Monday, December 27, 2010

Tell Us About Your Dissertation: And Other Commonly Fumbled Interview Questions

Photo credit.
As has been frequently indicated over the four years of Tenured Radical's existence, Interviewing R Us. Why? Well, it is probably not too modest to say that over the years we have interviewed a great many people in hotel rooms, been interviewed by more than a few hiring committees ourselves, and have hung out in the bar afterward talking to other hiring committees about what they saw that day.  Over time, we have developed a perspective on what works and what doesn't.  It isn't the only perspective, but to paraphrase Monty Python, it is the perspective which is ours.

So for those of you lucky enough to have AHA or MLA interviews, here is our list of the most frequent fumbles and how to avoid them.

Know how to talk about your dissertation.  You nubies out there would be shocked to know how many of you blow it coming right out of the gate.  When you can't talk intelligently about your own work, my friend, you have a 98% chance of being absolutely dead in the water for the rest of the interview.

It is a lead-off question understood from the perspective of the hiring committee as an icebreaker.  It is a big, fat softball that we toss up there, gleaming white, intended to set you at ease as you triumphantly hit it out of the park and then relax, showing us your very best self for the rest of the interview.  And yet, so many of you -- probably half of the people I have met in a hotel room for this purpose -- get this deer in the headlights look, and before you know it I can hear my beloved Phillies announcer Harry Kalas in my mind saying:  "It's a... SWING! andamiss."   

So don't sit there with a look on your face that says, "Huh?  Dintcha read my letter?" Don't, if you are a historian, go off on a long, rambling narrative that is some combination of an extended, muddled  chapter outline and a nighty-night story that happens to be historical. Don't talk to me about the IWW as if this is something I have never heard about and you are rescuing it from the ash bin of history. Do have the following prepared:
  • A concise, five-minute statement that identifies the specifics of the topic; any interesting people who are part of the project; the archives you are using that are either new or that you are reinterpreting; why your archives are new/in need of reinterpretation; the scholarship that influenced your choice of topic; and a statement on how you are improving on or adding to that scholarship.
  • A sentence about how far along you are and when you will be finished that matches what your dissertation advisor has said. 
That's all:  five minutes, then stop. Remember, the whole interview is between half an hour and forty-five minutes, so if you ramble on about what they have already read they won't have any time to get more information about you, which is what this interview is at least partly about.

Next comes the opportunity for the committee to ask you questions about your thesis:  this is what you are leaving all that extra time for.  You have no way of anticipating what they will ask except to do your homework on the faculty in the room ahead of time and making informed guesses about what their interest in your work will be.  But as part of this phase of the interview, you should make sure you squeeze in:
  • A statement about methodology;
  • Reasons why you chose this particular topic to write about that you can link to your enthusiasm for the field more generally;
  • A reference to some feature of your research that allowed you to do something creative in the classroom;
  • A name-dropping opportunity.   Feel free to mention one scholar who doesn't work at your university, and with whom you have discussed your research or appeared on a panel, but make it substantive.  This doesn't make you look connected:  it means you are connected.  Extra points if you are a male bodied person and the scholar you name-drop is a woman.
Know how to talk about the courses you will be asked to teach.  Seems like a no-brainer, eh?  But here are the ways I have seen this portion of the interview tank:
  •  When asked about a period survey, the candidate talks about one small part of that period.  This is a particularly egregious interview flaw if you are an Americanist, because whatever else might be challenging about our field, the amount of time we must cover in a semester tends not to exceed 200 years.  There is one excellent graduate school that seems to kick out candidates who all interview as if they are prepared to teach the period of their dissertation and no more.  It is just stunningly weird to hear someone talk about the colonial history survey, for example, as if it only had to cover the years between 1688 to 1724.  But it also reveals you as narrow in your interests and knowledge -- narrower, perhaps, than you actually are.
  • A candidate being asked why s/he chose a particular book and not being able to say.  This makes us think that the syllabus you are talking about is from a course you T.A.'d for, or worse, a course you pulled off the web. Yes, I have heard of people on search committees being handed their very own syllabus by a complete stranger. This, by the way, makes you look like a psychopath.
  • A candidate saying sincerely that s/he believes in the Socratic method (which in and of itself makes it sound as though you have never actually taught at all) and not being able to say what that means in a real live 21st century classroom.
    Prepare at least two courses you would like to teach.  Common ways people screw this up?
    •  Not having thought about this at all.  True.
    • Proposing a course that is a slight variation on the survey they will be responsible for.
    • Proposing a course that someone, perhaps someone who is actually in the room, already teaches and seeming to be completely unaware of that.
    Particularly if the interview is going well, you should fall into a happy, general conversation in the last ten minutes or so, so that even if you aren't specifically asked about new courses, these are good to have in your hat to show them an aspect of yourself they might not have seen.

    Don't trash a search committee that evening in the hotel bar.  Leave the hotel and go far, far away if you must trash a search committee, and even then make sure you have your back against a wall and a good view of the door. 

    Extra points if you don't go on the job wiki following the interview to leave a few observations about what $hit heads the interviewing committee was and how unappreciated you felt.  There are two good reasons you should not report on your experience, other than the fact that it is childish and you probably don't even really believe that you are giving other candidates information that they need (if you did think you were helping them, would you give it to them?  Really?) 
    • Your view of the interview could be very different from the committee's view.  Not only are academics not always aware of it when they are treating people badly (you knew that!), but the people who behaved badly may be marginal to making the decision.  Why is this important?
    • Because we read the job wikis too, and bitching out the committee could cost you your campus interview.
    On that note, good luck young folk, and I'll see you in Boston.  The Radical Panel is at 2:30 on Friday.  Be there or be square.

    Saturday, December 25, 2010

    Merry Christmas From Tenured Radical

    Like Eartha, we were so bad this year, but we got presents anyway! Here's hoping you did too.

    Friday, December 24, 2010

    This Time Last Year We Were In South Africa On The Western Cape

    We had just finished one of the most exhausting, exhilarating things we had ever done:  working at a  camp outside Johannesburg for teenagers whose lives have been affected by HIV.  There is not a day we do not talk about what we did or saw there, and probably not a week that goes by without one of us saying: "When we go back..."  I learned so much on our trip, and at camp, that sometimes it felt like my brain was moving faster than I could process the information.

    I loved it. 

    By the time we landed in Wilderness, we were ready to put our feet up, lay in a store of food at the Pick n' Pay, buy some new books (I had given away most of mine, including ones I had not yet read, to some of the campers) and rest for a good long time.  I had lost about ten pounds at camp from working hard, and getting dramatically fewer calories, since there was no alcohol and no snacks other than what my friend Manu brought back from Jo'burg and shared with us.  Our hosts left for their own Christmas vacation -- they went camping somewhere, leaving us the keys to their house in case we needed anything.  The one thing she told us was:  "Do not go to the beach on Christmas!"  She warned us in great detail that terrible things occurred there on holiday that we would find strange and threatening.

    So of course we did go to the beach on Christmas.  Nothing terrible was happening, and it reminded us once again that the scars of apartheid were still very deep, for we suspected our hosts had actually never been to the beach on Christmas.  Instead of the bacchanal we had been told to expect, we found extended families, grilling on hibachis, many wearing red and white fluffy Santa hats. 

    If you think this kind of racial disconnect is peculiarly South African, go watch D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) why don't you?  Anyway, we had a lovely time socializing on the beach.  We then went home and had spaghetti and salad for Christmas dinner, having agreed in advance that our gift to each other was this trip.

    On the Beach at Wilderness, Western Cape, ZA
    Anyway, Merry Christmas to my friends in Jo'burg, Soweto and Durbs: this post is really a Christmas card for you and a way of saying thank you, a year later.  For those of you who are just home from Sizanani, I hope you are recovering from being wowed by the kids.  Mbali, I'm sorry I missed you when you were here this summer, and please come back.  William, be careful on Christmas brother, because we love you!   Kabelo, big, big hugs for you, your mother and the children.  Siza, don't you give Mbali a harder time than she needs to keep her in line, ok Vocelli?  Yolanda, I hope you are being good (not!) and that you moved forward on your business plans.  Enos, when are you bringing your plays to the US? Eliot, stay sweet, ok? Kedi, I need a band-aid!  Mphu, I will learn Zulu:  at least some.  I promise.

    And dear Manu, our conversations and your music is always with me.

    Merry Christmas everyone!

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010

    To Those Who Tell Us Not To Celebrate The Repeal Of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell:" Ask Yourself Why People In Your Workplace Can't Come Out, and What You Plan To Do About It

    You might also want to take a little vacation from critique and let the rest of us enjoy the elimination of a law that went out its way to make life even more difficult for queer people, all in the name of progress. As for the killjoys who say that this won't prevent gay and lesbian soldiers from being harassed in the military, I say: true.  BUT: why don't you tell me a place where we actually are safe?  School perhaps?  The streets? At home?

    Whether you believe in the military or not, and whether this is only part of the pie rather than the whole pie, shrinking the circle of legal stigma is a baby step to making this country a little more livable for everyone.

    Photo credit.

    Tuesday, December 21, 2010

    Who Has Short Shorts? The Radical Has Short Shorts!

    Photo credit.
    Do you ever have those days when you wake up and think, "If I didn't blog so much I might publish more?"  Actually, for me it isn't true, since I have been publishing more (on paper) since I started blogging, but nevertheless, this retrograde form of disseminating knowledge and wasting trees has seized me in a new way, and after days of grading, it cannot be denied.  So here are a few tidbits for your enjoyment:

    Concurrent minority, anyone?  If you saw Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli last night on the PBS News Hour, and you know a bit of southern history, you might have heard shades of John C. Calhoun's theory of state's rights in Cuccinelli's assertion that attaining a majority in the Senate is no way to make a law to govern everybody. In arguing that the federal government's constitutional rationale for mandating the purchase of health insurance is incorrect and dangerous, Cuccinelli goes on to say:  "The power for the federal government is limitless under this theory of the Constitution, and the only limit left is majorities in Congress. And if it was just going to be majority rule, why have a Constitution in the first place?"

    Can I have a witness on that?  Because if majorities in Congress don't count, I would like universal access to abortion back, the immediate repeal of DOMA, the return of protections to GLBT peopel in the state of Virginia that were withdrawn on Cuccinelli's orders last March.  Don't even get me started here, Ken!  For a broader (and calmer) view of the historical context for these views, see  Manisha Sinha on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina's secession from the Union in today's HuffPo.  Among other things, Sinha points out that "Not just nullification but secession is back in fashion. Some Republicans like Governor Perry have unearthed the constitutionally and militarily discredited notion of a state's alleged right to secede from the Union, albeit more as a flamboyant political gesture than a serious threat. It is indeed a supreme irony of history that the Grand Old Party of the Union, the party of Lincoln, is becoming the Grand Old Party of Secession and Calhounian state sovereignty." 
      Got Conference Monnehz?  On November 3-4, 2011, the NIOD, Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies is hosting a workshop in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) on ‘Internment, Incarceration and Detention:  Captivation histories in Western Europe around the First and Second World War.’ Go here for what looks like a truly intriguing conference, particularly given all the interesting new work appearing in this field.  After the conference, you can also wander off into Amsterdam and get legally stoned.
        Jimmy Carter Predicts A Gay Prez:  Isn't this guy something?  Read the story in yesterday's New York Times, also forwarded to me by the father of a student who shares my perverse fascination with a one-term president who has turned into one of the more courageous political observers of his time.  I find this particularly intriguing since I am finishing up an article now on gay civil rights in the Carter administration:  in 1977, Carter came out against the Briggs Amendment in California (so did Ronald Reagan), but was persuaded by his staff to maintain a distance from gay civil rights activists.  Nevertheless, it was during his administration that numerous barriers were dropped to federal employment of homosexuals, and the Civil Service and Federal Communications Commissions were persuaded by National Gay Task Force (now the NGLTF) to use their powers to enforce equal access for gays and lesbians.  While you are on the Times website, go here for today's op-ed by George Chauncey on DADT.

        In Conclusion:  A souvenir from the 1980s that ties back into our title and reminds us that higher forms of femininity can be chemically induced.

        Monday, December 20, 2010

        This Is My Weapon, This Is My Gun: A Gay Primer For Worried Straights In The Military

        "Simply because you're near me, I'm in the mood for love!" Credit.
        This is my rifle, this is my gun;
        One is for fighting, one is for fun.
        -- The Rifleman's Creed, 1941

        Want to know whether repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is good policy?  Why listen to the generals or the Secretary of Defense?  Go ask an expert -- an 18 year-old boy in South Carolina.

        In today's Grey Lady, James Dao goes to Jacksonville, South Carolina to do just that.  Although a few young soldiers offered indifferent or positive responses to the question, "Would you want to share a foxhole with one?" (another version of, "Would you want your daughter to marry one?") others are worried.  Among the memorable quotes are:

        From an 18 year-old soldier who says he is socially comfortable with gays: “They won’t hold up well in combat."

        From a 22 year-old soldier who has served a tour in Afghanistan: "Coming from a combat unit, I know that in Afghanistan we’re packed in a sardine can....There’s no doubt in my mind that openly gay Marines can serve, it’s just different in a combat unit. Maybe they should just take the same route they take with females and stick them [in] noncombat units.”

        From a 19 year-old soldier who is happy to serve in combat with gay men: “Showers will be awkward.”

        From an 18 year-old soldier: “Being gay means you are kind of girly. The Marines are, you know, macho.”  Ain't that the truth, Ruth:  especially macho are the Marines who are already playing Seven Minutes in Heaven with each other at off-base parties.  That's what makes it so sexy.

        Part of what I find amusing about this, and perversely cute, is the absolute certainty of many young men that they are infinitely and universally attractive; and that they spark desires in others that cannot be reined in.  In this scenario, gay male soldiers are simply an addition to the already substantial female population that thinks they are hot, hot, hot.

        Anyone who is a college teacher knows that there is a substantial population of athletes (and guys who look like athletes but are too lazy to go out for a team) who, once the weather warms up, spend hours in prominent campus locations, stripped to the waist, six packs a-rippling, playing wiffle ball or some other pseudo-sport.  Why?  Because they know they look so good and they are dying to share it.  Oh yeah, this has a dark side too, but at its most benign, it is a core feature of a certain kind of masculinity.

        And don't you think it's interesting that Dao  interviewed no women for this article?  What do you think that was about?  Enquiring minds want to know.

        Interviewing worried straight people is not, however, a good data set to base a transition to the post-DADT military on.  So here are some positive steps I would like to forward to Secretary Gates.

        In each service, pick out an all-gay platoon, an all-straight platoon, and a mixed gay/straight platoon.  Send them all to Ranger School and see how many in each platoon come back with Ranger tabs.  The platoon that comes back with the most soldiers in tabs wins.  I'm putting my money on the gays:  we are incredible overachievers. 

        Put lesbians in combat.  If gay men are girly, it is another well-known fact that lesbians are mannish, right?  I'm thinking while we are waiting for the gay guys to man up in non-combat related jobs, we can fill in the gaps with lesbians who are definitely not going to sexually abuse men in those tight little foxholes.  Think Joan of Arc.  Furthermore, after a tour with some super-star dykes, I guarantee some of these straight men will be combing the ranks for gay soldiers who won't be kicking their a$$es nonstop.

        Gently break it to the straight boys that it seems to be them who are "looking" in the shower.  I mean, how do they know that anyone is looking in the shower, or become experts about what is behind the look?  I rest my case.  Boys will be boys.  They always look at each other, when they are not looking at themselves.

        Gay men are not women.  I'm just saying.  And by the way-- what if they were? Lose the sexism before some female Marine comes along to kick your a$$.

        Young men are in a constant state of arousal no matter what.  This is simply a fact.  If you see a guy walking past you with an erection, don't take it personally.  Look to your own short arm and make sure it's in its holster. 

        Any erection that arrives while the body attached to it is under fire, or about to be under fire, is likely to be a source of mirth rather than a threat to the sexual safety of others.  I mean, seriously. 

        Homosex and heterosex are not actual differences.   It is a fiction that straights and gays are actually different kinds of people.  Furthermore, there is no difference between what men and men; men and women; and women and women do in bed, and there is no difference between homosexual and heterosexual desire that wasn't invented by some doctor, psychiatrist or cleric.  It's all sex, there are appropriate and inappropriate venues for having sex, and people agree and disagree about what they are regardless of whether they are bent homo or bent hetero. 

        Military people are overwhelmingly religious.  Make a list of the crazy $hit that folks say about GLBT people, hand it out to all the chaplains, and get them to work with homophobic soldiers on it.  While you are at it, get the chaplains to stop saying crazy $hit about gay and lesbian people as if it were actually coming straight from God.  Jesus would serve happily with a gay man.  I am absolutely certain of this (and come to think of it, Jesus looks a little girly in most pictures.)  But on a more practical note, since one of my closest kindred spirits is a Christian conservative straight woman (whose son is on the brink of deploying) I would say that one of the finest features of our friendship is that although we have differences on some core issues, we don't say the kind of crazy $hit to each other that is the lingua franca of our different constituencies.  This, in turn, I would like to think, promotes genuine tolerance (as opposed to the fake-y hypocritical tolerance) in both of us towards the attitudes represented by other.  This form of tolerance then becomes a bridge to sympathetic understanding, transformation, respect and deep friendship.

        And now, to reinforce distinctions that are already well-known to any grunt who has gone through basic training, a performance of the Rifleman's Creed from Full Metal Jacket (1987).

        Sunday, December 19, 2010

        Why Ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell Is Important, And What Remains To Be Done

        Make love, not war?  Photo credit.
        I am one of those lefty queers who is both anti-war and desired the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Noxious as war is, it is also my view that allowing forms of discrimination to be written into the law is neither a gift ("Yay, I am radically free from compulsory marriage!") or a way to distance from the American war machine ("Yay! I'm not implicated in the American war machine, even though my consumer habits, my pension and the university that employs me depends on it!")

        In regard to this latter point:  think Bayard Rustin.  True, Bayard was not out as a gay man until very late in life, but he was very black, and he went to jail during World War II as a conscientious objector as a member of both the civil rights and anti-war movements.  I mention this both because he might have evaded service by announcing his homosexuality (although this would have complicated his life on the homophobic left earlier than it eventually did) and because going to jail was not a move that a black man made lightly in the 1940s, as he was more than likely to come out in a box.*

        While watching the signing ceremony is not going to make me teary (as I was, for example, back in 1987, when Barney Frank came out; and again in 1990, when the first openly gay person was permitted to address the Democratic convention) I consider this to be an important step -- not necessarily towards equality, but towards a basis by which we might imagine an inclusive human rights agenda in the United States and a recognition of the ways in which certain groups are confined by the law and other groups are freed by it.  Repealing DADT is an imperfect way of getting there, as is marriage equality, but they are both necessary moves even if you, personally, find marriage and the military noxious and retrograde.

        Myself, I find hypocrisy to be the source of most social and political toxicity.  From that perspective,  these institutions are merely the effect of a broader American commitment to hypocrisy and a reproductive mechanism for it, not the actual problems.

        I say this because a great many queer intellectuals and activists will not be popping the cork on this one.  In "Don't Enlist, Don't Serve", Troy Williams writes:  "There are many things worse than discrimination. Being hit by a mortar blast, losing a limb, living with post-traumatic stress disorder or killing another human all come to mind."  Arguing that DADT has "saved an uncounted number of queer lives," he also points to the high levels of violence perpetrated by soldiers against each other.  "The culture of the military encourages hazing, misogyny and homophobia;" that "war fucks people up;" and that veterans are often neglected and abused following their service by a political machine and a society that refuses to commit to sane social welfare policies.

        Kathryn Franke notes the ways in which increased visibility of lesbians has the potential to enhance institutionalized brutality towards women in the military.  In "It Gets Worse:  What Repeal of DADT May Mean For Sexual Violence In The Military," she argues that like the marriage equality movement, military service is a "curious" location "for the elaboration of a free-self."  By this she means, in fact, wrong-headed, since both institutions are forms of state regulation that emphasize disciplining the self to a set of rules that are intended to control and confine us.

        Franke goes on to remind us that, within this highly disciplined institution, there are already appalling rates of sexual violence against women in the military, and that "open military service for lesbians may hold greater, or at least different, peril for lesbians than it does for gay men."  She continues:

        Surely gay men who will serve openly will be vulnerable to hazing, harassment and even violence from other service members who do not welcome their presence in the U.S. military. Even in countries that have allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly for some time find their gay soldiers brutally harassed from time to time. (See e.g. here)

        But lesbians will face harassment on account of their sexual orientation in a way that compounds the kind of harassment and violence all women in the military suffer as a routine matter. A routine matter about which the military already knows and does very little to combat.

        Interestingly, at one point in his testimony last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates linked the issue of violence against women in the military to the potential for violence against out queer soldiers, the only time I have ever heard a military official bring this subject up voluntarily.  So another possibility here (sigh) is that DADT has caused new scrutiny of systemic sexual violence in the military because we can now acknowledge that men are candidates for rape.
        Together, the posts by Williams and Franke point to a yawning absence on the queer, policy-oriented left that the vital new directions in queer scholarship have yet to make a serious dent in:  what a queer anti-violence politics that was not entirely situational would look like.  This, in turn, would require a new interrogation of cultures of male violence that were the object of violent disagreement on the feminist left in the 1980s; that were never fully resolved; and that are imbricated in the queer intellectual perspectives articulated above.  We need a better theory of the institutional conditions that produce homophobic and sexist violence, as well as high levels of compliance by those who do not perpetrate violence with those who do, and a theory that does not entirely rely on disappearing the institution itself.

        DADT has moved to yesterday's Senate vote, for example, I have thought constantly about a straight male acquaintance who joined an elite branch of the armed forces, and was, at every stage of his training and deployment, forced to endure rituals of violence and humiliation that were not specifically homophobic.  They included such useful military skills as spending a day doing his work with a filthy toilet seat around his neck, standing in formation in the middle of the night nude except for the women's underpants on his head (yes, what happened at Abu Ghraib happens all the time in the U.S. military), staying up all night cleaning a latrine with his toothbrush and then being ordered to use it in his mouth, and being repeatedly beaten up by other soldiers for imagined failures of deference.

        What strikes me as a particularly graphic example for the need of a more embracing theoretical perspective is the failure to make a practical connection between what currently counts for an anti-violence politics on the queer left -- homophobic and sexist bullying among high school students -- to a realistic sense of the ways the military (but also marriage and the family) perpetuate and institutionalize violence.  These issues are, in fact, inseparable, as a political history of school and of the the military are also inseparable.  Each institution relies heavily on invisible systems of self-rule to maintain governance and subservience.  In each case, self-rule is based on forms of brutality that could not possibly be legitimated by the state, but which serve as discipline by proxy.

        So yes, sign that bill President Obama, so we can get started on the real work of ending violence.

        *You can read about it Rustin's heroism in John D'Emilio's excellent biography, Lost Prophet:  The Life And Times Of Bayard Rustin.

        Saturday, December 18, 2010

        Is There A Budget To Be Cut Under Your Christmas Tree? A View To The Future

        In yesterday's Huffpo, David J. Skorton, the president of Cornell University  asserted that "We Can Do Better On College Costs."  He proposes calling a halt to the educational blame game:  "let's stop the intellectual shoving matches," he argues, "and get about the business of dealing with those factors that can and should be controlled to attenuate the rate of rise of both cost and price. And let's also stop apologizing for investments that are necessary to keep higher education one of America's premier 'products.'" His suggestions include:
        1. greater specialization on individual campuses, so that institutions are not duplicating partially filled programs;
        2. reviews of "faculty productivity and quality," including post-tenure reviews;
        3. acknowledging that educational administrators who are skilled at running an institution might not always have the skills to do so in a cost-efficient way.
          The economic crash that has motivated our current state of intensified budget cutting, Skorton argues, should be viewed as a re-set.  "Given our continuing uncertain economy," he concludes, "I call on my colleagues in higher education to reduce the rate of rise of our operating costs through focus, connectivity, accountability and administrative streamlining. Improvements in higher education's pricing and accessibility will follow."

          Now, before you fill the comments section with off the cuff remarks about what self-interested sleazebags and incompetents administrators are, please do two things.  Read the article, and ask yourself the question:  Isn't it time that faculty started to work with administrators to reshape and rethink what we do, rather than sitting around and howling about the latest set of budget cuts made by corporate executives and legislators who really don't have a clue what we do or why it matters?  And isn't it time for faculty to stop defending everything they do, in exactly the way they learned it should be done decades ago, as if the university is a place where nothing has changed since the 1880s?

          So here are a few initial responses to Skorton's suggestions from this faculty member.

          Overspecialization on campuses:  The vast majority of departments and programs would not be vulnerable to elimination on any campus under a plan to scrutinize overspecialization, in my view, although some positions within them might be useful targets for cross-institutional appointments.  Colleges would want to duplicate fields that draw numerous students and that are basic to citizenship, social/cultural competence, literacy and a student's capacity to choose a future: for example,  English, history, political science, mathematics, and philosophy.  But such departments might be asked to work together to ensure that they represented an intellectual direction that was coherent and distinctive, rather than one that fulfilled individual desires without regard to how those fields are supported elsewhere in the curriculum.

          Furthermore, the failure of area colleges to work together to establish consortium arrangements for areas of knowledge that are less desired by students is leading, not to duplication, but to the actual collapse of certain fields of knowledge.  German, for example, is under-taught on many campuses, due in part to the fact that the teaching of German at the high school level is almost non-existent. It is a difficult language that requires dedication to learn, and a background in other languages (also difficult to get more than a couple years of in most high schools) doesn't hurt either.  The response of the budget cutters is that there German departments should be eliminated due its marketplace failure -- even though the market for German among students has been actively and deliberately undermined.  One might argue that this failure does not, in fact, represent the actual value of being literate in German.  Knowledge of German continues to be highly relevant to many fields other than German literature (science, philosophy, history); furthermore, if you look at a market that really matters, Germany is the biggest economy in the EU, and you might think a global power like the United States might want to train people to communicate in German.

          Proposed solution:  cooperative hiring practices and curriculum development between area universities, as well as investment in transportation and technology that could make a cooperative curriculum genuinely accessible to all students.

          Improving faculty productivity:  I am not altogether sure what is meant by this, but there is one thing I know:  if we are talking about the teaching of students, there are very few courses that are underpopulated because the professor is a well-known incompetent (in fact that can have the opposite effect, as well-known incompetents are also often well-known for assigning very little work.)  Profs pulling down big salaries to teach few students is far more complex than this.  Issues to be addressed would include:
          • Elimination of core curricula and real distribution requirements in liberal arts schools means that most of us are simultaneously maintaining fields of knowledge and allowing uninformed student preferences to dictate how courses are populated.  Hence, Department X might be groaning under the weight, not just of its numerous majors, but of its massive service to the general curriculum.  Meanwhile Department Y culls a few dedicated majors from an introductory curriculum that students can completely avoid; and those faculty go on to teach 10 students a semester or so -- for salaries that can be (if say, the comparison is between a humanities and a science or social science department) significantly higher than the faculty in Department X.  
          • This straightforward ratio of students taught to salaries paid is accentuated by a second problem:  that most faculty don't want to teach students who are only in the room because they are fulfilling a requirement.  Hence, core curricula have to be backed up by persuasive advocacy and creative teaching.
          • The mania of "raising standards" for tenure and promotion everywhere is affecting other things that faculty do.  Granted, the production of good scholarship is important to good teaching in any field.  However, the increased pressure to produce ever more prior to tenure and promotion to full that younger scholars are facing is an indirect incentive both to evade students and to evade roles in faculty governance that, in turn, creates a need for more administrative staff.  In many places, senior faculty instruct those they supervise to attend to publication over all other activities, sending the message that dedication to teaching and institutional work is evidence that the scholar is insufficiently dedicated to success.
          • The mania of liberal arts college faculties for insisting that their "standards" for tenure and promotion are just as high as those at institutions with prestigious graduate programs undermines teaching at institutions that advertise this as their greatest value.  This is an odious and false assertion, and academic administrators should act to intervene in these expressions of hubris. Standards can be high in terms of quality without sacrificing anything to the teaching mission; however, except for the rare scholar, it absolutely cannot be true in terms of the quantity of publications in the dossier prior to tenure without sacrifice to the teaching mission. 
          • Take a good hard look at faculty who, post-tenure, might benefit everyone including themselves, by choosing another career and help them transition to it.  Admit that a faltering vocation is one of the conditions of labor, not just in the academy, but everywhere.  Most of us have a mid-life crisis; not all of us are good at addressing it without help and encouragement.  Instead of talking about "dead wood" in the contemptuous way we do, wouldn't it be better to find other things for such faculty to do and replace them with another person who really wanted the job?
          Proposed solution:  sustained discussions that instill a sense of collective responsibility for educating students across the faculty, establish a curriculum that demonstrates the values that caused the institution to invest in the faculty it actually employs, and see which fields and disciplines might be revived by humane restructuring of personnel.

          Increased administrative efficiency:  Okay, so you know what is not helping here?  The constant screeching, at all levels, for "accountability" and "standards," particularly from politicians who don't know squat-all about what constitutes good education.  Administrators who should be engaged in leading a process of renewal and reform are, instead, responding to politically-motivated attacks on education. But the other thing we have to re-think is the question of what kinds of problems are amenable to governance by people who are trained as scholars; and when is a good time to call in a consultant or two.  I can't tell you how much time I have spent over the last decade trying to solve problems that neither I or anyone around me has any expertise in solving.  One solution to this problem would be administrative exchange programs between colleges and universities:  if College X has someone who was able to find a creative solution to a particular problem, could we bring hir to College Y for a few months to look at our problem, sending in return one of our people back to College X to study the outcomes of their reorganization?  Reversing this exchange would then give College Y an administrator who was skilled in implementing the new plan.  As a not insignificant aside, this might eliminate the problem of larding on new administrative staff to address new problems without ever taking a fresh look at what the old administrators are doing and whether their work is still relevant.

          Proposal:  Increased hiring of consultants with relevant expertise; a high focus on continuing education and retraining for administrators; and ongoing consultation between institutions with similar missions about the challenges of the new environment.

          Friday, December 17, 2010

          The Radical History News: Shopping, Nixonland, Feminist Blogging and A Farewell

          Yesterday I passed two milestones:  I went to BJ's Wholesale for the first time, and I finally bought an iPad.  As I was driving home, the Sister of the Radical (SORor) called, and I asked her if I was the last person on earth to discover BJ's.  "Yes," she said, not unkindly.  Well, so be it.  I was late to the game on Deadwood too, but caught up eventually.

          BJ's had been recommended to me by my dentist during a prolonged procedure (he was trying to distract me from the root canal he was performing) and I must say, neither the root canal or BJ's has been a disappointment.  As I toodled down I-91 with a full trunk of loose items (they don't give you bags at BJ's, and I made a mental note to bring cardboard boxes or totes the next time) the only parallel experience I could compare it to was being allowed to visit a warehouse stocked by UNESCO, or being the patriarch of a polygamous Mormon family.  Bales of socks and long underwear were nestled next to a case of baked beans, a massive brick of TP, a bushel of garlic, six quarts of shrink wrapped OJ, and a variety of other jumbo-sized items. 

          Riding shotgun was the iPad.  What can I say?  64 gigs and it's everything I can imagine. Having posted the purchase on my Facebook, I got the following link from Rick Perlstein (who is cool and funny and nice, in addition to being a terrific writer) advertising the enhanced e-book of his Nixonland:  the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribners, 2008).  I embedded the video here:

          Is that cool or what?  In other news:

          Historiann and Tenured Radical have been nominated for a 2010 Cliopatria award in the category  "Best Series of Posts," for their series on Terry Castle's The Professor (You can get started reading here).  If that isn't enough, the roundtable on feminist blogging I have been promising, "Women Gone Wild," starring TR, Historiann, Jennifer Ho, May Friedman, Marilee Lindemann and Rachel Leow, is now up and rocking the house at the Journal of Women's History.

          Finally, we are sad to say that the authors of Edge of the American West seem to be biting the poison pill.  Oh yeah, they say they are going on hiatus, but when and if they come back, they will come back as something else.  As one co-author said:"I’d rather take a break before it becomes a chore or I start posting pictures of cats." Another: "We associate the West with new beginnings, but also the end of the day, and maybe we have got there."

          Maybe. We'll miss you, and thanks.

          Thursday, December 16, 2010

          It's A Poor Sort Of Memory That Only Works Backwards; Or, New (Old) Thoughts About Tenure

          Alice Ad-dressing the White Queen.

          `You're wrong there, at any rate,' said the Queen: `were you ever punished?'

          `Only for faults,' said Alice.

          `And you were all the better for it, I know!' the Queen said triumphantly.

          `Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for,' said Alice: `that makes all the difference.'

          `But if you hadn't done them,' the Queen said, `that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!' Her voice went higher with each `better,' till it got quite to a squeak at last.

          Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) (1871)

          Paul Caron over at Tax Prof Blog reports that a new study "conducted under the auspices of the American Bar Foundation with additional funding from the Law School Admission Council" finds that "the perceptions of female tenured faculty members and tenured faculty of color" about the granting of tenure in law schools "differ significantly" from the perceptions "of their white male counterparts. Both female professors and professors of color perceived the tenure process as less fair and more difficult than did male or white professors. Female professors of color had the most negative perceptions [.]" 
          Quelle surprise.  Try doing this study in the humanities and social sciences, why don't you?

          It is interesting how we can know these things and then continue on as if we did not know these things.  I have to wonder whether any empirical study is capable of altering the ingrained practices that produce the "perceptions" described above (many of us would substitute the word "reality" here, but never mind.)  For different reasons, depending on our position in the hierarchy of academic bodies, like Alice's White Queen, we who are tenured have become adept at managing impossible information.  While one commenter on Caron's post is amazed that you would survey a group of people who have succeeded in a gate keeping process about the fairness of the gate keeping, I would argue that part of what is interesting about the study is that people who have succeeded don't always see their own success at achieving tenure as an unqualified vote of confidence for their intellectual work.  Indeed, the difficulty of evaluation and promotion, the rude inquiries that are often made about women and scholars of color during tenure procedures and the public undermining of the intellectual authority of these scholars even in successful promotion cases, is often stunning.  It is equally stunning to me how eager one's colleagues are to relieve white men from the burdens of such scrutiny.  A variety of what might be considered flaws and procedural bloopers that require lengthy revisiting for women and scholars of color are simply dismissed as irrelevant for white men.  Connections of the candidate to prominent people in hir field that are serving as tenure referees are seen as proof of a white man's prestige (correct).  But in the case of (wo)men of color, such referees are often dismissed because they are perceived as lacking objectivity (they are often perceived as lacking status in the field as well), and new ones must be found, even if those new referees are further from the field of specialization. And scholars in queer studies?  Fugedaboudit.

          Here's another piece of unofficial data for you:  the number of women, and people of color who, denied tenure in one place, go on to a better job elsewhere.  Not always true, but boy, would I like to see the numbers on it.  A common assumption about failed promotion cases is that the person's career as a scholar is brought to an abrupt end by denial, and that is true in too many cases.  However, very often it is not true, and that is where follow up of failed tenure cases might be worthy of investigation. At one prestigious SLAC I know well, two tenure cases involving individuals in the group under scrutiny were differently fumbled in the not so recent past, and both individuals almost immediately went on to tenured positions at prestigious R-I universities.  You would think that would count as some kind of data, wouldn't you? Or that it might trigger some kind of public recognition at the tenure-denying institution that what is being smugly articulated as high standards could be, just perhaps, something else.

          `That accounts for the bleeding, you see,' [the White Queen] said to Alice with a smile. `Now you understand the way things happen here.'

          `But why don't you scream now?' Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.

          `Why, I've done all the screaming already,' said the Queen. `What would be the good of having it all over again?'

          Wednesday, December 15, 2010

          What Time Is It? It's Exam Time! Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Blue Books!

          Cowabunga, Buffalo Bob!

          Truth be told, I am actually writing this post while proctoring my exam.  You would think a Tenured Radical like myself wouldn't even believe in exams, wouldn't you?

          Wrong.  True, I think this generation of students comes to college so stressed-out, and so tested-out, that in many ways it is an act of mercy not to plan any kind of evaluation that awakens their anxieties (see this article for the use of therapy dogs during exam period at Tufts University.)  In fact, here at Zenith, students have been heard to complain that quizzes (particularly of the "Pop!" variety) and exams are "like high school" and unworthy of college-level scholars.  The desire to administer such forms of evaluation, it is implied, reveals the professor hirself as not quite cool for school. ("Like, man, if you really knew me, you would know what grade to give me!")

          And yet I give exams, and here are the reasons why:
          • Taking exams is a skill.  For the vast majority of professional careers, in graduate school, and for a variety of other occupations, these very same students will be asked to take exams.  Oh sure, some of them will be self-administered, but most of them will be taken in a large impersonal room, written by hand, and timed.  Any career -- from soldier, to lawyer, to electrician, to police officer, to medical doctor, to the State Department requires at least one exam -- and sometimes numerous exams, taken throughout one's work life.  Many careers require periodic re-certification; many others require exams for promotion.  The idea that graduating high school liberates most people, of any social class, from test-taking is a lie.
          • As long as we teach surveys, making sense of -- and knowing what you think about -- a period, a field of study, or an area of expertise requires time set aside for comprehensive study.  The exam, in this case, becomes a means to an end.  Let's be honest:  even our best students prepare erratically for classes, and students of all kinds work in bursts that are in many ways governed by the many disparate courses and the work schedules to which they are responsible.  The act of studying, at its best, brings all of these pieces that have been acquired erratically (or not yet acquired at all) together in a whole, at the end of which (ideally) a student has a building block to go on to more advanced work, to research, or to simply salt away for whenever it becomes useful.
          • In the humanities and social sciences, exams allow students who are not yet sophisticated thinkers, or particularly good writers, to work hard, do well, and be proud of themselves.  At all colleges, equally intelligent students enter with different capacities and with different skill sets.  Students who work hard and want to achieve deserve some reward and encouragement for their efforts: if every assignment that they are graded on requires excellent writing skills, or the capacity to structure a complex argument, this means that under prepared students will not get credit for what they are achieving even if they are growing as intellectuals through the act of diligent study.  In other words, there will be some lag time between the acquisition of sophisticated reading skills and the capacity to reproduce and build creatively on what has been read.  This means that many students who are learning and growing will have difficulty showing that unless they are given exams geared towards revealing what they have learned.
          • Let's tell the truth:  many faculty don't give exams because it is a nice way to artificially shorten the semester.  A papers-only class, a series of short quizzes, a take-home or final paper due on the last day of classes -- all of these tactics send certain of our colleagues home a week, or even two weeks, early.  At Zenith this is illegal, but it happens anyway.  Little things reveal it, like the student who wrote to a colleague that but for a pesky exam in that class s/he would be able to leave town slightly before the end of classes to (and I quote) "maximize boy-friend time."  Why is this bad for students?  Well, two reasons.  One is the absence of any of the benefits stated above.  The other is that this puts heavy pressure on the final two weeks of the semester, and in fact, stresses students out more than if they had reading period and exam week to finish up in a more orderly way.
           On a final note, I attended a party the other night at which a number of colleagues and I waxed nostalgic about (wait for it) our "favorite exams, ever!"  This was, just to be clear, our favorite exam that we ever took.  Mine was an oral exam in eighteenth century French history with John Merriman, my sophomore year at Oligarch.  Feel free to contribute yours in the comments section

          God it's fun to group up nerdy.

          Friday, December 10, 2010

          "Their Royal Highnesses Are Unharmed" -- But British Politics Are Getting More Interesting

          If Only The King Knew:  British Protesters Egg Charles and Camilla's Limo
          I continue to be impressed with the capacity of what George W. Bush used to refer to as "Old Europe" to fight for a vision of the world where all of us are not being used to generate profit for someone.  Like Hannah Arendt, I continue to be suspicious of violence as a political tactic:  all movements that choose violence, she argued at the height of United States antiwar protest, are fascist, whether they originate on the right or the left.  I did not appreciate that at the time I first considered this idea in the 1970s, and I do now.

          And yet, I wonder:  what is wrong with us in the United States that we just sit around and wait for the newest attack on our rights as citizens?  Why do we continue to insist on improvements in education, while politicians cut the $hit our of education budgets in the name of "middle class tax cuts" (by which, what they really mean is fighting wars on behalf of the oil and gas industry?)  Why do we continue to believe, as a society, that at some point the medical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries are going to realize that they have enough money and suddenly they will treat us right?  And why do we continue to entrust everything that matters -- education, health care, politics itself -- to the rich?

          Most particularly, what is wrong with students that they are so suckered by the debt industrial complex that they will continue to take out massive loans for education that we, as a society, ought to be giving them for free?  Only in California have there been system-wide protests of privatization, while public school parents and their children -- who are most dramatically affected by privatization -- go from charter school to charter school to see which corporate executive can best prepare their kid for a standardized test?

          Go Brits; go French.

          Monday, December 06, 2010

          Towards A Theory Of Scandal; Or, How To Become Client 9

          On The Good Wife, actress Julianna Margulies
          assumes an iconic stance as Alicia Florrick.

          Laura Kipnis, How to Become A Scandal:  Adventures in Bad Behavior. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010. 208 pp. Bibliography, no index. Illustrations.

          Client 9:  The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney: 2010).  Now in general release, and available on some cable systems.

          One of our favorite shows chez Radical is The Good Wife (Tuesday nights at 10 EST on your local CBS affiliate or online.) I have always liked Julianna Margulies:  I liked her last series, Canterbury's Law, which got canceled after six episodes in 2008 because of the writer's strike.  She appears to have emerged from that complex show having found her niche as a TV attorney. Margulies' fundamental interiority as an actress is a perfect comment on some of the dilemmas of modern heterosexuality, marriage and parenting for professional women.  By this I mean that every move she makes on The Good Wife is a negotiation between Alicia Florrick the person, Alicia Florrick the mother, and Alicia Florrick, the "good wife" who needs to remain married to her ruthless, sexy pol of a husband until and unless she decides to leave him on her own terms.  Reflecting a theme of contemporary political culture, the husband is disgraced Illinois State's Attorney Peter Florrick, who has been derailed and jailed in a corruption scandal (perhaps a frame-up) that came to light because he had taken to visiting prostitutes.   Debuting on September 22, 2009, The Good Wife followed as closely as was humanly possible on the March 2008 resignation of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose arrangements with the ladies managed by the Emperor's Club VIP, a high-end call service, had also been uncovered as part of a routine federal investigation of money transfers.

          Whoa. "Routine?"  If you believe that, implies Alex Gibney, producer of Client 9, a documentary about the Spitzer case, there is a bridge in Brooklyn waiting under your Christmas tree.  Gibney's side of the story is that it was Wall Street that went after Eliot Spitzer.  Powerful financial interests wanted revenge for prior investigations that had uncovered the tip of the iceberg of what we now know was a plan to drain as much money out of the economy and into their own pockets that they could.  The prostitutes are a detail.

          Routine? The prostitutes a mere detail? Please. Can you hear Laura Kipnis, the media scholar and author of How To Become A Scandal, laughing?  It's sex scandals that are routine, and politics are the detail.  Strangely, in her newest book, Kipnis features a picture of Spitzer and his wife Silda Wall Spitzer (striking the Margulies pose) in the introduction, refers to him, but never names him, as if it isn't even necessary to do so.  Politicians who scandalize us are routine because we are them, and they are us:  what fills in the space between us is that we all know that the only difference between us and them is that "we" haven't been uncovered yet.

          Well, some of we, anyway.  I've been a scandal at least twice, and the only reason more of you don't know about these colorful episodes is that I occupy quite a small stage in the theater of the world.  But that is Kipnis's point:  we are all a scandal waiting to happen.  There's no difference between the ordinary, run of the mill folk who are out there pointing and judging and the ones who are up at the podium with cameras flashing in their puffed, weepy faces (Spitzer's "good wife" didn't weep but looked like she had literally vacated her body some hours prior to the press conference.)  Such unexpected events as the uptight Eliot, a close political ally for a variety of feminist groups dedicated to ending commercial sex, turning out to be an afficianado of pay to play occur in a changed cultural atmosphere in which  "our internal cringe meters... shrill more and more frequently these days, given people’s predilection for confessing their grubby secrets to passing strangers or even complete strangers….it’s like a national compulsion.” Ordinary as it is, watching Spitzer’s press conference was “like watching someone swallow a hand grenade in real time, which obviously didn’t impede anyone’s enjoyment of the event,” Kipnis writes. (3-5) 

          Yes.  But that same well-crafted phrase --"swallowing a hand grenade in real time" -- might have also accurately described my experience as a child watching Edward Kennedy's post-Chappaquiddick press conference in July 1969. Two critical differences in these scandals stand out.  In the Spitzer case, although he had broken the law by paying for sex and violating the Mann Act, no one died; and in the Kennedy case, no one resigned from office -- even though somebody died, and died a pretty gruesome death. So what was the big deal about Spitzer? Client 9 answers this question by arguing that exposing Spitzer could only have been the handiwork of powerful capitalists Ken Langone, the Director of the New York Stock Exchange, and Hank Greenberg, president of the insurance giant AIG. Both of these men had been in prolonged litigation with New York State over how they did business while Spitzer was Attorney General and had sworn revenge.

          Worse than the investigations was Spitzer's refusal to kowtow to the financial industry, and its vision of what the economic rules should be.  According interviews with Langone and Greenberg, had Spitzer not interfered, the great economic crash would never have happened.  According to Spitzer, who was also interviewed for the film, and others who worked for him, these men selfishly destroyed the world of finance for their personal gain and went after Spitzer for trying to stop them.  The addition of Joe Bruno, the powerful Republican State Assembly leader, adds an important emphasis to this:  in addition to being Dudley Doright, Spitzer was aggressive, nasty, uncompromising, rude and completely undeferential to men who were accustomed to receiving deference at all times.

          Both Client 9 and How To Become A Scandal argue that there is something far more important going on here than the public's response to people who shtup out of schul, or any one politician getting caught in an illegal sex act.  As Kipnis notes, scandals represent a form of knowledge production that has been surprisingly resistant to complex analysis:  although watching the humiliation of others “may be our national spectator sport…we lack any real theory of scandal.” (7)   She doesn't exactly give us a theory in the end:  instead, we get a series of delightful stories about ordinary people who become celebrities (and vice-versa) as they enter their names into the Book of Humiliation.  In “The Lovelorn Astronaut,” we are reminded of the NASA love triangle in which an accomplished female officer drove over 900 miles in a diaper to kidnap, and perhaps kill, another astronaut's new squeeze.  Here we see Kipnis at her finest, asking the questions you wish you had thought of and published:  "what’s an adult in diapers but someone whose self-management skills have critically failed?” and "how can you possibly know in advance what lengths you are capable of, in extremis or otherwise?”  Here, we get close to what a theory of scandal might look like:  “In short," she argues, "simply having a body is the first step on the road to being a scandal.” (35-41)

          The other essays, the last of which is on the uncanny resemblance between Oprah Winfrey and fake-o memoirist James Frey (unnecessarily underlined when Kipnis points out that the last syllable of Oprah's last name in "-frey") are less well focused, demonstrating not that Kipnis herself is failing, but simply that some scandals are more fun than others.  No one, in the other essays, offers the opportunities for analyzing the centrality of pee and poo to national culture that the great little detail of the astronaut's soiled diapers permits.  The Linda Tripp essay is a slightly expanded version of an earlier piece that appeared in Lisa Duggan and Lauren Berlant's 2001 collection on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal:  if you haven't read it, it's worth a look.  Perhaps the best part about these essays is that they continue a series of themes originally explored in her masterpiece (in my view) Against Love:  A Polemic  (2003), where Kipnis argues that love -- or the illusion of love -- ultimately degrades and humiliates all of us and, through its single-minded obsessions, produces a crazy, alternate reality that catches up with all of its victims someday.

          Photo Cred
          Client 9 is not about love at all -- it is about hate, money, and fucking.  It is about being good and being stupid. It is about how two understandable human impulses came together in one (not as) powerful (as he needed to be) man:  the desire to do good and the desire to get down and dirty with women he didn't know who had very large racks.  What the movie doesn't tell you is that really, both impulses were the same. Eliot Spitzer had a deep need to act out his persona as a Big Swinging Dick, both in public and in private.  Both led to his downfall.

          This causes me to wonder whether we don't need two theories of scandal:  one that is expressly political and feminist (in which the wife the politician needs to challenge him intellectually is not the "wife" that offers parallel opportunities for dominance in the sack); and one that is still feminist, but  for ordinary folks like the rest of us.  This latter theory might call on the political, but not rely on the political arena for its significance.  This would point us to one explanation of why we don't see political women confessing to various private misdeeds while a sedated hubby watches from stage left; and how it is that so many non-celebrities are so confused about what they have done when their secret betrayals become public entertainment.  Kipnis provides a promising theory for the political -- that scandal "is a way of organizing the collectivity's hatred"(195) -- but for the latter she leaves only a set of impressions that we are left to organize on our own.

          In turn, Client 9 runs the conspiracy theory in a way that left me impatient about the amount of evidence left on the table that doesn't get any analysis.  My favorite quote of the film is a giggly woman who served jail time for running and profiting from the Emperor's Club VIP:  "When you are sending a girl for $30,000 overnight, it doesn't feel like prostitution!" she burbles, putting visual scare quotes around the final word.  No, I guess it doesn't: just like securitizing bad mortgages didn't feel like theft! These portions of the film made me want much more from it:  since what Emperor's Club was doing was, in fact, prostitution, I'm curious as to what activity it did feel like to the people who were involved with it.

          Similarly, Spitzer, who was interviewed for the documentary, is open and lively when talking about his Wall Street investigations; he becomes shut down and wooden when we get to the sex scandal.  Why does Spitzer think he risked everything in an obsession for expensive prostitutes?  Why does he think he did not know he was risking everything?  The Luv Guv has little to say about this except that he was bad, it was wrong, he deserved what he got (I sense a really nasty couples' therapist lurking in the background.)  This makes the business of high-end prostitution a tantalizing theme from another angle. It provides a tangible link between Spitzer and Wall Street (several procurers who are interviewed for the film claim that it was the vast amount of money in the go-go bull market that made their own businesses possible) and reveals Spitzer as the same, in at least one respect, as the financiers he despises.  One even imagines Spitzer's and Greenberg's wicks dipping in the same well.  It could have happened!

          Me, I'm turning to The Good Wife for theory.  Sometimes I think that only fiction allows us to imagine what happens after the scandal to the people who didn't do anything but have to live with it anyway:  to the wife who stays, to the children who have to live the story that their parents and the political handlers have written for them, and to everyone who picks up the pieces.  Kipnis and Gibney aren't really interested in this, and who can blame them?  But if there is a theory of scandal, it includes the bit players as well as the stars.

          Saturday, December 04, 2010

          Saturday Blogging Notes: The Radical Responds To Her Mail

          I imagine that many bloggers find themselves getting stuck reading the comments sections of past posts when there are other things to do:  mothers to call, articles to revise, papers to grade, and whatnot.  I've been resisting this distraction.  On the other hand, it is the case that a comment, or set of comments, can inspire me to thoughts that I can't help but write up.  So here goes.

          Re. My Recent Post On Skype interviews: Susan points to the advantages of the phone interview over the vagaries of Skype, and noting that each mode calls for equal focus (she also offers several good reasons to wear pants while Skyping.) I agree that focus is required for each, but that phone has its own challenges.  Interviewing committees need to remember that the candidate has no way of recognizing individual voices on a conference call, so that each person who speaks must say:  "This is Tenured Radical," or "This is GayProf," or whatever, so that the candidate knows to whom s/he is talking. The candidate, in turn, needs to find a frakkin' land line!  This can be tricky, since many people under the age of thirty only have a cell phone.  But some of my most aggravating phone interviews have been with candidates who had a difficult mobile connection.  Oh, yeah -- also, try to be where you say you will be when you say you will be there.  In one recent search, we called three separate numbers, and were forwarded from non-English speaking friend to non-English speaking friend in a Scandinavian country, until we located the candidate.  Leslie M-B points to the ease with which she set up professional video conferencing, u-to-u, and this is great, but I'm guessing it's the exception rather than the rule.  My experiences with video conferencing are that marrying two university systems can be a crap shoot.  That said, this is something that research universities could invest in to help their grads, particularly since (thanks to Interfolio) they no longer have to devote administrative time to copying and sending out job files.  Every vita could include the name and number of a tech contact to help set up the interview.  In lieu of this, Job Mouseketeers, establish a Skype account now and list it along with your other contact information:  this might give an older, less tech-savvy, search committee the idea that they could add you to the semi-finalist list because they can interview you at no cost to themselves.

          Re. My Views On Being Groped By The TSA:  Clarissa was "shocked" that I "support these intrusive and humiliating TSA procedures."  At no point in the post did I say that I supported them, although I am not freaked out by them, it's true.  If you find that shocking, it may be time to recalibrate your shock-o-meter.  That said, for good reasons, Clarissa and a number of other readers are freaked out by body searches and scans, viewing them as yet another erosion of our right to privacy.  These are points that cannot be emphasized enough, but the post was about homophobia and the outrage of privileged straight people when they are forced to inhabit psychic spaces that they imagine as gay.  Furthermore, I suspect that for many people who are hyper-sensitive to scrutiny, there are no security procedures that are non-invasive, although this is something that could be different if -- as several readers point out -- the TSA were actually trained to deal sympathetically with the diversity that constitutes human life.  This is clearly worth talking about, but not a reason -- in a moment in history where the United States seems intent on dropping bombs on the heads of innocent people -- not to have security procedures.  Why is it so difficult for Americans to understand that these dangers have been produced by American foreign policy professionals and their corporate handlers?  That's whose ass needs to be kicked, not a bunch of people in fake cop suits who would otherwise be working at the Stop N' Shop with no health insurance.

          But I do think one thing that needs to be emphasized is that we all have privileges in systems of state scrutiny, and those privileges call on homophobia, racism and xenophobia for their force.  Let me recount for you a travel moment fifteen months prior to 9/11.  I was returning from an extended stay in Mexico with Mrs. Radical, who was temporarily confined to a wheelchair because of a dog bite. Our flight from Mexico City to Chicago was delayed, and because of our difficulties, the airlines helped us meet our connecting flight.  They did this by whisking our bags off the plane, and hustling us through a series of unlocked back passages where we arrived on time for our plane without having gone through customs at all.  I recall both being shocked at this (I had visions of the lost opportunity to have become drug mules) and embarrassed, because it was clear to me at the time that had we been Mexican, or Mexican-descended citizens of the United States, we would still be waiting in line to have our belongings strewn about the customs area as our plane for Shoreline taxied down the runway.

          Here, being white and in the company of a respectable white lady in a wheelchair, set several assumptions in motion that allowed me to activate a set of privileges and evade scrutiny. Conversely, in the years following 9/11, because of my mannish demeanor I could expect to be pulled from security lines for invasive searches 100% of the time. TSA officials seemed to particularly like finding personal items related to my sex life and gender identity, which seemed to cause all kinds of hilarity.  How do I know this was related to my confusingly gendered self?  Because on one trip, when I thought I was going to snap and end up in jail if I had to go through another one of these experiences, I asked my young niece if she would hold my hand in the security line and presto! I zipped right through because now I was perceived as: a parent!

          On The Definition Of Elite Colleges And The Conditions That Lead to Good Teaching:  I think this post and the comments attached to it offer many promising future posts, but there are a couple of things I would point out now.  First of all, what constitutes an elite college? Our assumptions about this are a real Rorschach test, aren't they?  One common definition would be that colleges are elite if they are highly selective (i.e., "select" a low percentage of applicants.)  This is what Laurie Essig is speaking to in her CHE piece and her comment. She is right to do so, since her college and mine pride themselves on driving up applications so that they can become more selective.  But this doesn't make them better colleges.  It is a shell game, aimed (as Essig correctly notes) at generating prestige, the value-added that conveys to others the illusion of an excellent education.  Being selective does not guarantee or offer a road map to becoming a well-educated person, and selectivity has nothing to do with what actually happens once you are at college  (Kate Lowe -- under what conditions does Reed not count as an elite college?  Enquiring minds want to know.)

          An elite school can also be a public university that offers many of the social networking benefits, as well as the academic challenges, of a private university. Of the 7,946 people who applied to the University of Mississippi in 2010, 83.4% were admitted.  Not very selective, eh? (In the same year, U-Cal Berkeley admitted fewer than 26% of applicants; Williams College 20%.)  But if it is selectivity you crave at a public university price, apply to Ole Miss, and then apply to the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, and be one of fewer than 250 students in your class year who have access to all the benefits of a large research university, to small classes taught by dedicated faculty, and to ambitious peers who will push you to achieve intellectually.  Or don't apply to SMBHC, and take advantage of the Croft Institute for International Studies.  By the way?  If you think going to Ole Miss doesn't network you, try practicing law in the South and tell me what you think then.

          That said, let me underline my point that when we talk about education we don't talk enough about teaching, or what it would mean for institutions -- as opposed to individual pedagogues -- to commit to good teaching.  The kind of specialized attention that a student might get on a few community colleges and state schools is not the norm, nor is it the norm that all campuses have fabulous Ivy League grads with the resources and time to give students individual attention.    In a political atmosphere that seems to view access to affordable education as only possible by reducing professorial staff to the educational equivalent of theater ushers, you are going to have trouble getting the kind of teaching that constitutes the "education" part of "elite education" anywhere but at a small, wealthy college that costs a lot to attend.

          Good teaching is, of course, not the same as prestige.  This would be as true at Harvard (where "teaching" vast numbers of students via video screens was occurring back in the mid-1970s when the Radical visited as a college senior) as it is at Middlesex Community College.  This is a related, but separate, point from Laurie Essig's excellent re-comment that the teaching is fabulous at a SLAC but "that's not why we get more applicants per available spot than a private party in Paris Hilton's hotel room. It's because the insecure haute bourgeoisie wishes to transmit capital to their progeny. If only they gave a crap about whether or not the likes of us instill critical thinking in the next generation... then radical democracy really could flourish here." 

          Right on.  But it is also the case that we at SLACs are fighting to hang on to something for all of our students that few faculties at public schools, with their diminished budgets, can provide for virtually any of their students:  small classes taught by full time faculty actively engaged in research and with low teaching loads (3-2 or lower.)  That people come to us for other reasons doesn't diminish that commitment, in my view.

          Many public universities are actually private universities that are still partially supported by the state.  If you took away their substantial endowments, federal grants, corporate grants and partnerships, they would be shells.  The privatization of the public university began decades ago and has accelerated dramatically in the past five years.  This only becomes more graphic when we see news conferences in which two public officials, President Obama and Jill Biden, announced a major community college initiative entirely funded by the private sector, as they did in October.

          Public universities and colleges, at this rate, will either become charter schools or they will become the dustbins of education where under-funded, under-resourced students fight grimly for course credits as they are steered towards the credentials that will fit them for employment by public education's corporate sponsors.  Here, I found Anonymous 7:09's analogy  ("private liberal arts colleges are only a step away from segregationist academies. They are 'better' for students, of course, but they are better because of those they leave out. The segregationist academies left out people of color, and the expensive private liberal arts colleges leave out the poor, regular people who don't want to take on college student debt") historically inaccurate and downright offensive.  Don't try this comment in real life, OK? 

          There is, however, a kernel of a thought in this weird comment here that dovetails with Essig's.   By limiting access to schools with "good" reputations as a society, we are engaging in the social reproduction of class by collapsing attendance at a given school with the value of the person hirself.  In this sense, the aspiration to matriculate at a name school regardless of the financial or psychic cost doesn't commodify the actual education.  It commodifies the achievement of merely having been admitted to said institution, assuming that the student can maintain the minimum level of brain activity necessary to graduate from any college, elite or not.  We don't need to trash so-called elite schools to improve education for everyone:  we need many more elite schools, we need to make them more accessible to more people, we need their faculties to be full-time professionals and we need them to be publicly funded.  To achieve this, we need a mass social movement that doesn't disparage elite education, but that is specifically centered on providing it to all Americans regardless of the ability to pay -- which is, ironically, what an elite school can often provide to the poor.

          Wednesday, December 01, 2010

          The Undine Spragg Theory Of Higher Education; Or, Why Teaching Matters

          Whither the Republic
          Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education Laurie Essig (sociology, Middlebury College) asks:  "Why Would Anyone Go To An Elite College?"  Essig is responding to a recent "Room for Debate" forum at the New York Times which asks a tellingly different question:  "Does It Matter Where You Go To College?"

          Essig's answer to the question posed by the Times seems to be:  that depends.  You might or might not become rich by going to an elite college, for example, and plenty of people get rich without going to elite colleges. So since we can't depend on getting our financial investment back with lots o' interest, why do we go to elite colleges? To be better than other people, that's why.  Following Pierre Bourdieu, Essig notes that those who attend elite colleges acquire social capital, something that can't be "measured in bank accounts alone....Maybe once we have a more complex understanding of power," Essig concludes, "we can actually ask ourselves the far more important question: Is the transmission of high levels of various capital at elite institutions at its core anti-democratic? But if we naively assume that the college we attended doesn’t matter, we can never begin to understand why so many of us want to go to an elite college, despite the lack of direct correlation with future earnings."

          Essig is articulating what I would call the Undine Spragg Theory of Education.  Spragg, you might recall, is the heroine of  Edith Wharton's 1913 novel The Custom of the Country.  She is very beautiful, has a boatload of money from a relative who had patented a permanent wave process, a good credit rating and a father who speculates in securities of the doubtful variety. Having found the town of Apex (a burg located somewhere in H.L. Mencken country) suddenly too small for her ambitions, Undine persuades her parents to strike out for the elite East Coast. New York is Undine's finishing school and the launching pad for her future as the queen of high society, but we find her at the beginning of the novel stuck in a boarding house with her hick parents, Abner and Leota, unable to ascend the social ladder for her lack of polish, originality and character. In other words, Undine has yet to have acquired social capital, which she must earn.  Simple tasks like writing a thank you note on the correct piece of paper stymie her, and she is prone to attacks of nerves when her poor mother does things like refer to a "parterre" as an "opera box"  in front of the help.  As Wharton explains:

          Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses.

          Undine Spragg was lacking, you see, in social capital, and it's something you can't just purchase or imitate.  Don't tell me or Bourdieu it wouldn't have helped her to do four years at Smith and major in English lit.

          This brings me to what I find odd, in the Essig piece and in six out of the seven pieces in the Times that Essig is responding to: there is absolutely no mention of teaching (David Breneman of the University of Virginia is the only person to even mention that faculty have a role in the undergraduate experience.)  This would make them not unlike nearly everyone who writes about education nowadays.  Somehow in our conversations about college we talk about admissions, we talk about cost, we talk about knowledge as a product to be doled out in one way or another, we talk about status, but rarely do we talk about colleges that students aspire to attend because the quality of teaching is often very high.  In fact, the assumption that you can get the same quality of instruction pretty much anywhere seems to be the rule in all these articles about getting a good value for your undergraduate tuition.

          So despite the fact that I am uncomfortable with how much it costs to attend Zenith, and that I think the quality of education available at Zenith could and would be available everywhere if our federal and state governments really gave a cr*p about higher education and invested in it, let me say why you or your kid might want to attend an elite college.
          • Small classes.  Because teaching is a social relationship, anywhere your kid goes where it is possible to be in small classes for at least half of the credit hours leading to the B.A. is a better college than the one where they can "guarantee" you that no class will be larger than 40 or 50.  What do I mean by small?  Fifteen or fewer.  I visited one college with Big Nephew where 80% of the classes are capped at 12.  How is this possible?  Such colleges are rich.  Really rich.  And really expensive.
          • Full time faculty who actually talk to students and have time to learn something about who they are so they can teach them better.  Highway flying adjuncts may be just as smart and just as capable as their full-time counterparts, but guess what they don't have?  Time.  Guess what else they often don't have?  Offices.  Office hours held in a local coffee bar, if they are held at all, is really not what they are being paid for, much less taking the time to advise an independent study or an honors thesis.  But full-time faculty cost money, good full time faculty cost more money, and good full-time faculty need to be teaching fewer than 75 students a term to really have time for anyone's kid. 
          • Having enough faculty to keep not just required, but intellectually important, courses in the curriculum.  Bonus points for schools that support faculty research in all fields.  Why?  Not because research is a posh activity to brag about at cocktail parties, but because faculty who are doing research are not teaching your kid what they learned in graduate school two decades ago or more.  Knowledge changes, people:  unless members of the faculty have the time, inclination  and support to keep learning throughout their careers, they are not teaching well.
          • Being in class with other smart, ambitious kids and a teacher who knows how to help them all work together.  The nice folks who invented No Child Left Behind don't get this (although Laurie Essig surely does, since she teaches at a college like mine) but students don't tilt their heads and stick a funnel in one ear at the beginning of class so the teacher can pour stuff into their heads from jars marked "history" and "literature."  A really good class is a lot like a really good orchestra:  the students come, having already done work, and under the teacher's guidance (which is greater or lesser, depending on if it is a lecture class or a seminar) everybody talks.   They ask each other questions.  They argue.  They think Big Thoughts.  They get lost sometimes, and they have to find their way back.
           Now, if you are Undine Spragg, of course, none of this makes any sense:  education is just something you buy -- like permanent waves, or writing paper, and of course you would buy it from the most fashionable emporium.  This is Laurie Essig's point. But I am a little surprised that somehow, as the economic gap between the best and the rest widens, and tuitions of all kinds become harder to pay, those who comment on higher ed have suddenly decided that the answer to the problem is for everyone to stop being such a snob and stop seeking out good schools.  Instead of figuring out how to fund higher education, how to maintain the great colleges that already exist in a way that is affordable to a wide range of people, and how to reconvert colleges that have turned into mass distribution degree emporiums into functioning schools staffed by full-time faculty,  a consensus opinion seems to be developing that knowledge can be acquired any-old-how by any student who has a little gumption. And instead of asking why faculty at elite colleges actually have the time and the energy to teach creatively and innovatively, we ask whether it wouldn't be more cost effective to run most schools on adjunct labor.

          When you imagine that any education, at any school, as though it is a product that can be ordered over the internet and delivered by UPS, guess what?  You shouldn't be surprised when you get a UPS education and UPS people, whether they are rich or not rich. So let's ask the question again:  why should you go to an elite college?

          Because someone might actually be able to take the time to teach you there.