Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wednesday Blog Roll Revision: End Of Fiscal Year Edition

We at Tenured Radical want to welcome two pseudonymous blogs to the blog roll on the left.

We Are Respectable Negroes features Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega and Gordon Gartrelle as cultural theorists with an attitude. Want to talk about race? I mean really talk? Well, pull up a chair. A recent poll asks readers, "How man of you use a 'white' voice for phone interviews?" (56% of respondents, in case you were wondering.) This blog goes after homophobia, racism, religion, frank conversations about unusual white people, politics, African-American history and culture, teaching, music, popular culture, and other commentary on the current state of our post-racial (not) country. Read it. I have no idea who these bloggers are, but they have settled on their plot to stay.

The second blog is Breaking Up With New York. Full disclosure: I know this blogger, and she reads me, but had no idea she was such a beautiful writer. Really. Urban Exile isn't an academic, and I wouldn't be surprised if, in the end, this blog became a platform for a book. There are only five posts right now, so you have time to get in on the ground floor.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Robert Carlyle Byrd, November 20, 1917 – June 28, 2010

Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) has died at the age of 92. For the report in the Charleston Gazette go here.

Byrd anchored the conservative wing of the party for decades, but also came to hold many liberal positions, including a profound belief that the federal government had an obligation to end poverty and guarantee full citizenship. From the New York Times:

He had been in failing health for several years. Mr. Byrd served 51 years in the Senate, longer than anyone in American history, and with his six years in the House, he was the longest-serving member of Congress. He held a number of Senate offices, including majority and minority leader and president pro tem.

But the post that gave him the most satisfaction was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, with its power of the purse — a post he gave up only last year as his health declined. A New Deal Democrat, Mr. Byrd used the position in large part to battle persistent poverty in West Virginia, which he called “one of the rock bottomest of states.”

Byrd's journey -- from orphan (his parents died in the 1918 flu pandemic), to his racist past as a Klansman (he was elected to lead his Klavern in 1942), to one of the most powerful Senators of the twentieth century -- hits every theme of political history, and ever moment of social and cultural transformation, since World War II. Byrd's Klan membership -- something he regretted deeply in later years, both because it was used against him politically and because his views changed, provides an interesting insight that some historian ought to run with if s/he can find enough people to talk openly about their Klan membership. Racism provided a path to social mobility, civic membership and prominence for talented and ambitious white men born without advantages and education. As he explained in his autobiography, Child of the Appalachian Coal Fields, Byrd understood this period in his life as a time where he both acted on a dangerously bigoted world view and as a misdirected effort to demonstrate his abilities and capacity for citizenship. As he put it, he "was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision—a jejune and immature outlook—seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions."

Self-educated, he was one of the Senate's finest orators, and a sparkling example of what that body used to be famous for. I occasionally tuned in to C-Span when I knew he was on the floor, just to listen and to absorb techniques that could be translated into good teaching: dramatic pauses, modulating one's voice for emphasis or to force the audience to listen more closely, telling a story rather than making a complicated argument. Byrd had a particularly dramatic flourish, where he would whip a ragged, red-covered copy of the Constitution out of his vest pocket and shake it at his audience for emphasis. Loved that. And in his later years, when he used his prominence to oppose the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's grab for absolute power, he was one of the first and the few to tell the unvarnished truth. "This house of cards, built of deceit, will fall," he growled in 2003, when information began to surface that the administration had lied about weapons of mass destruction and material support for Al-Quaeda in Iraq.

Byrd's distinctly Southern talent for speechifying came to prominence in 1964, when he filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act through the night, ending this 14 hour marathon at 9:51 A.M. on June 10. For the first time in history, a filibuster on a civil rights bill was defeated as liberals in both parties joined together to decisively change American history. According to the Senate's official history,

The clerk proceeded to call the roll. When he reached "Mr. Engle," there was no response. A brain tumor had robbed California's mortally ill Clair Engle of his ability to speak. Slowly lifting a crippled arm, he pointed to his eye, thereby signaling his affirmative vote. Few of those who witnessed this heroic gesture ever forgot it. When Delaware's John Williams provided the decisive 67th vote, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield exclaimed, "That's it!"; Richard Russell slumped; and Hubert Humphrey beamed. With six wavering senators providing a four-vote victory margin, the final tally stood at 71 to 29. Nine days later the Senate approved the act itself—producing one of the 20th century's towering legislative achievements.

Byrd became a strong supporter of civil rights and equal access to citizenship over the subsequent half century: a month ago, his office announced that he would support the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Gay Supreme Court Pride Edition

After our busy, busy week here at Tenured Radical, we think it is time for a calm and genteel set of items to keep you busy this Sunday. To wit:

Kagan Hearings Kick Off On Monday: Thanks to Prawfs Blawg, a group blog maintained by a bunch of guys teaching in law schools around the United States, we have the witness list for the Elena Kagan hearings that start tomorrow at 12:30 (hat tip.). While they will begin with the senators going on record at tedious length ("life begins at conception, yack, yack, yack") as if we and their constituents did not already know what they thought, testimonies to tune in for might be Lily Ledbetter, the litigant in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire (2007), called by the majority; and Stephen Presser, legal historian from Northwestern, called by the minority. Presser, who mostly writes about corporate law, can also be expected to speculate on how Kagan's confirmation to the court would affect the future of Roe and the rulings associated with it. The rest of the witnesses are pretty boilerplate, if you ask me, although the large number of military and ex-military called by the Republicans suggest they plan to bring up the scrap about military recruiters at Harvard Law School, probably as an attempt to grandstand a little about the impending repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Go here for the official web cast.

We know that Kagan will be confirmed, and resistance will only be token: she may go down in history as the SCOTUS nominee no one on the right or the left really got excited about. Kagan's own opening statement would be spiced up if she uses the lesbian drama around her nomination to take a stance on ending discrimination against queer people more generally; and since Perry v. Schwarzenegger will be boarding the train to the Supreme Court there could be interesting moments around that. But I doubt that either of these things will happen. The Republicans seem to be hinting by their silence that this one is a slam dunk. I follow Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) Twitter feed and even he has not rattled his sword about the nomination lately.

So if you want to skip the whole thing and watch Wimbledon and the World Cup, go right ahead. Blame me if you miss the historic moment where Hatch changes his mind on school prayer, affirmative action and a woman's right to choose; or if the Committee announces that they are canceling the hearings and making a range of top-flight legal minds compete on a new reality show called "America's Got Law" instead.

Gay Pride March in NYC Kicks Off at 12:00 P.M. Today: For those of you who just think you know what you are doing, the route is shorter this year, beginning at 36th street. Interestingly, this also takes St.Patrick's Cathedral, where it is traditional that anti-gay trogladytes stand with signs telling queers they are going to hell, and queer marchers shout "Sham! Shame! Shame!"off the line of march. Interesting, no?

As the past couple of posts have revealed, celebrating gay pride is not a radical political act by any means, and in some quarters is perceived as reactionary. However, if you are just coming out it can feel pretty cool anyway. However, don't look for instructions about what to do during or after the march on the Heritage of Pride website. This organization of businesspeople that has turned the celebration of the Stonewall Riots into a megabucks event needs to hire a few tech people because their website is melting down this morning. But if you go, have fun, hydrate frequently, and pick up after yourselves please: the last time I was in the Village after the march I had never seen such a disgusting mess.

My favorite gay pride moment bar none? Years ago, I gathered with a whole bunch of friends to march, and one of us was having a clandestine affair with a closeted corporate attorney who ran legal for a large media conglomerate. It was closets within closets, baby. Anyway, hormones being what they were -- and people who live in the closet being what they are -- this lesbian was very nervous about participating, but was ultimately persuaded that of the hundreds of thousands of people marching she would never, ever in a trillion years be spotted by anyone she knew from the network or by her equally closeted, but far better disciplined, girlfriend. So off we go, milling about, chanting and having a great time, and around 25th street or so I hear someone yelling, and it turns out to be a New York Times photographer who was going out with my dissertation advisor at Potemkin University. All the Potemkin graduate students waved and hollered, and we marched on by.

You are already guessing what happened, dear reader. The next day the telephone rang at around 7:30, and it was the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) calling to say that my picture was in the New York Times! Right on the front of Metro section! I rushed into the hall to get the paper and yup, there we were, with Closety Custard right in the middle.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Uncivil Liberties: Teaching Evaluations and A Clarification

Courtesy of Margaret Soltan at University Diaries, who draws our attention to the recent exchange between Stanley Fish and Ross Douthat on this matter, I began thinking about teaching evaluations in a more orderly fashion than I have of late. My disorderly thoughts have been sparked by colleagues, several of whom are quite experienced teachers, receiving some of the rudest and cruelest teaching evaluations I have ever read at Zenith. Sexism is also on the rise, particularly among the students of younger, female faculty (who are also sometimes presumed to be adjuncts.)

I found these evaluations remarkable because my experience in the past has been that Zenith students often go out of their way to be charitable to someone they like and have empathy for, sometimes damning their professors with faint and contradictory praise as a result. The evaluations in question do the exact opposite: students going out of their way to slam the professor in a way that is obscurely connected to the matter at hand, sometimes perversely followed by comments that describe the class in quite thoughtful ways, making it clear the student got a lot out of the experience.

What has changed? We do teaching evaluations on line now; students do them in their rooms at whatever hour of the night they choose; and they must do them in order to get their grades. In other words, teaching evaluations have just become another $hitty chore that we drive students through with a stick. You might say: why not go back to doing them on paper, on the last class? The reason is, of course, that it was time consuming, wasteful, and expensive. As our registrar explained when we switched over to the new system, at the cost of no less than 10K a semester, the old system was badly flawed. Students often confessed to having collaborated as a class to turn in a group view of the professor, faculty often received their evaluations on the first day of spring classes (giving them no time to think about structural issues in their pedagogy), and envelopes full of evaluations that were to have been walked over by astudent were often found in the student center and abandoned in the dormitories.

So don't think we will ever go back to paper evaluations. The question is, what are teaching evaluations for? Are they intended to evaluate someone for tenure? (Yes -- and this was the issue that prompted the Fish-Douthat exchange.) Are they intended to help us become better teachers? (Yes, but if we don't trust them, how do we evaluate what they say?) Are they intended to help students think about what they have learned? (Maybe -- see Dean Dad about how students often forget what they have learned once the course is over.) The bigger question that Fish and Douthat raise is whether students ought to be the experts who are consulted in high-stakes evaluations of teaching.

If you ask me, one question that is not being asked here is: why do we consult students about the quality of the instruction without also consulting them on what they want to learn, why they want to learn it, and what its relevance to the larger program of study is? We ask them to enter into a conversation about teaching in the university without any instruction about what information we need, why or what constitutes responsible assessment of teaching (for example, "the professor was only interested in his own opinions" is hardly the point -- it is the student who ought to be interested in what the professor has to offer, and consider being less anxious about having her own views validated.) Furthermore, no one consults students about how they would like to be assessed and what they want to know about their own work. Grading can devolve into a grudge match between two teams with unequal power: in response, nationwide, faculty have thrown in the towel and inflated grades dramatically. We then get our students, and I suppose our self-respect, back by telling the press loudly that our students don't actually deserve the grades they are getting.

I Have Not, Nor Have I Ever Been

My last post about what I see as the pitfalls of academic celebrity drew some cheers; one caution (my beloved Western Colleague, she of the famous Tool Post, wisely suggested that I refrain from pissing in the wind); and one personally nasty signed comment (not, I might add, anyone mentioned in the post) which listed my numerous hopeless flaws and offenses to authority. I removed the comment (see sidebar for the comment policy), because if people want to write opinion pieces about my qualifications to walk the earth they are free to do it on their own blog -- but not on mine.

The style of the comment reminded me of the opening credits to a television show from my youth:

According to the writer, I am unlettered, unread, marginal to and ignorant about the world of queer studies, snide, have no queer vocabulary and wouldn't understand what I read even if I read it, and am a liberal. My readers can decide about all of these things on about the same basis that the commenter did. However, there was one damning accusation I wish to refute absolutely.
I am not, nor have I ever been:

A social historian.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Famous Queer Scholar Refuses Prize; Keeps Salary, Named Chair

Facebook and queer blogs have been a-buzz of late with the international doings of The Famous Queer Scholar. Recently, s/he has traveled boldly to Europe on the pretext of accepting a prize (probably on the euro of the organization giving it), only to publicly refuse the prize. In doing so, s/he made a point of chastising the organization for its failure to adequately refuse racism and "homonationalism" (or the organization's actual collaboration with the German state -- the nature of the crimes isn't quite clear from accounts of this event.) Although no one wants to explain what they did to deserve this, we are led to believe that it served the bastards right.

Goddammit, I wish I'd thought of this first. The last time I was offered a prize, I just frakking took it, thinking only of the generosity of those who were awarding it and of the microraise it might pry out of Zenith. I now just feel stupid for having not refused all prizes, but I vow to do so in the future, because you just can't do enough to fight racism, transphobia and homosexual collaboration in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is, of course, only the latest of The Famous Queer Scholar's refusals. S/he has refused hir own celebrity, becoming particularly cranky in 1992 when a Midwestern graduate student created a very funny fanzine that used hir image to mock the feminist literary turn and the rise of queer academic super-stardom. In a path-breaking book s/he refused ontological gender and identity politics. Later, she refused criticism that this key text undermined a feminist epistemological praxis or the very possibility of queer politics in a democratic society.* Protesting just such a criticism in 2008, s/he responded:

“Despite the dislocation of the subject that the text performs, there is a person here: I went to many meetings, bars, and marches and saw many kinds of genders, understood myself to be at the crossroads of some of them, and encountered sexuality at several of its cultural edges.”

So there.

Refusal has been the cutting edge of queer scholarship for some time. This can, of course, leave historians a bit in the dust, since the vast majority of us are too stupid to write without falling into the intellectual trap that there are real people who did actual things. But refusing the privilege of prizes takes the struggle to a whole new level, particularly for those of us who have little or nothing to refuse. Under these circumstances, short of voluntarily giving up our jobs, refusal is difficult to achieve, so we have to just settle back into the audience and marvel at the courage of others to travel all the way to Europe and refuse things -- in German!

As an addendum, I find it interesting that The Famous Queer Scholar, who is white, is being uniformly praised by queer scholars of color for making an inferred claim to critical interventions on race and migration that do not originate with hir. Oh yes, I know Walter Benjamin said that there is no longer an original, only reproductions of it (an idea that is uncannily similar to the notion that there is no gender, only performances of it, the intervention that made FQS a celebrity in the first place, and that I now understand s/he has repudiated on the grounds of that s/he no longer believes in the predictability of its subversiveness.)** Perhaps s/he is repudiating race too, as a necessary precondition to refusing racism. That said, I do believe that the term "homonationalism" was -- I think -- coined first by this scholar of color (in collaboration with this scholar of color) who may -- or may not -- be gnashing her teeth that she has not yet been offered anything that she can refuse -- even a little credit for her ideas from The Famous Queer Scholar.

Celebrity can be quite problematic, and I have no acquaintance with it, so I am sure there must be some explanation for why, in the name of antiracism, the FQS has nicked other people's ideas without acknowledging them. Furthermore, I suppose it is hard to refuse celebrity without, paradoxically, becoming more celebrated and hence, unwillingly (but inevitably) contributing to the inherently racist, and firmly institutionalized, academic practice of appropriating the subaltern radical (or is it the radical subaltern?) In this vein, you can go here for a great video of Angela Davis at a recent conference. Although Davis is talking at length about her own ideas concerning the transformation of movement struggle through intersectionality, the clip is billed (by whomever posted it) as "Angela Davis on Famous Queer Scholar's Refusal To Accept..." (emphasis mine.)

So you can see this famous refusal for yourself, as Warner Wolf used to say, Let's cut to the videotape!

*See? I can use big words too.
**Transpeople beware: you may soon be burdened with, and have to repudiate, the charge of transnationalism.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Fathers' Day Edition

The new social media has made Father's Day an even odder event than it ever was when it was only about neckties, Lacoste tennis shirts and greeting cards. Facebook and Twitter are alive with paeans to fathers past and present: dead fathers are assured that they will never be forgotten, husband-fathers that they are truly appreciated. The Radical household does not engage this, as we have no fathers ("Down with the patriarchy!"): the last one crossed over into the Great Beyond over a decade ago.

So imagine my surprise when I opened the New York Times, turned to an article about end of life decisions and instantly burst into racking, inconsolable tears over someone else's father. In "What Broke My Father's Heart" Katy Butler details the role played by fee for service medicine in ripping every shred of dignity and peace from her parents' final years. An ill-informed decision to put in a heart pacemaker (because a doctor refused to do emergency surgery on a painful condition without it) extended her father's life far beyond what he had intended: as he descended into stroke induced senility, blindness, and disability, his wife valiantly tried to care for him and the device beat relentlessly on no matter what. Worse, the doctor refused to disable the pacemaker, even though the patient's health proxy dictated that he be refused treatment at this stage.

Doctors pushing life-prolonging (and fully reimbursed) procedures on patients who have explicitly said they do not want their lives prolonged is one important theme; elderly partners and children whose life and health are shattered by the work necessary to care for a person who wanted to be dead, and would be dead were they not being artificially sustained, is another. The failure of the medical profession to deal with this ethical problem is the most serious issue raised, because it is impossible to plan well enough to make one's own end of life decisions in all circumstances.

People who know me well might assume that I am vividly recalling my own father's death from cancer, his frustration at not being able to die when he wanted to, and my mother's long struggle to run their household and sustain him. True, perhaps, and I see a great deal of my mother in the story, particularly her own unwillingness to relinquish him to the care of strangers despite the cost to her health. My father wanted to die months before he did, but had left it too late to take care of this difficult task himself. I was too cowardly to help him when he needed it: my parents lived in a state where the anti-abortion folks and the Catholic Church are as fierce as they come and I am ashamed to say that I was afraid to go to jail for something I believe in profoundly. Go here and scroll to p. 1017 for my father's views about how physicians could help patients choose the limits of treatment as patients and their families grappled with fatal disease.

But I also knew Katy's parents -- they were people of unsurpassed dignity, and they seemed to love each other very much. Jeff Butler was a distinguished History Department colleague and Val, his wife, was an artist, a teacher, and one of the most beautiful, gracious people I have known. They were cultured, kind and had a carefully chosen life. I suspect, although I do not know, that one of those choices was to separate from their homeland, South Africa, during the worst of apartheid. The history of the apartheid state was what Jeff wrote about, after all, and such people were frowned upon under Afrikaaner rule unless they had the right views. I arrived at Zenith the year after Jeff retired, usually only encountered him at the mailboxes, and would never say we were close. But he was the epitome of the cultured, high-achieving academic that liberal arts colleges prided themselves on in the late twentieth century. He had a sparkly smile, the look of a former athlete, and whistled ever so slightly when he talked. He had a broad South African accent that you might mistake for British, but once you have been to South Africa you never would. Jeff was always ready to offer congratulations on a recent achievement, and encouragement for the next one. As an older woman, Val was still stunningly beautiful, and always put together, with lovely white hair that was tied back in a knot. In contrast was Jeff's look of being slightly mussed and askew, a presentation that was accentuated by an empty sleeve pinned up to his shoulder or chest due to an arm lost in World War II.

Katy's story is very graphic, spare and sets out the problem of end of life decisions - and why it matters to grapple with them in a comprehensive way that forces doctors to the table -- in a precise way. Read it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Call 1-800-FEMNIST: Would Publicity About Unnecessary Genital Surgery On American Children Get Women Off Their Asses?

OK, I know I haven't blogged about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ($20 billion? Not enough, Barack -- and do not point your finger at me to show how "tough" you are. Hyper-masculinity pisses me off.) I have also not blogged about the closing arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the California case that will nominally decide whether Prop 8 is overturned, but that will really decide that GLBT marriage will go to the Supreme Court sooner than activists on either side intended (see Georgetown law prof Nan D. Hunter at Hunter of Justice for updates.)

What I am thinking about a lot this summer, however -- since I am writing a book on radical feminism in the 1970s -- is: what could happen to kick women in the United States out of their torpor and provoke a feminist political revival? Specifically, what could get women to care about female genital mutilation here in the United States, rather than condemning people in the Islamic world as if Americans were not culturally obsessed with their children's genitals too?

Try this.

Although Cornell University's Institutional Research Board might easily demand authority over an oral history project, it appears that the medical school IRB has signed off on a research project in which pediatric urologist Dix Poppas (who holds a named chair at Weill Cornell Medical Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital) is performing clitoral reduction surgeries on little girls. Presumably, because none of the subjects is identified as having a dangerous condition (like cancer, which can also cause clitoral enlargement, or a blockage of the urethra) the subjects are being chosen because they had the bad luck to be born at a teaching hospital, and in possession of either a distinctly unladylike clitoris or a micropenis.

The so-called "medical condition" under study by Dr. Poppas and his team at Weil is called "clitoromegaly." Naming is a common strategy of the medical and pharmaceutical industries to declare something found in nature and non-lethal to be unnatural and of grave danger to one's health. See, for example, today's article in the The New York Times about the marketing of flibamserin, a new pill for "female hypoactive sexual desire disorder," or "female sexual dysfunction." Girls, after taking flibamserin daily for weeks, which may make you nauseated and cause you to feel faint, you may want to have more sex. Woo-hoo!

My guess? Poppas's research, which is about preserving urological "nerve bundles," will really find its market in prostate cancer surgery, which has a truly rotten record of success (surgeons also lie about the rate of prostate surgery complications, by the way, since somewhere between 8 and 50% of men suffer from permanent post-surgical incontinence. ) It will probably also be useful in female to male transsexual surgery, for which recipients pay cash as such surgery is specifically excluded from health insurance policies, even though transsexuals do often suffer from clinical depression (an actual medical condition) when they are denied treatment that adjusts their bodies to their felt gender.

The real question is: who cares if a child has a clitoris just like Mommy's? I mention this because one powerful rationale for male circumcision, another unnecessary medical procedure performed without consent, is that boys won't grow up right unless they look like Daddy. Although it appears that having a clit just like Mommy's are also prevalent among pediatric surgeons, opinions about what constitutes a "normal clitoris" vary widely, from something smaller to a pencil eraser to half the length of your thumb (I wish.)

How many women do you know who can report losing or gaining physical self confidence as teenagers from comparing vageegees in the shower with Mama?

As usual, researchers are pushing this on parents for their own reasons, when in fact the kind and ethical thing to do would be to tell parents and their growing children the truth: having genitals that are off the norm is no big deal unless the child hirself decides, later in life, that it is, or unless it indicates a life-threatening medical condition. As Dan Savage reported yesterday, because Poppas is promoting this as a "nerve sparing surgery" for children who may be intersexed, it also involves follow up examinations in which the children are stimulated with a vibrator on the clitoris and groin and asked to report their sensations to the researchers. See clinical findings by Poppas, Jennifer Yang (a Cornell graduate currently at UCSF) and Diane Felson here. Known as cliteroplasty (as opposed to "female genital mutilation," which is what we call it when people who are not First World physicians do it), the candidates for the study ranged in age from 4 months to 24 years old. Clearly, however, most of the people in the study required parental permission, as the mean age was 4.6 - 6.8 years.

Why do children need this surgery? Why, to ensure "normal sexual development." What could be more important?

This strikes me as a moment where women on the right and on the left might join forces to address both the reform of human subjects research, and the question of why children have no right to informed consent when their sexuality is under scrutiny by researchers and health providers. True, we might not agree on what constitutes "normal sexual development," gender norms or about the rights of parents over children more generally. But we might agree about the right of medical researchers to decide whether a child's genitalia look correct, and whether it is OK to give young parents false, coercive information. Women might agree that in this kind of research children are being harmed. They might agree that such surgeries are an adult vanity project masquerading as science. They might agree that invasive and artificial forms of gender construction should not be performed on children too young to give their consent, and that researchers gathered around a child, manipulating hir genitals, and asking questions about it promotes child molestation by scientists -- not "normal sexual development."

You thought genital surgery without informed consent was all over when John Colapintoexposed John Money and David Reimer's long-term research at The John's Hopkins University, in which boys with small or damaged penises were surgically transformed into girls? Think again. Although the National Organization for Women defines female genital mutilation done for religious and cultural reasons as a human rights violation, I have not found a single statement on their web page that addresses the question of surgeries done on female children, or children thought to be better off female by American medical researchers. The theme of this year's conference, by the way is "Loving Our Bodies, Changing the World."

For more information on this issue from the adult activists who have organized around the violation of their own rights as intersexed children, go to the Intersex Society of North America web page. This page includes a helpful guide for parents who, as the Colapinto book shows, can easily be frightened into "choosing" invasive surgery and research protocols on behalf of their child in the confusing and vulnerable hours following birth by being told that their child has a "medical condition." It includes this important advice:

If the doctors are offering genital surgeries to change the way your child’s genitals look, ask: Why do you think my child needs this genital surgery? What evidence do you have that this will help my child in the long run? If your child needs a surgery to save her life, obviously it is a good idea! If your surgeon wants to do a surgery to change how your child looks, pause and consider waiting. What we know about people who grew up with “ambiguous genitalia” tells us on average they do well! You may understandably worry that your child will be emotionally hurt by having something other than average-looking genitals, but the evidence suggests your child won’t be, especially if you’re open, honest, accepting, and supportive. Surgeries may leave your child with diminished health, diminished sexual sensation, scarring, a poor cosmetic outcome, and an unintended message that your child needed to be “fixed” to be accepted by you. So consider waiting and letting your child decide whether to take the risks. You may discover your child is fine with the way your child is, especially if you let your child know you are.

This should be required reading for every parent prior to giving birth. While comparatively few children are born intersexed, those that are are overwhelmingly healthy and more likely to remain so without surgical intervention and early childhood sexual experimentation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why Can't We Get Anything Done? How To Run An Effective Meeting

No one likes going to meetings. But admit it: you dread some meetings more than others, don't you? And if you hate all meetings, academia might not be the career for you. As chair of a major Zenith university committee some years back, one week I was tearing my hair out because I was scheduled up to the eyeballs with meetings. "How the Hades do administrators ever get any work done if they are in fracking meetings all the time?" I railed at my companion, a former dean, as I pulled on a clean black tee shirt to greet that day's scheduling marathon in high style.

"That's how administrators do their work," she replied patiently, reaching for the Arts section of the New York Times. "They are doing their work in meetings." I was gobsmacked. Of course that was right. So maybe it wasn't the meetings themselves that were the problem -- it was the question of making -- and marking -- the progress we made in them.

This post is for everyone, no matter how unimportant you think you are. Whether you are going to be a first time chair in the fall, or chairing a committee with a small mandate, or just a member of a department or a committee, you need to be able to run, and/or contribute effectively to, a good meeting. It is one of the many failures of academic life that this is not a skill that either taught or openly discussed, nor is it one that faculty will usually admit to valuing. But actually, most do because they hate having their time wasted. From time to time, you might hear it said about someone in a tone of admiration, "S/he runs a really good meeting." It's a genuine compliment my friend: will it ever be made about you?

Never fear, the Tenured Radical is here! Here are the five things that I always think about when I am planning and participating in a meeting.

1. Every meeting requires a realistic and clear agenda. If you are running the meeting, you need to take account of what time is available, and how much of the hour you should allot to each item. An agenda should not be too full, and conversely, if there is very little to discuss, cancel the meeting: this will make everyone happy. Getting together just because you are scheduled to do so makes people feel like they are spinning their wheels. Driving people through an agenda as if the building was burning can, on the other hand, cause the group not to take ownership of decisions made in haste, or cause them to (perhaps rightly) not make decisions at all. If an item is taking longer than you thought it would, even if you have pruned out ancillary issues, consult with the group as to whether they wish to defer the item to the next meeting, or finish that discussion and defer the other items to the next meeting.

If you are chairing, you should rough out a semester of meetings in advance so that you know how much aggregate meeting time you are willing to allot to each of the items your group is tasked with. You should plan a regular weekly time so that you are not wasting time in each meeting trying to find space in every one's schedule for the next one. You need to leave some space for unplanned items that have been added to the semester's work.

It is also important to designate why things are on the agenda: is a particular item there for discussion and advice, or is it what we call an "action item" -- an issue on which, ideally, your group will produce a recommendation, request or policy?

Above all, the committee has to be encouraged to work together as a group, and each member of the committee needs to know that hir opinions (unless utterly irrelevant and noxious) are important to the process. Because of this, you need to:

2. Avoid giving speeches or monopolizing the discussion. This is definitely my worst flaw, either as a chair or a participant in meetings. If you are chair, your job is to establish the agenda, keep it moving, and end the meeting with a sense of the actions to be taken as a result of the committee's deliberations. It is also your job to listen and make sense of what other people have to say, such as asking people to clarify points. pause the discussion periodically to articulate areas of consensus and disagreement. If you are a member of the committee, don't speak in long paragraphs that are designed to foreclose alternative opinions before they have even been voiced. This can be terribly polarizing. Worse, it encourages a few strong personalities to dominate, and others to melt away.

The point of the meeting is participation. If you are talking, no one else is, and those other people are sitting there thinking: "What is the point of being at this meeting?" Reserve a few minutes for each item to make sure you have solicited the opinion of everyone who wishes to speak: many people, especially new and less experienced colleagues, will be reticent about expressing their opinions in a more experienced group. Make sure you repeat the positions voiced by these people to reassure them that you have heard what they said, and to make sure others have taken account of it too.

Finally, try to have a sense of when a discussion has gone on too long. You know this has happened when the same opinions, or disagreements, are being recycled; if people are starting to talk among themselves and crack jokes; or if the conversation is straying into peripheral issues. Bring the discussion to a close by asking the group to:

3. Make effective decisions. The best decisions are reached by consensus, in my view, but this isn't always possible. It is much harder to do in a large department, which can split over real differences in intellectual and institutional philosophy without losing their effectiveness in the institution over the short term. This can be a problem, of course, because it leads to faction. Unfortunately, large departments have no disincentive, year by year, to avoid factions, since it allows strong personalities to flex their muscles in ways that are undemocratic but efficient. But in the long term the damage can be great if these factions harden. What you then get are political struggles that overwhelm legitimate intellectual issues, cause a lack of comity and ultimately, hamper the department's capacity to do business.

Small departments cannot afford the politics of faction because unfriendly relationships or long-term struggles in a small group can be devastating as people become isolated and angry over long-term grievances. This means that, while large groups are far more likely to vote on items and move forward, even items of little importance, small groups are more likely to invest in compromises that can take much longer to reach but that every member is invested in. Over time, however, the down side of small group consensus building can be an unwillingness to take risks, or make timely decisions on small matters even when such decisions are urgent to the department's future. Disagreement with the consensus can come to feel socially fraught, causing individuals not to disagree even when it would be useful and productive.

If the small group sounds like a conflict-free zone, it isn't. Small groups can become idiosyncratic and defensive, and can be rife with the passive-aggressive behavior that the failure to have and resolve conflict can breed. But large groups -- particularly departments -- should not become too reliant on voting. It creates the misimpression that every decision, no matter how small is a matter of "policy;" and it means that factions become reified, as strong personalities constantly troll for votes and mark others down as loyal or disloyal.

As chair, you need to decide which decision-making style is best suited to the action you are seeking and the group you are in -- not simply go with what is traditional within the group because it is comfortable. Neither consensus or voting is necessarily a better method for making group decisions, although I like consensus because it allows a group that is in the minority to concede its point but still be heard on the matter. Ideally, the minority can modify the decision in a way that strengthens the outcome and invites their support of a decision which they initially opposed. Whatever method you choose (and it could be a mix) you need to:

4. Cultivate respect for the decision-making process within the group. Your meetings are not effective unless every member of your group leaves ready to support the decision or recommendation that is made and the process by which it was achieved. In the case of a personnel decision, each person who voted needs to be able to describe accurately, and in detail, to anyone who has the right to inquire, why s/he voted the way she did. In policy and governance matters, however, the best outcome is that every member of the group is ready to support the decision that has been made, regardless of whether s/he supported it in the meeting or not.

This last point is a particular issue in an academic environment where one's colleagues often assume that lingering disagreement and argument is not just the norm, but is a right and a legitimate expression of one's individualism. In intellectual matters this may be productive (although it can lead to stubborn eccentricity in a person's views), but in institutional matters it can be crippling. There is nothing more annoying than to come to a decision as a group, and then have one or more people leave the room and criticize others, or the group itself, to the larger community.

Oh yes: the one thing that is more annoying is to have the person never give up a disagreement, and divert energy from other business by constantly trying to pressure the group to reverse what it has done. Trying to undercut the decision by disseminating information in the larger community, real or false, is really bad, unless there is a matter of great ethical importance at stake. And under no conditions should people be sending each other rabid emails that pursue struggles that began in meetings, copying and blind copying them to others. Which is why you need to....

5. Discourage gossip. Be firm about which decisions require confidentiality, and why. Give clear direction on what that means: are members of the group not allowed to say anything about a decision? Are they allowed to distance themselves from the outcome publicly if they have voiced their disagreement appropriately within the group? Particularly if your committee draws on numerous departments for its membership, people may have different standards for confidentiality and these may need to be discussed.

Along with discouraging gossip, members of your group will inevitably discuss agenda items with each other outside meetings, but the caucusing to straegize a meeting's outcome is divisive and should be discouraged, as should email exchanges about business from which some members of the group are excluded. It also encourages the bullying of faculty by those at a higher rank, the creation of unhealthy personal obligations, and character assassination of various kinds. What is the point of having a meeting if everyone attends already knowing what s/he will support and unwilling to listen to those who were not part of these extra-curricular discussions? What is the point of having an opinion if you will have to inevitably fear punishment from one faction or another? Particularly in departments, this kind of informal caucusing (inevitably encouraged by strong personalities who want to run things whether they are formally in charge or not) can lead to long-term damage from factionalization, and resentment from those in minority positions.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Straights, Gays and Everyone In Between

Via the H-Women listserve: Congratulations to Ellen Samuels University of Wisconsin, Madison) for winning
the 2011 Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship given by the University of Chicago Press (forthcoming, Signs 2011).
The citation reads, in part:

Professor Samuels’s award-winning essay, "Examining Millie and Christine McKoy: Where Enslavement and Enfreakment Meet," is impressively
interdisciplinary....Physically joined at the pelvis, the twins were objects of curiosity, inspection, and invasion from the moment of their birth. The article situates medical and lay interest in their unique pelvic anatomy within the larger contexts of the nineteenth-century freak show, the pathologization of black female sexuality, and the complex dynamics of American enslavement and emancipation. Advancing a re-visionary understanding of the McKoys, the author illuminates dimensions of agency and subjectivity largely overlooked or misunderstood by historians to date.

Born enslaved, the McCoy sisters, pictured at right in demure Victorian garb, were treated shamefully by the people who owned, and then exploited them for their uniqueness. Eventually they became vocalists, becoming famous as "The Two-Headed Nightingale." Congratulations Ellen!

When Lesbians Walked The Earth: The online journal Trivia: Voices of Feminism (originally founded as a print journal in 1982) has dedicated its most recent issue to the theme "Are Lesbians Going Extinct?" If the answer is yes, then the up side is that we grow ever-more valuable as collectibles! At any rate, it's a great bunch of essays, edited (I think) by Lise Weil of Goddard College. I equivocate on this point because it seems, from the website, that in true feminist fashion there is a collective at work on many of the issues. Dedicated to Mary Daly, Trivia will have a follow up volume on the same theme in September 2010. And if you are a lesbian of a certain age, here's a treat: an essay by Elana Dykewomon!

Take A Knee, Heterosexuality: If lesbians are going extinct, straight people aren't doing much better. Ever since it made its debut, I have looked forward every Sunday to the New York Times "Modern Love" feature. The only problem is that it has been getting dull, the stories about love simultaneously stranger and more prosaic. One suspects that, as people with less and less unique lives get contracts to write memoirs, "Modern Love" has succumbed to placements from the agents of people who have been encouraged by their 800 television channels to believe that almost anything is worth a mention: adopting outside the United States, putting the dog down, losing weight, struggling with the demands of your special needs child, house training your dog, being poor, toilet training your child, being rich, dropping out of college to go to Nepal and have an affair with a sherpa.......

And yet today's horror story, "Competing In My Own Reality Show" is both just twisted enough to command my attention and is a perfect example of why memoirs should be embargoed until readers develop better taste; or woman writers rediscover feminism, and/or learn that self-disclosure is not the same thing as insight into the human condition. Diana Spechler recounts the shallow story of how:

1. She became attracted to a student, embarking on an affair with him when she learned that he had been chosen for one of those reality shows where a "bachelor" is presented with numerous women, one of whom will be picked by the producers to be his wife. Competing, we learn at the end, may have been her sole motivation all along. (Self-disclosure: in my day, when people said "bachelor" they meant homosexual. I'm just sayin', Diana.)

2. She fell in love with Mr. Shitbird, despite the fact that he was so narcissistic and empty-headed as to genuinely think it was a good idea to marry someone chosen for him by television producers - and have an affair with Sprechler while he was doing it.

3. She fell further in love with this caricature of a man even as he continued with this process, saying things to her like "You should apply to be my wife" -- and that she would probably never be picked. Nevertheless, she "fantasized about applying," realizing only after talking over one of the actual candidates with him that she had not truly captured his heart to date because "I had made myself too available. Of course my rivals now had an edge. Because they weren't infatuated, they could easily act aloof." (Another theory? The female contestants suspected he was a homosexual, and didn't care. This reality show was only their desperate attempt -- not to find an actual husband but to break into "the business" by getting on the cover of US magazine.)

And besides, Diana, your real mistake was not seeing a therapist immediately after a) sleeping with one of your students; and b) becoming his domestic servant and f**kbuddy as he trolled for a wife on a television show. Before would have been even better. Reader, don't miss the part about her folding his underpants while he is filling out questionnaires from women who, as he tells her enthusiastically, "have standards."

4. After he gets kicked off the show (perhaps because he is a homosexual? As an active homosexual, I feel I can continue to venture this hypothesis), their relationship begins to peter out. The night before Valentine's Day, he admits (drum roll): "I don't love you." Gosh, really? And guess what?! Sprechler comes to the conclusion that it was all her fault! But not because she apparently has no self-esteem. No! It is because she is too competitive for her own good! Don't you just hate that in women? As she concludes,

In the weeks that followed, I spent a lot of time crying to friends, hypothesizing that he had signed the contract not because he longed for love (Please! Love?) but because his narcissism knew no bounds.

Of course, I was being unfair. After all, I had made myself the star of my own reality show. I had signed myself up, donned my blinders, and set my sights on winning.

And Last But Not Least: Michael Wolff on the Helen Thomas beheading.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bafana Bafana! Radical World Cup

As those of you who were reading Tenured Radical last fall know, our household (minus the travel-averse Portuguese Water Dog) spent several months living and working in South Africa. Therefore, although work will not be entirely suspended today chez Radical, tasks will be chosen with an eye to their compatibility with World Cup football. I am also wearing my orange National Sea Rescue tee shirt for luck. I haven't gone mad, however: good wishes aside, Bafana Bafana (which roughly translates from the Zulu as "The Little Guy") has small hope of beating Mexico today.

Life is not a Matt Damon movie, my friends. And football is not rugby. Thank god.

However, football does offer more options than a Matt Damon movie: if South Africa loses, I will switch hemispheres and root for Brazil, which is easy to do, because I don't give a rat's a$$ for the United States team.

In other news, can we please not take this opportunity, in which South Africa gets to show off just a little bit, to caricature South African sexuality? Yes, along with intense poverty, sexual violence is a terrible problem in South Africa, as is AIDS. But frequent assertions in some of our best American newspapers that, because Jacob Zuma has been married five times and currently has three wives, polygamy is legal in South Africa are ill-informed. Polygamy has no legal or civil standing in South Africa. It is a Zulu tradition that powerful men keep more than one wife, and Jacob Zuma is a very well-to-do Zulu who can afford to have as many wives as he likes. Not only does it cost money to maintain each wife and her children in her own household, but one also pays a steep bride price, or lobola, to the woman's family before a marriage can take place. Zuma has been roundly criticized for his polygamous practices and illegitimate children -- five out of twenty have been born outside these marriages -- by Christian churchmen (South Africa is 80% Christian), his political opponents, and more cosmopolitan South Africans. But one suspects that Zuma's public embrace of Zulu identity is part of his popularity: polygamy is a shrinking practice, but not unusual in the areas of the country where the ANC is strongest. Illegitimate births are not particularly stigmatized either, particularly when the father acknowledges and takes financial responsibility for the child, but also because it is not unusual for parents not to wed until they can do so respectably -- in other words, when the husband can pay lobola and set up his own household.

Americans might be interested to know that polygamy, although a hidden practice in the United States, is also not entirely illegal (although it can get you excommunicated from mainstream Mormonism), as long as other laws that regulate sexuality and the family are not broken. Prosecutions tend to occur only if the multiple "marriages" (which have no legal standing beyond an initial marriage, and almost always occur within a religious community) involve breaking other laws against incest, statutory rape, or welfare fraud; or violate the tax code.

What South Africans tend to be more concerned about are accusations of rape filed against the President in 2005, which were officially dismissed, but tarnished Zuma's reputation; and his numerous illegitimate children which, in a country where AIDS is a critical policy issue and condom use is officially promoted, sets a bad example to say the least. But these things pale in comparison to other problems; corruption, housing, unemployment, the collapse of public services, deficiencies in education and the yawning gap between rich and poor.

If you have suddenly become interested in South Africa (and I hope you have), Karen Tani has provided a good reading list at Legal History Blog. Might I also suggest Nelson Mandela's autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom? In addition to being a memoir of one of the most important activists of our time, it is an excellent short course on the political history of modern South Africa. You will also learn a few things you need to know about Zulu culture and tradition, so as not to speak about the ruling clique in the ANC with utter and complete ignorance. For a call to arms issued by young intellectuals in the new South Africa, I recommend Leslie Dikeni and William Gumedi, eds., The Poverty of Ideas: South African Democracy and the Retreat of the Intellectuals (Jacana Media, 2010).

You might also want to start following three South African bloggers, two of whom are currently in my sidebar. Afrodissident targets reactionaries, demagogues and corrupt public figures of all kinds, particularly those (like Julius Malema, head of the ANC Youth League) who pose as radicals. Khayelitsha Struggles is written by activists from inside the vast township on the Cape Flats that stretches from the Capetown airport down to False Bay; the most recent post announces a "township" of tin shacks that will be built outside the multi-million dollar Greenpoint stadium to protest dollars that were diverted from housing for, and extending utilities to, the poor. Constitutionally Speaking examines political and social issues in South Africa from the perspective of constitutional law. Although today he admits being temporarily uncritical due to being caught up in the excitement, go here for blogger Pierre de Vos's "World Cup Guide To South Africa."


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Today's Assigned Reading: Ayn Rand, Tony Judt and Dean Dad

I spent the first part of the morning absorbed in Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford: 2009). I always thought there were two kinds of people: those who were simply mad about Rand, and others (like me) who couldn't make it through the first fifty pages of her histrionic prose and cheesy philosophizing.

Wrong, wrong, wrong (as one usually is when, as on Facebook, there appear to be only two choices: "Like" and "Dislike.") There are also those who are neither Rand worshippers or Rand avoiders, but who are just smart, like Jennifer Burns. For all the books that have been published lately about the rise of conservatism in the post-World War II United States, I would have to say Goddess of the Market is the most unusual, in that it teases apart the different philosophical strands of conservatism and libertarianism, while also connecting them to political movements and figures that themselves deserve more attention: Wendell Willkie, for example. Burns also does a terrific job of knitting Rand's philosophy of individualism into a wider intellectual world that preceded the resurgence of conservatism as a governing philosophy in the 1960s. Another bonus is that I have always felt a little guilty for never reading Rand -- and now I can once again back-burner her, but all the better informed by Burns' account. It's a win-win.

In other reading news, check out Tony Judt's column in today's New York Times, "Israel Without Cliches." I've been following Judt's memoir pieces in the New York Review of Books, which should be mandatory reading for young historians, particularly since they detail the many complex and non-academic experiences Judt has brought to his life of scholarship. They are beautifully written; and they not-so-unsubtly illustrate what it means to be a cosmopolitan intellectual. Like many feminists, I sometimes begin to foam at the mouth at Judt's uninformed (but not unopinionated)) views on the place of women in the academy (prone -- see "Girls! Girls! Girls!" April 8 2010), and everything that modern American Studies is built around ( "Edge People", March 25 2010). In "Edge People," these two targets of condescension merge. if female graduate students are most notable as fodder for sex and marriage (which makes it all better), provided almost solely for the benefit of distinguished male faculty on the loose in middle age, we learn that "the shortcoming" of "para-academic programs" like "'gender studies,' 'women’s studies,' 'Asian-Pacific-American studies,' and dozens of others" (scare quotes around these fields are his)

is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves —thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.

What is it that Judt writes about again -- uh, whites? Europeans? Men? Talk about a job creation scheme that has really influenced the academy. Aren't you glad he wasn't your dean? Nevertheless, despite occasionally wanting to reach through the page and shake him for using his perch to say stupid and ill-informed things about fields -- and people -- he clearly knows nothing about, I am enjoying this series enormously. The New York Times piece,on the role of anti-Semitism in public discussions of Israel, displays Judt at his most lucid in dealing with a difficult problem that can have otherwise reasonable people screaming at each other in seconds.

In other writing news, Dean Dad elaborates on my post about voluntary retirement in academia here.

Crossposted at Cliopatria.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

How To Afford Your First Job, Professor Bumstead: Radical Advice For The Newly Employed

We can all agree it was a terrible job market last year. And yet, some of you will be proceeding, newly hooded, into more highly paid employment than you had last year. When I was in graduate school, we used to distinguish between "a job" (something that pays better than graduate school, which could be anything from a one-year adjunct to an administrative, IT or public history position) and "a real job" (employment that offered a longer future, most likely tenure-track.) Nowadays there is also a third category that has expanded dramatically: the post-doctoral fellowship.

Regardless of what category you fall into, if you have finished your PhD and proceeded to paid employment of any kind, you may be making two to three times the money you made last year, which will make you feel giddy. For this reason, my dear, you are in need of Radical Financial Advice.

1. Find out when you will receive your first pay check, how much it will be, and how many months a year you will be paid. It is not uncommon that there is an uncomfortable to yawning gap between the end of your graduate fellowship or post-doc and the beginning of your new salary. If you have been living paycheck to paycheck (which you have) and don't have a partner who is earning, you may suddenly find yourself anywhere from two to four months without income. Most college fiscal years begin in July, but most adjunct jobs and post docs, as well as some tenure-track jobs, begin paying only after you have actually hit the ground in September. This means you might be paid at the end of July and you might be paid at the end of September. You may be paid on a twelve month schedule, or an 8-9 month schedule. Find out and plan accordingly. Sometimes it is possible (especially with a push from a kindly chair or dean) to get your new Human Resources people to re-calibrate your salary to a cycle that eases your transition slightly better. Otherwise, you need to make a plan for whatever time you will be without income. Like crawl home, live with your parents and wait tables until your prestigious university job begins.

2. You cannot afford not to have an accountant. Used to filling out the short form? Well you may be able to go back to it year after next if you are in a tenure-track job, but not this year. Why? Because poor as you may still feel once you figure out what you will actually be living on once you begin debt repayment (see below), you have leaped up the tax ladder. Listen carefully, because this is important: you will probably owe more in taxes next April than will be withheld from your salary. Why? Because withholding on your graduate fellowship, post-doc or adjunct salary was done at a far lower tax rate. So while the amount withheld from your new salary will be appropriate, the amount withheld from your servant wages will not have been, and you will owe money.

An accountant can help you plan for this by either telling you how much to have withheld in your new job, or by calculating how much you have to save to pay the Feds in the spring. The former strategy is preferred, since under-withholding is frowned upon by the IRS, but you can probably get away with it for a year.

I'll tell you right now: H & R Block doesn't count as an accountant. Go to a senior colleague who looks relatively prosperous and ask her who her accountant is. You need someone good because, before taking on the financial obligations of moving, you also need to be able to plan.......

3. Your budget. That's right, it's Blondie and Dagwood time. And this is perhaps the most important part of this post, because the first thing you will need to get a handle on is....

4. Your debts. It's no shame to have them: nearly everyone carries debt from college and adds to it in graduate school. But there is good debt and bad debt. Let me explain.

Good debt includes your massive student loans, that will kick in six months after the hood falls on your shoulders. Once you have learned from your accountant how much your monthly salary will be, you then need to lop these payments right off the top. My advice is to create a separate bank account for debt payment and have that part of your income immediately deposited in it; then have the same account make an electronic payment on a day or two later. This way you will never get your mitts on the money, and you will never miss it.

Good debt is buying a house. But, should you be in a position to do so, one conversation to have with your accountant is whether, in your income bracket, and given the volatility of the real estate market, this is a good time in your life (and the right location) for you to make that investment. Take it from one who is on her third home: buying a house is far more expensive than your cheerful real estate agent will tell you. Take the numbers s/he gives you for the first year and add $10,000. What you might find in this soft market is a rent-to-own situation, which might be attractive if you are tenure-track. In this scenario, you have the option of owning a year or so down the line, with a portion of your rent applied to the purchase price. In this case, you will need to discuss with your accountant how much you would need to save to complete the sale (there are transfer taxes, mortgage fees, and other hidden costs to house buying that are tax deductible, but must be paid up front.)

Another good debt is purchasing a car if you do not already have one and you will need one to get to school. Unlike student loan and credit card payment, paying back a car loan establishes your credit worthiness. In addition, even though you will have to come up with $1000 -$2,000 to put down on a car, it is also a particularly good economic environment for purchasing a car: I am still getting ads for 0% financing, and by July and August when they are trying to get the old model year off the lot, you might even see no money down offers.

But if you are living in a college town where you can easily bike or walk to work, consider not purchasing a car immediately. Aside from the down payment, this will probably save you around $2500 alone next year in insurance, gasoline, maintenance and taxes (if you live in a state that taxes autos.) Renting a car when you need one is much thriftier, as is offering to pay for a friend's gas so that you can both go to Sam's Club and Trader Joe's to load up on household items and frozen food in bulk.

Bad debt is credit cards. My guess is that you have what -- two? Three? My other guess is that you have been closing the gap between your actual income in graduate school and what you spend with your credit cards and that you are paying a lot of interest. Maybe you have even been accepting those offers that allow you to transfer debt from one card to another at 0% for the first six months? You did that more than once? You are paying interest on the accumulated interest, aren't you? Now listen very carefully:

You must stop. Now. Right now.

Until you stop living on credit you are not working for yourself, you are working for the bank. Credit cards are like crack. They sing us siren songs, and we love what they say because we can cure so much unhappiness today and pay for it tomorrow (and the next day, and the next day, and the next day....) Credit cards are like affairs: we tell ourselves and our friends there is nothing wrong with them, and yet we feel compelled to lie about them too. Tell your accountant exactly what you owe, and tell the truth. Believe me, s/he has heard it all -- and so much worse -- before. Then try this: when you are shopping around for a bank, find out whether you can get a fixed-rate consolidation loan to pay all your credit cards off over a period of 36 months. Compare the rates on these loans, and choose the bank that gives you the best one. Make sure there are no penalties for early payment, and then consider teaching a summer course next year to make a serious dent in that loan. In the end this will save you thousands of dollars.

Most important, until you know all the above numbers -- taxes, debt repayment, and net-net monthly salary, you will not know how much....

5. Money you and your dependents have to live on. I am going to tell you right now that even though you just got a big raise, at this point in your financial planning process this will seem like a heartbreakingly small number, particularly if you are financial obligated to parents, spouses, children or siblings. It may be a small enough number that, particularly if you are moving to a big city, you may have to seriously consider a roommate situation. But cheer up: you are not going further into debt, you have cancelled all but one credit card, you are going to pay for everything in cash from here on out and (this is the best part, after you have dealt with all your financial baggage), barring complete unemployment, your real income is most likely to go up from here on out! Budget for food, utilities (can you really afford the cable package you want?), rent (is heat included? Not an important question in Los Angeles, but vital in Boston), transportation, and clothes. And do yourself one more favor.....

6. Save something. Anything. This will make you feel powerful and in control of your fate. Make it $25 a month if that is all you have, but put it somewhere that you cannot touch it. I, for example, have a Roth IRA, where I have for years put all the money I have ever earned writing and speaking, and it has become a nice sum over two decades of employment. Look at it this way: a $250 honorarium for giving a talk locally isn't much money, but with compound interest over the course of your working life, it becomes an impressive sum on which you have also deferred taxes. If you are a highly self-disciplined person, you might want to save up your money for a bit and then put it in a CD, where it is slightly more available to you but you have to make a conscious decision to actually use it rather than fritter it away.

This advice may be more appropriate to some people than to others, but the important message is plan. Plan now. You don't have to be Suze Orman to know that one of the worst legacies of a prolonged period of debt accumulation and low income is learning to ignore the real state of your finances as you fear deprivation more than you fear living beyond your means. While this can be OK during graduate school, when your first priority is establishing yourself as an intellectual and accumulating debt can allow you to complete your studies in a timely manner, to prolong debt accumulation into your salaried life can limit your options severely down the line.

On the other hand, at a moment when you are launching yourself into life as a professional intellectual and so many things are out of your control, this is one place -- with a little prudence and self-discipline -- where you can feel powerful and in charge.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Gonna Walk Before They Make Me Run: On Helen Thomas And Retirement

Because of my grown niece, a second wave feminist in a third wave body, I took an interest in Helen Thomas a few years back. Third Wave Niece, a Smith grad, is very into biographies of interesting women who have battled their way through to careers that are characterized by their maleness -- journalism, politics, and whatnot. So I purchased a copy of Thomas's Front Row At The White House: My Life And Times (Scribners, 2000) and read it. A lively account of her career with UPI, it's a great history of journalism from one woman's point of view. But it's also graphic example of all the ways women were locked out of professional life in structural ways until federal legislation, and lawsuits filed under that legislation, literally permitted them in the room. As Thomas (a not particularly ideological feminist) broke down those barriers in political reporting, women streamed in behind her. I remember back in 1979, thinking that we at Oligarch's college newspaper might just elect the first woman to chair the editorial board less than a decade after women had been admitted to the university at all. It was not to be, and we elected a fine man. But the woman we didn't elect, and numerous others (including Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post) went on to fine careers in journalism through the doors opened by Thomas and her contemporaries.

But over the years, Thomas -- who had a reputation for asking "tough" questions -- became less of a reporter than a nostalgic symbol of what journalism used to be. This was particularly the case after she quit UPI and signed on as a columnist for Hearst. She was cultivated by successive White House press secretaries as a kind of mascot and news-granny, an annoying but beloved old cat that is always leaving fur in your favorite chair. Helen asked the tough questions, sure, but because only Helen asked the tough questions, presidents and press secretaries were also able to reply to them as if they were eccentric. Perhaps you remember --as I do -- spinmeister Ronald Reagan responding to a much younger Thomas's questions with an indulgent smile and a "We-e-ell Helen (a-heh-heh-heh) I don't know whether (a-heh-heh)...."

Now Thomas has, as Jonathan Ferris coined the phrase in And Then We Came To The End, been "made to walk Spanish." Or rather, she has abruptly retired, after having gone on record as anti-Israel (in a particularly cruel way) with Rabbi David Nesenoff after a White House Jewish heritage event. View the video here courtesy of George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer made sure that Thomas's remarks got out to the mainstream media; Bill Clinton's former press secretary (talk about a job from hell) Lanny Davis followed Sunday with a statement that "Thomas, who he used to consider a close friend, 'has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot.'"

Do we think maybe none of these guys really liked Thomas after all? She resigned from Hearst on Monday.

Gone the special chair, the distinctive red dresses, the ritual first question. Of course, what happened was nothing new. As most reports of the incident note, Thomas -- the daughter of Lebanese immigrants -- has always been a sharp critic of Israel and of U.S. support for Israel's foreign policy. What pushed things over the edge was not her anti-Israel statements, but her colossal error in judgement in suggesting that the people of Israel "go home" to Germany and Poland. Oh -- and to America, which would be a better idea because there weren't any extermination camps there.

Surely it was a set-up: beware of clerics carrying video cameras, is my advice, and do your best not to say noxious things when you are being taped. I do agree with the many people who are arguing that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh say horrid things in public all the time, and no one is calling for their resignation. Yet if, at the age of 89, Thomas is no longer able to distinguish between suggesting that the descendants of Holocaust survivors return to the site of their ancestors' murder and appropriately partisan political statements about Israel's neo-imperialist policies in Gaza and the West Bank, one suspects that it is long past time for her to go.

Why hasn't someone had the kindness to make that happen before now? Answer: it takes guts to remove an iconic figure. Few people do it, even when they know they should. This is, of course, a common problem in the academy. Venerable professor famous for irascible personality and eclectic remarks goes right over the edge one day and has to be forcibly retired, when in fact the signs of ineffectiveness and mental decline have been clear to close colleagues for several years: inappropriate remarks, fits of rage and/or confusion, memory lapses of gargantuan proportions. And yet, you go to the administration and say, "Hey, I think we have a problem" and administrators claim their hands are tied because of tenure, academic freedom, blah, blah, blah. I have a friend who made this lonesome trek year after year, recounting numerous horror stories that appeared in the teaching evaluations or were related by befuddled students about Famous Professor X, and was repeatedly sent away with a condescending lecture about age discrimination. In one of these meetings, an administrator said to my friend sharply, "Are you a doctor? What makes you think you know what is going on?"

"Oh," s/he replied casually: "Venerable Professor doesn't recognize me anymore, and s/he recently asked the administrative assistant who she was and why she was robbing the department office." Needless to say, nothing happened until said faculty member let loose a blistering stream of muddled hate speech at a stunned group of first-year students who fled the room weeping and dropped the class en masse.

The argument that prim little Ari Fleischer made about ejecting Thomas from the White House press corps is that she has lost her objectivity. The truth is that Thomas has not been objective for years -- she has been strongly opinionated, a useful foil who allowed conservatives and neo-liberals alike to articulate themselves against her. That has in many ways made her an asset, especially to conservative presidents, and to a White House press corps that either doesn't like to ask the hard questions, or doesn't really care to report or think very hard about the answers. The real problem is that Helen Thomas has lost her good judgment -- and while this is not the case for everyone who is 89, we should all see this as a lesson about retiring before we do something awful that allows people to give us the old heave-ho.

What a value added it was for Republicans to make Obama kick the little old lady out of the White House too! If he would only return Bo to the breeder while PETA films his weeping children, a Republican sweep in November will be assured.

But the real moral of the story is for everyone over 50: age narrows most of us more than we can possibly be aware of. It trims away the subtleties and politesse that can make the most extreme things we believe bearable to others. It causes to overestimate our authority, and underestimate the destruction our words cause. It makes us arrogant, because younger people don't want to tell us that we are finished, even as we become caricatures of ourselves. My advice? Pick a retirement age now and stick to it, knowing that you will get out while people still remember you for the best things that you were. Keith Richards says it better than I ever could: this is for you, Helen.