X’s departure, and Dr. XY treating me as though I were a potential litigant rather than a sick person in need of assistance. I do not trust your office to deal with a routine, but serious, health matter appropriately and sensitively. Please mail a copy of my records to:

(my home)


T. Radical, Ph. D.

A copy of this letter has been mailed to Dr. PCP. Names have been changed to protect....uh, me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ask The Radical: Have You Stopped Discriminating Against Republicans Yet? Or; Do Political Views Count As Diversity?

The other day the Radical mailbox yielded the following:

Dear Dr. Radical,

Occasionally a parent, a trustee or an alumnus/a approaches me who wants to know how many conservatives we have on our faculty, and why we do not diversify our teaching staff by hiring more conservatives. Alternatively, the query might be framed around political party affiliation: how many registered Republicans are on the faculty, and why do students not have opportunities to take more classes from Republicans? Such questioners often frame their inquiry in terms of the university's stated interest in hiring and retaining a diverse faculty. Others claim that a student they know well has complained of finding the campus unfriendly to conservative thought, had difficulty in finding teachers and classes that reflect a conservative point of view, or had no choice but to take classes that are so relentlessly liberal in their orientation as to be boring and repetitive.

How should I respond to such questions?


A Top Administrator

This isn't the first time this question has been posed directly to me, or in my presence. Usually it makes me want to leave the room for a cup of tea while other people discuss it. How anyone actually knows the political makeup of any given faculty is beyond me, unless they have really devoted time to studying it. More importantly, generalizations about the political orientation of faculties seems to me to be one of the huge grab bag of non-issues invented by a right-wing that is blatantly hostile to education more generally. Despite what seems to me to be a partisan agenda inherent in the question, and its lack of fit with the world of education I inhabit, the notion that secular campuses are hotbeds of left-wingery is one of the more successful ways that conservative assumptions have penetrated mainstream thought. When I was young, prior to a political moment when telling casual, ironic jokes about violence against women was revealed as not-funny, adults used to refer to questions that had no good answer as being similar to the following: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Yes would reveal a reformed wife-beater, while no… well, you get the point.

See? Not funny. But the lesson about how rhetoric alone can create stigma is a good one. The reason this bad joke comes to mind is that top administrators, because of their role as spokespeople for and caretakers of institutions of higher learning, are, in part, paid to answer such inquiries from people who support colleges and universities financially - boards of education, legislators, alumni/ae, trustees and parents. They are not paid to answer such questions when posed by organizations like David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom ("How can you get a good education if they are telling you only half the story?" the website asks), Stanley Fish and other scholars who see themselves as fully engaged in the battle against campus liberalism (which is what is meant when people refer to the problem of "political correctness.") But they try, and usually not very successfully.

Therefore, while I can't "answer" the question that has no answer (and neither can you, Top Administrator), I would like to take a stab at reframing the issue by looking at its component parts: why is the question framed as if the political beliefs of faculty members constitute a form of diversity (equivalent to race or gender) that a responsible administration should attend to; what does this have to do with education; and should students be interrogating faculty, or faculty interrogating each other, about their politics?

Why is the question framed as if the political beliefs of faculty members constituted a form of diversity (equivalent to race or gender) that a responsible administration should attend to? I think this points to residue from the various challenges to the academy that were posed by the civil rights and feminist movements that is rarely examined nowadays: under what conditions does identity matter? And what do we mean by identity anyway? And is diversity really about having different "identities" represented on one's faculty? And when did one's political stance become an "identity"?

Strictly speaking, diversity used to mean a university paying serious attention to redressing various forms of discrimination against people whose race or gender was, for centuries, seen as unsuited to serious intellectual labor. By the 1970s, legal mandates about representation began to set the standard for integrating one's faculty; but in the last ten years challenges to what we used to call affirmative action diluted institutional efforts considerably. Nowadays, affirmative action training usually begins and ends with a handout that asks us all gently and suggestively to "look around the room" and "notice who isn't there" when we are making hiring decisions.

This is the state of play now, and it is terrible hiring policy for so many reasons, not the least of which is the assumption that you can look around the room and know who is there and not there. It has nothing to do with guarding against active discrimination against people or points of view; in fact, it asks us to make independent, presumptuous judgments that can easily conflate the person we think we see with a point of view we assume that person will have. It asks established scholars to believe that everyone in a job search is equally credentialed and that the intellectual requirements for a job are interchangeable as long as you get the right body in the room. It creates no mechanism for actually making departments more diverse because there is no common understanding about why departments are not diverse in the first place, what kind of "differences" might be intellectually generative, or what constitutes a fair hiring policy. In fact, one wonders why we are talking about political orientation at all when current hiring practices still seem to be producing faculties that are overwhelmingly white in a nation steadily becoming more brown; or why some departments are persistently so male when there are ample numbers of female Ph.D.s on the market in that discipline.

What the failure of affirmative action opened the door to, in my view, is a kind of vague idea in secular institutions that any kind of "difference" could be articulated as an "identity," and that a representation of all "identities" -- even if the faculty as a whole was pretty monolithic otherwise -- solved a problem of employment discrimination that few people wanted to discuss in the first place. As a political progressive, I can attest that people of good will affirm a great many things that we have no real basis for believing. We also tend to ignore the fact that the fruits of our labors have been pretty mixed when it comes to achieving integration or intellectual diversity on our faculties. That conservatives are now stepping up and claiming a piece of the pie seems like a logical outcome of this; that conservatism is being claimed as an "identity" seems to me to be the price you pay to get into the game.

So one of the things I would advise, Top Administrator, is that you respond to queries of this sort by saying that good hiring policies prohibit asking any job candidate about partisan affiliations, sexuality, marital status, or philosophical positions that are not relevant to the job description at hand. But I would also suggest that you ask departments to periodically discuss with each other why they hire the people they do; what their needs are; and whether what they perceive as their hiring needs actually reflect the newest and most interesting developments in their fields.

What does this have to do with education? The collapse of the academy as a white male preserve in the first place had at least as much to do with barring formal discrimination as it did recruiting and encouraging those who had been excluded for centuries. But, aside from making it possible for a wider variety of people to do intellectual work and creating vibrant fields of study, why did opening up the academy really matter? Well, we're not sure, because that question was never answered except by vague gestures that inferred the following: the only reason women and people of color had not taken their rightful place in the academy was that they had low self-esteem and didn't pursue advanced work. Mentoring -- by people "like them," and beginning at the undergraduate level-- would solve this problem.

This idea that the overwhelming whitemaleness of the academy was no one's fault, but merely due to a lack of mentoring and role models (despite abundant evidence that women, Jews and people of color with excellent self-esteem were actively barred and discouraged from pursuing higher education for generations) presents us with a funny little historical contradiction. On the one hand, it is an unquestioned assumption that non-white, non-male (or as feminist John Stoltenberg used to put it, "non-penised") individuals need to see people "like them" in the classroom, in order to aspire to excellence. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that most of what constitutes an "establishment" of senior scholars in women's studies, African American Studies, queer studies and ethnic studies (who are women and people of color) managed to aspire to and achieve excellence by working with scholars who were, in fact, overwhelmingly penised and white. Those of us who were educated in the 1970s and 1980s know perfectly well that a teacher doesn't have to "look like me" to be an excellent mentor, and that teachers who do "look like me" are sometimes generous, and sometimes can be cruel and discouraging.

In other words, despite the fact that we don't actually know whether identity matters in the classroom, we continue to assert that it does. Again, why wouldn't conservatives want a piece of the pie if this were how the game is played? Why wouldn't the vision of sad little teenaged conservatives with low self-esteem, being discriminated against or ignored by mean-spirited liberals who don't see them for "who they really are", be a logical extension of the parable progressives tell about defeating race, gender and religious discrimination in the academy in the latter half of the twentieth century?

So Top Administrator, assuming you still have the attention of the individual who asked the question, this is what you need to say: that good teaching means attending to, listening to, and taking seriously all of one's students. And being a good student means beginning with the assumption that when you are criticized by a teacher it is meant positively, not as a wholesale condemnation of who you are as a person.

Finally, we live in an imperfect world and schools are a reflection of that -- not a refuge from it. Taking account of negative reactions to your ideas and meeting critiques with thoughtful, articulate and well researched responses is the primary responsibility of a student. Studding a transcript with grades achieved by telling people in authority what you think they want to hear is not. Hearing only positive responses to what one already believes is a path to complacency and irrelevance, on the left or on the right. In the end, when students truly feel overwhelmed and unheard, it isn't a question of political discrimination. Any professor who is teaching ideology without permitting, encouraging and modeling critique is not teaching well. The corollary to that is that students who fear reasonable criticism to the extent that they refuse to disagree or support their disagreement with cogent arguments are gaming the system for grades, not growing intellectually.

Should students be interrogating faculty, or faculty interrogating each other, about their politics? Interrogating, no. Be interested and constantly inquiring, yes. Recently Cary Nelson (the other Tenured Radical, or some might say, the original one) was on our campus and stated unequivocally that he believed professors should model advocacy in the classroom because it is an important component of citizenship. Students, he argued, need to learn how to articulate and fight for what they care about. I agree with this. Most of our students won't go on to be academics; some will go on to be lawyers; but all will continue on in life as citizens. My one reservation is that I think one can often advocate convincingly for things one does not believe, and that a good teacher does this: again, it isn't my responsibility to send students out in the world as much "like me" as possible, but rather to model excellent intellectual inquiry so that they can learn how to be their best selves. Listening carefully to, and accurately representing, things you do not believe is an important component of much advocacy.

What I would argue strongly against is encouraging an atmosphere of suspicion between students and faculty. Regardless of actual time spent a deux, the relationship between teacher and learner is an intimate one, and it can be productively or destructively intimate. Constructive intimacy would include assuming that both parties are of good faith; that either party can make an error without being charged with deliberate deception, stupidity or bad faith; that either party can say what s/he believes and be heard out; that skepticism is healthy and productive; and that the classroom atmosphere is safe for the introduction of a minority perspective that has some basis in fact and is conducive to logical argument. A constructively intimate relationship would allow either party to argue a position s/he does not believe in, possibly to test the consequences of that paradigm shift as a strategy for truth seeking, without being accused of lying or currying favor.

Where conservatives are not helping students at all, in my view, is when they encourage them to assume that faculty members are by nature untrustworthy (in fact, probably liars) unless they "come out" as conservatives themselves. So, Top Administrator, a final piece of good advice would be to advise your questioner that a student only has a limited number of classes to take in college, and that student needs to make the most of every one of them by finding the teachers who nourish an intellectual atmosphere where they are best able to learn.

A final word: unlike other forms of diversity, it is impossible to cherish the fantasy that you can eyeball a faculty meeting and know how many conservatives there are, nor would many people who actually are conservative always describe themselves that way. A fair number of people are conservative on some issues and progressive on others. In addition, academic watchdogs rushing down to the registrar of voters to see whether we are all registered as Democrats has led to the assumption that the "conservatives" on a faculty would naturally be "Republicans." But this flies in the face of what we know about politics, and how regional party affiliation is. Yes, I know that the Republican Party believes it has the lock on conservatism, but the national debate on health care reform and the current deal making in the Senate is a reminder that although there are few Republican liberals left, there are lots of conservative Democrats. My guess is that there isn’t a single Republican in my department (because to be a Republican in Zenith is to commit yourself to voting in politically irrelevant primaries over and over again), but I could name several self-proclaimed conservatives off the top of my head, and most of the department occupies a big, fat -- oops, I mean vital -- center, not any kind of a left.

Top Administrator, don't be pushed around by this one. It's a canard. But your campus may, like mine, be very liberal all the same. In that case, you need to emphasize that it can be bracing to be a conservative student in what seems to be an overwhelmingly liberal environment; the opposite can be equally bracing. I would also argue that no student at a place like Zenith, who will graduate having taken classes from a maximum of 32 scholars out of over 200, is in a position to judge what the political slant of the faculty as a whole is, and that would be even more true of very large schools. When students talk about the burden of political correctness, they are, in fact, usually talking about their fear of being disliked by those they see the most of: other students, who can say incredibly harsh things to those they disagree with, and need no help from the faculty to encourage them to do so.

But in the end, what is wrong with asking when we stopped hiring Republicans is that to answer it on its own terms is to accept the premise that education is more or less a cookie cutter, and that all schools should be all things to all people. It puts the onus for delivering a good education on ideology, not pedagogy, and fails to underline each student's responsibility for stepping up to the plate intellectually wherever s/he happens to be enrolled. It reinforces the notion that original thinking is dangerous, that grades rest on whether the student is well liked and can repeat what the teacher "wants" to hear. It assumes that good ideas require safety, not risk-taking; that a student is learning best when s/he is comfortable and in an affirming space. It encourages students to interpret discomfort and uncertainty as a sign that one's education is being mishandled. And whereas conservative activists are quick to judge liberal universities for excluding conservatives, they don't seem to worry about conservative and religious schools erecting explicit ideological barriers to employment, and restricting ideas that can be presented in a classroom. Many young right-wingers choose to go to schools that are famous for their conservatism, where there is a substantial conservative presence, schools that have "morals clauses" restricting faculty employment and matriculation, and where graduation requirements do not include grappling with moral worlds and ideas a student does not understand, does not wish to engage or to which s/he is already opposed.

If a conservative student has chosen your college, Top Administrator, that student must want what you and your faculty have to offer. Be ready to say what that is.


Tenured Radical has been on an unplanned hiatus because of participation in the Head of the Charles regatta and a simultaneous effort to complete some long overdue work for people who still publish on paper, set deadlines, blah, blah, blah. Many apologies to those who have checked for new posts repeatedly and left weeping. Results for the Grand Master Women's Singles can be found here: look towards the bottom of the list.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Call For Papers: The Fifteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women

The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians has just posted its call for papers for the 15th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, which will be held at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, June 9-12, 2011. The theme is "Generations," and the link to the call will remain in the sidebar at left until March 1 2010, the closing date for proposals.

As your favorite Radical has been a program chair in the past, and remains an active member of the organization, here are answers to a few frequently asked questions:

Do you have to be a woman to attend this conference? Oh, what is a woman anyway: as Denise Reilly would say, "Am I that name?" No, you don't have to be a woman to participate or attend, but you will certainly have a better time if you are interested in feminism and/or scholarship on women. There are some men who are regulars (Tom Dublin, Danny Walkowitz, Marc Stein and Kevin Murphy spring to mind immediately), and others who attend as many women do, because they have been invited to participate or because they happen to be in the neighborhood.

Are the conference organizers really interested in scholarship on race? Yes, and every kind of scholarship that attends to a racial analysis: colonial and post-colonial scholarship, the histories of slavery, immigration and migration, Native American, First Nations and indigenous studies, borderlands, Atlantic studies, whiteness studies, subaltern studies (OK, you keep naming them -- and put some people from these fields on your panel, ok?) If you are working in these areas, be assured that many of the women you most admire will be at the conference, and you should be too. And if your scholarship has not yet intersected with important new global and transnational scholarship that highlights the histories of people of color? There's plenty of time to start reading and get ready to meet senior and rising young historians where they are.

Are graduate students welcome? Most definitely. In fact, many of us who are now officers and strong supporters of the organization originally attended the conference as graduate students, and it became one of our first introductions to doing institutional work with, and developing genuine friendships with, senior scholars. You will have the most fun if you come with a group of friends, so start planning now. But guaranteed, you will make new friends, sometimes really good ones.

OK, but are graduate students welcome as participants? Again, absolutely -- and you may find, as a feminist scholar and/or a historian of women, that this is a particularly generative location for your work. Things to think about in putting together a proposal might be:

Work across institutions. In other words, your co-panelists should not be your most immediate colleagues. The point of a conference is not performance (although performance can be fun); or a line on your vita. The point is intellectual exchange that pushes your work forward. Think about diversity as well, and if you can, internationalize your panel.

Find a senior scholar to comment on your panel who you genuinely want to engage with. This may require you conferring with one or more of your mentors to ask them to make an introduction for you. Often assistant professors will be the best people to make these connections, because they know a broader range of young scholars whose books are just coming out, and whose work might best speak to yours.

Try to think of a paper to give that will be interesting to you and everyone else almost two years from now. One of the observations I would make about the Berks is that, because it has a longer lag time from acceptance to presentation, and because graduate student time moves more quickly, the paper you wanted to give can seem a little stale by the time the conference really rolls around. Some of the best panels, bar none, that I hear at conferences are focused on methodological issues and questions of evidence, not uncovering something (you think) no one has heard about yet. Round tables can be particularly vital.

Will it be a relentlessly Americanist conference? Lord no, but we rely on you to work actively to put international scholars on your panels. By this we mean not just non-United States specialists, but people who live and work outside the United States (which includes Canada and Mexico, my friends -- not so far away geographically, but sometimes not as much on our radar as they should be.) Some money becomes available to support travel to the US for scholars who need it, but you might want to also dig through institutional coffers to see if you can help at an early stage.

Is there a dance? Oh yes. One of the best.

Will I have a good time? Double yes. It is unlike any other conference, including we can guarantee you will not have to cross picket lines to get into it. Since we are meeting in Happy Valley, unlike San Diego, any homophobia or transphobia you encounter will be entirely aberrational, and will be suppressed immediately by roving bands of lesbian monitors recruited from the Northampton vicinity. ("That's a joke, son!")

Oh, and by the way? The stars will be out, I promise. I will be there; so will Historiann, and I would be shocked if Knitting Clio did not attend. Because GayProf will have finished his Never Ending Project of Doom, we will insist on his attendance as well.

Monday, October 05, 2009

More Annals of the Great Depression: Why We Are All Californians

Non-academics probably don't know that this article by Judith Butler about the September 24 protests at UC-Berkeley (thanks to Facebook, Twitter and a cross-post at Bully Bloggers) is starting to go viral. If you haven't read Butler's piece because you dread academic writing, have no fear. It is a lucid and forceful explication, by a faculty leader in this movement, about what is at stake when public education becomes a privilege, not a right.

One item of significance, in my view, is that this article was published in a British newspaper, not in the New York Times or the Washington Post. On the one hand, I want to say, what is that about? On the other hand, sadly, I know what that is about. For Americans, education is every man or woman for his or herself. Americans say they value education, but they don't seem to value the thought, planning or expenditures necessary to sustain and fight for the institutions that make an educated society possible. Nor, and I would say the elitism of many academics is partly to blame here, do they care much about extending educational opportunities in the most inclusive way possible.

Hence, it no longer common sense that public universities actually be accessible to the public, nor is there much conversation about what private institutions have at stake in returning to some semblance of accessibility and service to a larger public good. This moment, when our way of life at elite institutions has finally become unsustainable, is a critical time to rethink that and we need to look to what is going on in public colleges and universities to see where common interests lie and common action might be taken. What is occurring in California is drastic. As Butler notes, one component of the budget shortfall forced on the UC systems has been cutting programs, courses and faculty (East Asian languages and Arabic have been part of the damage -- now that's a good response to our changing world!) Another has been cutting lecturers and replacing faculty who have left the university. A third has been tuition hikes of 40%.

But some version of this scenario is occurring everywhere.

As culprits, Butler specifically cites a bloated administration, huge budgets for intercollegiate athletics, and, most importantly, a dysfunctional state government in Sacramento. Building on Butler's analysis, however, I would add that there is something else at stake too. This crisis has been a long time coming, since the 1980s at least, when federal and state governments began to pull public resources from educational institutions, attack academia as a bastion of out-of-touch left wingery. Policies like tenure, which were designed to stabilize faculty and nurture research, were condemned as economically inflexible, and colleges and universities of all kinds began to run curricula on adjunct labor as a matter of de facto policy. Defunding of higher education -- based on conservative ideologies designed to starve the state and re-shape public institutions on a free market model -- resulted in steadily raised tuition and the expectation that students and their families would bear the burden of those tuition increases by taking out loans. In many cases, we now discover, that money came out of refinancing homes in an inflated real estate market, something parents were required to do as a condition for grants and financial aid. I have recently heard from several faculty in the first decade of their careers that they expect to be paying back loans taken out for college as well a for graduate school: hence, the salary freezes and furloughs that are being imposed at campuses across the nation, public and private, are having a disproportionate effect on a generation of scholars who have the least influence on policy and the leanest household budgets already.

And of course, there have been much broader effects of shifting the burden of paying for higher education onto students. Many years ago, I recall sitting in a meeting with an administrator responsible for setting fiscal policy who argued that asking students to take out tens of thousands of dollars for a Zenith education was not wrong because it was "an investment." He compared that investment to a mortgage, good debt as opposed to bad debt.

Well it's certainly a better debt than spending $30,000 on shoes. But young people paying back such loans are not buying houses either -- oops! I forgot! They were buying houses, with no money down and interest only payments on a thirty- year ARM.

But I digress. I have a much larger point to make here, which is that academics need to start paying attention to the whole picture. I would like to hear that happy "pop" all over the country, as we pull our heads out of where they have been and realize that this isn't just about the library cuts, it isn't just about the salaries, it isn't just about the standards movement and the demise of anything that might look like progressive education, it isn't about the job market. It's about the whole system and how it works. Here, from my point of view, are four basic issues:

The fate of each form of education is inextricably linked to the fate of its apparent opposite: public schools are linked to private schools, religious schools to secular ones; four-years to community colleges; elite to non-elite. Faculty and administrators need to start responding to that reality and acting collectively with their regional counterparts to make demands on state and local governments to restore cuts in higher education that have been made over the course of decades. Why are we having such trouble staunching the bleeding in the current economic crisis? In part it is because we have hit the limits of what privatization of education, and funding institutions on the backs of private debt rather than public appropriations, can accomplish. A fundamental reorganization of fiscal priorities at the level of government must ensue: defunding of war, of prison, and the elimination of tax incentives for corporations is a place to begin. Faculty and administrations everywhere are currently engaged in a contest as to which stone they are going to try to squeeze blood from next, and that isn't how this problem will be fixed. We need a fresh infusion of cash that takes us back to pre-1980 levels, adjusted for inflation.

Faculty and administrators need to stop arguing with each other and begin fighting the state for the quality education Americans deserve. If there is any lesson to the current crisis it is this: funding higher ed on the backs of students and through private endowments is unstable and unsupportable over the long term. Imagine if a fraction of the funds that have been made available to the military, to the financial industry and to the auto industry were made regularly available to education. And yet, where exactly do we think our next generation of military officers, government workers and foreign policy planners; our bankers and finance executives; our tech workers, teachers, mortgage brokers and businessmen are supposed to come from?

Faculty and administrators need to organize themselves, not just for collective self-interest, but for the no-interest student loans and federal programs that offer tuition in exchange for public service; they need to fight against budget-sucking, government-mandated evaluation instruments that pour education dollars into the pockets of private consultants and contractors; they need to fight for government subsidies for full employment in higher ed that can given the current army of adjunct faculty full salaries and job security (and give us all small classes and manageable course loads.) In other words, when we fight for ourselves we need to do so in ways that are in solidarity with the interests of our students. We need to fight for increased funding for the most accessible form of higher education there is, community colleges, and we need to fight for government programs that help students who have achieved an Associates Degree go on to the most competitive four-year school they can get into. We need to talk to students about why our struggles are their struggles, and vice versa, we need to enlist students in our struggles, and we need to organize. Now.

College and university presidents need to make some kind of collective statement as to what constitutes reasonable expenditures, and the first thing to go should be expenditures aimed at marketing the university. Educational institutions should stand or fall on the quality of the education they offer, period: not the beauty of their dorms, not the national standing of their athletic teams or the latest redesign of their Helly Hanson college gear. As academic programs go under the knife and loan burdens escalate, we are told that vast expenditures on D-I sports are necessary. And yet a fraction of the athletes who play any college sport will become professionals in any capacity, while the expectation is that virtually all science majors will go on to have a science related job. Most scholar-athletes would benefit just as much from a less professionally packaged program: one proof of this is that two Zenith alumni are current NFL coaches. Athletic programs should stand or fall on the quality of the scholar-athlete they produce, not television contracts, Bowl appearances or the glitter of the new stadiums they can persuade politicians and alumni to build. And the burden should not just be on athletics: every time a new student center or dormitory is built, an institution automatically increases its maintenance budget. Often this budget is met by forcing students to live and eat on campus, when historically students have devoted what dollars they had to tuition and books by living collectively off campus.

We need to take an honest look at what gives us prestige and why, and stop devoting dollars to glitzy budget items that make schools into pop cultural phenomena. If alumni and politicians don't understand why a new football stadium has nothing to do with education, we need to stop being such snobs and take it upon ourselves to explain to them why that is.

Colleges and universities must stop competing with each other and begin coordinating themselves by region, and in some cases, nationally. I can't think of a single reason why the private and religious institutions in the state of Connecticut do not band together to form a regional health care cooperative that could bargain more effectively with our insurance companies. If there is a law against it, we should work to change it. Speaking to a recent budget dilemma showcased on Tenured Radical, I cannot think why there should not be a national tuition exchange which every institution can join. This cooperative venture would ensure that all their employees, from janitorial staff to occupants of distinguished chairs, can educate their families at a reasonable fee adjusted to their salary level and at the best and most appropriate school for each prospective student.

Most important, and this will be the hardest thing for some of us to abandon, we must all give up the notion that the prestige attached to some of us entitles us to greater consideration. This is perhaps the greatest lesson of the protests in the California system which, a system that for almost a century has dedicated itself to lifting up every citizen who was willing to study hard and dedicate him or herself to learning.

That is the mission, my friends: that is what we are here for. When we organize only on behalf of our own salary, benefits and research accounts, institution by lonely institution, we are missing the big picture. But if we get the big picture, and are willing to work across the class and interest lines that currently divide us, the rest will come.

We are all Californians now.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Discriminating Tastes: What People Who Are Not Normal Might Know That You Don't Know

One of the things that prompting my last post about the restructuring of institutional benefits during a period of budget cutting was not, as some people assumed, that I think cutting faculty compensation is a viable way to save higher education. I don't. Rather, my concern was that the failure to address compensation inequities already in place means that in a period where we might potentially rethink and repair such inequities, many people, in the name of radical opposition to The Man, can only draw the wagons closer around what already exists. More progressive change, they argue, is unrealistic in a crisis, and must be put off to a distant future, when utopia will be possible. This is the pattern of debates over national health care, and it is a belief currently prevalent at private institutions that have done for the select few what the state refuses to do for everyone (hence supporting the following equation: salaried labor = health care = virtue.) Worse, in my view, is that periods of "reform" enshrine prejudices that, in turn, become the standard for what is "normal." This, as I discuss in that post, is one of the lessons of the New Deal.

That the current crisis might be related to structural inequities, and the skewed ethics that support such inequities, is hard for people to focus on (unless they are thinking about Wall Street) because they know best the world they already live in and take for granted. So imagine my delight when I discovered Richard Thompson Ford's excellent piece in Slate las Wednesday, A Primer on Racism: The Many Uses Of The Word And How Legit They Are. It is a must-read for anyone who enters the thorny waters of trying to talk openly about the question of bias, a conversation few people wish to have. (This is the vast majority of people, in my experience, progressive and conservative.) Ford usefully points out that the form of racism where someone will simply state, categorically, that white people are smarter, better, cleaner, more capable, or more law-abiding than people of color is rarely apparent nowadays, even though that is the stereotype invoked when the term "racist" is used. Being stereotyped, and stigmatized, is why people so resent and fear being labeled as racist, sexist or homophobic, and why, in turn they don't like to risk discussing discrimination at all.

So what, according to Ford, are we not talking about when we are not talking about racism? Most dominant, he argues, is institutional racism "when often the racial inequity is unintended" but the injustice is contained in "practices that contain built-in headwinds for minority candidates." Or we might be talking about environmental racism, in which the "headwinds" are toxic living conditions that are descended from segregationist practices and are perpetuated by the lack of political power that poor and working class people have. Ford also notes the importance of cultural bias and misunderstanding that is largely class-based and can function as an intra-group dynamic. He debunks the notion, loudly touted on the right, that “reverse racism" -- prejudice against white people - is an equally serious problem. Rather, he argues, bias against white people, as a group, is the property of the isolated cultural nationalist, and has only become imagined as a pervasive issue because of the political machinations of right-wingers seeking to mobilize white voters through fear.

While I would argue with or elaborate on some of these points, I thought this essay deserved attention for its clarity and thoughtfulness. It also caused me to think about encounters I have had in which people that I do and do not know well have felt the need to assert (for no apparent reason) that they are without prejudice and regard everyone as similar. However, the fact that I see race, gender and sexuality as live dynamics in our contemporary world demonstrates that I, myself, am bigoted or that any mention of these dynamics contains an implicit accusation of bigotry.

One underlying difficulty, from my point of view, is that people rarely speak honestly about the differences among us, actual and perceived. They like to discuss even less the power relations structured by differences, so they become hysterical very quickly, often lobbing defenses prematurely when no accusation of any kind has been made. For example, very few of the people I know are "homophobic" in the strictest sense of the term, even though they fear that I think they are. They do not fear what I am, they don't think that I am a sicko, they aren't worried about leaving the kiddies or wife alone with me, and many are actively educating their children to understand that queer people populate their world and need to be valued. I very rarely accuse someone of being homophobic, in part because people find it deeply shaming and it is a real conversation stopper, but mostly because what is going on is usually a great deal more complex in the way Ford points out.

And yet, when I come to a real difference of opinion with a person, s/he often finds it necessary to assert not only that s/he is not homophobic, but that s/he believes that I am just the "same" as s/he is.

This is where things start to break down. To my mind, one pernicious legacy of the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s is the notion that the opposite of invidious hierarchy is the equality of similarity. Corollaries to this are the assumption of those in the dominant group that:

a) People in subordinate groups want to be similar to “normal” people in the dominant group;
b) That having technical access to certain privileges means that those privileges (and the institutions that grant those privileges) are consonant with broader notions of social, economic and cultural justice;
c) That equality exists when "we" all accept the notion, theoretically, that we are all the same and want the same things;
d) That a continuing suspicion of the dominant group by historically subordinate groups is unreasoning and without foundation.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor's much-discussed pronouncement about the insights of "a wise Latina woman" coming from the "richness of her experiences" were not misguided. A racial perspective does matter, not because it is information other people don;t have, but because it is a way of knowing the world that other people can acquire if they try. Instead of being derided and suppressed, Sotomayor’s insight needed to be amplified to take into account a peculiar modern condition where inequalities in the law have been, in many cases, overturned and exposed, but the society and belief systems that these old laws created has not.

Hence, people fear being called racist or homophobic both because it stigmatizes and mischaracterizes them as someone who is actively bigoted (as opposed to still learning), and because it makes them feel misunderstood: they sincerely believe in justice and equality. But what they often fail to understand is how the institutions they hold dear are, in their own minds, synonymous with what also constitutes a natural and normal world. And this causes them to miss what some of us believe are structural inequalities.

Take marriage. One of the things that worries me about gay marriage is not that a lot of gay people long to be more similar to, or even appear to be exactly the same as, straight people. That has always been true in one way or another. It's that gay marriage reinforces the falsehood that everyone has access to the same privileges if they are willing to make the "same" commitments. That marriage delivers only a simulacrum of similarity, even to straight people, and that there is no logical reason to make it a gateway to privilege, is a conversation that gay marriage has made it more difficult to have. Consequently, that marriage represents the pinnacle of ethical commitment to another person is an assumption by which the unmarried are stigmatized.

One might also point to loving commitments between children and adults, in which legal custody of a child is firmly viewed by most Americans as the greatest ethical commitment possible. Commitments outside that legal and/or biological relation, however deeply felt, are viewed as a degraded version of this bond. Again, let us look to gay and lesbian people who now parent. In this case, technical inclusion of non-traditional parents has allowed the institution itself to remain a socially, legally and economically privileged site. It used to be that gay people were all perceived as potential child molesters (that was homophobia); now we seem to all be, in the eyes of our friends, potential parents. This is not homophobia, but it's not progressive either: it means that queer people who do not own children are now subject to similar stigma that child free heterosexuals are, and their relations to children they love are not taken seriously as an ethical commitment.

What is really peculiar is that neither institution -- marriage or parenting -- is as accessible or as stable as straight people seem to think, much as economic mobility for people of color is not as simple as white people think. The great publicity attendant to lesbian parenting, and the great visibility of gay men and lesbians parenting in a few places, has somehow delivered the misimpression that the only reason many older queers didn't have children was that we were barred from doing so. Now that we are not, the reasoning goes, we can freely exercise what is a natural and normal desire for all (wo)men. Now this is a problem, in part because it leaves intact the notion that all normal people like children, and that wanting to parent is the natural way that all human beings will want to establish an intimate bond with a child. But it also occludes two facts of life for queer people who do wish to parent. One is that that there are huge hurdles -- medical, fiscal and legal --that face lesbians and gays when it comes to obtaining children, either by gestation or by adoption. These hurdles are faced by some heterosexual couples, but not by the vast majority of them. Second, many parents still lose custody of and access to their children because they are gay, lesbian and/or transsexual; and legally, a child can only have two parents, so that if all parties to the conception are known to each other, at least one person in the deal must agree to terminate and/or not seek custody. Furthermore, as my attorney recently explained, no adoption agency will knowingly and officially deliver a child into the hands of a queer person, although many agencies, domestic and foreign, operate on a "don’t ask, don't tell" basis, and individual judges will perform these and second party adoptions in jurisdictions that permit them.

The privileging of parenting has another effect that few people are aware of: discrimination in health benefits. In health plans such as mine, operated by Cigna, there are substantial allowances made for the conception and bearing of children. One of these is for fertility treatments, which are time-consuming, painful and expensive, and I am sure entirely worth it for people who wish to have children and have had trouble conceiving on their own. But what is explicitly excluded from our health plan is gender reassignment. Nominally, this is because there is some dispute as to whether wanting to change your gender is a "medical" condition. But I would also ask, if being infertile is the normal condition of your body, and you are otherwise perfectly healthy, what makes that a medical condition?

This kind of dispute is not about money, and it is not about personal prejudice, although such claims are easily made and believed. But the reason that is so is because of how institutions recognize the grounds for legitimate personal happiness, reward what they perceive as good decisions and by doing so, enshrine them as normal. And yet, just as one might argue that no one needs gender reassignment, it could be argued that no one needs a child. Now that we no longer farm the soil to sustain ourselves, saying that one "needs" a child expresses a complex set of desires that are social and emotional. In fact, much as a person born a man might wish to fulfill her felt destiny by becoming a woman, people born as children seek to live out a particular narrative of fulfillment and happiness by transforming themselves into parents.

How much more progressive and rational it might be to frame all of these things as desires that offer happiness and fulfillment, not to mention the possibility that one might be truly loved. For some people, it might be produced by having a child; for others, it might be surgical gender reassignment, the first stages of which are actually less expensive than a round of in vitro treatments. And for others, it might be getting their teeth straightened in middle age, anti-psychotic medication, or having a poorly repaired cleft palate remodeled by a skilled plastic surgeon.

I compare these things not to be absurd, but to provide graphic examples of how institutions structure inequities by judging some desires legitimate, figuring them as "normal," and persuading all of us that if we adhere to these values, and not ask for anything else, we can all be normal and happy. As Ford argues in his piece, old inequities have not disappeared, but we are in an era in which discrimination often presents as the absence of inclusion rather than the active determination to exclude. Hence, racism and homophobia, as concepts, no longer do the work we want them to do, particularly in progressive communities that have gotten the message -- but not quite.