Sunday, January 30, 2011

If A Student Essay Falls In The Woods And No One Is There To Read It, Does Anyone Care?

They're B-A-A-A-a-a-ck!
A while back, I assigned two papers in one of my classes.  In the first, I gave a straightforward "assignment" that asked students to think more deeply about the reading they had done up to that point and use what they had learned to analyze a primary document.  In the scale of things, this is a standard history assignment. I gave the class three documents to choose from, and awaited the papers.  When I began to read them, one thought came to mind:


Now, let me emphasize:  they weren't bad papers.  Many of them were A-worthy; only a few received grades thought ought to have been worrisome to the recipients.  And yet, as I paged thorugh them, I dreaded grading them.  Why?  They were dull.

Subsequently, I did a little informal research among the students, and most of them admitted that they, had been uninspired and uncertain about the point of the paper.  Several things were at work, as it turned out.  Many students, especially those who were new to college, had become anxious because there was no "prompt."  It's took me years to figure out what they are talking about when they used this word, because I never assign a paper without some guidance or question, a significant difference from the practice of my own college and high school teachers.  I know this will seem strange, but back in the Stone Age, at Oligarch, professors would say that a paper was due, and you would have to figure out what to write about all by your lonesome.  We never expected to be told what to write about.  In retrospect, some people thrived and others suffered under this system.  I had one friend who, because s/he never did the reading, and was usually stoned in class, never knew what to write about either.  This made the whole semester quite a challenge, but it made picking a paper topic an impenetrable mystery.  If we were in the same class, I would eventually sort of drop a lifeline of sorts a few days before the paper was due:  "I was gonna write about this, but I decided to write about that instead."  Then we would chat about this for a while, and s/he would get by.  Not excel, but get by.

So anyway, I discovered this fall that the "prompt" is yet another product of a testing culture that strives to make all students nicely mediocre thinkers before they get to college.  When a high school teacher gives a "prompt" it means that students are supposed to answer a highly direct question, for which there is a right answer, that will demonstrate their mastery of what they have been taught.  Needless to say, not being directed towards a formulaic answer can cause the kind of anxiety that undoes our finest students, because the last thing someone educated in a testing culture should do is think critically or get creative.  What the anxiety produced in this case was a set of papers that were, to a greater or lesser degree, workman-like, safe, and all used the same f*#@king document.

Whose fault was this?  My fault, that's who.  I had given a highly conventional assignment that signaled to the students (correctly) that they were being tested (without being honest about saying so), and so the vast majority of them stayed in the right-hand lane and drove slightly under the speed limit (metaphorically speaking.)  Furthermore, I had failed for years to attend to this whole business of what students were talking about when they referred to a "prompt":  hence I had given one assignment, and they had essentially received a different one than I intended.  So the next time around, lest I should be tempted to drive a pencil into my ear while grading, I gave them complete and utter freedom.  I asked them to choose their own document and to choose it based on something they were passionate about now.  I asked them to compare their own enthusiasm for this topic to the enthusiasm expressed in the document, and to use the document to understand better how their own passion was rooted in a history of other people who cared about this thing too.  When students asked me if it was OK to write about something they didn't really care about, I said no.  Then I took the time to talk with them about what they did care about, and urged them to write about it.

This second set of papers was more or less spectacular.  They were interesting; they varied over a wide range of topics; they were far better written; and many of the papers themselves were preceded by interesting meetings in office hours during which students let me know something that helped me teach them better.

This experience prompted me to think (again) about how we actually assist in producing student work that we do not want to read through ordinary acts of pedagogy that we take for granted, and how it might be possible to change that.  Here are a few thoughts and questions as we move into the semester together:

How do you return papers?  Do you hand them out at the end of class or do you put them in a box outside your office door, where many of them sit, dolefully, for days, weeks or months?  I am very much against the latter practice, which many people I respect adhere to, for several reasons.  I think handing a paper to a student signals a two-way exchange. It is personal, and in a large class it helps me learn their names and how the people sitting in front of me actually think.  I think putting them out in the hall, on the floor, unintentionally signals:  "I am done with this.  It is trash."

I also think there is a serious problem with leaving student papers out where anyone can get to them:  it makes every student's grade available to every other student, which is a violation of privacy.  I also think that for a group of people that is always searching for new ways to police cheating, we are more or less clueless about the fact that many of those papers will be, shall we say, recycled, for other classes or other sections of the same class, in other years.

Do you write comments on the paper?  Or just grade it? Do you make yourself available to discuss students' work with them after you hand the papers back?   I can't tell you how many of my advisees show up in my office hours with a paper in their hand that has no comments on it at all, just a grade, students who also can't get the professor to met with them.  Rarely do they express anger or resentment at the grade:  they want to do better and they don't know how.

Do you write lots and lots of marginal notes on the paper, spending hours correcting everything and re-diagramming their sentences?  The truth is, although you are trying to be the opposite of the teacher I describe above, this freaks students out.  Although you have spent maybe an hour on this, feeling like you are a really caring teacher, the student may see them as a blur, as grammatical correction collides with interpretive questions, typos, basic misunderstanding of the text and long-winded attempts not to utilize the first person or appear "biased."  If a paper is really muddled, it is a waste of your time to do this:  far better to sit down with the student, ask a couple questions about what s/he intended, and describe how s/he might have gone about writing such a paper.

One common grumble I hear from faculty is:  "I bet I spent more time grading it than s/he spent writing it!"  While that probably isn't technically so, it may well be so that the paper was written at the last minute, and that the student had not done the work necessary to write the paper of which s/he might be capable.  How much better would it be to find this out in the course of a conversation?  Better yet, to take the opportunity to underline in person that a better effort over the long term would produce better written work.  A fair number of students think they "want to work on [their] writing," as if writing were disconnected from the other work in the course.

Do you actually care what they think -- and do your paper assignments encourage them to tell you?  If writing papers is just about testing whether students have completed and understand the intellectual content of the course, why not just give quizzes instead?  We have come to fetishize college writing, organizing all activities around the idea that this is the litmus test of good teaching, when in fact it isn't always necessary to write an essay to demonstrate competence.  This study, forwarded to me by a colleague, argues that testing-taking, in and of itself, "actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques."

Good paper assignments, in my view, ask students to  make an intellectual choice of some kind and commit to them.  But not all knowledge acquisition is about committing to intellectual choices:  a great deal of important work in a course is about basic mastery of a field of study that will given them a platform for creativity and/or critical analysis.  

Do you talk to students about your own writing, and testify to the ongoing vulnerability of putting your own writing out there to be criticized by others? One of the most effective things I ever did in a class was to hand out a couple pages of an article that had just been returned full of possible edits.  There were probably about twenty per page.  I then pointed out to the class that what they were reading was probably in its seventh or eight draft, had been commented on by three people already, and was still perceived by a peer as worthy of drastic improvement.  I did it on impulse, but you should have seen the shocked looks on their faces, and heard the many questions this provoked about how I learned to write, how I would respond to these criticisms, and well, how did this make me feel?  Numerous student evaluations pointed to this discussion as having made a huge impression.

Do you ask students to rewrite? OK, so it's not always possible to go through a stack of papers twice, but it is well known that the way anyone becomes a better writer is by redrafting, and rethinking, what s/he has already done.  Here's an effective trick:  have them bring papers to class.  Have them exchange papers with another student.  Give everyone ten minutes to mark up the paper s/he now has for typos, spelling errors and other grammatical errors and give it back to the writer.  Give everyone ten minutes to talk, but this time have each person tell the other person what s/he did or did not like about the paper s/he wrote and get advice on how to strengthen good parts and fix the less good parts.

Then tell them the paper is actually due in the next class and send them home to take another crack at it.

 Any other ideas out there?  Leave them in the comments section!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Guest Posting: Katrina Gulliver, "In Olden Days, A Glimpse of Blogging"

A French blogger, circa 1900. 
Katrina Gulliver is a historian based at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Her current research focuses on urban identity in colonial cities. You can see her website here, or follow her on twitter @katrinagulliver.

I have been blogging in various venues for over ten years. Aside from some early experiments, it has been under my own name. In that time, the history blog world has changed plenty.

The chorus used to be: "Not if you're on the market!", "Be careful if you're untenured."Some departments are toxic, and people are right to be afraid of some things. But to fear having a life online is merely to perpetuate the paranoia. Academics seem more paranoid than others about being unveiled online, and yet seem compelled to create such forms, tempting fate that they are discovered. Perhaps the solo lifestyle of academic research (particularly in the humanities) lends itself to this outcome. The panel on blogging at the 2006 AHA meeting featured audience members who were willing to stand up and be counted as bloggers, but unwilling to name their sites. Since then, the prospect of being "outed" has over the years led some to shutter their blogs, and others to self-reveal (as Tenured Radical herself did.)

Now, in this post-Facebook age, attitudes to online privacy have changed rapidly. The idea that googling job candidates is unethical or nosy (yes, people thought this) is fading away. Among blog authors there is a greater willingness to own their online identity, and see blogging as a useful adjunct to their professional, public lives (rather than a private hobby or potentially embarrassing secret). As Jennifer Ho has suggested, the blog process may not be a distraction or detraction from academic work, but assist with the drafting process. By the same token, a blog is not a private space you have a right to feel invaded if it is found by your boss, a hiring committee, or anyone else.

Therefore, Rachel Leow's notion of blogs featuring half-formed thoughts “whipping round in surprise” is disingenuous. A blog is not a personal notebook. It is a form that exists for the purpose of broadcasting one’s thoughts (fully-formed or otherwise) to an audience. It's now fifteen years since Jennifer Ringley first showed us how a woman could perform "herself" online, for a blog author to frame this (desired) audience as voyeurs invading a private space is like a stripper on stage, coyly saying “oh, silly me, I’ve dropped my clothes”. And it's a particularly disempowered imagery for a feminist blog.

Blogging has increased the profile of women historians, and helped create networks internationally. Sharon Howard was a pioneer in blogging for history, and building not just a personal blog but a web portal for resources on Early Modern history. As she has progressed through her academic career, she has offered advice to grad students, links to job ads - the kinds of career mentorship that more recently Tenured Radical and Historiann have also offered. This aspect has been an under-examined element of academic blogging: in a field in which women are a minority, and aspiring academics may lack senior female mentors, these women sharing their wisdom online has been crucial to the development of the history blog community.

Few bloggers have provided such a comprehensive service to the field as Sharon, who also initiated the History Carnival - a monthly compendium of the best history blogging. But these kinds of things are also in a transitional phase. With the immediacy of twitter, the relevance of a monthly showcase is perhaps diminishing, although the Carnival model does offer a wonderful archive (and historians LOVE archives!). And she did it all under her own name.

I don't think online pseudonymity is inherently wrong or cowardly - it can serve a purpose, of which I have availed myself occasionally. Ann Little has discussed in the latest Common-Place some of the strengths and heritage of pseudonymous presentation. But the pseudonymity of the internet allowing for gender imposture is not one much explored (for all of Marilee Lindemann's dogvoice blog). Are these bloggers really female, and does it really matter? On some level it does. Voice appropriation is not mentioned in the framing of pseudonymity as a shield, by presumably honest brokers of the blog world. For every online Silence Dogood or Currer Bell, there will be a Forrest Carter, Binjamin Wilkomirski, or Helen Demidenko. The persistence of pseudonymity in some cases seems more like an egotistical pose: much like someone who is in no danger hiring a bodyguard. And it only serves to perpetuate the (irrational) fears in academia about the dangers of the newfangled interwebs.

I perform a persona on my blog too, although it is "me", my blog identity is obviously unidimensional. I only write about my work, or history topics. Twitter however is a different beast. In its stream of collective consciousness form (which I find intoxicating), I drop comments about a variety of aspects of my life, or my thoughts on current events. Is the persona I perform there "me"? In some way - although I think I present a sunnier disposition online than I do in the flesh. Since joining Twitter, I have met many more historians, the vast majority using their real names. I have found conference contributors, editorial board members for a new journal, and made real friends through my online roles. Because I have lived in several countries during my academic career, I have found the online realm an invaluable network.

Yes, operating under my own name perhaps puts the brakes on some of the things I might say, but it also means I am operating without a net, without the retreat path of deleting a pseudonymous blog, with plausible deniability. Partly because I came away bruised from early rough and tumble in the electronic sandpit, I am pretty conflict-avoidant. I just don't have the patience or stamina to be fighting with internet idiots. I weakly confess I leave that to stronger broads like Sady Doyle. But I am proud to add my voice to feminist issues online, and to participate in debates that would not be taking place if it were not for the internet.

Kevin Levin wrote about the importance of having an online identity, asking Can you afford not to use social media? and for academics the answer is increasingly no.  His description of building an audience has been my experience too. I know that people have become aware of my work through my blog, I've received emails and tweets about my research, which would not have happened had I not been open about my real id.

Nothing exemplifies the value of social media to a historian more than the case of Lucy Inglis, who created Georgian London. An independent scholar and consultant, she went from starting a blog to being offered a book contract in under a year - having been found by agents and editors on twitter. Lucy conveys a breezy style (which is true of her in person) - and her blog would not have found such an audience if she were not also drawing readers on twitter. Perhaps because she is freed from ivory tower politics (or job anxieties) she is able to interlink the personal and professional on her twitter feed, and give people more of an insight to the life of someone engaged in historical research than any "academic" historian I know. That she was engaged as a "blogger in residence" by the Museum of London, the perfect outreach position for someone with such a desire to share history with the public.

The democratic levelling of blogs is something we should reach out towards, rather than shy away from. As Tony Grafton described the challenges faced by history as a discipline, being able to explain ourselves to the public should be a key focus. And as someone who works on transnational as well as gender issues, I am keen to discuss themes and ideas from historians working all over the world. Any historian who works on society should welcome a readership outside academe, and for feminist historians: I am woman, read my blog.

Want to be a guest poster at Tenured Radical?  Write with a suggestion to tenuredDOTradicalATgmailDOTcom.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On The Idea That Merit Is Actually A System: An Intervention On Behalf Of Affirmative Action

These remarks were delivered on Saturday, January 22, at the Third Social Justice Leadership Conference, organized by students at Zenith University.  I appeared on a panel about affirmative action policies and academic admissions with colleagues Alex DuPuy (sociology); J. Kehaulani Kauanui (American Studies and Anthropology); and Sonja Manjon, Vice President for Diversity and Strategic Partnerships.  The panel began with remarks by Theodore M. Shaw, Columbia School of Law and formerly head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  The conference followed a keynote by Geoffry Canada, of the Harlem Children's Zone, given the previous evening.
On left, a self-identified "victim of a hate crime."  Credit.

The analysis that follows was shaped by what I observed in the fall of 2009 during a conflict provoked by some of our students over Zenith’s affirmative action policies; it was also shaped by the impressive response of other students to that provocation. As I watched these discussions unfold,  I wondered:  Which students were put in the position of justifying themselves as merit-bearing subjects entitled to an excellent education? Which students assumed that their merits were obvious, and that their presence at Zenith was not subject to debate?

As a result of these thoughts, I want to examine a word, as it relates to the role affirmative action plays in education. That word is merit, a thing we are told is part of something called "the merit system."  Merit is a word I particularly dislike. Every time I hear it, I am quite sure that something dishonest is going on that needs to be attended to.

The thoughts and analysis that follow are grounded in the following experiences and beliefs:

  • Reflections on my life’s journey as a white woman, a beneficiary of affirmative action and a person whose accomplishments have grown over time in a way that does not always correlate with the assumptions of others about my merit;
  •  A grounding in queer studies that causes me to question all systems – like the merit system -- that codify and normalize us;
  •  My familiarity with critical race studies and feminist theories of intersectionality articulated by scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw, Derrick Bell and Lisa Lowe. Such work, I argue, helps us to understand a long American history in which “merit” is attached to some bodies and not to others. For example, Asians ineligible for citizenship were de facto outside systems of merit to which only members of the national body politic were entitled.  Enslaved people in the nineteenth century United States were not judged by whites to possess merit, honor or wisdom – any of the qualities that might have qualified them as having “rights a white man must respect.” (Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857), a stigma that attaches itself to African descended people in the United States to this day.
     I am not the only person who thinks merit is a funky concept. In 1996, Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier wrote, in response to escalating attacks on affirmative action from the right, and the failure of liberals to defend these policies with sufficient vigor:

    The present system measures merit through scores on paper-and-pencil tests. But this measure is fundamentally unfair. In the educational setting, it restricts opportunities for many poor and working-class Americans of all colors and genders who could otherwise obtain a better education. In the employment setting, it restricts access based on inadequate predictors of job performance. In short, it is neither fair nor functional in its distribution of opportunities for admission to higher education, entry-level hiring, and job promotion.  

    They go on to explain that most attacks on affirmative action equate merit with test scores and, in the case of admission to institutions of higher education, grade point averages, class rank and other numerical indicators of academic achievement. Fairness, in this discussion, requires assessing whether “treating everybody the same” is truly fair.1

    Sturm and Guinier articulate a familiar, and solidly liberal, critique of our current testing culture, one that has been influential in the admissions process at a place like Zenith since the 1970s.  They go on to suggest alternative forms of assessment that might make the system fairer, correcting the “uneven playing field” that Geoffrey Canada spoke about last night.   By doing so, assessment would rely less on the prior acquisition of what Pierre Bourdieu would call “cultural capital,” a standard that inhibits access for working class students, many of whom are of color and/or new immigrants, from exhibiting their talents or displaying the accomplishments that middle class and wealthy students have more opportunity and support in acquiring.  In other words, affirmative action continues to work because the values being affirmed have been adjusted to measure excellence more accurately across the lines of racial, gender and class difference.

    Geoffrey Canada has a related critique, but a different solution. He objects to the power of merit systems because so many children are excluded from acquiring merit through no fault of their own. Mr. Canada -- whose masculinist metaphors, overwhelming concern for boys and explicit blaming of women unsettled me as I tried to attend to his remarks -- but believes in the essential correctness of conventional merit systems. They represent, he argues, the "high standards" to which all children should be held. His solution is to direct the same basic resources to all children, regardless of their economic circumstances,resources which do not come from the state but from private philanthropy and the business sector. This strategy “levels the playing field” and allows us to then have the same high expectations of all children. Children then succeed or fail on their own merits.

    Canada's view of democratic inclusion might be characterized as a neoliberal compromise, and not a transformative solution. More generally, the private non-profits that work to ready a few children for higher education rely on the following premises:

    ·      That because our resources are limited, we need to direct them to children, who still have time to acquire merit;
    ·      That the multiple generations of adults related to these children are too damaged, have become part of the problem and do not merit saving;
    ·      That it is possible to create a more inclusive middle and upper class through projects that select some children for cultivation and then make them visible to elite institutions like Wesleyan;
    ·      That some children, sometimes the siblings and neighbors of those children who have been selected, cultivated and made visible to elite institutions, are left behind because they have no civil right to access private resources;
    ·      That the state has proven itself incapable of the task of assisting the poor, and people of color in particular, and that state transformation is undesirable or impossible.

    And yet, when it bypasses the state and adopts a corporate framework for competitive excellence, community action raises some red flags. There is a reason why the rest of us don't rely on Bill Gates, Facebook and the Soros Foundation to guarantee our civil rights:  projects sponsored by the private sector are not required to be democratic in the larger sense that the Constitution might guarantee.  Projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which do a tremendous amount of good, nevertheless work within a very conservative value system.  This value system recognizes that merit translates into privilege, that it must be earned, and that in the end, the circle of privilege is a closed one.  Thus, in this model "progress" requires only widening the circle of merit -- not critiquing our idea of what constitutes merit in the first place, or understanding why certain bodies -- women, of color, queer -- have such a difficult time being perceived as meritorious even when they do meet the highest standards. 

    Both the liberal and the neoliberal approach, however, by focusing on what constitutes merit and how one acquires it, are vulnerable from the left, a critique which I would like to outline below:
    • That it is fundamentally unjust to withhold access to an excellent educational institution by creating hierarchies of merit.
    • That affirmative action was, at its inception, a liberal compromise that allowed us to revise the racial order without talking honestly about racism; to revise the gender order without fundamentally disturbing patrairachy; and to not discuss homophobia at all.
    • That radical experiments like open-admissions at New York’s City College in the 1960s were responded to by a liberal state, not by an effort to prepare and invest in all students in the Five Boroughs to receive an excellent education, but by creating barriers of cost.  This began a process of economic exclusion from higher education that has accelerated dramatically in the last two decades;
    • that the blackening and browning of all public schools has loosened the commitment of policymakers to financing education, and strengthened the influence of private schools over educational policy.
    Finally, I would like to say that I don’t think it really matters what happens to the admissions policy at private colleges like Zenith, although it is important to the future of the institution itself to continue to grapple with its contradictions.  But what happens to affirmative action as a national policy, and one that has a huge impact on access to public institutions of higher education, is terribly important.  However flawed it is, in a society that is not in any way post-racial, it is necessary.  Given the unequal distribution of educational resources along the lines of race and class -- not merit -- a distribution that becomes more unequal as public dollars devoted to education shrink, support for affirmative action measures that recognize the effects of inequality are imperative.
    1. Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier, “The Future of Affirmative Action: Reclaiming An Innovative Ideal,” California Law Review (July, 1996).

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    It Gets Worse: Queer People "Volunteer" To Help To Ease The Tax Burden For Straight Families

    Remember in my last post when I said it doesn't always get better?  A little bird down the street at Yale --erp, I mean, Oligarch University twigged me last week to a payroll error, because of which 61 employees will see a paycheck reduction of 33% or more for January and the subsequent two months.  Right before winter break, LGBT employees who had taken advantage of Connecticut's new freedom to gay marry received a letter telling them of a payroll error:  the university had ceased withholding taxes on the benefits received for domestic partners who had become spouses under state law -- but not federal law.  The upshot, for those of you who suffer temporary black out when taxes are mentioned, gay married people get to pay two years of taxes in one.

    Homos are just more patriotic, that's all.  Photo Credit.
    In many ways, this falls under the category of discriminatory behavior that allows universities to perform budget trimming immoral acts because they are perfectly legal, while insisting that it is not they who discriminate.  For those of you not familiar with what those of us who pay it call "the gay tax," homofolk whose marriages are not recognized under federal law pay federal taxes on benefits that are untaxable for  heterofolk, resulting in thousands of dollars of penalties that gay people pay.  According to Tara Bernard at the New York Times (January 11 2011):

    A programming error failed to withhold income for taxes owed on the value of domestic partner health coverage....the value of those benefits are taxable (for nondependent partners) by the federal government. But in states like Connecticut, same-sex married couples are treated the same as opposite-sex married couples, and those benefits are not taxable on their state income tax returns.

    “Unfortunately, the payroll system inadvertently treated those benefits as nontaxable for Connecticut and federal purposes for the entire calendar year of 2010,” said a letter, dated Dec. 22, from Yale’s payroll department to employees with same-sex partners who were affected by the error. To correct the error, the university went on to say, it would pay the tax and deduct the amount it paid from employees’ paychecks — in equal amounts over the first three months of 2011.

    The university, which has extended health insurance to its same-sex employees’ domestic partners since 1994, typically withholds those taxes from employees’ paychecks over the course of the year. But due to the programming error, employees will be responsible for paying the taxes for both years in 2011.

    Oligarch has offered "a more flexible repayment schedule" in the event that losing a third or more of a person's salary causes them any hardship. Gosh, do ya think? But honestly, you know what causes a hardship?  Being paid less for doing the same job than straight people are.  As Bernard pointed out last December, a provision of the federal health care bill that would have eliminated this tax on health benefits was dropped from the final legislation.  A very small number of employers (Google, Cisco and the Gates Foundation) reimburse employees for the cost of this discriminatory tax, a practice called "grossing up." Very few institutions of higher ed follow this practice (Syracuse is one -- commenters are invited to name names), and it is particularly shameful that one as well-endowed as Oligarch does not.

    The university has received public criticism from the Human Rights Campaign; you can go here to sign a petition to tell Yale how stupid they are on this issue.  But while you are at it, if you are an academic, tell your own university about the anti-gay discrimination that helps them pay for essentials like football, keeping the cost of Alumni/ae weekends low, Presidential salaries in the millions and giving iPods to every entering freshman.  Check out the schools you graduated from, and let them know how you feel about a practice that writes discrimination into the law and violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Hey, I've got an idea, Yale Law profs:  how about filing a big, fat civil rights suit on behalf of your colleagues?

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    Battle Hymn Of The Queer Tiger Aunt: Or, How Amy Chua Made Me Think About Feminism

    The official logo of the Queer Tiger Aunt. Photo credit.
    When I decided that instead of reading about Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother I would read the book instead, I did so for two reasons.  One was because I had become interested in the Orientalist tropes that she launched in her publicity piece, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" (Wall Street Journal, January 8 2011) and that white women then expanded upon here and other places.

    The other reason was that I had some Audible credits to use, and was beginning my daily commute again.

    Am I glad I did!  Here are some things I thought about by actually reading (listening to) the book, rather than basing my judgments of it on a few salacious quotes (or Janet Maslin's review, which has numerous factual errors in it):
    • What it means to be the bridge between the immigrant generation and a generation which grows up in privilege and security;
    • That someone in the world is thinking about what makes girls confident and strong, rather than viewing female success as a symptom of a society that hates boys;
    • That someone other than me thinks that giving young people hundreds of prizes for small accomplishments does little for them except cause them to expect prizes at every turn;
    • That one of feminism's central insight in the 1960s -- mothering is a job -- is also one of the great unresolved issues on the feminist agenda.  The institutional and social desire to pretend that motherhood isn't a job may be the single most critical issue to address if we are also to address women's equality as workers and citizens in this country.
     I can also now answer question The Los Angeles Times asked today: "What's Behind Our Obsessive Amy Chua Disorder?"  The answer, I think, is that mothering is more or less a cursed profession that is analogous to being a professional homosexual, which is what I do when I am not being a tenured college professor.  As with mothers, people always feel like they must have -- nay, have a right to have -- opinions about homosexuals, regardless of how silly or unwelcome those opinions are.  The less people know about real homosexuals, the more they feel like they have to have an opinion about us.  Of course homosexuals -- like Mommies -- also have opinions about themselves that have more holes in them than Swiss cheese.  Take the "It Gets Better Project," which is run by real homosexuals, and has a lot of terrific videos by homosexuals, transpeople, and some heterosexuals.  It's purpose is to cheer up young people who are at risk from harming themselves out of despair over their sexuality.  While the videos themselves are quite nuanced and interesting, the message the media is running with is that if you are a gay kid, things will get better when you grow up and are free from your parents and high school bullies.  This is a lie.  Actually, the outcomes of growing up are quite variable.  Sometimes things get better, but sometimes they don't.  Sometimes things get worse.  Being gay might become only one of your problems, since people suffer from things like poverty, illness and disability that have nothing to do with being gay.  Or sometimes they continue to suffer because they are gay!  

    Similarly, from reading Chua and reading about her, I have discovered that there is really a struggle over what constitutes good motherhood which is not likely to make any difference to anyone.  I'm not involved in the Mommy Wars:  in fact, as I am not a Mommy, I have only heard rumors of them, not experienced them first hand.  As I understand it, they revolve around:
    • Men who insist on mansplainin' about what constitutes good mothering;
    • Women lecturing other women about what constitutes good mothering;
    • Women's ambivalence about the act of mothering, expressed as hostility towards other mothers;
    • Why and when we decided that men ought to be heaped with praise for any or all acts that are similar to mothering.
    I speak to all of this as an outsider, not being a mother but rather someone who has put a tremendous amount of effort into being an eccentric but caring Queer Tiger Aunt.  I sometimes succeed at aunt-hood and sometimes fail, but one of the good things about being an aunt is that there are no rules on how to do it.  No one criticizes you for being a bad aunt.  The job isn't in demand.  Have you ever heard someone say:  "The clock is ticking:  I won't feel like a real woman if I don't become -- an aunt?"

    To say I am a queer aunt is obvious on several levels.  As an aunt, one occupies a role from which critiques of what stands for normal parenting can be acted upon in a complementary and/or subversive way.  Hence, to be a truly productive and energetic aunt is to be queer in relation to some child or children regardless of whether you are a homosexual or not.  It beats being a mother with a stick, if you ask me.  It's not a job, as mothering is:  it's a vocation.  Assuming the mantle of Queer Tiger Aunt has an additional advantage.  Unlike a mother, an aunt can disappear for moderate periods of time to write an article, take a dramatic trip, go on a bender, or whatever, and the kids say:  "Wow, I want to be like her!"  Because you don't own them, you don't have to worry about abandoning the children because: the Goddess gave them parents.

    A final note:  it seems obvious to me from observing the Chua controversy that there is no such thing as a good mother, just a lot of women claiming to be better mothers than each other based on some floating standard. That is something feminism also needs to deal with.

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Old Racism, New Clothes: Middle Class Child Abuse Is Not An Asian Thing

    White women can be good mothers too, Amy!
    It isn't news that Yale Law prof Amy Chua has written a book about what she calls her "Tiger Mother" philosophy of parenting.  Most of us would never have known about it if her publicist had not arranged to have an op-ed placed in  the Wall Street Journal called "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."  It went viral, at least on academic Facebooks, almost immediately.  Re-packaging the model minority thesis as a tough love philosophy, rather than the genetic predisposition to excellence that ignoramuses talked about for years, it raises a fascinating set of questions about the social construction of race as it intersects with ideologies of parenting.  It has also, according to ABC News, caused Chua to receive death threats from readers who were outraged at parenting techniques that include yelling at her children, forcing them to practice the violin for hours until they get it right (withholding bathroom privileges as an incentive), referring to them as "garbage" when they disappoint her, never accepting less than an A in anything, and not permitting a range of indulgences that might expose her daughters to the wrong influences, make them fat, or cause them to take their eyes off the prize.

    I don't find the Chua book particularly shocking, I guess, because terrible things happen to middle-class children that no one talks about.  I'm not talking about sexual abuse, but the forms of narcissism that are not as outwardly abusive as Chua's techniques but can be damaging int eh long term all the same. I'm talking about kids who are forced to apply to fifteen different colleges, when in fact you can only attend one in the end; kids who are raised by alcoholics who can keep life pinned together enough so that no one calls the cops; kids who are forced to conform to gender standards that are unnatural to them because the make everyone else so uncomfortable; kids that are hit in secret; kids that are constantly put on diets; and kids who are academically unremarkable but are pushed to excel in conventional ways when they might be happier devoting themselves to sports, art, dance, cooking or hedge fund management.

    And I'm just getting going.

    However, the part that really fascinates me is that Chua's desire for rote forms of perfection are being derided in a society that is, in fact, devoted to increasingly unimaginative ideas about what counts as intellectual life.  My generation and the several that have followed have mostly gutted anything that counts for progressive education.  As if that was not enough, we have even taken what used to be fairly standard and unremarkable forms of critical pedagogy and gutted those in favor of a national standardized testing agenda.  Languages, classics, art and music have been stripped from secondary curricula.  Students no longer read for fun; they read to satisfy the AP requirement.  We talk, talk, talk about excellence -- but we can't say what it means, beyond winning admission to a "selective" school.  Although Chua isn't a person I would choose to be my mother (is there a world where you get to choose your mother?) what she describes actually reflects our current winner-take-all philosophy of what education should look like at its best.

    What I am also intrigued by is this idea:  if Chua were black or Latina, would what she is doing count as racial uplift?  We don't know, because in the binaries that usually define racialist discourse, mothers who aren't "Chinese" or "Western" aren't part of the discussion.   In fact, it is only when compared with an entirely fictional standard of "white" parenting, in which standards are maintained by silently encouraging children to make the "right" choices, that Chua comes off as cruel.  Author Ayelet Waldman has responded to Chua in the WSJ with an article entitled "In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom," in which she 'fesses up to having allowed her children to drop their music lessons because she was too embarrassed when they were outperformed by children who really practiced.  (Take that one  to the couch, kids!) But Waldman is no pushover.  When one report card came home with defects,

    I pointed at the remaining two grades, neither a solid A. Though there was not the "screaming, hair-tearing explosion" that Ms. Chua informs us would have greeted the daughter of a Chinese mother, I expressed my disappointment quite clearly. And though the word "garbage" was not uttered, either in the Hokkien dialect or in Yiddish, it was only because I feared my husband's opprobrium that I refrained from telling my daughter, when she collapsed in tears, that she was acting like an idiot.

    The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose—between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones—is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected. I was ashamed at my reaction.

    OK, Ayelet.  You are not ambivalent:  you are passive-aggressive.

    Subsequently, describing a dyslexic daughter's struggle to read, she describes a daily, self-imposed regimen in which the child's "face would be red with tears, her eyes hollow and exhausted.

    Every day we asked her if she wanted to quit. We begged her to quit. Neither her father nor I could stand the sight of her misery, her despair, the pain, psychic and physical, she seemed far too young to bear. But every day she refused. Every morning she rose stoically from her bed, collected her stuffies and snacks and the other talismans that she needed to make it through the hours, and trudged off, her little shoulders bent under a weight I longed to lift. Rosie has an incantation she murmurs when she's scared, when she's stuck at the top of a high jungle gym or about to present a current events report to her class. "Overcome your fears," she whispers to herself. I don't know where she learned it. Maybe from one of those television shows I shouldn't let her watch.

    At the end of a grim and brutal month, Rosie learned to read. Not because we forced her to drill and practice and repeat, not because we dragged her kicking and screaming, or denied her food, or kept her from the using the bathroom, but because she forced herself. She climbed the mountain alone, motivated not by fear or shame of dishonoring her parents but by her passionate desire to read.

    In my view, Chua wins the battle here, not because she is the better mother, but because she is honest.  What is shocking to me is that we seem to have nothing more interesting to say about educating children at this stage of history than either of these women, or their critics, are able to articulate.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Department of Snark: Or; Who Put A Tack On Gordon Wood's Chair?

    Where did people get illustrations before the interwebs?
    Historiann famously stepped in all kind of horse pucky by calling out one very dead white man as a tool.  She comments on this episode in our fabulous Journal of Women’s History roundtable (winter 2010/11), hot off the presses from its new home at SUNY-Buffalo. Read it, and you'll understand that it's been done by a pro and even if a person were willing to put up with the flak, it would only be imitation from here on out.

    But on a related note:  did you know a group of very senior and live white men in a prominent East Coast history department referred to themselves informally, until quite recently, as “the Barons?”  Presumably this is how they distinguished themselves from women and more recent arrivals in the department.  One can’t help but believe that one of these good old boys could have been Gordon Wood, who recently heaved up a toxic review of Jill Lepore’s  The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).  Others have commented on it here and here.  Go here for the Facebook page (!) devoted to discussing this peculiar and unattractive essay.

    In “No Thanks for the Memories” (New York Review of Books, January 13), Wood signals a thumbs down on Lepore’s attempt to juxtapose what she calls the “fundamentalist “ historical vision of the Tea Party movement – in other words, activists' belief that the Founding Fathers offer us an unchanging and eternal set of guidelines for political life – with what seems to me the unquestionable fact that the Founding Fathers were very different people from us and could not have known who we would be.  Better yet, these elite white gents disagreed profoundly with each other, changed their views on key issues, were ambivalent about the totems of modern right-wing movements (religion, for example), and were downright clueless about what it would mean to enfranchise an electorate across lines of race, class and gender.  They argued among themselves and made unhappy bargains when producing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  They believed that the Revolution marked a period of change rather than the production of unwavering truths to which Americans ought to adhere until the end of time.

    Wood opens his critique with the pronouncement: “America’s Founding Fathers have a social significance for the American public,” as if this were not actually the topic of Lepore’s book, or as though such a thought was a general and incontrovertible fact about all "Americans." Lecturing Lepore this way is a bit like saying to a religion scholar, "You know, God is no piker."  However, my guess is that everybody in Amerika is not absorbed with the founding fathers, and from reading this book I think Jill Lepore might agree with me.   (I don’t just believe this because I'm a gay woman either, Big Guy.) Furthermore, the point of Lepore's book, as I understand it, is that history is a highly public project whether we scholars like it or not.  It cannot be confined to the archival work, truth seeking and critical methods that we historians see as fundamental to our craft, and we have some responsibility to grapple with and shape those larger belief systems.  As the public latches on to history as a way of discussing their political concerns, they develop fetish objects.  For the Tea Party activists in particular, the Founding Fathers operate as fetish objects, as well as intellectual touchstones for a set of political beliefs that are at least as presentist as they are located in any coherent eighteenth century intellectual world.

    What is particularly puzzling is Wood’s contempt for a highly acclaimed scholar whose main crime seems to be that she writes for a broader educated public. This causes him to radically misrepresent and belittle the book, rather than engage in civilized disagreement with it.  Perhaps the most offensive charge he launches is that Lepore’s main mission in this book is to mock Tea Party adherents’ senseless need for timeless truths. ”It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need,” he writes; “and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, as a staff writer for the New Yorker is an expert at mockery.” Other than being puzzled about what is so sacred about this "special need" that, if it turned up in his Brown University classroom or any other academic setting, might be considered risible by Wood himself, what I am truly confused about is whether Wood actually read Lepore's book. Referring to the accounts of the revolutionary past interleaved with Tea Party renditions of that past as “scatter shot” he maintains that Lepore “makes fun of the Tea Party people who are trying to use the history of the Revolution to promote their political cause. …The fact that many ordinary Americans continue to want to ask about the Founders evokes no sympathy or understanding from Lepore.”

    In my view, the book is well structured, well argued, fun to read, highly teachable and very respectful of the Tea Party activists Lepore encountered as she thought through these issues.  I can't imagine why Wood finds the book “confusing,” and  a “meandering meditation on history with bits of information on topics, sometimes relevant, sometimes not.” He writes, “Throughout her book Lepore’s implicit question remains always: Don’t these Tea Party People realize how silly they are? They don’t understand history: they need to learn that time moves forward.”

    At times Wood himself is incoherent, so deeply does he dislike The Whites of Their Eyes.  Lashing out at Lepore for criticizing originalism as “bad history,” he concedes that although originalism is actually bad history, it is simultaneously good law.  We know this, not because Wood feels he has to explain this odd contradiction, but “because it has engaged some of the best minds in the country’s law schools over the past three decades or so” and the Federalist society was founded to promote it.

    How it is that incorrect history can provide the foundation for good law in a Constitutional system based on precedent boggles me, but it is also not to the point: originalism is, in fact, a highly historical theory of the law.  It suggests that the passage of time does not alter basic truths of the human condition that was fully conceptualized in the past.  To say it is not historical would be like saying the Bible is not historical.  Why do I think Wood's point about the "best minds"is also flimsy, as well as contradictory?  Here are three movements that have been based on what seemed to be universal truth, engaged excellent minds and yet failed to produce anything but injustice:  Stalinism, South African apartheid, and the Iraq war. 

    Wood ends on a note of unbelievable condescension and sexism by suggesting how Jill Lepore could be a better historian: take a course from the venerable Bernard Bailyn! If only she understood the interactions between history and memory as Bailyn has, and had solicited “advice” from him, Lepore would be a better scholar. “She might have been able to display some of her scientific credentials as a historian,” Wood concludes, “and written a less partisan and more dispassionate account of the Tea Party movement to help us understand what it means.”

    It’s rare that I have read such a rude review that so nakedly displays the fault lines and the rivalries in a field, not to mention the condescension some men feel free to display towards women that they would not dream of displaying towards a man. But here’s the worst thing about this review, from my perspective: it is a gross misrepresentation of what Lepore has done, and offers no evidence from the text to support these nasty charges. Here are a few quotes for you from the book that suggest these charges of Woods are entirely invented:
    • “This book is an argument against historical fundamentalism. It makes that argument by measuring the distance between past and present.” (19)  Here we have a statement of argument and method that actually does map the rest of the volume.
    • Reporting on a conversation with two Tea Party activists in a Boston bar, Lepore describes one as “quite” and the other as “frustrated” and “dismayed by the passage of national health care, but “courteous and equable” as he described his desire to put a democratic process into motion to overturn it. (90-91) In fact, I would defy Wood to point to any section of this book where Lepore mocks her informants, either openly or by implication.
    • Rather than describing Tea Party activists as racist, as many do, Lepore instead describes the lengths that many go to marginalize demonstrators who are deploying racism and racist symbols, particularly in relationship to President Obama. In the analysis that produces the title, she sees the Tea Party love affair with a set of mythical Founding Fathers as a utopian desire for an Edenic democracy without racism, sexism or any kind of special interest. “The Founding Fathers were the whites of their eyes, a fantasy of an America before race, without race.” (95) Inevitably, Lepore must put this in contrast with what even Gordon Wood surely knows: that although deeply divided over slavery, the FF’s allowed it to survive; and that female citizenship was not just an oversight, it was unimaginable.
    “”What would the founders do?’” is, Lepore argues from the point of view of historical analysis, "an ill considered and unanswerable question, and pointless, too.” (124) Although Lepore doesn’t bring it up, the female characters that she weaves through the book speak to Wood, but he can’t hear them. There is a reason why Tea Party folks don’t sit around asking what Abigail Adams thought about this point of law or finance, Lepore implies, or what Phillis Wheatley might have argued Bakke. It isn’t because they don’t care: it’s because women and black people didn’t matter politically in the eighteenth century, and that is kind of a problem in a day and age when ideas about citizenship have to draw on the complex and contradictory pasts that make up American history.

    I didn’t finish this book loving it, as I have loved some of Lepore’s other books. But it’s a good book, I liked it, and it is one that helps us think about how we will weave the Tea Party movement into our classes, as inevitably we must.  The Whites of Their Eyes could give students an energizing introduction to the relevance of the past to our political present. For the rest of us, it could help ease our minds about the Tea Party: compared to Gordon Wood, they seem like truly lovely people.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    If I Could Stick My Pen In My Heart/And Spill It All Over the Stage: Teaching Evaluations

    If I could win ya, if I could sing ya
    A love song so divine
    Would it be enough for your cheating heart
    If I broke down and cried? If I cried?

    "It's Only Rock n' Roll (But I Like It)," Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1974

    In the past week or so, as many of us have been putting together classes for the new semester, teaching evaluations have arrived.  I suspect they arrive electronically at most places now, as that is substantially cheaper for the institution. At Zenith we switched over from a paper system, where students filled them out together in one of the final classes, to an online one in which they fill them out alone and receive access to their grade for the course only after having done so. Like everyone else, students are bowling alone.

    But I like it, like it, yes I do.  Photo credit.
    I have thought for years that fall teaching evaluations, received as the promise of the new spring semester dawned, can have a particularly discouraging effect on new teachers.  One curious phenomenon is that practically everybody I know can get 99% great to good teaching evaluations, and the one nasty evaluation can have a particularly devastating effect.  Regardless of how incoherent it is, or how wrong, an anonymous student cutting you off at the knees about a course that you poured yourself into can feel like a stab in the back.

    Because, of course, it is.  It was intended to be.  Or, at least, it's hard to imagine the student furrowing hir brow and thinking, "So how can I say how much I loathe you in a constructive and empathetic way?"

    So without further ado, let's talk about how to read teaching evaluations, being hurt by comments, and what your own assessment of the student evaluations you receive has to do with being a good teacher.

    Remember that they are students.  While students can have good insights into why a class worked or didn't work, insights that need to be listened to, they are not master teachers, nor has anyone ever taught them how to evaluate a classroom experience.  Because of this, they will say things that are upsetting to you without actually meaning to do so.  They will say, "This is the worst class I have every taken." They will say, "This class reminded me of high school." They will say a number of negative things, and frame it condescendingly by saying, "I know s/he is young and inexperienced, and I am sure s/he will improve."  They will describe you as an adjunct -- when you are in the third year of your tenure clock. They will comment on your appearance (increasingly, I see this showing up in student evaluations of men as well as women):  you are "eye candy;" "not hard to look at;" or "hot."  This feels even more degrading when paired with negative comments like:  "Discussion sessions were really a drag, but fortunately s/he's easy on the eyes."

    Comments like this have led to an increasing number of young professors asserting that they are being "sexually harassed" by their students, which I must say, I think is beside the point.  The point is:  the student has so offended and embarrassed you (because you know this will be read by dozens of other people at your next evaluation) that whatever else the student has said that might be useful is lost to you.  At this juncture you must not:
    • obsess about which student it was;
    • obsess about the possible effects on your tenure case of being perceived as a cougar in training;
    • dismiss the rest of the evaluation, and any others with negative comments, as entirely informed by sexism, racism, homophobia or any other form of prejudice.  Even though your view that they are inflected with prejudice is probably accurate, it doesn't mean that there may not be something you need to pay attention to.  Similarly, students who get bad grades are not entirely wrong about whether they were taught well or taught poorly, even though they may misrecognize their own role in a poor classroom experience.
    Instead, consider this:
    • Create a grid for yourself, in which you begin to classify comments about what worked and what didn't work that allows you to separate useful from useless comments, and put all the evaluations in a much broader context.
    • See if there are criticisms that repeat, and imagine whether you can re-think some of your methods without giving up aspects of your teaching that you believe in.
    • See if there are substantive compliments that repeat, and give yourself credit for what you have done well.
    • Remind yourself that students do bring prejudices into the classroom that they are not entirely aware of, that they say and write thoughtless things to each other, that Internet culture has aggravated this, and that it is part of our job as adults to socialize them.
    Remember that your colleagues know a lot about how to read teaching evaluations.  While students are an important source of raw data, they are experts at consuming a classroom experience -- not experts in pedagogy itself.  Your colleagues are.  Go to them.

    Untenured people tend not to want to do this because they are convinced that letting people who will evaluate them know that they have not been 100% successful will be damaging to their reputations.  And yet, this fear can leave an inexperienced person in the frantic position of trying to fix something that might not be broken; or of re-inventing the wheel when a more experienced colleague could easily demonstrate how to address the problem.  Said person might also offer reassurance, a cold beer, and be favorably impressed with your desire to improve your teaching.

    It's also worth saying:  you can't exactly hide your teaching evaluations.  People will read them eventually.  Although teaching evaluations do have something to do with whether you will eventually succeed at being a college professor (i.e., get tenure and be permitted to remain in the profession), the relationship is not a direct one, and your senior colleagues can help you shape yourself as a teacher.  Whether student comments please you or do not please you, it is wise to ask someone to help you interpret your first few batches of evaluations so that you can get a sense of what they mean where you are.

    For example, when I began my teaching career, I taught two classes at an urban SLAC and two at a public commuter college.  I tended to begin each class by linking the day's topic to a political event that had happened that day and sparking a 5-10 minute exchange about it with the students.  When I received the SLAC evaluations, it was clear that this went over quite well, and that students thought it made the whole course more "relevant" to their interests.  In the public college setting, it didn't:  I received numerous comments in which students characterized me as lazy, wasting time, and unfocused.

    Why?  The answer, I think, was quite easy, once I got over being hurt and embarrassed.  
    • What I was doing was good teaching at a residential institution where students hoped and expected to build relationships with professors that would last over a period of years.  They were very political, and had come to this college to have a "relevant" education.  My strategy made them feel valued and respected, and it did help them connect to the material.
    • What I was doing was bad teaching at a college where students were fully embedded in the world:  they usually had families, carried a full course load at night, and worked full-time jobs during the day.  They were sacrificing a lot for their educations and expected every minute to count.  They had come from high schools where teachers felt free to give them standardized tests about material they had never been taught.  Worse, since this was the late 1980s, when adjunctification was becoming the norm in public education, they had reasons to be suspicious of those of us who trooped in and out on our way to somewhere else.
    Sharing your evaluations can help you learn a lot about teaching, and can help you acquire some empathy for why students might characterize you in ways that seem wrong.  This empathy can help you teach them better:  one outcome of talking through the evaluations I describe above was also to understand that, although they had evaluated me positively, I might have also made certain assumptions about my SLAC students that needed to be corrected.  More importantly, going public with your evals also have the effect of dispelling paranoia and shame, something we are easily prone to in situations where privacy can cause criticisms to fester without activating their potential to make us better teachers. 

    Sunday, January 09, 2011

    American Historical Association Meeting 2011: End Of Conference Notes

    I'm so glad we had this time together.....
    This morning I woke up to a dusting of snow.  I was in a friend's house in Cambridge, and I toodled out for my regular breakfast at Darwin's.  At 7:15, it was just me and the old geezers (you know who I mean:  the men whose friendships have been organized for decades around meeting each other for breakfast and the New York Times on Sunday morning.)

    I passed the time prior to leaving for South Station reading an article in The New Yorker about a boomlet in the debt collection industry in Buffalo.  Debt collection may, in fact, be the city's remaining major industry.  It reminded me that while things in higher education are not good right now, they are a whole lot better than they are, say, in construction or heavy industry.

    However, this does not make the cutting of funds to the arts and humanities tolerable or right, and we must start to fight back more effectively.  Out at the Other Conference, Inside Higher Ed reports, Teresa Mangum of the University of Iowa brought this up at what sounded like a great panel.   How do we think about the defense of our work in the current environment, one that is effectively articulating us as obsolete by shrinking the number of people who can make a living at it and, as a consequence, reducing what is actually available to maturing citizens?

    Mangum said that humanities faculty members may also need to rethink how they talk about the crises of funding not only in higher education but in society. “I don’t want to blame the victim, but again and again I see faculty members in the humanities speak on campus and in public in ways that belittle the larger public and sometimes the sciences and other disciplines," she said.

    Mangum said she understood that these comments are made "in frustration" over cut after cut and a feeling of not being understood or appreciated. But she said that the attitude is problematic. Right now in Iowa, she said, there are families "lining up at food banks."

    “I don’t want to debate the meaning of class relations in a novel without knowing that the food bank in my community is running out of food," Mangum said. "We need to register more powerfully what our role is in this larger culture, what our values are as people teaching in the humanities." The knowledge and perspective gained from the humanities, she said, "can be the place where we learn compassion."

    I particularly like what is implied here, which is that compassion is the glue that binds communities together and moves them forward. While it doesn't preclude such things as ambition and competition, which can be productive for the individual and the collective, compassion would counter what I think is the most destructive dynamic in the current environment, blame.  The need to find fault rather than seek structural solutions that actually contribute to to solving problems seems to dominate our discussions about the academy.  Why shouldn't graduate students blame tenured faculty for the obstacles to realizing their ambitions, when the real cause -- pouring money into tax breaks for the wealthy, deregulating financial industry, and pouring our national treasure into unwinnable and illegal wars -- are so impossible to cure?

    The only answer to that question, from my perspective, is that it doesn't change anything.  This is why, probably of all the things I did at the annual meeting this year, meeting with the LGBTQ Historians Task Force Open Forum was perhaps the most engaging.  A group formed to address issues in the organization that combusted last year at the San Diego meeting, it reminded me that the current several generations of out queer scholars, ranging from Jonathan Ned Katz who has been integral to launching to numerous young people who are just entering the job market, are inveterate organizers.  Many of us who are now tenured scholars, like myself, Marc Stein, and Jim Green came out of organizing backgrounds; most of us are running something.

    The Task Force (not to be confused with the NGLTF, which now calls itself The Task Force) has done a ton of work, which I won't reveal on this blog, since it isn't ready for prime time.  Stein and Leisa Meyer did an outstanding job of running the meeting, with Susan Stryker contributing via Skype (Susan's voice was piped through the ceiling, which meant that as she spoke, we all gazed reverently upwards, lending a moment of camp to an otherwise orderly proceeding.)

    I can't tell you how refreshing it was to be in a well-functioning, multi-generational, consultative and well-led group.  Thank you.

    One other comment to close (this is for you, incoming prez Tony Grafton, from whom we in the blogosphere expect Great Things)*:  now that the MLA  and AHA are meeting at the same time, would it not be a good idea to have some of these brainstorming sessions from each conference teleconferenced in to the other convention?  I would have loved to have seen that MLA session.  And while this Task Force meeting would not have been the right one, I can imagine sessions in the future where MLA queers might want to brainstorm with us about common professional issues and strategies for moving our intellectual work and teaching forward in this unfriendly educational environment.

    *Go to Historiann for liberal quotation from and commentary on Grafton's opening presidential salvo in this debate.

    Saturday, January 08, 2011

    Embedded At The American Historical Association

    History flash mob at Au Bon Pain, 8:45 AM
    Dateline Boston. Perhaps the most frequently asked question I heard yesterday at Day Two of the American Historical Association Meeting was "What am I doing here?" I don't know what the attendance figures are, but despite the lousy job market and reduced conference budgets, the Hynes Convention center and the bars at the three conference hotels are jammed.

    What is peculiar here is that in order to get from place to place a historian has to navigate miles of passageways filled with upscale shops. Yes, history fans: we can honestly say that this is the first time in the Radical's memory that an AHA has been held in a shopping mall. It isn't quite as disorienting as the year the OAH was held in a casino but it is right up there.

    One theory as to why they have held the meeting in a mall is the incessant sartorial comparisons with MLA. My suggestion for next year? Make personal shoppers available to guide historians to appropriate stores.

    The good news is that everything is on sale. The bad news is that because it is a hermetically sealed environment, everything is overheated and dry: moisturizer, chapstick and a water bottle are items as essential to scholars this weekend as they are to the beachcomber. Aside from the inconvenience of not being able to roll from the bar to an elevator and from there to bed, this is a good year not to be staying in the conference hotel. During a fire alarm a few minutes ago, when convention staff insisted that the book exhibit be evacuated into the all, I chatted with one person who claimed not to have gone outside at all in the last 48 hours, which is entirely possible to do without intending it.

    Wednesday, January 05, 2011

    It's Safe To Go Back To the Annual Meeting; A Radical Guide To Days 1 and 2 of The 2011 AHA

    I just want to say:  gays were not involved in logo design or color choice.
    Last year there was quite a hullabaloo about the American Historical Annual Meeting out in San Diego. Doug Manchester, who owns the hotel the AHA chose, had given gobs of money to Prop 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative.  He also got a lot of that money by running a union-free work place.  It was what you would call a lose-lose choice for the AHA, and resulted in a lot of people flying out there to picket, and a lot of other people having to give their papers by sneaking in and out hidden in laundry trucks.  (No, not Really!  That was a joke!)  This year there are no worries: you can come into the hotel without worrying that you will have to cross a queer picket line, or worse, that the hotel bar is off limits to Good People.  We historians are meeting in the People's Republic of Boston, a city that is unionized up the yin-yang and where everyone is free to gay marry.  Go here to find out how to gay marry while you are in town; or slip over the Connecticut border and do it there!

    But maybe you have never been to an Annual Meeting, you are a graduate student, and you aren't sure what to do after you gay marry.  Sure, you can run around to cool panels with famous people on them, and you should definitely go to your friends' papers and show up at your own panel.  But what else?  Read on:  I can't link everything worthwhile on this great program, but here are a few that caught my eye in the first 48 hours.

    Thursday there are some great teaching workshops going on all day. You don't have to be very far along in your grad school career to attend one or more of these since they could keep the first few years of your teaching career from being a confusing hell.  Try How to Create An Undergraduate Course and How To Become An Effective Lecturer on for size, as well as Wise Use of the Methods Course in the afternoon.  Hint:  for those of you with conference interviews, attending these workshops is a bonus, since it might give you some ideas that would allow you to take the teaching part of your interview in a direction that is new and unexpected.  Imagine a conversation that begins with you saying, "Yesterday I heard Derek Musgrove talking about an interesting technique that I would like to try out.  For the survey, I think I would tweak it a little (blah, blah, blah.")

    Thursday afternoon?  How about, instead of reading on this blog that, hypothetically, it would be great if historians were trained for careers other than teaching, find out what those careers already look like at Careers in History:  The Variety Of The Profession.

    Friday at 9:00 A.M. the Book Exhibit opens.  This is a critical venue for meeting, greeting, and being introduced to others.  Remember the Radical Rules of the Road when in mixed company:
    • Greet your graduate mentors but do not cling to them.  In fact it is best, when you see them, to look as though you have somewhere very important to be.  Practice saying into the mirror:  "Gosh, it's really great to run into you -- I'm off to the Chapel Hill booth to meet up with a friend/an editor/someone on my panel.  Have a great meeting!"  Only break this rule if they happen to be with someone very important in your field, in which case, keep a keen eye out for an introduction.  Count slowly to five in your head:  if the introduction is not forthcoming, skate out of there.
    • Leave any and everyone before they leave you.  If you see someone's eyes drifting over your shoulder, even slightly, say warmly:  "I've really got to run -- so nice to have had a chance to say hello," then skate.
    • If there is someone you know, but are unsure whether to greet or not, casually pick up a book and leaf through it.  If said person greets you, look very surprised and say: "OmygodIcan'tbelieveIdidn't see you!"
    • If someone important calls you by the wrong name, let them.  If they do it twice, correct them.  If they keep doing it, forget it. There is one historian, who will remain nameless, who has greeted me for twenty five years as if I were Isabel V. Hull of Cornell, and I no longer correct her. 
    • If you run into someone you just did a hotel room interview with, you don't have to act like you are employed by an escort service and pretend you have never met them.  Smile and nod; if you are close enough to speak say hello and say you had a good time in the interview.  Even if you didn't.  
    • Have one sentence to say about your dissertation if a senior scholar asks.  One.  "I'm writing about the transgender community in Havana after the Cuban Revolution," for example. Most people are just asking to be polite, although in the rare instance that the person really is interested in it, be conversational -- do not launch into your interview speech.
    • Never, never, never ask a senior scholar what s/he is working on unless you are dinner partners.  Your just-to-be-polite question is:  "Are you having a good meeting?"
    • Check compulsively, but discreetly, to make sure your fly is not open. 
    At 9:30 Friday, there is a workshop on interviewing.  I cannot stress enough how important this workshop is, particularly for those of you who are not yet on the job market.  Interviewing is not just about saying, doing and wearing the right things, although it is that.  It is about reading your audience and responding to the questions that are actually asked while delivering the information you want your interviewers to have.  Much of the workshop consists of mock interviews held in a large ballroom that is not unlike the gang interviewing room in the basement where you might, one day, actually be interviewed.  The people who pose as interviewers are kind and helpful, and will honestly critique your performance.

    In the same time slot is Getting A Job At A Community College, which is unfortunate.  But if you have been on the market for several years, if you realize that teaching is your bag, if you are part of an academic couple -- why not find out?  And learn a little more about the kind of institution where the majority of students start their college career?

    Other Friday events that look promising are the International History publishing roundtable, which has an all-star cast, including Susan Ferber of Oxford University Press; Social Science Research Council info session; Revisiting the Teaching of Religious History

    And of course, if you want to meet Tenured Radical go here.  Women historians and feminists of all genders will want to attend the Coordinating Council for Women in History reception.