Saturday, July 31, 2010

Department Of Teaching and Preaching: Update On Academic Freedom Case At University of Illinois

Or is that the UI homophobia-in-the-classroom case? You figure it out. Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik updates us on the teaching status of religious studies instructor Kenneth Howell at the University of Illinois, Champaigne-Urbana. Howell came under scrutiny because of an email he sent to his class that articulated gay male sex acts as immoral and the equivalent of bestiality: you may recall that I wrote about it here. It appears that for years, Catholic thought instructors have been nominated and paid by the Newman Center, an institution that exists on many campuses to support the faith and the sociability of Catholic students. Although Howell has been reinstated for the fall, this incident has created an opportunity to end a curious arrangement that some faculty on campus have opposed for reasons you don't have to be skeptical of religion to understand. Think about it: would you hire someone nominated and paid for by BP, and approved by no department, to teach the ethics of offshore drilling?

According to this report, the agreement puts Howell (who is a published scholar) back in the classroom, and affirms that he is subject to public university guidelines around the expression of religious views (and presumably, expressions of prejudice that would not be perceived as discriminatory if articulated in a community of like-minded believers.)

A bigger question might be: are religious institutions a legitimate "student service?" And what is the role of clerics on secular campuses, unless they have been hired in a secular capacity as tenure-track faculty or administrators? This isn't something I have seen discussed much, and yet most campuses devote a part of their budget to doing so. The Howell incident should perhaps cause us to wonder why, in this day and age, secular institutions feel they have any obligation to provide religious resources to students at all: or, to put an even finer point on it, to students of some faiths and not others. I suspect the answer to the question is that when they do hire preachers of various kinds, for one low, low, price they get an adjunct teacher/psychotherapist/co-curricular coordinator all wrapped up in one.

But it is also one of those wheels within wheels situations that makes me happy I am not an administrator. Nothing I have seen has addressed the question of a complaint filed by a student not in the class: despite your views on faculty hired because they have been approved and paid for by the Vatican, all of us should find this a little scary. It has not exactly resolved the academic freedom issue, which may create difficulties for UI down the line. While Howell will have a contract for next semester, the religion department now has control over its hiring (as it should), and will decide whether to retain him in the future.

So here's the happy choice facing UI's chair of religion next year: continue to employ indefinitely an instructor who the department doesn't seem to care enough for to defend, and who it never hired in the first place; or decline to employ him further and risk a lawsuit backed by either the liberal AAUP, the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, or both.

Because it is summer, I have illustrated this post with James Tissot's "Jesus Teaching At The Shore," taken from this website.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

If A Lesbian Fell In Hollywood, And No One Were There To Hear Her, Would She Make A Noise?

Our friend at Historiann meditates today on the practice of women's history and why feminism matters. "Women’s history," she writes, "is a large and rich enough field that there are histories of women that aren’t particularly feminist, just as the history of women has expanded far beyond the history of just feminist women to include the histories of women who lived before the invention of feminism as a political movement as well as women who weren’t feminists or even worked actively against feminism." But, she asks: "What would happen if we just stopped writing it? Who in the larger historical profession would notice, or care, or complain?" The answer is not women would care, but feminists would care. "Feminists are the ones who would care if women’s history ceased production. Whether or not they’re women’s historians, feminist historians would notice."

Tie a thread to this post and run it through the blogosphere to Bully Bloggers where, after several days of silence, the comments section of Jack Halberstam's post on Lisa Cholodenko's icky lesbian movie "The Kids Are All Right." Interestingly, this post, on an academic blog that doesn't often attract people who don't get it, has become the site for a polarized conversation about what a "lesbian" movie is supposed to do for either a "lesbian" or a "mainstream" audience; what constitutes a "lesbian stereotype;" and whether it is acceptable for "lesbians" to criticize other "lesbians" for representing a film about a depressingly conventional film as a political triumph over a homophobic movie industry. A critical theme of Halberstam's review -- one that seems to be lost on hir critics -- is that this movie might be about lesbians but that doesn't make it progressive, nor does it represent a cheerful perspective on the state of the lesbian bourgeoisie.

Who notices that there are so few movies that choose gay and lesbian subjects that we over-invest in the ones that do as progressive and/or high art, whatever their flaws? To paraphrase Historiann, queer people do, that's who.

Not surprisingly, those of Halberstam's critics who believe the movie is "good" because it is "realistic" (i.e., represents their reality, and I say that with no sarcasm) also miss critical moments of racism (not to mention the ugliness of Nic's anti-feminist dominance of Jules) in "The Kids Are All Right" that others of us find agonizing. They view the depiction of upper-middle class life in Los Angeles as "mainstream," when in fact the vast majority of GLBT people, like all other Americans, are too poor to afford sperm donors, much less one non-working parent to take care of the kidz. These critics also perceive parenting as a burdensome but socially necessary task for which it is noble to sacrifice the personal and sexual happiness of all adults, straight and gay. The other big problem with these critiques is the assumption in many of them that if Halberstam doesn't get it that sex dies in long relationships, and that people with jobs and children are too tired to do the nasty, ze has never been in a long-term relationship, doesn't parent, and knows nothing about the "mainstream."

Well, take that, why don't you? The assumption that people who do not parent and do not commit to long-term monogamy have no authority to speak to or about those who do replicates the $hitty, narrow politics of the movie. It's not that lesbians committed to monogamy and child-rearing necessarily have bad politics. But they do when "seeing themselves" in popular culture excuses a range of other sins, like not seeing other people who aren't like them. And when they can't perceive that a movie script is sexist, racist, classist and often clunky, actually they do have bad politics, as well as bad taste.

Concluding where I began, Historiann (who does not reveal the nature of her sexuality, her relationship or her parenting status on the blog, and is a pretty radical feminist) has a similar issue with mommy bloggers (which will be revealed in the winter issue of the Journal of Women's History -- reserve yours now!)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Annals Of The Law: Women And Children Can Be Careless, But Not Men

People who know me are aware that I often rise at a grisly hour of the morning to row. There are a variety of advantages to this, including being too confused for lack of sleep to have that debate about whether I should work out or keep writing. The best one, however, is that I hear the first half hour of National Public Radio's Morning Edition on the way to the boat house. I have six miles of a workout in a single scull to think uninterrupted about whatever I have heard, and I can listen to the same stories again on the way back and decide whether any of them are worthy of a blog post.

Which is how I decided to write about yesterday's closing arguments in the Rod Blagojevich trial. Blagojevich, you may recall, is the former Governor of Illinois. He is being tried on multiple counts of corruption, including attempts to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. Defense counsel Sam Adams, Jr. made the argument we might expect: that the government's case is manufactured and that prosecutors have twisted circumstantial evidence to make the defendant appear to be corrupt.

Blagojevich is also, according to his attorney, a compulsive talker, and says all kinds of things that he either doesn't mean or that are open to interpretation by others. ("Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking again.")

But what explains all the evidence, and the witnesses who testified for the prosecution? They misunderstood "negotiation" for "extortion," that's all, and maybe Blogojevich should have said less and conveyed more clearly what he actually meant. Like, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." It appears that the logic of the defense's position is that the former governor is "insecure" and not "the sharpest knife in the drawer."

Wondering about the corny Mafia theme? I haven't told you yet about Adams' sure-fire offensive ethnic humor strategy (law students, listen up):

At one point, the bombastic attorney launched into a story about his Italian grandmother, who shoots a mule dead after it stumbled three times. "Thatsa one! Thatsa two! Thatsa three!" Adam yelled, mimicking the accent.

When her husband called her stupid for shooting the mule, she warned him: "Thatsa one!"

Is this -- or is this not -- a great Chicago story? What NPR doesn't mention is that this little parable actually illustrates political bullying at its best.

And now, as we settle in to the last month of summer, here's a little more good advice from Don Radicale:

Monday, July 26, 2010

If You Can't Be Good, Be Careful: Or; Why Is It So Hard To Make Lesbian Movies?

If you want to read the glowing review of Lisa Cholodenko's lesbian family flick The Kids Are Alright go to A.O. Scott (New York Times, July 8 2010). Michelle Solomon, in The Guardian (July 23 2010), is slightly more reserved, dubbing it a "relationship movie" and noting that the high-profile actresses will allow it to "[avoid] being pigeonholed as a 'gay movie.'" (Thank god for this, that's what I say.) If you want to read the intelligent review by a queer scholar, that will actually get into it why this is a lesbian movie, go here for Jack Halberstam's "The Kids Aren't Alright" (bullybloggers July 15, 2010).

My review follows: it is a terrible, awful, embarrassing, piece of crap film. I could have had a better time had I saved $11.00 ($22.00 + dinner for two actually); spent the same two hours reviewing some critical, and hideous, months in my own life; and then had a friendly dinner with my companion where we reviewed vivid memories of my own bad decisions and personality flaws in action.

For those of you who would rather hear about the film, Halberstam (who has what I consider to be an admirably high tolerance, and a keen intelligence, for schlocky pop culture) provides a concise plot summary to anchor the analysis:

"The Kids Are Alright" is a soul-crushing depiction of long-term relationships, lesbian parenting and mid-life crisis. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are mushed into one category by their kids Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who call them “moms” or “the moms.” The moms have merged into one maternal entity and although they have distinct personalities, their parenting function is depicted as one amorphous smothering gesture after another. The kids suffer through the over-parenting but crisis ensues when Laser decides to track down his sperm donor dad, Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. Once Paul rides onto the scene on his classic black BMW motorcycle, bearing organic veggies and good wine, the cracks in the façade of lesbian domesticity appear and a rather predictable cycle of betrayal, infidelity and domestic upheaval begins.

I'm clicking "like" on this one, and the only place I would disagree with the review is that whereas Halberstam describes Jules as "dowdy" further down, that didn't bother me. Face it, at this age many of us are fighting dowdy. It did bother me that Jules was dorky, and I thought if she asked one of the other characters if s/he wanted to "process" something one more time I was going to scream.

Like the son Laser, who periodically asks questions that no one answers, I often needed more information, despite the fact that I am a practicing lesbian, hung my shingle in 1975, and have been in practice continuously since then. If Jules had a gardening business, why did no one take the opportunity to make a leering joke about mowing the lawn? Why did the "Moms" watch gay male porn -- and porn from the 1970s no less? Is Annette Bening's vulva located somewhere around her navel, as it appeared in the excruciating rug-munching scene? Why did Jules insult, and then fire, the Mexican gardener (who seemed handsome and sweet) instead of having an affair with him? How did Paul manage a restaurant if he was as stupid and disorganized as he seemed? How do heterosexuals keep from getting concussions from smacking into the walls and furniture? Should heterosexual adolescents be counseled to wear helmets during sex? Why is Julianne Moore in so many gay movies? Why did Nic think that her son skateboarding -- without a helmet -- was less dangerous than her daughter riding a motorcycle with a helmet? Should I quit my day job as a tenured professor and make myself available as a Hollywood sex coach/stunt dyke in case bad lesbian movies really take off?

You have time to make lists like this when a movie is really, really bad. So instead of reviewing "The Kids Are Alright," I would like to suggest a few plot changes that would have made it better.

1. If Paul, the sperm donor, had been gay. Then, when he started boffing Jules, they could have done a whole thing about why a gay man and a gay woman might find themselves attracted to each other, and avoided the un-tense tension of whether Jules had joined the other team. What would have made this even better is if Paul had had a boyfriend who didn't want children and had been adamantly opposed to Paul making contact with the kids, but Paul went behind his back to do it.

2. If Paul, the sperm donor, had been better looking and/or an interesting person. Sorry, I think Mark Ruffalo seemed abnormally physically gross. Fortunately, I had a local informant who has played for both teams, and she explained to me that heterosexual women are attracted to men who look dirty, smelly and ungroomed; and who say almost nothing when they speak. This piece of information is what twigged me to the fact that this was not really a "lesbian movie."

3. If Nic and Jules had been "Nick" and "Julie." Is there anyone but me who thinks this originally came in to the studio as a treatment about a heterosexual couple and the sperm donor, and Cholodenko made it about lesbians to get it produced? What would have been even better would have been if Paul had been gay, and Paul and Nick had an affair! Now we are getting somewhere.

4. If Paul were transsexual, and had only donated sperm to finance the transition to a life as Paula. At sixty dollars a pop this would have taken a while, but added to a small inheritance it might have worked. What would have then been cool is if Paula was a lesbian, and had affairs with both Nic and Jules, and Paula knew where everyone's vulva was, and could mow the lawn like nobody's business, and after the awkward moment of truth where the affairs were revealed Nic and Jules agreed this was a good arrangement because she had revitalized their sex life, and the kidz ended up banging their heads against the wall because all their stupidity and brainless interference with their parents' lives had only given them a third mom after all.

4. If Paul had not agreed to meet the kids, but actually was their neighbor, and had been part of their lives, and of the household, all along, and no one found this out until the end when Laser needed a liver transplant after falling off his skateboard. Here is where I have to ask you: in what legal world would a sperm bank take a verbal assent over the telephone from the sperm donor as a go-ahead to release contact information to the children? But putting that aside, what would have been cool about this is that it would have put the question front and center: why does it matter to know who your father is? And under what conditions do intimate bonds form between adults, and adults and children, that surpass the conventions toward which we are all encouraged to gravitate? (I just threw in the liver transplant thing for fun.)

5. If Nick and Jules had been gay men, and Jules was living with HIV, and the children went looking for their bio-mom and she turned out to be a closeted lesbian running for governor of California on a family values platform and had to decide whether to sue the Dadz for custody; kill the children to keep them quiet and continue with her life as a conservative; or have a change of heart, convert the Tea Party to a full GLBT rights platform; then become the first woman president of the United States and cause Sarah Palin to have a complete aneurysm. Do I have to tell you that we are now cooking with gas?

Please feel free to add your own plot suggestions in the comments section, or get on with your day, whichever seems more appropriate.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Surely The Obama Presidency Means We Are Now Beyond Race

To paraphrase Leslie Nielson in Airplane (1980), "No, not if we are firing black people in public service for talking about race -- and don't call me Shirley." Even out in Minnesota, where the Radical family was taking a vacation from all things political, everyone was aware that it wasn't a great week to be Shirley. Read good commentaries in today's New York Times from Frank Rich, a particularly lucid Maureen Dowd, and Van Jones on the Shirley Sherrod affair.

Sherrod's firing and rehiring by Tom Vilsack, a Midwestern progressive who should have known better (and a West Wing that either signed off or insisted on it) is a teachable moment. Ponder, if you will, what this event tells us about the cynical use of race in contemporary political culture. Why the Obama administration can't do better than it does, particularly given the historical lessons of the Clinton years in which accomplished black women routinely took it on the chin and were then hung out to dry by their allies, is something academics might want to think about too. Has anyone noticed that as women and people of color are breaking through to higher ed. administration in unprecedented numbers, yawning hiring, tenure and salary gaps persist, and are usually explained as the outcome of discrimination that only existed in the past -- discrimination that could not possibly be corrected in the present by women, people of color and self-proclaimed feminist men who now have the power to do exactly that?

But returning to the kamikaze political life that seems to be shaping the nation's destiny, I would like to add a few observations. As someone who is currently working on the history of radical feminism in the 1970s, it seems quite obvious to me that the political right learned to do this from the political left. Look at any New or Old Left social movement, and you will see a kind of winner-take-all viciousness in which a large scale ideological attack often took the form of taking a remark, or a political stance, as a thread that would then be used to unravel the opposition's whole sweater. Look at the dirty politics internal to mid-century American Communism; trashing in radical feminism; the decades-long success of the AFL-CIO in suppressing organizing among non-industrial labor; the internal struggles that ended with the expulsion of whites from SNCC (and the subsequent, less heralded, resignation of many black members of SNCC); and the number of queer organizations that have been founded, and then turned on, by Larry Kramer. In other words, there is some shared responsibility for the development of these practices and for the strategic deployment of dirty tricks, particularly statements that are spun out of context to "prove" a foregone conclusion.

This is not to say that the left is worse than the right in this regard: only that they shared in pioneering this behavior; that it has now been fatally merged with racist right-wing political tactics dating from Reconstruction; and that it is now being perfected in an age in which a media story can be transmitted in nanoseconds.

I would also observe that this is not just a political problem, it's a cultural problem. It is the kind of $hit that occurs daily on blogs: blogger writes a six or seven paragraph essay, and some a$$hat latches onto a sentence out of context, gives it a hateful spin, and writes a "comment" that is actually just a personal attack intended to discredit the blogger wholesale. The idea? Who cares about ideas? You would have to read the whole post to grasp the ideas!!!! How much easier just to move on to the next blog, knowing that the writer is exactly the putrid idiot you knew s/he was before you started reading.

Which is all to say: we have become Adderall Nation. Even our intellectuals and journalists often lack the attention span to read or watch anything all the way through. We tape everything on TV so we won't have to watch the commercials; we subscribe to Twitters from politicians so we won't have to read their position papers; and we read or view something just long enough to have -- not even an idea, but a reaction - and then we express our outrage as a character assassination of the person who provoked us.

Is it about the technology? In other words, if information could not be spread unchecked through blogs and other free social media, would a good woman like Shirley Sherrod have been assaulted in this way? Certainly the technology makes it possible -- but like any other phenomenon that has a history, it doesn't make it inevitable or necessary.

And as my mother used to say, it's the thought that counts.

Crossposted at Cliopatria.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

She'll Always Be A Player On The Ballfield Of My Heart: Tenured Radical And Historiann Wrap Up Their Conversation About The Professor

This is the Part III, and the conclusion, of a discussion between Tenured Radical and Historiann of Terry Castle's "The Professor and Other Writings" (HarperCollins, 2010 -- if you are new to the party, you may wish to begin with Part I.) Yesterday, at Historiann, we discussed the themes of desire and longing that suffuse Castle's narrative about her emergence as an intellectual who has to cross class lines to chart her own path to become an adult, a feminist, a lesbian, an artist, and a deeply original and critical thinker.

Today's post consists of a single exchange in which we historicize the role of suffering in this story. We end with the question of whether, in a day and age in which sexual relations between students and teachers are widely perceived as harmful (and often proscribed by universities), whether the suffering of graduate students has been ameliorated, or it has just shifted to other realms of power, as graduate students continue to struggle to get into the "club."

Tenured Radical: I want to come back to the question of whether brilliance and suffering go together, which is a critical theme of the Art Pepper essay that we both loved. The way Terry Castle tells the story of her affair with the Professor, as you suggested yesterday Historiann, is a dramatic tour de force. But another way of summing up what we discussed, and what compels me, is the portrait of a young person who was so tightly wound and suffused with class anxiety, but also had access to depths of courage that are quite rare. What I wonder is, had she continued down the road she was on, might she have had a nervous breakdown anyway? On a certain level it was a mercy that it was a broken heart, rather than the anxious scholarly habits of her youth, that drove Castle into therapy and a lifetime of self-reflection. We are talking about someone who read all the books for a course before the semester began; and memorized, word for word, the essay she would write for a proctored exam. Something had to give -- or, arguably, maybe nothing would have given, and she would have ended up being a frightened, uptight, conventional little plodder instead of the fabulous Terry Castle.

But to shift gears slightly, I would like to expand the context for The Professor's predatory eroticism for our readers, and Castle's vulnerability to it. One of the things I love about this difficult essay is that Castle evokes the excitement and the contradictions of a 1970s lesbian feminist world. Lots of different things were going on sexually then (a former Zenith professor alludes in her memoir to what I have been told were rampant faculty affairs with undergraduates) and everyone queer was half in and half out of the closet. This is why Castle begins with a reflection on Alix Dobkin's music, which was coy and coded but to young lesbians seemed to really be about sex. It is also why, even though Castle frames the whole genre of "wimmin's music" as deeply dorky by today's standards (musical, feminist or lesbian), she bridles when her partner, Blakey (who came out a decade later), joins her in mocking it. Not so veiled references to masturbation in the lyrics, paeans to gym teachers, using the word "lesbian" over and over in a song -- it was a big deal back then. Someone who came out in the age of ACT-UP and Babeland might find that impossible to understand or misperceive the music as only dorky. One of the moments when I howled with laughter was when Castle did a textual analysis of Dobkin's "The Woman In Your Life," ending it with the command: "Ladies, start your labia!" (159)

But of course Dobkin, Meg Christian, Cris Williamson and that crowd were the soft side of semi-closeted lesbian life which, as Castle pointed out, offered little introduction to a pre-feminist, pre-Stonewall psychopath like The Professor. The coyness and messages to an "in crowd" in these songs also offered little in the way of a road map to becoming an actual lesbian: i.e., to having actual sex with actual women. Castle also emphasizes that much of what was more broadly available about lesbianism (outside of incredibly dense Marxist tracts) was still about women coming to a pathological, lonely and disgraced end (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Killing of Sister George.) Part of what I identify with most strongly in this essay is how difficult it was to actually have sex, and the things one might overlook to get sex -- as Castle did when she pursued an affair with The Professor despite the metaphorical road signs that said: "No!" This essay evokes painful memories of the fumbling, the oblique approaches, the meetings accidentally on purpose, and the sitting for hours smoking weed, trying to decide whether she had meant to bump my foot or was she just reaching for the cigarettes and oh $hit I blew it again. And frankly, although feminism provided a hot atmosphere for sex, the endless conversation about whether all wimmin ought to be lesbians on principle got in the way of figuring out who really wanted to and who didn't.

Because of this, I think Castle makes a great move when she raises the question of who was responsible for what in an affair that would now fit squarely in the category of sexual harassment. Now a middle-aged professor herself with a younger and clearly very self-sufficient lover, Castle wants to better understand her own agency in this affair, "just what it was about her that drew me to her: what peculiar pathos she evinced, and why I was so vulnerable to it." (201)

As you note, Historiann, The Professor is an excellent portrait "of the kind of professor that compulsively sleeps with students." It's also an excellent portrait of an academic atmosphere where women were provisional members of the club, something that had all sorts of deforming consequences. Including myself in this generation of aspiring female intellectuals, I would say that lots of us in the 1970s had our first big love affair with a woman who was, for whatever reason, unavailable, and who appeared to be holding the door open to a life that still admitted a precious few women. What Castle evokes so movingly in this essay is that she was willing to trade so much to be loved and admired. Although she was too naive to see that the affair she wanted was really a "horror movie" (that was a great comparison you made), the affair also freed her to be someone The Professor never could be: a lesbian intellectual.

What follows, I think, is that to become a successful professor is to necessarily become an object of desire. It is a burden and a great responsibility. The evening Castle and The Professor meet, this insecure, lonely graduate student experiences for the first time what it might mean to be an object of desire herself. "[The] Professor's eyes lit up with pleasure," Castle writes; "she kept a light sardonic gaze trained on me for most of the evening." (236) Castle is first welcomed as a guest into the beautiful, cultured world that can be hers as an academic when she sees The Professor's home. That moment really got me, because Castle is being introduced to the life she wants and will have, but she's really going to pay to get it.

I suppose I would link this theme in the essay to a bigger theme in the blogosphere that you and I have commented on: graduate students continue to pay heavily to get into the club, not necessarily with sex (although some do), but emotionally and financially. What is kind of tawdry about the world we live in today, one that is so deeply censorious in theory about sexual harassment (and not always in practice) is that graduate students are tested in such unromantic ways. They rarely have to reach deep inside to dredge out what remains of their self-esteem after a high-drama failed love affair. Instead, the academic marketplace and the profession beckons them, uses them, kicks them out with as little explanation as The Professor deigned to give her conquests ("there were so many excellent candidates -- it was really a matter of field"), or reduces them to unheroic proletarianized labor.

The Professor suing one of her former student-lovers for a sum of money she could have perfectly well afforded to give her strikes me as a parallel to contingent faculty paying back graduate school debt on meagre adjunct salaries.

Historiann: Good point. (And of all The Professor's cruelties, that one really frosted the cookie for me. Unbelievable! It makes one wonder about the depths of humiliation and fear of intimacy that must have been at the root of The Professor's compulsive seductions and manipulations.)

However, individual professors are personally responsible for seducing students. They may be complicit in a broken system, but professors are not personally responsible for the current state of the academic job market their students will face. Where I see the parallel here is in the willingness of the students to be seduced and taken advantage of. This goes back to what you called "the logic and erotic appeal of a secret affair," and the denial you note. It's not just that "she wouldn't lie to me," but also when faced either with a sex life that's an exploitative cliche or a life as a permatemp, it's a consoling belief in the face of the facts that "it won't happen to me. I'll be the exception. I will be loved/employed someday." This kind of denial may be necessary not just in some romantic entanglements, but also in the minds of people who want to pursue an academic career. We're all Clarissa, friends.

This returns us to a theme we discussed earlier--the working-class girl who makes it to Stanford. "The Professor" is fascinating because it makes her survival of her disastrous first Big Love appear to be a bigger triumph than her academic career. (Maybe that's the way it feels to her, and to many of us who made it to employment and tenure.) I still maintain--Pollyanna that I am!--that cruelty, abuse and exploitation aren't necessary either in romance or in our work lives. I really don't think it makes us better people or better at our jobs. But, as Samuel Richardson showed us centuries ago in Castle's second-favorite book of all time, it sure makes for a hell of a story.

Tenured Radical: It sure does. Historiann, I just want to leave our readers with a YouTube video that contains a live recording of Meg Christian singing "Ode To A Gym Teacher" in 1974 at the Full Moon Coffee House in San Francisco (a more recent, live recording of Christian that can't be embedded can be seen here.) But in a way this one is better, because it was put together by a fan who used a pastiche of "wimmin's music" souvenirs from the 1970s for the visual portion, something which Terry Castle the Visual Artist will appreciate, I think.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Not All Girls Are Raving Bloody Lesbians, You Know:" Getting You In The Mood For Part II Of The Terry Castle Conversation, Now Up at Historiann

Susannah York, who plays the up and coming actress and lover to the older, fading telly star Beryl Reid in Robert Aldrich's classic The Killing of Sister George (1969), delivers this fabulous set-up line as she tries to deflect her lover's (accurate) suspicion she is having an affair.

"That is a misfortune that I am perfectly well aware of," Beryl Reid replies tartly. For your viewing pleasure, I provide the whole clip from this classic lesbian psychodrama below:

You can actually get the whole film at YouTube, if you are patient enough to find all the pieces. I now command you to go to Part II of the Terry Castle discussion, "Humiliation and Longing," and if you haven't been there yet, to our partner in crime Comrade Physioprof, who delivers a review of the book that is focused on the humor of "The Professor and Other Writings."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day 1, The Professor: A Conversation With Historiann About Terry Castle's The Professor and Other Writings

Several weeks ago we at Tenured Radical received an email from Historiann, who was reading Terry Castle's The Professor and Other Writings (HarperCollins, 2010.) She notified us that this book -- a combination of memoir and cultural criticism -- was right up our alley. Several days later, when this slim volume by a Stanford English professor I have long admired had arrived by three-day shipping (and all household activities had been put on hold indefinitely as we went on a binge of reading and downloading Art Pepper albums), Tenured Radical and Historiann agreed that a blog-to-blog conversation was in order.

This is the first of three posts taken from that conversation, which was conducted over email and then edited down. Day 2 will appear tomorrow at Historiann, and then you will want to return to here for the final post on Day 3 (Thursday, July 22). Stay tuned to Comrade PhysioProf, who also got hooked by this collection and will be chiming in with his own essay during our three-day special event.

Readers may also wish to check out interviews with Castle at largehearted boy and Salon; reviews at the Book and Harper's; and Castle's own blog, Fevered Brain Productions, where she posts her art.

Tenured Radical: OK, Historiann, here goes. Much as I want to cut straight to the essay about The Professor Herself, I think we owe our readers a little introduction to Terry Castle. I have been a fan since one of her articles, "The Marie Antoinette Obsession" (Representations 38, Spring 1992) showed up in a pile of submissions for the Berkshire Conference article prize. For people who haven't read it, the article is both historical and literary, and concerns a fin de siecle phenomenon in which Victorian women wrote vivid accounts about imagined relationships with Marie Antoinette's spirit. One woman had a fantasy about having been the doomed Queen's lover in a past life; another pair of women "encountered" her while they were touring Le Petit Trianon. The stories, which overlapped with the emergence of homosexuality and the definition of lesbianism as a female sexual category, became a recurring phenomenon in a very narrow time frame when sexology had emerged but was not yet dominant. In other words, Marie Antoinette encounters were occurring at an intellectual/cultural moment that followed the Oscar Wilde trial in which the idea of "homosexuality"carried legal and social stigma but the idea of sex between women did not, nor was lesbianism more generally understood as a scientific description for women who loved each other. Since it was widely rumored that Marie Antoinette had had affairs with women (it was one of the charges at her trial, along with the accusation she had committed incest with the Dauphin), she became a tragic figure into which late nineteenth century women inserted fantasies about "who they were." I remember thinking that this was one of the most intelligent and imaginative articles I read that year, and I wondered, who is this person?

But I never bothered to find out until you suggested I read this new book, The Professor and Other Writings, a collection of essays that are pleassantly un-academic, but equally imaginative, intelligent, creative and quirky. And of course, you were exactly right when you said that Terry Castle is a blogger manque. Who knew the Stanford English Department harbored someone like us?

Historiann: Who, indeed. At first, her essays seemed rather discursive and not terribly argument driven, which is what made me think that they were written in more of a bloggy fashion than in traditional essay form. But, as on blogs that mix the personal and the quotidian with the professional and the profound, it works for her. For example, in "My Heroin Christmas," she explores her fascination with jazz musician Art Pepper by listening compulsively to his recordings on a DVD walkman and reading his semi-pornographic 1979 autobiography, Straight Life while visiting her mother over the holidays. (She calls Straight Life "the greatest book I've ever read. . . It knocked my former pick, Clarissa, right out of first place. As Art himself might say, my joint is getting big just thinking about it," 42. That was a pretty clever bit of foreshadowing there--pay attention!)

Towards the beginning of the essay, she notes that she's staying in a room in her mother's house that used to belong to "Jeff." Jeff? When I first read that, I thought, "how odd--or even sloppy--to mention a character who hasn't yet been introduced to us." But over the course of the essay in which she explores Pepper's outrageous, reckless life, Castle makes it clear why she is thinking and writing about Jeff and his role in her troubled family life. At the end of the essay, it makes sense that she riffs off of Pepper's music and autobiography in exploring the family life she lived as the child of divorce whose parents both remarried and introduced stepchildren into the family.

I also really enjoyed "Sicily Diary," a hilarious description of a holiday with her girlfriend in 2004 in which she memorably sees the Capuchin catacombs full of mummified corpses, picks up a stomach bug, and feels conspicuously middle-aged and Anglophone. Here's a sample: "Like a fool I kept trying to eat that night: had some tortellini with Maalox for supper, washed down by a large bicchierri of orange flavored Metamucil, the healthful fiber supplement B. [her girlfriend] had brought with us from California. Tottering around Lipari town that evening--everyone else in thongs and mini-shorts and see-through beach wraps--we looked pale and Victorian and ridiculously out of place. Lady Hester Stanhope and her Special Friend. Why hadn't we gone to Lesbos instead?" Another memorably funny passage inspired by her new dachshund pup, Wally: "Though only eight months old, Wally is as slutty and insouciant as Private Lyndie England. All she needs is a dangling cigarette and a tiny pair of four-legged camouflage pants," 84.

"Desperately Seeking Susan" is one of the two essays that has received the most attention in this collection, and anybody over the age of 35 will probably flip to this one first, because it recounts Castle's sort-of friendship with Susan Sontag, a public intellectual of great interest to many girls or young women who ever dreamed of living in New York and having people listen to them and take them very, very seriously. Castle got acquainted with Sontag when Sontag sent Castle a fan letter (really!) and then had a stint as a writer-in-residence at Stanford. But, being friends with Susan Sontag sounds like a lot of work and a lot of self-repression, because like a lot of smarty-pants people (regardless of celebrity, but magnified by it undoubtedly), Sontag sounds like she was mostly a condescending pain-in-the-a$$. Castle tells several stories of how she's reminded clearly and in no uncertain terms that she's not in with the kool kidz in New York: "I was never quite sure what she wanted. And besides, whatever that was, after a while she stopped wanting it. I visited her several times in New York City and even got invited to the London Terrace penthouse to see the famous book collection. (Of course, Terry, mine is the greatest library in private hands in the world.)," 98.

Who talks like that? Have you ever had a friend who repeatedly called you by your first name like that? I have, and I find it terribly condescending, as though I might forget my own name or my place (subordinate, always!) in the relationship.

Tenured Radical: Not exactly. But I do think it is a not uncommon experience for popular, non-academic writers to cling to academics with a combination of lust and loathing. And really famous people can be dramatically insecure - often all those dinner parties, fans and bombast are about bolstering their own egos. The public intellectual and the academic can be a perfect combination made in hell, if you think about it. They don’t have the credentials, and we do; we don’t have the audience we crave and they do. So it’s this nasty little circle of envy and dependence, where we are pretty much always the supplicants – except, as in the Sontag case, where the playing field was initially leveled because Sontag was out of her element during the Stanford fellowship and it triggered all her insecurities. I’m guessing that glomming onto Castle was her way of reassuring her self that she was still "Susan Sontag." She needed someone to perform in front of who also knew the ropes and customs of academia.

Historiann: Great point. There’s a similar kind of envy and loathing that characterizes the relationship between scholars and journalists in particular. They hate it that we have tenure, but we don’t have the audience that they do. (At least off-blog!)

(To Be Continued Tomorrow at Historiann.)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Are We All Really Alike? The Strange Marketplace of Louis Menand

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: Norton, 2010). 174 pp., index, 24.95 hardcover.

I realize that I am a little late to the party here. But let me just say – whether you like Louis Menand or not, whether you think that folks who spend most of their lives in a very comfy chair at Harvard are better qualified to talk about education or not – people like Louis Menand matter and it is best to keep up with them. I guarantee you that you will be at a meeting with your president, provost or dean, and something is going to come out if his or her mouth at some point, and you are going to think: “Where the frack did that come from?” Your confusion will not be resolved either -- unless you read this book.

Don't worry. It's short. In fewer than two hundred pages, Menand discusses what he considers to be the four central questions for higher education in the United States that we were left with at end of the twentieth century: general education curricula and the difficulties of implementing them; the crisis of legitimacy in the humanities; the meaning of conversations about interdisciplinarity; and the question of why “professors all have the same politics.” (16)

Menand is one of those people who knows a lot about some things and not so much about others, and speaks about both in the same authoritative tone. This can be annoying, but you have to separate out your annoyance about the things he is bloviating about from the ideas that are truly thought provoking. I liked the first section of the book best, in which Menand discusses the origins of liberal education and why general education curriculums were devised in the first place as a reform and a response to the rise of professional education. The answer to this question is worth knowing, since it explains a lot about why discussions about great books and curricular requirements come up in the first place, why they are so often perceived as a corrective to cultural decline, and why they are so contentious. Gen eds emerged at moments where intellectuals were most concerned about the relationship of elite institutions to citizenship (Columbia devised its program in 1919; Harvard produced its in 1945.) “A college’s general education curriculum, what the faculty chooses to require of everyone,” Menand argues, “Is a reflection of its overall educational philosophy, even when the faculty chooses to require nothing.” Columbia’s not-so-hidden agenda, Menand claims, appears to have been anxiety over the integration of the large numbers of Jews and other first-generation Americans matriculating at the university: the Great Books curriculum, they hoped, could serve as a mini-melting pot. (23,35)

Since I teach at a college that has no requirements (we have “expectations” that students will take six courses across the three “divisions,” humanities, social sciences and hard science.) I’ll come back to this in my next post, but Menand’s statement that the choice to require nothing is a choice impressed me enormously. I think he is right about this, I think it is intellectually lazy not to have a core curriculum of some kind, and I think it has consequences for how our students perceive the work of attaining a B.A..

One of the curious features of the book is that Menand’s investment in the university as an engine of progress badly skews his view of the recent history of higher education and the enormous changes that resulted from putting an end to gender and race segregation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Menand’s view, bringing women and people of color into elite institutions – as students and as faculty was a natural outcome of a late Cold War market imperative to broaden the talent pool. Not only does this sever the diversification of the university from post-war social movements almost entirely, it attributes the entrance of women and people of color into the university as a direct consequence of the National Defense Education Act, a position for which he offers absolutely no evidence. We have women in formerly male elite institutions because some men fought other men about it quite bitterly; we have women's studies programs because of feminism, not because university presidents thought they were a buttress to democracy; and we have equal access because laws were passed and lawsuits were filed. “If the nation seeks to maximize its talent pool in the name of greater national security or greater economic productivity or both,” Menand argues, “It will not wish to limit entrants to that pool on the basis of considerations extraneous to aptitude, such as gender, family income, and skin color.” (73) Can we apply this model to the admission of Africa-Americans to the University of North Carolina? I think not.

Personally, I think Menand's model is a far better description of the Soviet Union in the 1920s than the post-war United States, and I wonder why Skip Gates – the editor of the series in which this book is published – did not ask him to rethink this chapter. It is a historical fact that it took numerous lawsuits to desegregate higher education by race and gender. Until 1972 it was absolutely legal to discriminate against women applicants to law school on the basis of their gender; and it took the enforcement of Title IX during the Ford and Carter administrations to ensure that once women arrived at university they had equal access to what was offered.

Even more peculiarly, Menand argues that the inclusion of these new bodies and the scholarly work they did had no real impact on the academy or on the liberal arts. If you believe that people like Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gayatri Spivak, Joan Scott, Paul Gilroy and Lisa Lowe have transformed intellectual thought, think again. It’s not that Menand thinks their work isn’t important; it’s just that he doesn’t think it is terribly original. In his view, these lines of thought have already been fully established by (white, male) scholars like Paul de Man, Thomas Kuhn, Hayden White, Clifford Geertz and Richard Rorty. (82, 84)

Which gets to a critical, bizarre and perhaps the least well informed, part of this little book: that the interdisciplinarity claimed by post-colonial, queer, critical race and feminist studies isn’t really methodologically based. Rather, it is a kind of public relations strategy to establish the reputations of individual scholars by being ornery and by posturing a lot about how passé discipline is. These fields are interdisciplinary at all, he argues: they are only anti-disciplinary. (85) How do we know this? Because their faculty all hold tenure in disciplines. Furthermore, investment in interdisciplinarity is not really intellectual, Menand argues: it’s all about status anxiety, and the fear that college professors have that they have ceased to be relevant anywhere but among other disciplinary scholars. It stems from the need “to feel we are in a real fight…with the forces that make and remake the world most human beings live in,” Menand notes, and we who are interdisciplinary displace our desire for a “real fight” onto institutions that are ideologically tilted towards discipline. “The institution is not inherently a friend to innovation and transgression and creativity,” he says, and you can nearly feel the friendly pat on your shoulder. “But it is not inherently an enemy, either. Interdisciplinarity is an administrative name for an anxiety and a hope that are personal.” (125)

One wonders exactly how familiar Menand is with the world of interdisciplinary thought, since the following chapter – “Interdisciplinarity and Anxiety” – is muddled in a way that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the book and uncharacteristic of Menand’s writing in general. One is constantly reading along and having things jump out – “you cannot take a course in the law (apart from legal history) outside a law school” (105) – and thinking, Well that’s actually not true. Further along, he suggests that the appeal of interdisciplinarity “is that it will smooth out the differences between the empirical and the hermeneutic” by getting two scholars that represent these forms of thought “in the same room together.” (118)

The chapter is full of tautologies that make you really glad that Louis Menand is not your dean, and that he is safely lodged at Harvard where he can do little harm to others. For example, try htis idea on for size:

“Interdisciplinarity is not something different from disciplinarity. It is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. In practice, it actually tends to rigidify disciplinary paradigms. A typical interdisciplinary situation might bring together, in a classroom, a literature professor and an anthropologist….This methodological contrast is regarded as the intellectual as, in fact, the intellectual and pedagogical takeaway of the collaboration.” (119)

Well, no. That is in fact, exactly wrong. What Menand is describing is a multi-disciplinary, rather than an interdisciplinary, paradigm, in which the point is to engage the object of study from multiple perspectives, rather than to reconsider the nature of its objectness altogether. Twenty-first century interdisciplinarity means, in short, putting the empirical and the hermeneutic, or any two paradigms, together in the same brain, not in the same classroom. Or try this idea:

“Professors are still trained in one national literature or artistic medium or another.” (120) Again, this is just wrong. There are interdisciplinary Ph.D.s, and there would be more of them if scholars were not required to adhere to disciplinary appointments in the hiring process....Until professors are produced in a different way, the structure of academic knowledge production and dissemination is unlikely to change significantly.” (121) This is precisely bass-ackwards: as those of us working on the ground in interdisciplinary programs know, until faculty are widely hired with full appointments in interdisciplinary programs, graduate students will be trained conservatively and with an eye to competence in a discipline, because otherwise no one will hire them. Similarly, the tenuous hold interdisciplinary fields like American studies, women’s studies, queer studies and critical race studies have in the academy has directly to do with university administrations being unwilling to challenge the influence of departments.

In the final chapter, “Why Do All College Professors Think Alike?” Menand muses about a study done by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, in which these scholars "discovered" that the vast majority of college professors really are registered Democrats, and really are liberal, or at least centrist. Shockingly, “the more elite the institution, the less likely the professors there are to be left wing,” and the faculty at SLACs are more likely to be left wing than faculty at research universities. (135) Except for pointing out the obvious, which is that just because people belong to the same political party doesn’t mean they actually think alike about much (think Strom Thurmond and Hubert Humphrey, circa 1948; or Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinish, circa 2010), I’m going to leave this one alone – except to say that actually, in denying that there is conformity in the academy, Menand’s evidence tends to suggest, falsely, that there is. Both things can, in fact, be true: that faculty tend to hew to certain kinds of truisms (for example, that “disciplinary scholarship” is rigorous and pioneering, and “interdisciplinary scholarship” is emotional an anxiety-ridden); they can all be registered in the same party; and they can simultaneously committed to a kind of radical individualism that means they can rarely agree on anything, much less a set of political ideas or intellectual approaches to those ideas.

Which brings me back to the question of general education, the thing that I wish Menand had stuck more tightly to, because it isn’t clear to me that relinquishing a core curriculum has been a good thing for American higher education. But this topic deserves a post of its own.

To Be Continued…..

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Well If It Ain't Vacation: Tenured Radical Hits The Road

"But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before."

(Don't worry: we'll be posting from the lake in northern Minnesota.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Little Gels, You Are The Creme De La Creme:" Teach For America, Redux

It's been a big week at Tenured Radical. For reasons we are not altogether clear about, our Monday post about Teach For America went viral. According to our sitemeter, Facebook had a lot to do with that, perhaps because people who had a positive or a negative interest in TFA reposted on their own FB pages. Tumblr played a minor role in the last 24 hours, and as I told our dog yesterday, at least four sites (including Google) listed the post as trending ("Trending?" she said to me condescendingly, "You may be a famous blogger and talking head, but speak English, please.")

I must say, my readers deserve a lot of credit. The comments section represents one of the liveliest and most civil disagreements on this blog, ever. I deleted very few posts, and none for rudeness. You folks who are not very bloggy tended to repost the same comment, slightly edited, multiple times. In your case, I left the newest iteration up and deleted the early two or three. Work on that, ok?

I have intervened very little, in part because if I had kept up with this I would have gotten no other work done, but mostly because you all seemed happy talking to each other, and had very original things to say. But there are a few things to which I would like to respond.

First of all, there seems to be a lot of loyalty out there among TFA alumni/ae, which means that the organization is doing something right: it is fulfilling its promise to those people it recruits fairly well. Few people who have been in the program have much bad to say about it. Work hard, TFA promises, dedicate yourself, stick with the program and we will either turn you into a committed teacher or give you an experience of a lifetime -- or both. Clearly many of these people stay in teaching, but here let me inject a word of caution: I realize that I started it by citing statistics for how many TFA recruits stay in teaching and/or education, but I don't actually think anyone knows how many of these young people will remain in secondary teaching. There are many studies, many cite drastically different numbers. And the percentage being quoted in the comments need to have far better context to persuade me either that the studies I have looked at are drastically wrong, or that TFA is producing a significant corps of career teachers who are really turning education -- or even individual schools -- around. 65% still in teaching five years later? 65% of what? Those who started the program? Those who completed a year? Those who completed two years?

That said, I hope some people from TFA's management get it that there is a lot of bitterness out there too about the program's elitism, both from young people who have not gained the privileged (and free) access to a teaching certificate that it offers, and from career teachers (who are characterized as burned-out, unimaginative dinosaurs if they don't love being told what to do be a 23 year-old with a year in the classroom.) As Miss Bee puts it,

I became a NYC teacher in the pre-TFA, pre- NYC Teaching Fellows years. I resented that these teachers came and went, tuition fully paid, while I had to pay my own way. It created a two tier system having nothing to do with age, and everything to do with how we perceived teaching. Eleven years later I am still there AND paying off my loans all the elite corps (TFA, Fellows) are long gone and debt-free!

I think there is no question that TFA has billed itself all along as an organization that puts grads from the top private schools into teaching, and that the elite academic credentials of its recruits are a big part of what it is selling. And no, saying that members of your cohort went to a public university like Berkeley, UNC, Ole Miss or the University of Michigan does not make for class diversity, I'm afraid. These may be public schools, but they are also very selective and expensive (which anyone who has applied to or attended one knows.) As"Susan" notes,

If you look at Wendy Kopp's model and initial plan, it relied (and still relies) heavily on corporate sponsorship and sells itself as (among other things) a pathway to the elite world of business (TFA has agreements with several b-schools as well as other types of professional schools).

Does its elitism that make TFA uniquely evil, in a country where you have to be at the top nth percentile in one of about five laws schools to even interview to clerk for the Supreme Court? Not particularly. But -- and this is an important but -- it doesn't make TFA school reform either, and it doesn't make it's agenda (privatization of teacher training) and its allies (those who seek to privatize public schools like Rhee) progressive. In fact, TFA has a highly traditional view of education, in which those who have the good fortune to have been born with, or acquired, elite culture (the bourgeoisie, or haute bourgeoisie) transmit it to the children of those who are perceived to be without culture (working class and poor people.)

Furthermore, what is neo-liberal (as opposed to conservative, and there is a real distinction) about this model is two fold. First, it assumes that public management of education has failed permanently, and that the only hope of raising up poor people is for federal and foundation dollars to be funneled through a private philanthropy. Second, it assumes that what will fix education in the end is a market-based management model, in which those who will fix education will go from Harvard to the factory floor. I am grateful to takingitoutside for framing this so beautifully: "To me," s/he writes about the TFA volunteers' time in the classroom,

it's always been intended as a two-year commitment. One of the main benefits of it - to me, at least - is that it puts (often) privileged young people into poor, inner-city schools where they probably wouldn't have gone otherwise. I've thought of it as a way of teaching those young, privileged people just how hard educating people is, and what the obstacles are. Then, when they get older and have some pull in business/government/society, they will be more likely to support measures in favor of schools and vote for things that will really help schools.

Anonymous 5:38 also points out,

You misunderstand the TFA mission. The mission isn't to arm schools with legions of high-producing teachers through the TFA program (although that would be great). The mission is to make education a primary concern of college-educated, success-driven Americans so that policy change can be gradually enacted on the local, state, and national levels.

Student benefit, though significant during the commitment period, is hardly the end goal of the program. TFA aims to improve education in America through policy.

My quibble with Anonymous 5:38 is that I don't misunderstand this. I understand it, and I think it has nothing to do with school reform. Rather, it is a perfect recipe for funneling more public dollars into private hands: research, testing, bureaucratic overkill, private think tanks and the support of organizations like Teach for America. Unlike "Jane," I don't see how lengthening the school day and merit-based salaries constitutes a "revolution:" it sounds like speed-up to me, particularly when education has been de-funded to the extent that music, art, gym, and often school supplies themselves, have been removed from the school day

Real school reform would be organized around a social movement that is primarily focused on students, their families and their communities. It would link education to health care, housing and jobs in the community -- not importing outsiders to take those jobs. It would be about the creation of curricula that privileged critical thought rather than memorization of fact. It would entail a project of systematic public commitment to the training, the re-training, and the retention of teachers who were recruited broadly across the class spectrum. It would also include a political movement that was dedicated to ensuring that the state met this obligation; to organizing poor people and students around their right to an education; to teaching critical thinking rather than raising test scores; and to thinking about education as a commitment to real children -- not as a route to a policy or research career in education. JKD2 says it perfectly:

the students are NOT guinea pigs! They are not some ethnographic experiment for people who want to be policy makers to tinker around with for two years while they learn about the lives of people in poverty. Want to learn about people living in poverty, volunteer at a soup kitchen or a community organization.

Or get a job as a school janitor.

Sure there are people who shouldn't be in the classroom any longer. But it isn't an insoluble problem, and it isn't something to which elite schools are immune. There are burnt-out, tired folks who should probably retire at Harvard, Zenith, Williams, the University of Chicago, Phillips Exeter -- you name an elite school and I'll find you some people who would be better off wearing pastels and walking a golf course. I think the real shuck that groups like TFA have sold to us, hand in hand with the free market worshippers in both political parties, is that only they can solve this problem! Only the best and the brightest can fix it! Just look at what well-intended, Ivy League genius policy-makers did for Viet Nam in the 1960s if you don't believe me.

So what is it that TFA, the Gates Foundation, and other private philanthropies won't tell you? That government has disinvested in education, and it has burdened school districts with endless unfunded mandates, constant testing, year after year of mindless budget-cutting, and testable curricula that asks students to memorize rather than think. Teach for America supports this system, and trains its teaching corps to succeed within it. So while TFA may be getting energetic young people into teaching, and in some cases persuading them to stay, it is on a continuum with for-profit educational management organizations (EMO's), or corporate models like Mosaica Education and Edison Schools (which is egregiously ill managed and has wasted billions of public dollars), that view students as just another product that can be efficiently produced through education formulas.

Finally, there are not just two models -- bad old public schools with burned out teachers and "21st century" market-based schools that outsource teacher recruitment and training to "imaginative" private foundations and non-profits like TFA. There are excellent public schools in this country (try, for example, Edina, Minnesota; Berkeley, California; District 2 in New York City; and anywhere in Iowa.) And if you want to see what real education reform looks like, go here to the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Politics Of The Classroom: Is It Homophobic To Teach About The Scriptural Basis For Homophobia?

Janine Giordano Drake, over at Religion and American History asks us to think about a university classroom inflected by sacred beliefs that do not coexist comfortably with contemporary cosmopolitan ideas about diversity, respect for personal dignity and human rights. In doing so, she raises the question of whether the absolute separation of secular knowledge from ideological or faith-based knowledge is desirable, or even possible. For those who want to read more of Drake's thoughts about being a Christian scholar, click here.

The incident which prompted Drake's post occurred at the University of Illinois which, as a public university, has special vulnerabilities around the separation of the sacred and the secular. In a nutshell, a Catholic theologian circulated an email to his class about why heterosexuality, and the gender binary system, are "natural" and "real"; and why consent does not provide a moral basis for performing sexual acts that ignore the divine reproductive function of sexuality. A student complained to the chair of the department about this and similar statements made in class that articulated a conservative Catholic position on sexuality. The professor, the student reported, "allowed little room for opposition to Catholic dogma." But to the best of my understanding no particular student, or students, were picked out to be shamed or personally degraded by the teacher; and the views expressed had directly to do with the subject of the course and the course readings. The teacher -- who was an adjunct connected to the Newman Center on campus -- was not renewed. It is unclear whether it was because of this conflict, or because of other pedagogical or budgetary issues.

Drake has linked to the original documents to help us think about this incident and the larger questions it raises. In doing so, she demonstrates one good strategy for teaching things that our students may find objectionable, and for helping students learn to disagree respectfully with each other and with us. When they provide primary documents, professors can speak out of a personal belief system, but also bring a range of voices into the classroom that allow students to attach their own beliefs to, and test their views against, knowledge and authority that is not internal to the classroom and to the student-teacher relationship.

Whether you decide you are on the same page as Drake or not after you read her piece, I think you might agree that she makes two generative points. She notes that theological positions which advocate for the divine role of reproduction in sexuality are often poorly or partially represented, even in the best scholarship (and by extension, in the best classrooms.) Because of this the influence of these views is often understated and perceived by students -- most of whom are (metaphorically) milling around in a vast political center -- as eccentric. Second, she very gently raises the question of why it is necessarily oppressive or wrong for students to be a captive audience to views that they find objectionable. An argument might be made on behalf of the email sent by the professor that goes like this: the views in question (sodomy is always morally wrong, and is the equivalent of pedophilia and bestiality, even when both parties consent), appalling as they may be to many of us, express a scripture-based point of view that many people in this country actually do believe, and that are the basis of a well-organized opposition to GLBT human rights. Furthermore, they provide the logic for powerful statements like "marriage should be between a man and a woman," "love the sinner, hate the sin" and "gay marriage destroys the family" that otherwise seem merely shallow and mean.

For the reason I just described, in my "Politics of Sex After 1968" survey, I teach a documentary film produced by a Christian organization in which "former" gays and lesbians talk about the pain, confinement and isolation of their lives as queer people. They discuss how they came back to heterosexuality, and were able to marry, by being reborn in Christ. I teach this film in part because the vast majority of my students understand coming out as gay as an opposite experience, when in fact it is quite similar to what the Christain ex-gays describe: as the discovery and affirmation of a genuine self, as a release from isolation, and as being welcomed into a caring community of others "like them." I think students need to understand that any experience of the self is particular, not universal; and that profoundly different views about possible relationships to a sexual self are possible at the same historical moment.

Despite the fact that many of my students have suffered, and are struggling, with a variety of anxieties and burdens related to their sexuality, since most of them are pretty secular, I think it is also important for them to try to understand a relationship to sexuality, and to faith, that isn't just social. Many of my students find this film objectionable, and for that reason it is very hard to teach because I often have to overcome a refusal to engage. But another reason I use it, year after year, is to teach them that if you are going to be a really good historian, you can't be selective about who you listen to or have empathy for. I think our struggles over this film are worthwhile, but many of them just hate it. Some really let me have it in the teaching evaluations for bringing "hate speech" (the phrase used by the complainant at the University of Illinois) into class.

But here's something that has never happened to me. What Drake doesn't mention is that the student who complained was not even in the class. Rather, he claims to be writing on behalf of "a friend" who did take the class and passed the email, and information about the class, on to him. Identifying himself as a heterosexual male, but imagining himself as a gay man who would have been shamed by having to listen to such views, he writes:

I am in no way a gay rights activist, but allowing this hate speech at a public university is entirely unacceptable. It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.

It's OK, in other words, to teach religion as long as you don't teach anything about it that I would find degrading or offensive.

Don't get me wrong: the point of this post is not some narcissistic desire to demonstrate how super-tolerant I am of homophobic, right-wing theology. My question is: do we think it is OK to do unto others as they would do unto us? Do we guarantee academic freedom for some people and not others? Most important, to avoid public controversy of all kinds, is higher ed simply going to give students permission to shut out things they find offensive as if they live in an entirely different country from the people they disagree with? Worse, should we not begin to talk about how students -- in their teaching evaluations and in complaints to the administration -- are now routinely urging that teachers be fired who do not provide suitable validation for their students' view?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Is Teach For America A Program For The Poor Or For The Rich?

I'm going to start with full disclosure: I have never liked Teach for America. If that's going to bug you, you might want to move on to the next blog.

Why do I dislike Teach For America? Because it has nothing to do with permanent investment in our schools, or thoughtful reform of education. Because it is one of many organizations that seem to exist more or less to give privileged young people the "life experience" that will qualify them to go on to their next advanced degree. Because it relies for its prestige on the idea that people who are middle or upper class naturally have something special and intangible to offer to the poor. Because it activates our not so thinly-veiled social contempt for people who chose the hard work of teaching public school as a career, often doing it for decades in places where they are forced to buy books and classroom supplies out of their own salaries.

I dislike TFA because public education does not exist to give graduates of elite colleges and universities a couple swing years so that they can later go on to great graduate schools and fabulously well paid careers. I dislike TFA because I am a teacher, and I am quite clear that you don't learn to teach in five weeks, much less teach students who have a range of social, economic and developmental problems; who are often hungry, in pain, angry or frightened; and who come in unruly waves of 40-50 every 45 minutes. So thank you Michael Winerip for interviewing numerous elite college grads who are struggling with the "stigma" of having been rejected by this glitzy non-profit because there aren't so many paralegal and entry-level Wall Street jobs this year; and thank you for using this as an opportunity to take a look at this popular NGO that makes a lot of claims for itself that are thinly documented.

As someone who is a career teacher, I am offended by the notion that anyone can step into a classroom and teach effectively, even though they are inexperienced and virtually untrained, because they are oh-so-smart and have successfully gotten into Harvard or Zenith. And teaching public secondary school is harder than teaching, or being a student in, college. Public school is open to the public, folks, and nobody does a sort for you to separate out the ones who are ready to learn, or who already speak English. Magnet and charter schools can be even harder to teach in, since in their initial years they are often the dumping ground for students who have been expelled from and flunked out of other schools.

But let's be clear: mostly I dislike Teach for America because it is not school reform and it claims to be. It is a neo-liberal romance about the ways in which volunteerism by elites can replace a political and fiscal commitment to lifting Americans out of poverty by supporting, and investing in, the schools that poor people attend. Worse, TFA is a spiritual extension of those internship programs that these eager young things with BA's larded their records with to get into elite colleges and universities in the first place. The logic is: if it looks good for me, then it must be good for "them." As Winerip comments, "Teach for America has become an elite brand that will help build a résumé, whether or not the person stays in teaching. And in a bad economy, it’s a two-year job guarantee with a good paycheck; members earn a beginning teacher’s salary in the districts where they’re placed."

And they don't stay in teaching. Perhaps the worst aspect of TFA is that it views teaching as a kind of boot camp for entering the leadership class. TFA's website claims that "corps members and alumni are creating fundamental change," but what that change comprises, and what counts as change, is not clear. The website cites research "that Teach For America corps members' impact on their students' achievement is equal to or greater than that of other new teachers. Moreover, the most rigorous studies have shown that corps members' impact exceeds that of experienced and certified teachers in the same schools." But in fact, if you click on the link that supposedly leads you to that research, you find that "Studies of TFA teacher vary widely in both their findings and the strength of their methodologies." Hmmm. And actually, although you can get citations for these studies, the documents themselves have not been uploaded to the website.

What the website doesn't tell you is how many of those teachers quit in the first six months. As Winerip notes, according to one study, “by the fourth year, 85 percent of T.F.A. teachers had left” New York City schools." That's change for you. My guess is the rate of attrition is higher and faster in the Mississippi Delta, currently identified by TFA as a location in great need of amateur teachers. According to one of my former students who entered the program over five years ago and is still teaching in the troubled urban system he was assigned to, his cohort lost half its membership in the first year, and he is the only original member of his team still in teaching.

TFA has not helped to build a permanent corps of excellent teachers who will train other career teachers or use their classroom training to become effective principals. Hence, it has nothing to do with a program of fundamental, structural reform for our nation's public schools. It has nothing to do with how schools, and school systems, might use their centrality to communities to address issues that are currently crippling education, such as unfunded testing mandates, the effects of poverty and unemployment, teaching critical thinking rather than rote memorization, or state budget cuts that eliminate books and raise class sizes. TFA does, however, seem to be a training ground for education bureaucrats, such as Chancellor Michelle Rhee of the District of Columbia, who continues to blame most of her system's problems on undocumented teacher incompetence.

Rhee recently laid off over 250 teachers: how many of them will be replaced by TFA fly-by-nighters, whose salary is paid by a combination of private and federal dollars? I don't know about other states, but because of drastically reduced property tax revenues, Connecticut is currently laying off young teachers who have actually committed to teaching as a career, not as a temporary stopgap before law school. Other states are waiting anxiously to hear whether Congress will pass a bill that would fund the Obama Administration's new education initiative, and whether they will actually receive the millions of dollars they were promised for system-wide education initiatives. Will these funds be replaced by well-intentioned and untrained young people from elite schools who are here today and gone tomorrow?