Saturday, February 26, 2011

To Reform Tenure, Consider Breaking Confidentiality: A Novel Approach

Following our discovery that Brown University is proposing to extend the tenure clock for probationary faculty to eight years, we learn that the University of Michigan is considering a similar move.  The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) is, according to the Michigan Daily,  considering extending the maximum probationary period.  Currently it is eight years, and SACUA is proposing an optional ten year clock.  Additional items on the table included weighting the decision more heavily towards faculty evaluations of the candidate.

In a proposal that appears, on the face of it, to be driven by concerns in the sciences and at the medical school, Professor of Statistics Ed Rothman told the Daily that:

this is only a short-term solution to a larger, long-term problem — ill-defined standards for obtaining tenure. Rothman said externally generated standards, like publishing requirements for faculty members, diminish quality of work. He said tenure should be determined by internally generated standards like peer reviews of faculty members’ performances.

“Long-term, I think what we need to do is come up with a standard that we have control over,” Rothman said.

He added that since faculty members have no control over fluctuations in the economy, tenure shouldn’t be determined by economically-driven factors such as obtaining research grants or publishing materials.

One similarity with Brown's approach to tenure reform seems to be recognizing the effect of the economy on the traditional markers that signal professional achievement.  Racking up numbers -- grants, books and articles -- are virtually the only indication untenured faculty have that they are making material progress towards a positive tenure vote.  We urge them to think this way, in part because publishing demonstrates a broader recognition that this person's work is significant to others outside our own little world.

One problem with this, however, is that numbers only provide the frame for a decision, whereas probationary faculty tend to think it is the whole ball of wax. In tenure decisions, no one talks about numbers for more than a second or two.  It is what people think of the quality of the work that is crucial.  Very often other things matter too:  did this person write a prize-winning book, but do so at the expense of showing up for class irregularly and unprepared?  Ideally, a tenure decision not only grants a guaranteed seat at the scholarly table for past achievement, but also recognizes that there will be future promise that justifies that person's employment over three decades or so.  In other words, in any field, tenure is an opportunity, not a reward.  It grants access to important and increasingly scarce resources:  a positive tenure vote is a vote of confidence that this person is going to use this opportunity well over the course of a career.

In this sense, an extended clock recognizes that not all people can demonstrate their promise adequately in the same time frame, and that life circumstances can intervene to prevent that. In this sense, the Michigan and Brown reforms should be applauded.  But I wonder if giving departmental faculty more power over tenure is, in the absence of other reforms, a truly benign development.  Depending on the dynamic of the individual department, it does not necessarily mean that those with the best knowledge in the candidates field of study will actually have the most influence over the decision.  In fact, it is not unknown for faculty who are hostile to particular fields and specialties within the department, or who associate certain methods and subject matters with political positions to which they are hostile, will acquire more influence than they have already without any guarantee that the decision will be more fair.

What seems to me to be a a genuinely useful direction for tenure reform -- one that would make these other reforms more meaningful -- would be to dismantle the sacred cow of confidentiality.  It is an ancient belief that secrecy in these procedures makes honest evaluations more likely, but we know that this is not true.  Mean people write mean letters about good people; generous people write "do no harm" letters about mediocre scholarship that allows a department to tenure for its own reasons and not have to overcome a bad letter in the process.  Myself, I never write a tenure letter that expresses criticisms in a tone I could not imagine the candidate reading, and I never say anything in a meeting that I don't imagine the candidate hearing.  Indeed, even in the case of a positive decision, leaks in the meeting develop almost immediately, metastasizing into gossip about who voted in which way and why.

So, why are tenure procedures confidential?  To protect the university from legal action, that's why.  A secondary concern is that the faculty making the decision would prefer to have some control over their own images, prefer not to be known for taking negative stances on a case even if they believe they have voted correctly, and are fully capable of re-crafting their own positions following a negative decision to distance themselves from the damage.  Doing someone dirty in a confidential atmosphere, even if what you are saying is true and supported by evidence, permits faculty to control the process in a way that may do structural damage to the community in the long run.

Therefore, in my view, any real tenure reform has to address the problem of high-stakes evaluations that are done in private.  Secrecy actually permits institutional inequality to thrive, because no one ever "sees" it; alternatively, it allows a larger, skeptical public to believe that a negative tenure decision might be an outcome of prejudice when in fact it has resulted from an honest evaluation of the case.  Breaking confidentiality not only forces people to explain why they believe what they believe, it also creates a far more textured picture than probationary faculty currently have of why some people are tenured and some people are not.All of these things are bad for faculty morale over the long term, and they are bad for how a larger public views the tenure system. 
  • Making all materials in a tenure case available to the candidate. 
  • Allowing the candidate to respond to questions about hir scholarship that have arisen in the letters and in the departmental discussion.
  • Making minority and majority opinions on each case available in some kind of public document.
  • Allowing all departmental faculty who have voted in the case to identify themselves to the candidate and explain why they voted the way they did.
Breaking confidentiality would have a generative role in positive tenure cases too, since positive decisions are sometimes weighted down with the baggage of negative votes that have been successfully overcome.  These negative votes not infrequently arise from critiques that, although they were not sustained by the majority decision, should not be allowed to disappear either.  Candidates inevitably hear rumors about them, but are justified in not taking them seriously because they are conveyed (often inaccurately) by their "friends" and have been articulated by "enemies." Flaws in scholarship that are not fatal at the level of the monograph might have serious ramifications down the road if they are not addressed, while originality and risk-taking that has been deliberately muted in pre-tenure scholarship so as not to offend could be usefully cultivated in the post-tenure years.

Will there be a "Wikitenure" scandal down the road?  My guess is yes.  But let's think about the possibility of breaking confidentiality in a more positive light.  What could openness in tenure decisions, that made them more like evaluations done in non-scholarly fields, do to improve the process?  How could it educate young scholars better to what we expect of them, and how they will be asked to function as senior members of the faculty?  How might those who perceive personnel cases as part of an ongoing, factional struggle within departments be marginalized in favor of those who want to see departments grow in a healthy way? Could that intervene in decades-long grudge matches that create a toxicity for the newly tenured to manage?

And might it make probationary faculty feel, even when they are disappointed in a decision, that they had an opportunity to be heard in the process of deciding their own futures?

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Brief Exchange From My Dream Life Where I Address Some Confusion On The Political Right

Rush Limbaugh (hysterically):  "The decision not to defend Roe v. Wade by a corrupt attorney general is another instance of a criminal administration!  What if Obama decided to stop defending Roe v. Wade?  How would the liberals like that?"

Tenured Radical (with unnerving calm):  "Supreme Court decisions and litigation are two entirely different things, Fat Stuff.  Under the constitution, the President and the Department of Justice don't defend Supreme Court decisions, only laws that are defensible under the Constitution. No one  outside the Court, except radio personalities and issue-based non-profits, actually 'defends' Supreme Court decisions, and those defenses are either purely rhetorical or based in fund-raising appeals and organizing.  Instead, precedents are upheld, or not upheld by the court in response to new litigation, based on dissents and concurrences articulated and written by members of the Court.  You f&#king nitwit."

Hat tip.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Every Little Queer Vote Matters: Reflections On The Demise Of DOMA

"Oh my G-d, he's marrying another man!"
Now that Rahm Emanuel has gone off to work his magic on Chicago, it seems that everyone in the Obama White House has gone a little light in the loafers, as my Dad used to say.  Clinton-era palliatives to the right wing that beat back the gays, while Republicans reorganized to elect a president who would send our money and our jobs abroad, are dropping like flies. First the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell received a timetable for withdrawal, and yesterday Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act because it is unconstitutional.

In both cases, the Obama administration is holding out an olive branch to liberals who have been in an impatient "show me" mood.  But looked at another way, one of the things we know about conservatives is that they are increasingly less persuaded, as a group, in the moral issues that right-wing strategists use to obscure other fiscal and political agendas.  Abortion is probably the one exception to this, and I can't help but wonder whether the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood -- in many communities the only place where uninsured women of low and middle income brackets have access to birth control, breast cancer screening and gynecological care -- isn't going to come back to bite them in the a$$.

What is interesting to me, looking at a longer historical trajectory, is that Obama's tactics in this regard are quite similar to those used by Jimmy Carter in the first two years of his administration. In 1977, the National Gay Task Force (NGTF)* sent a negotiating team of six men and six women to the White House to negotiate a repeal of an Eisenhower-era ban on gays in government.  The group included luminaries of the left like peace activist and radical lesbian feminist Charlotte Bunch, and was backed by former ACLU Sexual Privacy Project attorney Marilyn Haft, who had gone to work in the Carter administration.

Looking at the archival record, which I have recently for an article that will come out in the Journal of Policy History, you can see two things.  One is that Carter's aides wanted nothing to do with gays, and could have gotten away with that.  Unlike feminists, while GLBT Democrats were organized, they had not yet had a structural impact on the party at the national level.  Carter, however, was persuaded that the moral argument against homosexuality did not preclude a human rights argument on behalf of gays who were excluded from access to many citizenship rights because they were homosexuals.  While the NGTF pressed throughout the administration for the President to take a public stand on gay human rights through an executive order that banned discrimination (legislation originally written by Representatives Ed Koch and Bella Abzug in 1972 is still languishing somewhere on the island of Untouchable Bills), what Carter chose to do was simply stand back and allow the NGTF to persuade Cabinet-level agencies to allow homosexuals to grieve discrimination just like all other citizens were entitled to do.

In this way, a great many barriers to employment fell by eliminating the category of sexual orientation as justification for special discrimination in the federal realm.  This had ramifications beyond government employment, since agencies like the FCC and the Treasury had great power to hear, or not hear, complaints about discrimination that shaped critical areas of American cultural and economic life. That said, the administration did not force agencies to conform to this model, which left the military and the national security apparatus largely untouched. 

Indeed, the similarities between Obama's policies and Carter's are more dramatic the harder you look. Few people not on a GLBT listserve of some kind probably noticed that an out transwoman, Amanda Simpson, was appointed to the Commerce Department in 2010, or that six months later, the State Department lifted the requirement that transpeople have surgery to alter their gender on their passports.  This latter move is incredibly important for the freedom of transfolk to cross borders (and incidentally, to consume airfares and whatnot), but it lifts one form of discrimination while leaving the principle in place that gender identity itself is a border that ought to be complicated and difficult to cross.

Two observations, in closing.  White House statements that Obama's personal views in this matter are separate from his presidential responsibilities demonstrate how far we have not come in the last forty years and how far we have come in the last twenty.  That a president cannot simply come out and say all forms of discrimination, even discrimination against people who disgust you personally, is wrong, demonstrates how the Age of Reagan permanently reshaped political discourse.  And yet, the way that this has happened, much as many mainstream GLBT people would like to be embraced by the President, potentially begins a turn away from neoliberal ideologies that have collapsed the public and private realms since 1988.  A neoliberal himself, Obama has nevertheless re-established some clarity between the realm of personal views and the realm of constitutional, public responsibility has, I  would argue, far broader ramifications for developing the concept of good government than we can perceive around this one issue.  But he is doing so in a way that also sets limits to what can be accomplished, since it stops short of an affirmative statement and affirmative actions that ban all forms of discrimination against GLBT people.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

NGTF became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the mid-1980s, and now often colloquially refers to itself as "The Task Force."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why Do Small Colleges Need Football? And Why This A Radical Question To Ask At Your College

Photo credit.
Last Thursday, Dave Duerson, a four-time Pro Bowl Safety for the Chicago Bears, killed himself.  He was 50 years old, and it seems that Duerson believed that his brain was deteriorating from the effects of multiple concussions.  He chose a particularly painful and risky way to die, shooting himself in the chest, so that an autopsy might be done to determine whether he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). As Alan Schwarz wrote for yesterday's New York Times,

Duerson sent text messages to his family before he shot himself specifically requesting that his brain be examined for damage, two people aware of the messages said. Another person close to Duerson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Duerson had commented to him in recent months that he might have C.T.E., an incurable disease linked to depression, impaired impulse control and cognitive decline. Members of Duerson’s family declined an interview request through a family friend. 

Only Duerson could have known why he believed he had CTE, and the autopsy will show whether this is true or not. But Duerson's life had begin to fall apart in ways that suggest brain changes.  A clearly vigorous and intelligent man who was active in the player's union, starting in 2005 he lost his business, his home, and his seat on the Notre Dame board of trustees. He also separated from his wife.  These latter facts wouldn't have made him any different from many other unfortunate people who have lost traction in the recent economic meltdown, but Duerson clearly believed that something else was at work: perhaps it was because, amidst the avalanche of bad luck and missteps, was an incident of domestic violence.  Most men I have known who do something violent for a living -- police, soldiers, athletes -- pride themselves on their ability to control and direct their violence, and when this line dissolves it can be shattering to their sense of themselves.

What has been less observable in the daily stumblings, memory gaps and failed impulse control experienced by former football players becomes unavoidable when they commit suicide.  Such events are even more troubling when the victims are young. Take Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania lineman who hanged himself last fall.  Thomas was the second member of the Penn team to kill himself in five years and, according to Boston University researchers, traces of the disease have been found in football players as young as 18.

My friend Margaret Soltan over at University Diaries has carried on a determined crusade against the money spent on university athletic programs, as well as the corruption, exploitation and dangerous behavior that are associated with big time university sports programs.  But who is looking out for small college athletes, and the effects of CTE that they are undoubtedly suffering as well?

No one, that's who.  As Michael Felder wrote last June at the sports blog In The Bleachers,

I'm a 25 year old guy with a history of multiple documented concussions at both the high school and collegiate level. To clarify, the concussions they "documented" were mid to high level injuries that left me being spineboarded once, knocked out a few times and unable to stand up or clearly unable to play others.

That does not count the subtle "bell ringings" experienced and played through during kickoff coverage drills, 9 on 7 sessions or any of the other hitting drills. Everyone does that, it isn't a "tough guy" mentality so much as the cost of doing business.

What about the rest of us?.... The walk-ons, back ups and guys who just weren't lucky enough to make it to the NFL. The guys who got hurt but still took that brain beating on a daily basis prior to injury. Guys who played Division-III, JUCO, Division-II or FCS football.

But you think football is untouchable at the level of the Big Ten or the Patriot League?  Try the Division III school where the quality of the game is often poor, no one goes on to the NFL and you can't even pretend that there is significant money at stake.  At Zenith, for example, no one worries about whether alumni/ae donations will dip because of the elimination of Zonker Harris Day, but if you talk about the dangers of football, you would think you had suggested canceling the next capital campaign.  (Note:  former President of Princeton William Bowen and his co-author Sarah Levin argued in 2001 that there was no significant correlation between athletics and levels of annual giving.)

I know two high-level academic administrators at elite D-III schools who, in the midst of the budget slashing that has affected all of us for the last three years, have been told to cut faculty salaries, administrative staff positions, benefits and whole departments -- but not football.  Admissions policies that committed to grants rather than loans have been scaled back, and even wealthy schools are shaking the trees for more full payers.  However, despite growing evidence that it puts young brains at significant risk and its gajillion dollar pricetag, football is off the table when it comes to eliminating programs.  One of these administrators (not at Zenith) received a personal telephone call from the President and was told s/he was never to discuss eliminating football again in a budget meeting.

Left:  normal 61 year old brain. Right: football player, age 42.
Furthermore, try raising the issue about what, exactly, the D-III football player is at college for, and see how quickly you get shut down.  Well over fifteen years ago, when I was a young pup starting out, one of my advisees on the football team tried to take a seminar on Thoreau from one of the college's most gifted teachers.  He was told by an assistant coach (at the time, coaches vetted players' schedules prior to advisors signing off on them) that "he wasn't smart enough" to take the course, and that he had come to Zenith to play football not to take pansy English classes.  When I called the head coach (naively believing that he would want to reign in an out of control assistant) I received numerous threatening calls from administrators around the university, including a licensed psychotherapist, who asked me pseudo-compassionately:  "Why do you hate football?" as though s/he might be able to help me with a problem that was clearly causing me pain.

Has growing evidence that brain trauma may be just as severe at the sub-concussive level affected the desire of D-III colleges to have football teams?  Not a jot, as far as I can tell.  Furthermore, I can't discern that anyone is even talking about it.  Although schools like Hofstra, Northeastern and Swarthmore have eliminated football (Swarthmore's team was legendarily awful), the trend seems to be that college football is growing, particularly on campuses that are concerned about being perceived as too female.  Football teams, like flashy student centers and hot tubs in the dorm, are perceived as a form of entertainment and a spur to school spirit that will, in turn, allow colleges to compete for the students they want.

But who is speaking on behalf of the thousands and thousands of football players, at elite and non-elite schools, who are suffering brain injuries that no one is tracking, kids who graduate and show up in the necrology section of the alumni magazine at an uncommonly early age?  Who is tracking the kids who drop out because they can't think straight, or because they are one of numerous students who get too depressed to function?  One colleague of mine at another D-III school told me about her experience last year with a student who was unable to do his schoolwork because of chronic headaches following a concussion, but had been "cleared" to practice and play the following Saturday.  S/he called the head coach to express concerns about the student's health and was directly told to butt out.  A follow-up call to the dean of faculty elicited the same response.

Yet a focus on specific incidents blurs the picture.  The fact is that we have growing evidence that football causes brain damage, and schools continue to insist that the sport is part of their educational mission.  While concussion is a possible outcome of many competitive experiences, for football it is an every day cost of practicing and playing.  Who is doing the long term studies about brain injury in football players who are competing at a level where the players are smaller, the practices less intense, but the continual bouncing of the brain inside the cranium no less consistent?

Too often, faculty assume that athletics themselves are a waste of resources and are inherently at odds with the intellectual mission of a university.  I disagree emphatically, and I particularly dislike criticisms that single out a particular group of students as undeserving, unaccomplished and unworthy of an excellent college education.  But this doesn't mean we shouldn't look at some sports more closely.  Students who are recruited for football are being brought to college to work for their education at a part-time job that is directly at odds with their ability to profit from their education over the long-term, and perhaps even in the short term.  Although some players probably gain admission to a better school than they might if they didn't have this skill, is it truly a good exchange for them if their brains are being fatally injured in the process? Why can't those young men who put their bodies on the line for an education go to good colleges anyway without risking their mental and intellectual health?

The increasing willingness of the athletes themselves, and their grieving parents, to volunteer for these studies should be a sign that those who claim to be speaking on behalf of football players' interests may be speaking from a self-interested or merely outdated perspective.  At the very least, we on college faculties should press for information and forums that acknowledge the reality of an alternative point of view about the place of this sport in higher education.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Princeton Rub; Or, How Many Tiger Mothers Does It Take To Eradicate Sexism?

Untenured faculty are always wanting to know what that little extra edge is that will get them tenure.  Be a man and ignore your students, that's my advice.  According to the Daily Princetonian, President Shirley Tilghman suggested back in 2003 that if baby Tigers did not focus so much on teaching they would have a better chance of getting tenure.  According to attorney R. William Potter (no relation to the Radical),

In December 2003, Tilghman advised junior faculty not to focus so much on teaching undergraduates; if they want to obtain the holy grail of tenure they should concentrate on scholarly research, she told them, as their “first and foremost” priority. “Their ability to conduct research and demonstrate excellence in scholarship is the most important thing we look at,” she said, although she added that teaching ability is also “considered very seriously.”

I can't find the origins of the Tilghman quote about tenure cited in the article, but if you go here you get to an article that cites Tilghman's position in 1996 that tenure is a sexist institution and ought to be abolished. Now that's what I call interesting.  But like all successful people, she now says that isn't really what she meant.  She was just trying to be provocative, she explained in 2001, recanting this position after she took office as President.

Is tenure a sexist institution at Princeton?  Maybe not, but hiring is. A 2005 study concluded, surprisingly, that a larger percentage of Tiger women than Tiger men are actually awarded tenure. But that said, only 27% of the Princeton faculty is female, so in real numbers many more men are tenured every year than women.  And shockingly, "Once promoted...women are twice as likely as male senior professors to leave the University — 2.8 percent per year versus 1.4 percent. The report gave no explanation for this phenomenon." 

Puzzling, isn't it.  Readers, can you help Princeton?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Deep Cleaning, And Other Cosmic Issues: A Review of "Clutter Busting"

Brooks Palmer, Clutter Busting:  Letting Go of What's Holding You Back (Novato, California:  New World Library, 2009).  219 pp. $13.95, paper.

One of the reasons that self-help books are so successful is that they introduce complex thinking to people who aren't normally exposed to it, or who are made uncomfortable by it.  Conversely, self-help books introduce simple thinking to people who spend most of their time thinking, or at least acting, complexly.  The formula for a successful self-help book, as far as I can tell, is a title that invites the potential reader into the utopian possibility of relieving the stress of the modern condition, and simultaneously becoming modern in a far more successful way.

Take the slow food movement, as it has manifested itself in the United States.  Inspired by former commune resident, and now Chez Panisse chef, Alice Waters, slow food ideology argues that we need to look to taken for granted features of daily life for the places that we have the most control over our happiness and health.  Emphasizing the process by which things reach the table, slow food addresses critical ways in which the modern, and now the post-modern condition, undermines people of all races, genders and classes by persuading them that they really want mediocre food.  Industrial food production creates labor force abuse, high prices for inferior products and poor nutrition.  The phenomenon of "fast food" permits us all to live fast as well, doing more work for less money as we substitute a time-wasting family breakfast for a Dunkin' Donuts drive-by that costs as little as $3.00 a person and gets us to work and school faster.  Habits sold to us by the processed food industry reduce our sociality and our good health.  As slow foodies easily point out, what is gained in time and convenience is invariably lost in relaxation, nutrition, and taste.

That said, life as a slow foodie has a deceptively simple formula:  grow as much of your own food as you can, buy locally, use fresh ingredients, sit down and face each other at meals.  Those of us who followed Barbara Kingsolver's journey into this world in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:  A Year of Food Life (2006), which is not a self help book, immersed ourselves in the beauty of this experience. Kingsolver also did, and did not, point out the difficulties of this commitment:  the creativity of growing and canning is matched by hours of back-breaking and mind-numbing labor; the seasons in which everything is fresh also requires giving one's personal calendar over to the weather and sudden ripening of a crop; you have to decide which roosters to send off to the slaughterhouse (don't, whatever you do, name the chickens); and the food stored for winter can dwindle to a few basic items long before the farmer's markets open.

My guess is that it also helps to have a big advance.

Authors like Kingsolver, Suze Orman, Andrew Weil, and Brooks Palmer, different as they are, are successful for the same reason.  The message is:  do this one thing, and you will be happy.  You will be healthier, happier, and best of all, you will be free, something that a great many Americans have craved for three centuries or so.  If you think this is just a white thing, you probably have not yet read bell hooks' Sisters of the Yam (2009), in which hooks (of whom I am a great fan but for this one volume) advocates a self-healing process that African-American women can undertake through the consumption of self-help books.

I purchased Clutter Busting:  Letting Go of What's Holding You Back in a book store that largely serves academics, which I realize was meaningful.  I bought it in exactly the way Palmer argues purchases should not be made, on impulse and in response to some neuron that fired off in my head that sent the message:  "you will be happier if you buy this book."  (Note to those who want to start clutter busting now:  Brooks also has a blog.)  A true clutterer, as I discovered to my great relief, would never have read the book, but would come home and put it on a surface.  Subsequently, s/he would have become ashamed, put it in a box, and stuffed it under the bed, with dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of self-help books that had been purchased, unread and hoarded over the years.  Palmer, a professional stand up comic and clutter busterer,  features lots of clients who are desperately trying to help themselves by buying and acquiring things, prominent among them New Age books and tapes, and only getting into deeper doo-doo in the process.

Palmer's central argument is this: culture producers tell us that we are what we own, and many of us are persuaded that having consumer goods and things of great monetary value makes us happy.  Some of us acquire these things on the street, unable to pass an item that looks useful without stuffing it in the car.   Whatever we acquire, whether it is the magazines that we subscribe to in order to better ourselves, the multiple cats we can't bear not to bring home from the shelter, or the makeup we buy to look pretty, we become briefly exhilarated as we possess the object, then depressed when we realize that, like all the similar objects our home is filled with, it hasn't solved anything at all.  The objects then more or less taunt us, and fill our houses in such a way that they overwhelm us.  Worse, they become objects of sentiment, holding feelings that we are unwilling to let go.

Like all successful self-help people, Palmer tells stories about people who, under his guidance, have recovered from this cycle.  Usually the process of recovery involves identifying what role objects of various kinds play in your life.  The process points out how you are failing to value yourself by allowing objects this power, and what your feelings actually have to do with either real people you refuse to let go of or insecurities that are undermining you but which you hold dear.  Disabling one's self by clinging to unwanted objects and people (yes, people, pets and services are clutter too under the right circumstances) is a problem for psychotherapy, but it is also something that is amenable to action.

Most of these stories are allegories masking as reality, and show the reader very directly how to take action.  All include a cathartic moment in which Palmer's clients perform exercises of various kinds that induce a crying jag, or a an attack of helpless laughter, and then make them free.  There is no one who bars him from the house, or sets the dog on him, for example.  Palmer's techniques revolve around confronting people's delusions, talking to them about shame, and working through the emotional obligations that they feel towards objects.  They sometimes ask the object whether it is ok to send it away and explain why they must; in other situations he asks them to "name" piles of unused stuff.  "You are crap!" you might shout at a dirty, old pile of unreturned student papers from 1996 (secretly,of course, you fear that a student will return to tell you that you are a horrible teacher.) "What a pile of useless garbage!" you would point out to a pile of unused CDs that were really expensive, are still on your credit card, and that you don't ever listen to.

Here, by the way, is a good place to address the obvious point that all self-help books are not the same. But they all require these moments of truth that are arrived at through confrontation.  I could imagine Palmer holding hands with Andrew Weil as, lovingly, they cleansed a food cupboard of uneaten boxes of Ritz crackers, healthy but tasteless salt-free soups, and cocktail napkins from your last birthday party.  Simultaneously, I fantasized about a Palmer -Suze Orman smackdown in the making.  Orman would know that all those CDs were on your credit card ("And ya charged 'em?  Dintcha? DINTCHA?!") and insist you hold a tag sale to begin paying that card down.  Palmer would argue that attributing any value, monetary or otherwise, to the CDs was simply a way to hang onto them, and that they should go to the Salvation Army hasta pronto

One flaw in the book is that all of Palmer's clients are "cured" forever, when we know that most clutter bugs do not receive permanent salvation, slipping back into their habits and needing to be dug out again. All of Palmer's clutter bugs begin lives of self-actualization by taking the baby/giant step of clutter busting, when actually, just ceasing to hoard would be a major change that might allow a person to live exactly the same life in a happier way.  But that's ok:  in that way, Clutter Busting holds out a similar promise as Butler's Lives of the Saints without all the gruesome scenes that becoming a saint involves. 

Palmer points out what we Marxists already know:  it really isn't about the stuff, is it?  It's about the commodity fetish.  It's about  the feelings we get when we look at stuff, and the deep betrayal we suffer when commodities fail to deliver.  Clutter is about aspirations unmet; unspoken feelings of loss; relationships we can't let go; old injuries; and lack of self-esteem.  For academics, four shelves of books, double-shelved, that you have never read says:  "I'm worried I'm not smart enough!"  Or, "Maybe if other people see these books, they will recognize that I am smart."  Meanwhile, the books sit there looking at you, sending another silent message:  "You bought us, now you are stuck with us.  Before you get to your own writing, or any reading that would give you pleasure, you have to make good on the promise to read us.  What -- you don't" (sniff!) "want us any more?"

Palmer would suggest that you sit down and have a chat with these books, thank them for the time they have spent in your house, apologize for not reading them and explain to them that you want them to go somewhere that someone will really appreciate them.  Then box them up and take them to the library sale.

Friday, February 11, 2011

On Hypocrisy and Lies: Why Maggie The Cat Could Have Been A Blogger

One of the ongoing themes in the comments section of this blog is the question of how a blogger can position herself as a radical critic of institutions and practices in which s/he is embedded.  Isn't that hypocritical?  some commenters ask: Don't you feel dishonest?  If you feel this way, others ask, how can you possibly go on working at Zenith?  Why don't you quit and go to work for a community college?  Why are you so ungrateful, a few insist, for everything that Zenith affords you -- the students, the salary, the research money? Although some of these criticisms come from conservative readers, all of them do not.  My more critical graduate student and adjunct commenters sometimes see my position within the system as a particularly inauthentic position for critiques of hiring and tenure. While they usually stop short of name calling, their occasional fits of rage suggest that regard my position as vexed and troubling.

I find these encounters generative and interesting for many reasons.  One is that I have been interested in hypocrisy, and the various lies that are crucial to hypocrisy, since my suburban youth.  Among my first attempts at serious intellectual labor was a literature paper, written when I was seventeen, about the theme of lies and lying in the plays of Tennessee Williams.  The action of two of my favorite plays, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, revolved entirely around attempts to conceal lies and the explosive outcomes of uncovering lies. Both plays achieve narrative closure through the deployment of new lies that occlude what the audience can see but the characters cannot:  that  normative sexualities require hypocrisy and a variety of very different lies to maintain their dominance.  The strategic lies that emerge in the final scene to usher the characters into their unhappy futures do so by moving them out of the shame of sexual chaos and into the respectability of nuclear family. 

For example, In Streetcar, the lie that Blanche is mad, and her accusations of rape against her brother-in-law Stanley false, permits Stanley and Blanche's sister Stella to transform themselves from a husband and wife given to animal couplings and into expectant parents.  Ironically, of course, it is Blanche's prior lies about her own drinking and extramarital sexuality prior to her arrival at Stella's house that give the lies credibility.  Similarly, in Cat, the refusal of heteronormativity by Brick, which must be repeatedly covered up by his wife Maggie in a desperate attempt to secure his position as his father's heir, is resolved at the end of the play by the lie that Maggie is pregnant.  This is presented as "proof" of a sexual relationship between husband and wife that does not exist, and will only exist in the future as business transaction between them.  All of these lies succeed for one reason:  Williams' insistence that hypocrisy is the state of play in the nuclear family.

Imagine what a compelling revelation this was for a teenage, suburban, queer proto-Radical. 

The second reason that accusations of hypocrisy interest me is the assumption that, in the academy and perhaps elsewhere, what we critique is something we should sever our connections to.  By this logic, one is morally bound to forge compromises with one's academic employer, and identify with one's it, regardless of how unchosen and unfree the relationship to that employer might be.  And yet, one might argue that, if  hypocrisy is the state of play in families, we might sensibly look for hypocrisy in all institutions and social organizations.  Can we not all cite examples in which the covering up of lies -- lies of commission and lies of omission -- seems to make the whole academic engine run?  Think of instances in which the forwarding of a particular intellectual interest in a job search caused members of your department to say things about another strong candidate that are simply untrue, but everyone sat there and listened as if they were.  Think of arguments made against competing candidates of great merit that rely on exploiting minor flaws or inconsistencies in research findings to a mammoth scale in order to degrade that person in the eyes of other, less well-informed, colleagues. 

Accusations of hypocrisy are nearly impossible to disprove, but it is interesting to me that they are not pinned to conservative academics who rail against the supposed domination of universities by liberals, but don;t seem to imagine resigning from them either.  From my perch, it would be nearly impossible to make a living as an intellectual at all -- much less a radical one -- were we not able to compromise our moral compasses and work comfortably in systems that are disagreeable to us in one way or another. 

Monday, February 07, 2011

Department of High Standards: "And The Winnah Is......"

This is a tenure clock.
Give me just a little more time/And our love will surely grow:  The Brown Daily Herald reports another reason to take a job at this trendy Ivy, other than the school colors and the terrific little Italian food shops:  you get eight years for tenure instead of the canonical seven.  The legislation is not yet final, since the faculty "has yet to vote on the wording of the amendments" (so it could take....a...while....) However, the extended tenure clock recognizes that publishing is a little more difficult in the current environment and grants more competitive.  Other reforms of the tenure process up in Providence include things that I won't even mention because they mean nothing to the rest of us, but apparently they are a big deal at Brown and claims are being made that tenure procedures are now "more transparent."  Somehow I doubt this, but I'm sure the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) means well and has labored hard.

There are, of course, doubters.  As one former Zenith colleague used to point out dourly when we considered changing one departmental rule or another, "Things could get worse, you know."  In the case of Brown, theories abound that either a) Higher rates of tenure will demonstrate hte senior faculty's expertise in picking new people well; or b) Higher rates of tenure will make it look like senior faculty have gone soft in the head and are keeping anyone who can get paper stapled between two boards in eight years.  One concern is that candidates for tenure can choose three referees out of eight, thus introducing the possibility that promotions will will be skewed by people who will drive down the quality of the Brown faculty with their dotty, biased, candidate-centric opinions. 

Jerome Sanes, professor of neuroscience and chair of the Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee, said that although he approved of many of the changes, he wished the administration had more input on the final list of references.

"I think that — and this was my opinion — it was of some importance to have the administration involved in the selection of the letters that are being requested," Sanes said.

Well, everyone's got an opinion.  And tenure-track faculty?  Don't waste that extra year, you hear me?

Outstanding explanations for the lack of racial diversity in academia:  Speaking of transparency, I guess DePaul University just can't catch a break in its own effort to maintain high standards.  Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports that the school that fired Norman Finkelstein in 2007 because Harvard's Alan Dershowitz wrote an unsolicited letter condemning Finkelstein's work on the Palestinian question, has another little tenure problem.  According to reporter B. Denise Hawkins, "The university is now facing claims of racism and racial bias after it denied tenure to six professors — two Blacks, two Asian-Americans and two Latinos — but accepted all of the White tenure applicants."  Members of the faculty are demanding an internal investigation of two of the cases which, without some serious push back from the AAUP, is going to get exactly nowhere if DePaul is like other universities I am familiar with.

A nasty business, isn't?  Thinking about some issues closer to home than that (why is it that when disproportionate numbers of faculty of color stumble on the road to tenure the idea of institutional racism seems inconceivable?) I tried to look up the comparative rates of tenure for white faculty and faculty of color.  It's not so easy, and I can't come up with any figures for Latino/a faculty at all because there are so few that no one is tracking them. I did find this article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which reports recent figures showing that only 5.4% of full-time faculty in higher ed are black.  This number is, sadly, inflated by the fact that at Historically Black Colleges (HBCs), over 60% of the faculty are black.  But dig this:

Black progress in faculty posts is even more disappointing when we look at numbers and percentages of tenured faculty. In 2007 there were 13,338 blacks holding a tenured faculty post at degree-granting educational institutions in the United States. They made up 4.6 percent of all tenured faculty. Thirty-five percent of all black full-time faculty members in 2007 held tenure. For all white full-time faculty members, 44.6 percent were tenured.

According to one illustration, with the current rate of progress, black faculty should make up 14% of full time faculty in higher ed by the year 2150.  Does that make you feel better?

A second study also shows that claims by some ideologues that white men are the objects of new prejudice in the academic hiring process have no basis in fact.  As I suspected, such claims seem to be arising from the fact that white men are being treated exactly like everyone else, since employment outcomes for different groups disaggregated by race and gender differ by only a couple percentage points. This equality looks good for racial diversity on campus, however, only if you clump all self-identified non-white men and women in groups labeled "of color." According to Diversity Web, if colleges and universities are doing a poor job of tenuring faculty "of color," they are doing an even worse job of diversifying candidate pools, even though they nearly all say they are EEOC employers. "Claims that faculty of color are in great demand and subject to bidding wars are greatly exaggerated," Debra Humphreys reports, in a study sponsored by the Ford Foundation.
  • Only 11 percent of scholars of color were actively sought after by several institutions simultaneously, which means 89 percent of scholars of color were not the subject of competitive bidding wars.
  • Twenty-four percent of white men, 27 percent of white women, 26 percent of men of color, and 25 percent of women of color were among those in the study who had the most job options, which suggests a nearly even distribution of access between men and women and across race, again undercutting contentions that people of color (and especially women of color) are advantaged on the job market.
  • Contradicting the notion that campuses are so focused on diversifying faculty that heterosexual white males have no chance, white men in the study had a variety of experiences, from the 20 percent who did not receive regular faculty appointments to the 24 percent who had a favorable result in the labor market.
I understand that the professional associations are reeling from the decades-long bad job market, but why are they not getting involved in these questions and setting standards for what constitutes a fair tenure review process?  It's time to stop worrying about throwing the baby out with the bath water and make it possible for talented young people to continue working as intellectuals even -- and especially -- after they make their elders anxious.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

What The Radical is Reading This Weekend: Ice-Breaker Edition

Lenin subscribes to Pravda:  so why don't you?
It's not that I actually have any time to read, since I am also writing, teaching, and most days, trying to figure out how to release one of our cars from snow and ice.  But:

Just in case you thought there was nothing new to say about Mad Men, here comes Daniel Mendelsohn in the most recent New York Review of Books.  In "The Mad Men Account" a seemingly needless review of the series occasioned by the upcoming release of Season 4 on DVD, Mendelsohn comes up with one key insight that is worth the price of admission.  Like Historiann, Mendelsohn is not a fan, but admits that he is drawn to the series anyway for "deeper, almost irrational reasons[.]"  He sees it as all style and no substance, and he isn't a fan of the style.  But, as he points out, vast numbers of people love to Mad Men themselves:  look at the number of people using Mad Men avatars on their Facebook pages.  Mattel and Brooks Brothers, among others, have produced tie-ins to the show, and the keen observer of mass consumer culture may have noted subtler shifts in design that aren't tie-ins but that scream "Mad Men!" all the same.

The pay dirt is at the end of the article, where Mendelsohn focuses on the only truly complex characters in the series, the children, specifically Sally Draper and Glen, a judgmental neighborhood boy who exudes a hinky, unnerving adult sexuality.  First focused on Betty Draper, wife of mad man Don, Glen has, by season 4, shifted his intense focus and inexplicable need to Sally.  The two children's attraction to each other is clearly less sexual than, well, intellectual, which is also weirdly out of place in a show in which the adult characters rarely show any understanding of their own motivations for action.  "It’s only when you realize that the most important 'eye'—and 'I'—in Mad Men belong to the watchful if often uncomprehending children," Mendelsohn writes, "rather than to the badly behaved and often caricatured adults, that the show’s special appeal comes into focus." As he concludes,

The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.

Hence both the show’s serious failings and its strong appeal. If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then. As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight? And who, after having that privileged view, would want to dismiss the lives they led and world they inhabited as trivial—as passing fads, moments of madness? Who would still want to bash them, instead of telling them that we know they were bad but that now we forgive them?


Shoveling snow and breaking ice gives you even more listen to audible books.  This week it has been Allen Shawn's Twin:  A Memoir (Viking, 2010).  You're thinking, "So many bad memoirs, so little time," right?  I admit that I did not love Shawn's first book, Wish I Could Be There:  Notes From A Phobic Life (2007), an account of his agoraphobia that was at once illuminating and too opaque about what he really thought about the relationship between the organic and psychological sources of disabilities like his.  Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times loved Twin, which struck me as a good sign (read her elegant review), so I gave it a shot and think it's fantastic, on so many levels.  My favorite theme among many?  That Shawn's father had two intimate relationships and households for forty years; that both parents managed to separate this phenomenon in their minds from the trauma of having a severely disabled child; and that Allen's mother aggressively represented their family as "normal" and "just like the Kennedys" to a psychiatrist.   In one of the final chapters of the book, Shawn explores why William Shawn's polyamory might have worked well enough for both of his parents, evoking well how a wife who did not wish to share her husband, but had little power in the relationship and a morbid fear of social exposure, might have been persuaded that this was her best option. Although I have not yet heard this book mentioned in the same sentence as the phrase "disability studies," it is an outstanding primary account of the reverberating appearance of both genius and mental disability in a single family, as well as the tension between diagnosis and who a mentally disabled person "is."

Looking for some blogs to break the endless recycling of news about the popular uprising in Egypt and around the region?  Try Tabsir:  Insight on Islam and the Middle East, a group of "scholars concerned about stereotypes, misinformation and propaganda spread in the media and academic forums on Islam and the Middle East." You probably already read Juan Cole's Informed Comment.  But who has the url for a feminist blog coming out of Egypt or Tunis that is written in English, or is not of the "global feminist" variety that tries to cover so much it can't cover any part of the work, or any event, in a sustained way?  Forward it to me and I'll post it to the blog roll. I keep seeing women in the streets, but I keep hearing what men think:  it would be fun to reverse that from time to time.

Feministe will put your d!ck in a box:  In an interesting new twist, this go-to feminist blog features its most sexist commentary and asks you to judge its quality.  Go here to vote for your favorite troll!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Ice Storm: A Few Observations About The Workings Of The University

From the upper deck of Tenured Radical.
Last week the snow day was great, a gift of 24 hours that (depending on your teaching schedule) created the equivalent of a Thanksgiving break.  Now the weather is increasingly a drag.  Despite the dangers and inconveniences of coming up to Zenith, one canceled day seems to be all the educational enterprise can sustain, and we receive messages saying that it is "our choice" whether to come to campus or not.  This often puts one in the untenable position of deciding how much of one's personal safety is worth risking to not fall any further behind than one already is, given the difficulties of travel (or even walking down the street) in the last ten days.

In 1997, Ang Lee made a film called The Ice Storm about the emotional perils of suburban living in the 1970s.  Based on a 1994 novel by Rick Moody, the movie shows one evening in the life of two New Canaan families.  The ice storm stands in as a metaphor for the ways that they are all emotionally "frozen;" and the effects of the weather force a series of unexpected events that, not surprisingly, "freeze" the dynamics between people and make it possible to see them in new ways.

Similarly, this spate of bad weather causes one to see things differently.  Whether my observations are right or not -- well, I am not sure.  But here goes.

Giving academics choices might be a way of administrations not making decisions about what authority they wish to have over the institutions they govern.  Under circumstances in which law enforcement is asking people who live in this state not to drive, under what conditions does it make sense to tell your faculty that it is their choice whether to teach their classes or not?  Looking at it the administrator's way, one might say:
  • Zenith is a residential campus, and 99.9% of students live on it.  Therefore, why shouldn't they go to school?
  • Some faculty might be more nervous about falling further behind in their work than they are about driving to work;
  • Conditions might improve by afternoon, so that whereas morning classes might be impossible, afternoon classes might be more manageable;
  • Faculty hate to be told what to do.
The elite residential college still presumes that the default position for faculty is to live in the college community, preferable on the borders of campus.  I have not infrequently heard reports that our trustees and long-time faculty and administrators are appalled that some faculty live elsewhere, and I have heard all kinds of casual criticism of those of us who "live in New Haven and New York."  These cities are mentioned in the same breath, despite the fact that one is  25 minutes from Zenith and the other 2 hours and 15 minutes from Zenith (and that's if you are flying.)

The Radical back yard:  maple tree and bamboo.
Now, I do think that everyone on the faculty ought to be doing the same work regardless of where they live, and that this mandates equal attendance under normal conditions. I have always done my best to adhere to this, whether I lived in Zenith, New York or New Haven. But I also think that the casual disregard for the safety of those of us who have to drive to work (whether it is from the outskirts of Zenith or from another city) is rather stunning.  The assumption is that those who can get to work easily set the norm; the rest of us are deviant to a greater or lesser degree, and in danger of revealing ourselves as slackers.  This norm was set back in the 1940s and lasted until the mid-1970s or so. It was set prior to the emergence of two career couples, the employment of people of color at Zenith, working mothers, parenting fathers and the ability of GLBT people to find, and live openly in, heterogeneous, progressive communities.  Zenith has many virtues, but it doesn't accommodate any of these things well, either as a school or as part of the small city that it inhabits.

People who have tenure might feel more free to exercise the choice to cancel class than people who do not.  You would think this would be perfectly obvious, wouldn't you?  And yet, universities maintain the weirdly benevolent fiction that, despite the inequalities of rank that they treasure, we all have equality of choice despite our rank.

Suggesting that some people will not come to work because they are frightened or cautious is demeaning.  I say this, perhaps, because I am now of an age where the idea of falling and hurting myself does frighten me, and I sometimes wish for that reason and others that I was still young.  But I am not sure whether my caution originates from a place of being more fearful, or whether I have more garden-variety common sense than when I was young.  Once, when I lived in Zenith, I went to school in an ice storm: I lived up a hill about a half mile from campus.  As I began to descend the hill, which was covered in sheet ice slicked with rain, my car began to shimmy around, and I slid down the length of the hill sideways, towards a blind turn from which, fortunately, no one emerged to take me to Jesus.

Like every other entity, universities are trying to carry on as if they have not cut services drastically and this does not have an effect on our work.  I did meet my students yesterday, so loath was I to lose contact with a class I had only begun to teach.  They are a group of first and second year students who are reading really hard stuff, and if we don't spend some concentrated time together they would feel justified in being utterly confused.  But going to school wasn't what you would call a "good choice." It was a bad choice.  The roads were incredibly dangerous, but not half as dangerous as navigating a campus that was unshoveled, unsalted and unsanded.

It was also clear to me, by the way, that Zenith is entirely unprepared to feed lunch or dinner to large numbers of people who might come to campus in such weather and find themselves trapped there; nor were there any arrangements made with a local inn to get a special rate for those of us who might come to school today and be unable to get home.

Ah well.  Out to scrape and salt the end of the driveway as we seem to have no city services in New Haven either this year.  My street has not been plowed, salted or sanded once since it started to snow two weeks ago, and I am sorry to say to the libertarians in the audience, this has not resulted in citizens banding together to do it themselves.  Kiss my a$$, Ayn Rand.