Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why I Hate Reality TV: And It's Not Just Because It Is (Oxy)Moronic

Even though close friends of the Radical know that every once in a while I lapse into an intense fascination with American Idol, I hate reality TV. Except for the classic foremother of the genre, An American Family (1973), I've never seen one series that even approached something "real" that was worth knowing. But until now I have never been able to say why I hate them so much beyond a deep feeling that it is simply improper to make an ever so brief living by allowing a camera crew to violate your privacy for months. I also find reality TV boring: who watches Tori and Dean for example? Women who fantasize about a life folding laundry and talking to unemployed gay men who wander in and out for no reason?

Clearly I have reasons for hating reality TV that I have not been able to articulate, and it isn't because it's bad TV. I watch shows like Gossip Girl, Army Wives and the ever-mawkish Brothers and Sisters as though they were a form of demented religion.

There are, of course, the little things I hate about reality TV. For example, I am puzzled by the idea that your average housewife or househusband solving daily problems is of deep cultural significance when we can't even have a logical conversation about delivering routine health care to the American working family. I hate Survivor because a group of Americans (who are mostly white, but I don't actually care what color they are) pretending that they have been reduced to "savagery" is a form of neo-imperial racist entertainment that I can't even wrap my head around. Admittedly, the show has contributed useful phrases to the academic enterprise: has anyone else been on a search committee where, dizzy with the effort of trying to exclude any number of excellent candidates from a finalist list, it has been reluctantly agreed to that So-and-so will be "voted off the island?" But I can't watch even a commercial for Survivor without wondering why the indigenous people of Samoa don't pull themselves together to sue CBS.

Then there are the lengths to which people are willing to go in the name of self-transformation and personal fulfillment that seem to be most closely related to the desperation of participants in dance marathons and six-day bicycle races during the 1920s. Last night, here in South Africa, I watched a reality show that combines so many aspects of other successful shows that it makes you dizzy ( my friend asked, "Why do they always have a judge with a British accent?" I answered without thinking, "Because of Simon." But I'm right, aren't I?) The show is called Dance Your Ass Off, and features very heavy people who are competing to lose weight and become professional dancers. In between performances we see them rehearsing, blubbering about how bad they feel about themselves, and dieting (looking at the website, my guess is that as the show progresses they feel better about themselves and gush about that.) After the dance performances (which are quite good, and make you wonder exactly why dancers are supposed to be thin) they are scored on the quality of the performance and how many pounds they have lost since last week. One performer had lost nine pounds in a week, and I thought: isn't that dangerous?

But I now know precisely what I hate about reality shows after reading a full account of Michele and Tareq Salahi gate crashing a White House state dinner. And yes, it is entirely the fault of the Secret Service that their tawdry little scheme worked. But why did the Salahis do it? Because they are competing to be chosen for a reality TV show!!! This follows on, of course, the Colorado couple who caused several hundred thousand dollars worth of emergency services to be scrambled because they claimed, falsely, that their child had launched himself in a home-made flying contraption.

What to do, what to do? One thing that strikes me is that scholars have to go through Institutional Research Boards when working with human or animal subjects. We have to demonstrate the importance of the research and, particularly when humans are involved, show that the research itself is not causing harm or exploiting vulnerable populations (when animals are involved, researchers are still allowed to do things that are more or less ghastly to some of us.) Why is there no version of this for commercial television?

Now you may say that these fools who volunteer for reality TV have free will, and the right to contract to make idiots of themselves. They do. But you look at cases like the Salahis, and the Survivor contestants, or Mr.and Mrs. Heene, the parents who put their son at the center of a media s**t storm and landed him in foster care to boot, and you have to ask the question: who else are they hurting through their narcissistic desire to be famous at any cost? Might the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stop worrying for a moment about who is jammed in whose crotch at the American Music Awards and deal with this? An independent body needs to be commissioned to ask these reality show people to present proposals that demonstrate, unequivocally, that however shameless their participants are, no one will be harmed by the show and no laws will be broken in filmng it.

Some equivalent of a television IRB would ask the producers of the as-yet uncast "Housewives of D.C." (the show the Salahis are trying to get on) to present a list of stunts that their prospective participants will perform at any phase of production. If "break into a White House State dinner" were on that list, the IRB would say no, you can't do that, it's illegal. Then if they did it anyway, the telly IRB would cancel the show.

I understand that there are plenty of problems with IRBs, and frustrations attached to having to work through them. One would have to take that into account when imagining a commission that theoretically would have the power to censor culture before it was even made. The most frequent complaint I hear is non-experts seeing harm where there is none, and restricting social science research in particular. On the other hand, regulation, however imperfect, feeds a lively conversation about research ethics. Conversely, a complete lack of regulation produced research projects like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which African-American men were told they were being treated but were actually doomed to a long, gruesome death from the disease.

But there are things that are less controversial about IRBs that the FCC might usefully think about in relation to reality shows. They watchdog the exploitation of vulnerable populations, and take into account that people can be fully informed and make decisions that they wouldn't make if they didn't have a lot of problems already. They prohibit the commission of crimes. They prohibit the exploitation of people who are captive in some way. And some even look closely at how publishing the research might lead to unintentional misrepresentation of the subjects.

Indeed, the television and film industry already has a code stating clearly that there is "a duty to consider the welfare of animals under their control and that this care should be separate from the interests of film production." It applies to all "vertebrates" except for "human beings and fish."

So let's get on it about the human beings. And the fish, if you like.

Friday, November 27, 2009

We're Here, Because We're Here, Because We're Here, Because We're Here! Or, Why Disciplines Rule The University Roost

If you are the chair of an interdisciplinary program and see any meetings with deans or provosts in the immediate future, make sure you read University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jerry A. Jacobs' Interdisciplinary Hype in the Chronicle of Higher Education (11/22/09). It will prepare you for every tired old argument you will have to answer about why your intellectual commitments are not worth supporting. Arguing that there is major pressure for breaking the boundaries of academic discipline (oh, would that this were the case!), particularly driven by federal money aimed at supporting interdisciplinary research in the sciences, Jacobs expresses his view that "efforts to reorganize academe based on interdisciplinary principles would have disastrous consequences in the short term—and would end up reproducing our disciplinary or departmental structure in the long term."

There's nothing I despise like a wishy-washy man with no opinions.

OK, I wondered, interdisciplinary intellectual that I am, "Though I detest these things he says, why does he say them?" And the more I tried to figure this out, the more my irritation grew. The article articulates little that is "disastrous" in the short term, nor is it persuasive that new interdisciplinary structures inevitably revert to disciplinary forms in the long term because of something inherent in the act of knowledge production that we all share. It does not persuade, as it tries to at the end, that interdisciplinarians are the barbarians clawing at the gates of disciplinary civilization. Ignoring the ways in which universities act to constrain interdisciplinary scholarship by how they structure appointments, Jacobs expresses the "disaster" of interdisciplinary scholarship as pure tautology. Furthermore, by not even mentioning the ways that interdisciplinary scholars are inevitably forced to conform to discipline during hiring, promotion and tenure processes, Jacobs reveals the real point of the article: it is a justification for the "necessity" of maintaining the stranglehold that disciplines have on funding streams of all kinds as we enter an era of increasingly diminished resources.

Why it's the culture wars all over again, except this time the scientists have been folded into the critique (which is probably a good thing for our team: has anyone else in the humanities or social sciences noticed lately that the more you play with the "hard" science people the more seriously your university takes you?)

One red flag raised early in the piece is that Jacobs never defines what interdisciplinarity is, or what make the task of the interdisciplinary scholar different and valuable. His belief that all scholars are more or less the same and that we all demonstrate similar tendencies and prejudices in relation to an intellectual "other" produces polarized logic like this: "Alongside the image of academic departments as barren silos is another image of interconnected knowledge—a web." To paraphrase Horton, a scholar's a scholar no matter how small: we who choose to be interdisciplinary do not embrace and explore multiple routes to knowledge. In fact, we are just as intellectually intolerant as the next disciplinary guy. So why give us centers and tenure-track lines? Why not just turn your endowment over to the Taliban now?

Furthermore, Jacobs argues, such webs of connection (which are multi-disciplinary, not interdisciplinary) already exist and don't need to be argued for or institutionalized. And when they are, look at the chaos:

A recent example from Pennsylvania State University is instructive. Penn State has promoted research on homeland security, but the pursuit of that worthy goal has resulted in the proliferation rather than the consolidation of specialized units: no fewer than 21 research centers on various aspects of homeland security. They include units on terrorism, computer security, crisis management, infectious diseases, and nonlethal defense technologies. Each of the centers may represent a noble undertaking, but their proliferation underscores the fact that there are many aspects of complex issues, and that interdisciplinary efforts can lead just as easily to the multiplication of academic units as to their consolidation.

Well I agree: 21 centers on Homeland Security is idiotic. But this doesn't strike me as a problem with interdisciplinarity (which has never made a claim to provide thrifty forms of academic consolidation), but a problem of the federal government slapping the label of academia on a political agenda and military agenda and the university signing off on it so that they can hire faculty on the federal nickel. Which is an old story, dating back to the Cold War.

Interestingly, Jacobs moves straight from that example of wasteful proliferation of resources to: American Studies! Jacobs notes the age of the field, and gives a woefully insufficient view of the field's complexity before delivering himself of this peculiar judgement:
Indeed, American studies has been far more ambitious in its intellectual scope and more dynamic and enduring than most interdisciplinary fields. Here again interdisciplinarity coexists with scholarly specialization. A look at American-studies dissertations makes clear that they are every bit as specialized as dissertations in English and American history. Furthermore, American-studies topics have proliferated. The 2008 program of the field's annual meeting reveals the remarkable scope and specialization of researchers: Papers were organized by period (early American, 19th century, 20th century); by ethnicity (African-American, Asian-American, Chicano, Native American, Pacific Islander studies); and by place (border studies, cultural geography, landscape and the built environment). The conference included a variety of approaches to gender issues (gender and sexuality, queer studies, transgender studies) and global perspectives (global, transnational, cross-cultural, postcolonial studies, studies of U.S. colonialism). The examination of culture included popular culture, print culture, material culture, food, music, film, television and media studies, performance studies, and visual-culture studies. There are undoubtedly many accomplished scholars in the field—including Drew Gilpin Faust, a Penn Ph.D. in American civilization who is president of Harvard University—and many valuable pieces of research, but that does not mean that the field has achieved a more unified vision of American culture than those of its closest neighbors, history and English. (American studies has never ventured too far into the social sciences.) Indeed, if a unified theory of American culture were to be advanced, the current generation of American-studies scholars would be the first to challenge it.

Aside from the incoherence of the critique, here are the main issues: that the success, or failure, of the field is in Jacob's view, knowable by whether it has achieved disciplinary unity. And yet, no one who actually works in the field of American Studies is cited but for the admittedly successful Drew Faust, who was appointed to a history department for her entire career prior to leaving for Harvard University, where she is now president. Furthermore, Faust's Ph.D. (and her initial monograph on the slave holding mind) dates from a time in which intellectual historians (what Faust was when she was a newbie) often did their work in American Studies programs because historians who worked with literary materials were often believed to be peculiar. Nor does Jacobs mention that the failure of universities to establish tenure-track lines either in American Studies or in many of the fields he cites as part of the American Studies crazy quilt, which leads to the evaluation of American Studies scholarship through the deep prejudice of disciplinary values, often prevents young scholars from doing the path-breaking interdisciplinary work that they want to do.

In Jacobs' mind, disciplines are the parents and interdisciplinary fields, the children:

Going too far down the interdisciplinary path by ending academic departments, as some have suggested, would be a disaster. Departments teach techniques needed to conduct high-quality research. Disciplines establish a hierarchy of problems. Interdisciplinarity cannot exist without disciplines and departments. What happens when that structure is broken? Will all problems be equally important? How will quality be judged, and how will the most important advances be communicated?

Lurking behind these peculiar statements and questions is Jacobs' apparent fear of the postmodern, where all values dissolve, any method is good enough, and their are no hierarchies of anything. Interdisciplinarity is the anarchy that departments prevent, right? Wrong. Interdisciplinary programs and departments do all the things that Jacobs claims are the exclusive purview of departments: where does he think those of us who teach in them came from anyway? Furthermore, our students have to know more, not less, to survive in a scholarly atmosphere that is incredibly competitive, not only because bright students go into it for the challenges it offers, but because they must be willing to fight for jobs and respect from people like Jacobs who are firmly convinced, for no good reason, that to be interdisciplinary is to be second rate.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ask the Radical: Blogging and The Untenured Academic

Leaving the country often has the happy effect that people stop sending email to me almost entirely. Why sabbatical doesn't accomplish this I do not know, particularly given the vivid bounce-back I composed this time around. Only the chair of my department removed my from the distribution list in September, but I am pleased/dismayed to see that now everyone else has too. Perhaps while I was still state side some secret hope was cherished by many colleagues that I would, in fact, come to advertised meetings of various kinds? If so, I am happy to say that they have not taking to dashing their brains on the flagstones in despair that their coy invitations have gone unanswered.

Since arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, the most sustained correspondence I have had to date is with a group of very capable people who are taking care of my affairs (dog and house) while I am away. We have been in correspondence about the circumstances of a mysterious "alarm event," as ADT Security calls it which, as it turns out, was probably caused by my efforts to draft-proof the front door. But that is all.

Anyway, the lack of email allows me to catch up on messages I have failed to respond to all fall, either because they were too complicated, or because I was ambivalent about them in some way, or because I didn't know what to say. For example, the following questions were asked by a graduate student who heard me and several other bloggers do a panel several months ago. Since there is no point responding to the actual person (as the date of the assignment s/he wanted the information for is long past) I will answer these questions publicly:

1. What are the challenges non-tenured professors face when deciding to keep a personal blog?

Not using the blog to: a) spend most of your time venting about the oppressive condition of being you; b) publish humorous pieces that are just another way to express your boundless rage at those who offend you; c) say witty things about your students that portray them to a national audience at their most foolish and naive; d) waste so much time blogging, reading blogs, commenting on blogs and checking your Site Meter that you don't write anything else; and e) blog constantly about your cats (even though they are very cute and do twee things to distract you from working.)

2. What were your main concerns before you exposed your identity on your blog?

Unfortunately, I had no concerns. This is why I made a some critical errors (see 1a, 1b,and 1c above) that required varying levels of apology to others. I probably would have done d) and e) as well, except that I write about eight hours a day when left to my own devices, I no longer participate in memes, and I have no cats.

3. Do you think that blogs should be considered, in any respect, when a professor has yet to attain tenure?

Since the discipline in which I hold tenure (history) has barely dealt with electronic publishing at all as part of the promotion process, and also has a mixed record on how it regards pre-tenure scholarship published to a trade audience, I would hope that we would not start having a conversation about blogs that was not preceded by one that addressed these other critical issues. But I should think that participation in group blogs that serve a field or a discipline should be taken into account as much as book reviews or encyclopedia entries, which everyone lists in endless, boring detail on their vitae as if they took more than a day to write. Would I hold a blog against someone? Sure! If I was certain that a person had been caught in a huge bloggy lie -- plagiarism, seducing people on line by pretending to be someone else, and masquerading as a variety of different, malicious sock puppets on their own and other peoples' blogs are three examples that come to mind -- it would cause me to wonder about that person's general integrity and scrutinize other aspects of the tenure case a bit more carefully for similar flaws. It has been my unhappy experience that people who lie don't just do it in one context, and they tend to keep doing it. I stumbled onto the website of someone whose first book was plagiarized in the manuscript stage (although when this was pointed out, innocence was claimed and the problems were at least partly rectified.) Many years later, the web page was full of flamers about said person's personal history that were entirely irrelevant to scholarship but that fabricated a far more dashing past than the individual actually had. Honesty in personal relations strikes me as equally, if not more, important than scholarly integrity, since in most of our daily work we count on people to be honest in all their relationships.

Friday, November 20, 2009

When In Doubt, Blame The French: What To Do About An Anthem Malfunction

As anyone who has been following me on Face Book knows, I have been spending some of my free time on sports since I have been here. There's a show called Indian Cricket Highlights, about a sport I understand not at all, and my new favorite pastime is World Cup football. Indeed, all of South Africa is gearing up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, to be held in a brand new stadium in Cape Town next winter (our summer).

Why are sports such a big deal here? I can only guess. Although fans in South Africa are clearly engaged with following leagues in many nations, as people my age may recall, one form of pressure put on the apartheid regime in the 1980s (as American corporations were happily doing business here and universities fought their students over the ethics of investing in corporations that profited from apartheid labor economics) was to bar South Africa from international athletic competition. Although journalist Adam Hochschild, in his book The Mirror at Midnight (1984), describes South Africa as a notoriously "sports-mad culture," it isn't clear to me that this is more so here than in the United States. One can only imagine the howls of hurt and outrage from the United States were other nations to have protested George Bush's illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in a similar way.

Given this political history, in addition to the promise of sorely needed construction and service jobs, the World Cup may be symbolically important for the international profile of a recently democratic state that still so troubled by poverty, violence and unemployment. Budding C.L.R. James that I aspire to be, recently I have been riveted as well by an ongoing scandal in the politics of sport here: the "butchering" of the South African National anthem by South African Rasta singer Ras Dumisani prior to the rugby match between the Springboks and France played in Toulouse last Friday.

Anthems are often difficult to sing, and this one seems to present more challenges than most. Sung in five languages -- Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, English and Afrikaans -- it is a blend of old and new, combining parts of the African National Congress (ANC) protest hymn "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" with the pre-1994 anthem, "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika/The Voice of South Africa." And yet, since it doesn't seem like to much to ask for one's anthem to be sung properly, some have inferred -- or said directly -- that the French were playing mind games with the Springboks by deliberately hiring an incompetent singer. "The French from as early as 1959 were portrayed by one of their famous writers, Rene Goscinny, as shrewd, small sized warriors and therefore the birth of the well known Asterix," wrote one person who commented on this story in The Cape Times. "Asterix had a secret weapon called Cacofonix. a man that sang so badly that it would start rain and thunderstorms. The singing was so bad that all enemies would eventually surrender. Was this, maybe, the old French ploy when The South African Anthem was sung?"

Intentionally or unintentionally, the Springboks were stung and insulted, becoming emotionally unglued as they tried, unsuccessfully, to complete their normal pre-game ritual by singing along lustily. Apparently this was a disruption equivalent to preventing New Zealand's All-Blacks from performing a haka prior to a test match. One Springbok confessed after the loss that he had begun to weep at the pain of hearing the beloved anthem mangled and at his own frustrated efforts to sing the words correctly. Absent their pre-game ritual, the Springboks lost the match 20-13. Furious, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) has received an apology from its French counterpart, and from Dumisani -- although the singer also noted "that the French were to blame" for "sabotaging my performance with an old microphone and a bunch of school kids."

In an unfortunate (and possibly unintentional) reference to a recent political past, SA Rugby Blog reports the emergence of a Face Book site called Ban Ras Dumisani from ever singing again: a recent check revealed that it has acquired almost 7,000 fans. The plot thickens, however, since it was revealed almost immediately that Dumisani's name had been provided by the South African embassy in France. An anonymous source has suggested that the performer was probably stoned when he meandered his way tonelessly though the anthem, forgetting words and sometimes substituting alternative ones. This unnamed source suggested to the Cape Times that Dumisani had done well in rehearsal, but that by the time of the match "his condition was such that it was unlikely he would perform nicely."

Hence, the political story has shifted from the international sphere to the domestic. Although SARU's Oregan Hoskins is ready to close the book on this matter following the French apology (and really, when you compare it to accounting for the bad planning that went into the Maginot Line, this must have been an easy apology to make), South Africa's politicians have just begun to get into the game. Litho Suka, a Member of Parliament representing the ANC "has suggested that those who butcher South Africa's national anthem be charged with treason," and that Dumisani should be hauled up before a judge. The chairman of the National Assembly's sports committee, Butana Komphela, says that his committee will be meeting with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to demand some accountability from the embassy as well. The Sports Committee will be seeking assurances that the government will act "to ensure that all South African embassies have the correct version of the national anthem, the correct flag and will be able to source credible singers for national events taking place outside the country."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different: A Journey To South Africa

Over the next two months, I will be writing you from the other side of the world: the Radical family has decamped to South Africa. It's what we call travel, as opposed to vacation: a working trip, where time is set aside for study, learning, and writing, as well as relaxation and seeing some sights. For several weeks we will be in the Western Cape, mostly in and around Cape Town. In December, we will head up to the Johannesburg area to work for a few weeks, and then circle back down along the southern coast (what is called "The Garden Route." ) We will return to Cape Town for several weeks prior to our return to the United States. We will be in South Africa for a total of two months.

In this initial post, and in those to follow, I am trying to guard against sweeping statements and observations. Because I am an academic, and trained to do precisely that, I am sure that I will fail. But I will try all the same. It's my experience that taking one's self to an entirely different place creates a drastic shift in perspective that feels like a wave of new knowledge, but that the prospect of really "knowing" much about the place or society one has entered is much farther off. But here are a few snapshots.

Prior to our departure, a great many reasonable people (several of whom were friends from South Africa) went on at length about crime here and instructed us on how to avoid it; most also agreed that the Western Cape is less dangerous than the more industrialized areas around Pretoria and Johannesburg, which is where the bulk of the really serious crime occurs. As a former New Yorker, and now an inhabitant of a Shoreline community that is a site for regular street crimes, I consider myself rather sophisticated on this topic, and yet friends urged me to not assume that this knowledge would benefit me abroad. These conversations, and firm advice given here by the people who have been in charge of our lodgings, suggest that South Africans are aware of the possibility of personal violence at all times. We have been urged, for example, to submit to petty theft, much as one was often advised in New York back in the 1970s to carry a twenty dollar bill to hand to a mugger, as it provokes muggers to feel unsuccessful if you do not. But clearly things are different here. Signs on private residences and businesses warn potential intruders that there will be "armed response." Here in the village where we are staying, there are regular patrols by private guards in cars, wearing bullet-proof vests, and carrying automatic weapons. There are also unarmed citizen patrols, who are (as our volunteer neighborhood watch explained to me) "extra eyes and ears" who can call the police in by radio if they see something worrisome.

I confess, it all makes me terribly uncomfortable. But as we tell our students, discomfort is often the sign of a shift in perspective that can help a person learn new things. So I am trying to remain open as to what this more naked show of force might teach me about where I am.

On a certain level, while I don't discount the necessity for precautions. However, it does strike me as strange that whether one is in downtown Cape Town or in this small village on the beach, one is advised to take virtually identical steps to insure one's personal safety, even when one is also told that some spaces are safer than others. This has caused me to think about something that is also true in the United States, and which is a central theme in my scholarship: in most societies, there is crime and there is a conversation about crime, and while the two reference each other, they are not exactly the same. It is something it would profit me to think about in a comparative context while I am here. A second theme is that, as in many places in the world outside Europe and North America, it is a normal political and social condition that the state does not have a monopoly on the means of violence. The high reliance on private security in South Africa may, in part, reflect white paranoia and the fears of the property-owning classes in a country where unemployment is running over 40%. However, it also may reflect the genuinely poor state of policing here. Repression and surveillance are very different tasks from investigation, not to mention the community partnerships and economic development that really reduce crime.

For example, yesterday in De Doorns, a farming community in the interior Western Cape, 1,000 seasonal workers drove 3,000 Zimbabwean migrant workers out of their homes by stoning, accusing the foreign workers of accepting lower wages than were being paid to South Africans. The article I have linked to in The Cape Times does not cite any arrests; last night on the news, only two arrests were reported. In the United States this would just be a stunning outcome, and clearly the news anchor who was receiving the live report from De Doorns was stunned on a certain level. "You can't just have mobs running people out of their houses, can you?" (if you imagine a tonal uptick on the word "can" it becomes clear that this was a rhetorical question.)

Possibilities for the lack of arrests, and the inability of the state to control the mob, spring to mind. One is the vexed politics of policing in a country still so shaped by the ideological, political and geographical work of apartheid. Another is the possibility that the state has an interest in the indirect expulsion of migrants fleeing Robert Mugabe's violence as well but cannot -- or does not wish to -- take it on as a political or legal task. The stream of desperate African refugees exiting Zimbabwe is far steadier and larger than we in the United States, who have largely been exposed to stories of white farmers being driven out by Africans, had been led to expect. We met two young Zimbabweans on the beach yesterday, a brother and sister who arrived as refugees approximately when we arrived as tourists. Lucy told us, as she watched her brother Leonard swim in the ocean for the first time in his life, that the situation for working Africans is so bad that in her view "Only God can stop Mugabe." This opened my mind to the thought that the South African government sees itself as having a moral responsibility to these refugees that it cannot reconcile with its own problem of domestic poverty, inadequate housing and surplus labor. But these are only three possibilities, grounded very much in political theories I know well, and I have not yet found the local sources that might make my ability to analyze this event more place-specific.

To conclude, I am becoming very much aware that the blogger's dilemma is intensified and made more obvious when one is abroad and the temptation to interpret one's observations through the lens of similarity is strong. The freedom to write anything that comes into my head has to be balanced and restrained by a high consciousness about the uncooked nature of my observations and the terrible incompleteness of what even concentrated reading can accomplish in a short time. There is much that I am seeing that is new to me, and pinning it together with what I know, what I know I don't know, and what I have any authority to express an informed opinion about, is going to be a critical challenge for me as a writer and a scholar in the next several months. While I will return to U.S.-based topics from time to time, I will hope to do so as exercises in comparative and global historical thinking, keeping at the forefront of my mind that I have colleagues who have spent their entire careers to date learning the things that are now so new to me.

I hope you will want to stick with me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The American Historical Association Annual Meeting: To Boycott Or Not To Boycott?

As many of you are aware, in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the decision to hold the the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) became controversial. This is because the meeting will be held at a hotel owned by someone who helped to finance the campaign to repeal reforms that had extended political marriage to same-sex couples (nothing required churches to perform those marriages.) Your favorite Radical is, as we speak, making final preparations to depart for South Africa, where such discrimination is viewed in the national constitution as the equivalent of racism and is banned. What I think is also important to note is that South Africa is reputedly still a very homophobic country where, if it were put to a vote, discrimination against GLBTI (the I stands for "intersex" and is always included by South African queer activists) would be perfectly legal, although the return of institutionalized racism would not be. One legacy of colonialism is the strong association among many black South Africans between homosexuality and the general deformation of indigenous societies by white European domination. And yet, according to the reading I have done to date, the political legacy of apartheid is such that human rights are not viewed as something one puts to a vote. The fact that the vast majority of South African citizens are deeply homophobic is not, according to the constitution, justification for enshrining it in law that would re-classify South Africans in invidious ways that their -- and our -- history has shown to be disastrous.

Ironically, although I am permitted to marry in my own state (unless and until the Catholic and Mormon Churches decide to mount one of their odious homophobic campaigns here), that doesn't do me much good if I leave the state. If, for example, my partner and I are in a car accident in the state of New York on our way to JFK tomorrow, being married in Connecticut doesn't help us at all.

My nightmare? Ending up in a Catholic hospital after a dreadful accident in someplace like Nebraska, unable to make my own decisions: the only person who knows exactly when and under what conditions I wish to die is having all of our retirement money siphoned off by a self-righteous hospital administrator who wants me to live against my express wishes. The only thing that does help is having the money to hire a really good attorney, which we did two years ago. She drew up fourteen documents (seven each) which give both partners in our not-marriage a variety of reciprocal rights in relation to the other, and we can call her at any time of the day or night and have her threaten to sue, sue, sue. So that could work -- or some Bush-appointed judge might decide to wipe his behind with our paperwork while we wend our way to the Supreme Court.

But back to the AHA: the other thing to keep in mind this January is that Doug Manchester, the meddling capitalist douche bag who owns the Manchester Grand Hyatt (as opposed to the meddling Mormon and Catholic bishop douche bags who cannot confine their meddling to their own flocks), is also staunchly anti-union, an issue that I am happy to say that the Committee on LGBT History of the American Historical Association (currently led by Ian Lekus) has linked to the anti-GLBTI bias. You can read the excellent press release issued by the CLGBTH here.

For my mind, I would like to repeat something that I have said before: I'm not sure that it is the responsibility of the American Historical Association to respond to its members on the left any more than to its members on the right. But even though the AHA could not have anticipated Prop 8 or its outcome, the San Diego location has two problems that they could have anticipated. The first is that it's expensive as all get out. Both the AHA and the OAH need to address the fact that conference expenses escalate dramatically when vacation destinations (that I understand are intended to attract us) are chosen. While this has always been difficult for some members, for several years to come, most of us will be financing all or part of our conference expenses out of our own pockets, and comparatively few of us have deep pockets. Going coast to coast for a major conference now costs in excess of $1500, even if you are traveling in a budget-conscious way. That represents about a tenth of a good graduate student stipend, after taxes, and a hefty chunk of an assistant professor's salary.

So it will be hard to know who is boycotting and who is staying home because they simply can't afford it this year. It's time to start aiming for second cities, my friends on the Executive Committees of both organizations, for practical reasons if no other. Second, while Prop 8 was not even on the boards when this destination was chosen, Manchester's anti-union activities were -- or should have been -- well-known, which might have caused the Executive Committee to anticipate the possibility of an ugly strike that would cause at least part of the membership to feel they could not cross picket lines to attend. As a matter of fact, it is hard to imagine going many places in southern California where this is not going to be an issue.

As to the various forms of boycott recommended in the CLBTH press release, do what you must, but I have grave reservations about the power of boycott to affect the massively wealthy, and I often feel it is almost unseemly to, in effect, equate not going to the bar of Doug Manchester's hotel to, say, not riding the bus in Birmingham. Is it a good idea to deprive all of those workers of the tips that allow them to paste together their budgets? I'm just asking. We on the left have a somewhat over-inflated view of how much expressions of individual virtue mean to anyone except ourselves. (There are, for example, probably people who snarled at a certain point, "I am never visiting that %$&@* Radical's blog again!" and you know what? I've never missed them.) So it is, of course, an honorable thing to act on your principles in the matter of the AHA Annual Meeting. But try not to quarrel with your friends about it. And just know, that if you happen to go to the bar at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, you are still welcome at Tenured Radical.

A slightly self-censored version of this post suitable for forwarding to parents, administrators and senior colleagues can be found at Cliopatria.

Monday, November 09, 2009

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

I walked into the second section of my U.S. History survey (1865 to the present, don'tcha know) at Baruch College on November 9, 1989. I taught two sections in a row for $2,000 each which, with the $5,000 I made from the New School, and an occasional donation from my new girlfriend was enough money to live on for a semester. And I was hoping to God that I would get one of the jobs I had applied for.

I didn't get the big tenure-track job (note to my public: the Tenured Radical has the distinction of losing more jobs to more interesting and highly successful people than anyone else I know.) I did get the one-year job, which was actually supposed to be a three year job, which catapulted me into my current post with Zenith University. But that's another story for another day.

So I was standing at the lectern in the second section of my U.S. History survey that night after completing my normal routine, which was to work all day on my lecture, teach the first class, fix whatever went wrong in the twenty minutes between classes, and do it all over again for the next shift. And I was shuffling my notes around, for a class on the origins of the Cold War, no shit! when a student walked in and said, "They are tearing the Wall down in Berlin."

I said, "Huh?" Thinking to myself, That can't be happening, because the Cold war has been going on my whole life, and no one ever said it could stop. (Of course, I didn't know that sooner, rather than later, there would be a War on Terror because if this shit ever stopped, what would the arms manufacturers do.)

So my student answered, "Yes, right now, there's a whole mob of people in Berlin tearing the Wall down."

Needless to say, the class I taught for the second shift was substantially different. I took the bus across town an hour and a half later to our apartment in Chelsea, and watched the mobs at the Wall while we ate Chinese food. But before I settled down I clicked on our answering machine and my friend Andrew, who was living in Paris, and was (is) a man of great enthusiasms was shouting: "The Wall is coming down! We are all catching a train to Berlin to go watch!"

And I thought to myself, What am I doing teaching history when I should be in Berlin right now?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Hip-hop History Channel: Alexander Hamilton Rules

Snap along with Barack and Michele Obama as Zenith alum Lin-Manuel MIranda tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, in the persona of Aaron Burr. Awesome. Hat tip.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

And If You Give Us A Full Book Of Green Stamps, You Can Teach Macroeconomics

These noble bloggers provided the second notification of the evening that Patricia Turner, vice provost for the University of California Office of Undergraduate Studies (and henchman Winder McConnell, the director of teaching resources for that floundering institution) have a great new idea: get people to teach for free. The first time I saw this news on Facebook I wouldn't have believed it, except that the source was impeccable. According to the online edition of The California Aggie, freshman seminar instructors all received a letter asking them whether they would be willing to forgo the small sum they are paid for this work, $1500-2000 that is normally deposited in their research accounts. "Though Turner could not predict how much money the salary reduction would save," staff writer Lauren Steussy reports, "she stated that approximately 25 instructors agreed to forgo or reduce their stipend."

Other people are outraged, but Turner is undeterred. "When we were brain storming about all of the ways of dealing, I wondered if there were more faculty who would [forgo the stipend] if they were just given the opportunity," Turner said. "People had just done it before. So [McConnell] and I sent a letter saying that in the past, some people have declined these stipends. This is decoupled from whether or not we accept their course." Other Facebook gossip reports that on some UC campuses there are workshops being organized by Human Resources folk to cheer people up about their "furlough days" (pay cuts) by explaining that the free time will allow them to make expansive life choices with this gift that they have been graciously granted by the State of California.

Next week, Turner might want to write a bunch of faculty to ask how they feel about signing up for life insurance policies that stipulate double indemnity in case their death results from being pushed out of a train caboose. Or she might want to find out how many faculty would be interested in taking more furlough time and using it to explore the possibility of becoming sex workers in brothels owned and operated by the provost's office. If you can get 25 instructors to agree not to be paid for their work, anything is possible I suppose. But there is a lot of this going around. On my own campus, we are being offered the opportunity to teach an extra course and/or teach an eight week summer session for adjunct wages to help Zenith close its own budget gap. Compared to the report above, this seems positively liberal, I suppose, as does the fact that our salaries have been indefinitely frozen rather than cut. But no one raises what seems obvious to this Radical: that this pedagogical equivalent to a bake sale would, in effect, be a charitable donation to our employer -- minus the tax write-off -- since full time ladder faculty are paid a great deal more to teach their other regularly scheduled classes.

But there is a larger question at stake about the budget cutting measures that are starting to surface around the country: education is, and always has been, the equivalent of a loss leader at the department store. It's something the United States has to be willing to not make a profit on -- in fact, to accept large losses on -- in order to create generations of young workers, artists, politicians and technicians who are the nation's capital. Our state and federal governments have nickel and dimed higher education for so long that what remains makes no structural sense anymore, and it's no wonder that people do stupid, offensive things to make the cuts demanded of them. Is having the liberal arts taught to freshmen by volunteers what passes for a plan to re-imagine universities to meet the challenges -- economic and educational -- of the twenty-first century? Is the idea that nothing has to change about our values except to ratchet up the practice institutions have long adopted towards adjunct faculty and begin working full-time faculty as hard as they can be worked for as little money as they can be paid? Will we wax enthusiastic about new forms of noblesse oblige, in which some faculty, such as UC's Subhash Risbud, a professor of chemical engineering and material science, who has so much research money available that he is happy to teach a seminar in "his passion" (read: hobby) "of classical Indian music" for free? Are we not concerned that there are actually scholars of Indian music who might be employed to teach this field? For all we know the other twenty-four faculty who gave up their stipends are as blessed as Professor Risbud, but is this also a sacrifice expected of, say, the Chaucer scholar who intended to use that small sum to finance a research trip to England and has no other way of obtaining that money?

What is more appalling is that none of the stories that are beginning to seep out of higher education suggest that any of the measures being taken are temporary, nor is there a broader discussion about what the conditions might be that would return university teaching and scholarship to some semblance of normalcy.