Wednesday, January 31, 2007


So I was about to go to class yesterday, when I received an email from a queer colleague that said in the subject line "URGENT!!!" I clicked on it, and it said "[Student] is coming over to your building now to try to get into your class. Sie is really smart, queer kid, but a total fuck up. I just told hir I was overenrolled (true) and sie couldn't take my class. Be warned!!!!!"

This illustrates two drop-add phenomena. The first, and simplest, is that queer students want to take courses with queer faculty, sometimes without much regard as to what is being taught. They are often determined, and will make the rounds until they get into one.

OK. Fine.

And this is why some administrators and colleagues sometimes mistake queer studies for a social welfare program. But I don't even care about that, really, unless I am trying to make a hire or put something through a major committee. Then I get way huffy and rigorous and talk in theoretical language almost no one understands just to *show* them.

But back to drop add, known at some schools as "browsing" (or grazing -- think of little cows moving from field to field until they find the right grass.) The other feature of these few days when we all are getting organized at Zenith is that faculty do trade information about students, usually of the good kind: "Dear Jack: Melissa Goody is interested in your class, and I just want you to know she did a terrific job for me last term, blah, blah, blah." Because most of us want to help students get the education they desire, and we don't really mind taking an extra body if the student is going to make a positive contribution to the course. Very, very occasionally the information is delivered as a warning, like I got from my colleague, which means: only take this student if you are feeling strong; or, this student will increase your work load by what feels like two students.

So [Student} showed up, sat through class, then wiggled up to me at the end, and asked to be admitted. It then became clear to me that sie had half a dozen friends standing around watching. Hmmmm -- risk humiliating hir in front of his friends, or let him in and see if he can muddle through?

Heck, maybe sie'll wake up: some do, for no apparent reason, like reading the first book that really moved them to work. Double heck, maybe I am a social worker. Who knows? I let hir in. We'll see.

Monday, January 29, 2007


I recently received an email from a younger colleague about how much pressure s/he feels to "perform" for students. This concern followed on a set of teaching evaluations that, the same email said, were the "best ever." So it looks like the great teaching evaluations, instead of bolstering confidence, made this young teacher feel as though the bar had been raised. Last semester's "good" could not be good enough this term.....oy.

I'm trying to think about how to respond to this in a constructive way, but it caused me to think of a couple other things about teaching that, when I remember them, I try to pass on to my untenured colleagues.

1. When you are really sick it is ok to miss class. I know a very famous historian who told me, years ago when I was working for her, that she had never canceled a class, ever. This made a huge impression on me, and I too decided that the show must always go on. But as I got older, I found that a sore throat was usually made worse by lecturing or running a discussion; several times I actually lost my voice for three or four days because I insisted on teaching when I shouldn't have. So my advice: have some flex classes in the schedule, and a movie sitting on your desk at all times. If you can't bear to have the departmental secretary put a sign on the door saying class is canceled, know that you can show the movie at the last minute even if you feel you must attend class.

2. Less is more. When I am observing a young teacher I know s/he is in trouble when I see four or five pages of lecture notes. I top out at about a page and a half nowadays -- the bones of the argument, and then I build on it. Having a huge amount of material that you feel you must get through wears the students out, and wears you out trying to deliver it. And assigning less reading to students and knowing they have got it is better than making really fancy, super-hard syllabi that you can turn in for third-year review - along with your teaching evaluations that characterize your classroom as one of Dante's Circles of Hell.

3. Students are not wowed by Powerpoint: they are, in fact, easily bored by it (so are search committees), and by all technology that wasn't invented yesterday. At the most, if you are a historian, use your Powerpoint to organize photographs. DON'T put your lecture up in bulletpoints: the difference between your classroom and an IBM strategy meeting instantly dissolves. Note: as far as I can tell students also hate BlackBoard, discussion boards and chatrooms (at least, chat rooms organized around your class.) Oh, and speaking of technology -- you might want to consider taking down your Friendster page unless you can honestly space it out that your students are cruising you and all your friends.

4. If you know you are performing for your students, you may be on the edge of going too far. Attention getting maneuvers are fine; doing voices (say, Eleanor Roosevelt) is borderline, as are props; and outfits are out of bounds.

5. Don't let students make out in class, even though it is awkward to make them stop. I will allow cuddling, within reason (on the theory that it is below my dignity to notice) but smooching crosses the line. My favorite technique? Throw a pop quiz. After the quizzes are handed in, you say (since the smoochers have had to part briefly to complete the assignment), "Every time I see people making out in class there will be another quiz." I guarantee you it will end that day.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

One of the things I had forgotten about being back to school is that feeling on Sunday that you could either sit down and work, thus getting ahead for the week, or you could take advantage of the fact that there is a whole day (and a nice one too) when nothing is scheduled, and you can do as you please. It's a terrible decision. But I think this weekend I have gone in the direction of seizing the day, since so far I have gone to the gym and taken Extravaganza to brunch at a local trattoria with an impressive dessert menu and it is now three o'clock.

And while I have a small break coming my way (I cleverly scheduled a movie for Monday, on the theory that it is still drop-add and the population of my lecture class is in flux), by Tuesday the scheduling part of my brain has to go back into motion. This week I must:

* write a lecture, since the last lecture I gave on the Mattachine Society was over three years ago, and I can't imagine giving the one I have again.
*write a book review that I am actually going to be PAID FOR that is due Wednesday.
*read a very hard book by Tuesday. Or at least half of it. Or at least as much as I think they will have gotten to, plus ten pages.
*pull together a conference proposal that I took responsibility for that is due Thursday.

This may not seem very difficult to those of you who have been slogging away in the trenches since September, but believe you me, if your schedule has looked like this for almost two years:

*go to the gym
*write until lunch
*eat lunch while watching TIVO'd episodes of Friday Night Lights and DVD's of Deadwood, The Wire and The Shield.
*read until cocktail hour
*have a drink and dinner.
*go to bed

it is daunting. And then, of course, since I have been gone for ever, everyone wants to have lunch with me, which means I can no longer watch TV at noon. So heaven only knows how I will keep up with TV.

In other news, events suggest that it is a matter of time before I am thoroughly outed to my colleagues: in checking my sitemeter, I realize that I have been linked to several on-line sites which cater to the academic trade, one of which has a close colleague of mine as a regular commentator. The only saving grace is this: I never write mean things about my friends. That would be the main difference between me and Harriet the Spy (that and the Ph.D.), who got thoroughly trashed for her indiscretions if you may recall. And I would never skewer someone on-line who I would not skewer in person.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Yo Wuz Pumpin'?


This was the salutation on an e-mail I recently received from Extravaganza. Needless to say, given certain age-related disorders, I had to sound it out phonetically, and then repeat it a couple times fast, to figure out what it meant.

I think the proper response is, "Awrite, wuz pumpin wid u?" But I feared that this would be perceived as either racist (by an unintended reader of the email) or silly (by the intended reader). It's like trying to do that five-part black power handshake, but you find yourself waving your hand in the air after he first two parts, not making contact with anything and realizing that you are just as white as everyone always says you are. So I responded with an invitation to lunch at a pricey restaurant instead, which is really more in my, shall we say, realm of expertise.

In other news, I have met the first class of both of my courses, and can report that I do remember how to teach after all. My course in women's history has, at last count, four men in it -- one of whom is actually a women's studies major, something I have not seen in a good long time. So let's have a special shout out this week for students who will still sign up for a course that has "feminist" in the description.

And isn't it strange that, when you are not looking for a new job anymore (which I am not, and promised myself I would not for the next two years - or until my next book comes out, or which ever happens first) the right job makes itself apparent? The job is this: Beyonce Knowles needs a new agent.

This is why.

Because a good agent NEVER would have allowed Beyonce to be in a movie, "Dreamgirls," where she would be so immediately and completely upstaged by a novice actress of whom most of us (or those who do not watch American Idol religiously) have never heard, Jennifer Hudson. Granted, Beyonce undoubtedly needed a start that was reasonably prestigious and not too challenging. I don't think she has ever acted before, and co-starring as a Diana Ross clone probably seemed like a good idea at the time, particularly since Diana Ross became a superstar, and Beyonce would like to be a superstar. But -- and here is where I would not have blown it as Beyonce's agent -- the Effie (Mary Wilson) role is far more complex and interesting, and Hudson grabs it by the throat in the first number and never lets it go. And then "Living Without You" -- which is the song from hell, because you either nail it and blow everyone's socks off, or you wither out there on the stage trying, is the biggest movie musical triumph since "Over the Rainbow." Or maybe "Tonight," which as I understand it, Natalie Wood was not allowed to sing. The effect is to make Beyonce's voice look less versatile and, well, thin.

Beyonce, darling, your agent should have known that. I would have, just from watching "Entourage" obsessively for the nearly two years of my leave. Furthermore, anyone who has seen "All About Eve" would have known that an actress who agreed (god bless her!) to gain twenty pounds for the role was ready to put it all out on the line. That was a sign, baby, and no one was minding the store for you.

That can be corrected. Let me tell you, just between girlfriends, I know something about your pain right now. And I am here to tell you that it is *possible* to pick up the pieces and go on after such a stunning setback. I've done it. So for you -- and only for you -- will I consider leaving my job at Zenith University at this point in my career. Call anytime, baby. I'm home.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Experimenting with a Quick Post...

.....because I bet some people who have quit blogging wouldn't have done so if they thought they could just sit down and knock off a post in fifteen minutes. That's five minutes to draft, five to check, and five to go back and re-do it because at every stage spelling mistakes, typos, and split infinitives make themselves apparent.

Yesterday was first lecture and first department meeting. First lecture left me exhausted, and a little hoarse. I had forgotten that teaching requires a form of physical fitness that is different from being in shape for, say, rowing, which is what I do to stay good looking and generate happy chemicals to wash my brain.

First department meeting was a pleasant surprise, mostly because the man who has taken over as chair in my absence, Dr. Zen, runs a heck of a good meeting, so we clipped along without getting too stuck in any penny ante struggles that often make me wish that instead of bringing my lunch I had brought a stack of papers to grade or a DVD. Also many of my younger colleagues rushed to greet me and seemed genuinely glad that I had returned. And I was happy to see them, the little sweeties.

Exchange from the meeting:

Chair: "I have been asked to report to the dean any facilities requests that any of you might have."
Dr. Forehead: "What do you mean by facilities requests?"
Chair: "Any problems with the facilities."
Dr. Forehead: (quite seriously) "You mean the bathrooms?"
Chair: (patiently) "No-o-o-o, problems with the classrooms."
Dr. Grumpo: (suddenly checking in from a nap) "I think this room is very hot."

Never say that Dr. T. Radical has lost her sense of humor about the History Department.

Monday, January 22, 2007

T-Minus One And Counting: The Radical Returns To Work

We arrived back in Shoreline last night around midnight, after traveling for about twenty-five hours, which is how long it takes to get back to New England from Kauai normally, and then you have to add the extra time it takes when USAir and America West merge and re-book all your tickets through different hubs and with strange layovers. Then there is the bonus of extra stress added when, although your beloved travel agent (N) has carefully booked you into aisle seats, upon the re-booking you are put in middle seats. But never mind! We are home, the house sitter did a great job, and Sailor the dog is well and happy. I am a little jet-lagged, but not fatally so. And BTW, 20 fully conscious hours is exactly what it takes to read Eilen Boris's excellent history of sweated labor in the home, "Home to Work," which I am teaching in a week or so.

Tomorrow I begin my labors at Zenith anew, although slowly – catching up to new classroom technology with one of our ITS people at 11, and talking to a couple advisees reassigned from other people in the afternoon. Probably I will end up spending most of my day sorting the mail, and figuring out what I am supposed to do in the next two weeks: I know there are job candidates coming in, that there is a tenure case, and there are undoubtedly tasks I have completely forgotten existed. Then Wednesday, I teach my first lecture class in two years.

I have been trying to think about what exactly to say to them – what would mean getting off to the right start. When I was a new teacher, I used to place a heavy emphasis on Going Over the Syllabus to see if there were any Questions. There never were. Of course not – they didn’t know anything about the course yet, or the course materials, or me – by the time they developed questions or serious reservations about what I had to offer, it was probably too late to shift to another course. Or if anyone asked a question it would be in the realm of: “Um – there are two three to five page papers? So, does that mean we should write three or, um, five?” Really. Even at a fancy school like Zenith. And I would usually deliver some kind of a serious answer, like, “Very often a shorter paper can be a better paper; blah, blah, blah....” Which did not answer the question, since the question was, "Are you trying to fool me into thinking three will be ok, when the people who write five will all get A's??" I am sure I beat that topic to death until their tiny eyes glazed over, and I never even knew it.

As I became a better known and a more popular member of the faculty, my agenda changed and I trimmed my little walk through the syllabus, not because I realized it was a waste of time, but because I would walk into rooms packed with students who were hoping to enroll sitting and standing on every available flat space. Thus, usually the first class had to also accomplish what I would impolitely call “weeding” (remember, weeds are only flowers by another name!) In other words, the class is capped at 40, I’m willing to take 50, but there are 90 people in the room. What to do, what to do? For many years I had them fill out sheets of paper about their major, class year, previous courses taken, courses needed to graduate – and then I would toil over them. I also tended then to take way too many students – sometimes people I hadn’t let into the course by my idiotic non-system, who simply got in by continuing to show up grimly until the end of drop-add, at which point I would throw up my hands and enroll them. Nowadays, I just squint at the room and say, “How many first years?” Then I toss ‘em. Or, “How many non-majors?” Toss ‘em. Takes about three minutes if you privilege speed in getting the class started over justice. And there are very few who come back to you at graduation to say, “I always wanted to take a class with you but you kept throwing me out of the room.”

So now that I have discarded all that bureaucratic hooey, what to do? What to say? I am going to try some version of what my dear colleague, La Principessa, who teaches at Potemkin University, calls (in a southern accent that is usually mild but becomes more pronounced when she is being hilarious), “setting their hair on fire.”

TR: “Howdja start your class, Professor La P.?”
LP: “Ah set their hair on fahr.”

And I’ll just bet she does. So I am going to try that, but I am going to try something else too, which is to tell them a few modest things that I hope to accomplish, as opposed to the immodest ones, i.e., get you to love history forever, rock your world, turn you into an ace critical thinker, teach you to FOR GOD’S SAKE write a PROPER footnote, persuade you to consider research as a way of life whatever you choose to do for money, and inspire you to find a career you love as much as I love mine. Here’s my list of things that might be possible:

1. Leave you better off than you were before you took this course. This could mean any number of things, and not require getting a great grade. Without necessarily excelling, or even working hard in my course, I think it would be wonderful for a student to have learned something fundamentally different than s/he had ever learned before; realize that something s/he used to think s/he knew is not what it appeared to be; or perhaps simply become more confident. Or more humble.

2. Help you to listen carefully to people and ideas you don’t like, understand them, and respond in a respectful way. And while we’re at it – we’ll work on the concept that an issue usually has many “sides,” not just two.

3. Encourage you in healthy skepticism – of me, of your education, of political leaders.

4. Persuade you by the end of the semester, if you do not know this already, that history (to paraphrase Lucy Maynard Salmon’s essay, “History in a Back Yard”) is a living thing that saturates and enriches our world and can be learned by anyone.

And of course, there is the last part, which I won’t tell them, which is to remind myself, on the good days and the hard days, that I am only a small part of their education, and that I cannot really know what they will make of what happens in our classroom or what they will choose to do with it. And that the most unexpected things happen when you teach, which is really, after all, why I love doing it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

How Is Your Book?

Fine. Thank you for asking.

I am raising this now because my writing vacation will be over in five days, and my sabbatical in seven days, and I have accomplished nowhere near as much as I intended to either a) when sabbatical began, or b) when I expressed the resolve on this blog to dig into the book again, although the year’s work has produced several articles poised for publication in the spring like little commuter planes on a runway. And there is an introduction to the book, heavily edited in pencil, sitting on the kitchen counter to my right while I write a blog entry instead. When I get back to work, there will be lots of people, whose feelings towards me run the gamut of deep affection to – well, for a couple, and only a couple, distaste – and most of these people will say at some point in our initial conversation:

“So – how is your book?”

…. And I need to have something to say. So I will say: “Fine! Thank you for asking.” Then I will gently and skillfully turn the topic to something else, like, “So…I see that Bad Italian Restaurant has finally closed.” The only people who will not ask after my book will be those poor, dear, gentle colleagues who are themselves suffering from terminal writer’s block. They would not dream of asking about my book because then I might thoughtlessly respond by asking about…oh dear…their books. Which I wouldn’t, both because I am a nicer person than that, and because Zenith is a small enough place that it is pretty easy to keep in your mind who has published lately and who hasn’t, even if you have been on some form of sabbatical or leave for almost two years.

Now if my book isn’t finished (and as you who are reading this know it really couldn’t be because I was unable to look at it for eleven months) the progress I can report is that I have been doing a pencil edit, I have located what I consider to be some serious flaws, and I know how to fix them. This last was a particularly big step, and in fact I had that eureka moment in which I was able to re-state what the book is about in one sentence.

I have also accepted the fact that that making this book really work will take a lot of labor, which I am starting to wrap my head around, because I have a new project going that is really pretty exciting and I would rather expend my creative energy there. But this progress is not insignificant: one of the things I have learned over the twenty years since I finished my dissertation is that hard work isn’t such a big deal, but figuring out how to direct it even semi-efficiently can be. And the thing I have learned only in the past few months is, having survived the Unfortunate Events, I am free to write exactly what I please. This new freedom seems to be allowing me, in fits and starts, to imagine a slim-trim, fighting fit book coming out of a manuscript that was trying to do too many things for too many people. And slowly but surely, I am getting it what that book looks like. I am now permitting myself to do something Ann Lamott describes in “Bird by Bird,” a great writing book if there ever was one, which is discard things I have written – sometimes labored over – because they don’t belong in this book. They belong in someone else’s book. Or maybe another book of mine. I don’t know: but they don’t belong in this book.

This, in turn, has allowed me to imagine why the people who have read the previous incarnation of the mss. either love it or hate it – which is exactly the range of response, by the way. There are no in-betweenies. And let me hasten to say that about 80% of my readers did love it. And the 20% who hated it – oh baby. I remember reading one review and thinking to myself, “It’s a good thing I have published a lot already otherwise I might just quit and make fence rails for a living.” Anyway, I think the 80% saw the book I am now seeing and spoke to that: I think the twenty-per centers saw some piece of it that was written to speak to them but then, in horror, saw me abandon that voice or theme, never to return to it. For them, what I now see as the core of the book was just landscape. The eighty-per centers saw the parts written for the twenty-per centers and thought, “Oh well, she’s a smart woman. This, of course, will be edited out of the final manuscript,” and then returned to the book they really wanted to read. Re-reading what reviews I have in my possession, they make much better sense than they did a year ago.

But let’s get back to the “fine” part, since it is the beginning of term, and all of us will be asked How We Are, which often means, or is hard not to hear as, “What have you done lately?” Resist the urge to make a list of your accomplishments, which will simultaneously send your brain into a mad dash about whether it is enough, or how much you regret that you didn’t finish. Look them square in the eye and say “Fine, thank you.” Because if you are still writing, if can still care about whatever major project you are working on, if you still sit down a few days a week and knock out some prose, then I have to tell you – you are fine.

This is what I learned on my sabbatical. Ta-da.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Good Enough Dissertation Advisor

For those of you who follow Ferule and Fescue loyally (and if you don’t, ask yourself why….) Flavia has raised the question of the post-grad school relationship between dissertation advisor and advisee. You’ll be glad to know that Flavia has checked in with her advisor and received a satisfactory, if brief, response, that recognizes her continued existence in the world and her capacity for great things. And I’m glad that those of us who encouraged her to do this were helpful. Since I read the outcome of this dilemma, I have had several other thoughts, which should be taken in the spirit of reflection rather than instruction.

My relationship with dissertation advisors – yes, plural – was crafted by a number of unusual things. First, was the place I went to graduate school, which was a fairly middle of the road Ph.D mill (later I discovered this too was a mistaken impression, since 2/3 of the graduate students went on being ABD forever, until they were all booted off the rolls in the early 1980’s). I chose Potemkin University because (I kid you not) it was five blocks away from my very cheap apartment. I realized that if I went to either of the prestigious universities I had been admitted to, I would have to move to more expensive digs or spend a lot of time on the train. Also I had no intention of going on to an academic career (I planned on journalism instead), AND they awarded financial aid without regard to one’s GRE scores, which gave me a big leg up since I had a B.A. from Oligarch University but – in my youthful ambivalence about my future – had arrived to take my GRE’s still mildly affected by the LSD I had taken the night before.

Lucky for me, since as a potential academic I was a real fixer-upper and addicted to making bad choices when good ones were staring me in the face, Potemkin was in a period when they were taking serious steps to become a prestigious major research university. This included colonizing my neighborhood -- why move for prestige when prestige, if given time, will move to you? They succeeded spectacularly, to the extent that others now regard my Ph.D. as being just as fancy as the Oligarch degree. Which is kind of a hoot, but also a relief, since I am not a drug-addled twenty-something anymore. It’s a lot like being Edith Wharton’s Oklahoma hair-oil heiress turned New York society queen.

But I digress.

The point is that I had three dissertation directors. The first one, a really lovely man who not only persuaded me to take myself seriously but also opened the door to what an academic career would look like, died quite suddenly. This caused me to get dumped on dissertation director #2, who treated me very badly. I used to think this was because she didn’t like me, and I now realize that wasn’t true – it was because I made her uncomfortable. Why did I make her uncomfortable? Well, partly because I was a really out lesbian, and she was a lesbian who had really struggled over coming out and did so in a way that was ultimately very public and I think cost her a lot. So the last thing she wanted was a lesbian graduate student who called attention to all of that. And this is not simple homophobia, sports fans (is there such a thing as simple homophobia?) Because her favorite daughters were *also* lesbians, something I found deeply confusing and enraging at the time. In fact, as it turned out by accident almost every graduate student recruited in Potemkin’s building phase was a lesbian. These favorite “daughters” – who were friends of mine – were femmey lesbians who you would not necessarily pick out on the street as lesbians. But I was the kind of lesbian who wore Timberland boots, cargo shorts and sweatshirts cut off at the shoulder. THAT kind of lesbian. And I think #2 found me to be – a challenge, shall we say, to be around.

But #2 also did something for me, which I am, in retrospect, grateful for: she put me up for adoption – or rather, foster care. Two particularly fabulous historians had been hired at Eclectic University, down the street, and she suggested that my dissertation would be enhanced considerably if I stopped working with her (begging her to read my work and pouting in the hall outside her office and in the TA lounge when she didn’t) and hung out with The Famous Pair for a year or so until the department had replaced #1. Which I did. And the Famous Pair were (are) two of the most fabulous people I had ever met, and the kind of people who just swept graduate students into their orbit and gave them real work to do. In my first year with them, they brought a lot of other fabulous historians over from Europe, who were kind of like a lot of Marxist aunts and uncles who really thought all intellectuals were the same, whether they had Ph.D.'s or not.

One never felt that there was a hierarchy of attention around The Famous Pair because when they ran out of time during the day they just had you over to dinner. Their famous friends would visit for weeks at a time, and you would wander into the suite of offices they occupied to eat your lunch and He would rush up and say, “Oh I’m so glad you got here early. Eric Hobsbawm wants to talk to you about your research.” Or She would pull you aside and say, “Give Theda Skocpol a call about this dissertation chapter and tell her I said she would be interested in talking to you about it.” They had the capacity which I now realize is very rare: both He and She could really make you feel, for whatever limited contact, that they were only thinking about *you*.

I think this finally allowed me to, in a preliminary way, find myself worthy of attention and care independently of one person's capacity to reassure me that I was smart -- which was, ater all, all I had wanted from #2. But it was the thing she couldn't give me, that then made the rest of our relationship dysfunctional.

Ok, so here's the advice I can't *bear* not to give - when these relationships with those up the hierarchy are not working, remember that those feelings of rage and inadequacy arise somewhere else in your psyche. Dissertation advisors are not parents, but there are moments where they might as well be. Start looking closely at your own students – doesn’t one pop up out of the crowd once in a while who wants something mysterious from you that you just can’t – or don’t want to – give? Whose constant pestering seems pointless? Who is always angry at you for no real reason? Who makes you long for graduation so that s/he will go away forever?

One day I woke up and realized that I had been that nightmare for #2, for reasons that were no fault of my own and probably not even hers.

So by the time dissertation advisor #3 was hired, I not only had the self-confidence to end my formal relationship with #2, but actually the graciousness to lie about the reason so as not to make my departure any more toxic than it had to be. And #3, as I explained to Flavia a week or so ago, is now a very dear friend. In fact she just asked me – little me! –to write a letter for a fellowship for her. Which was absolutely one of my happier moments as an academic, because normally I think that payment for favors granted takes the form of passing those favors on down the chain. How can you repay mentoring? You can’t. You pass on what you have learned to someone else.

To close – here is something I have learned, through age, and a fair amount of excellent psychotherapy. Everyone has intimacy issues, and there is something about academic life that distorts those issues, particularly in fields like History and English where reputation conferred by others within the academy is all most of us will ever have to move us along. #2 was not a bad person, although she did prove herself inadequate to what I needed from a graduate advisor. But now I would have to give her some credit for moving from the place where she wouldn’t help me to the place where she understood she couldn’t help me. And on a certain level, that was a caring thing to do. And eventually that gesture got me to #3, who was – to paraphrase D.W Winnicot – a “good enough mentor.”

And it isn’t as though #3 doesn’t have intimacy issues. It’s that we realized over time, to our great delight, that we have pretty much the same intimacy issues! Now, how cool is that?

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I was pleased to see last night that the new Democratic Congress started off with a bang by passing a bill that balances expenditures against revenues as an attempt to try to control the Crazy Man in the White House. I was also pleased to see that 50 Republicans joined the majority, demonstrating that party discipline as we have known it in the GOP has temporarily dissolved. This bill is a good example of two things. One is that a guy like Chris Shays of CT, who voted aye and said he "only wished my party had proposed" the bill really understands that he nearly got the "thumpin'" that Dubya's other retainers got in November (but Chris, baby -- you could have proposed it before...oh well, NEVER MIND!)

The other more mixed response I have is that a bill like this serves many ideological purposes or it wouldn't have drawn such wide support. The Dems and other anti-war allies now have a pincers attack available for making the funding of little George's war hurt: "You want all your defense spending? OK, then how about some -- New Taxes!?" But of course, taxes, and cutting weapons programs that are clearly unsuited to fighting wars against terrorists, are not the only way to feed the insatiable budget of this dreadful war. There are always new attacks on social programs. And this is where those of us in the so-called radical (formerly known as liberal) wing of the Democratic party may have to start paying the piper for November's election: those social conservatives who helped bring us a majority may well decide that squeezing the poor is a better idea than raising taxes whenever new funding is being requested for anything.

Uh oh.

But here's the good news: there is a fabulous, newish book out on the welfare rights movement of the 1960's and '70's that can help us think through what could happen next politically and what to do about it. "Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty" is Annelise Orleck's second major book on poor people's movements (the first is "Common Sense and A Little Fire" about women organizers on the Lower East Side of NY during the 1930's and '40's.) It is beautifully written, meticulously researched, and utterly engaging. As in her first major book, Orleck relies heavily on interviews with participants in the Las Vegas WRO to shape her narrative and move it along, and you get a real sense of these women as what Gramsci would have called "organic intellectuals." I have also learned a number of things that will help me teach this period better, among them:

- why many black women ended up on welfare in the first place, even when they had a work history of salaried labor. It was usually a result of some catastrophe, often a health crisis brought on by the conditions they had labored under;

- the political and ideological conditions that caused poor women more generally to have no access to birth control in the 1950's and 1960's, even when they went from doctor to doctor begging for it, thus respectfully refuting the notion that having large families is a "cultural choice" that Black women make out of ignorance;

-why raising children is labor, contributes to the social good and should be compensated (Orleck needs to be commended for resurrecting this old radical feminist chestnut. Why? Because it's true, dammit. Look down the hall at the circles under the eyes of any junior faculty member on the tenure clock and raising a family at the same time.)

- the conditions under which racial oppression persisted outside the former Confederate states, and why segregation particularly served the economic interests of a place like Las Vegas -- until it didn't, and then casino owners ended it;

-why grassroots movements can be simultaneously so vital and so fragile (Orleck does not dwell on this, but it is fairly clear that the empowerment and vigor of local organizations of welfare mothers was the death knell for a national WRO);

-that people who have no formal education, under conditions in which they can take action, can learn what they need to know, not just to run their own lives, but to run complex organizations with large budgets.

Many of these things I have always assumed to be true, but what is impressive about Orleck's book is that she shows, very gracefully, how it works, with evidence and testimony that makes the story jump off the page. She also demonstrates -- in a way that I have never seen in another book -- how Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven's theories about poverty and poor people's organizing actually worked to convince a range of people of what they needed to do to create change, from welfare mothers themselves to organizers to lawyers working for pennies to design successful strategies for making the state deliver resources to the poor.

The central theme of the book, however, is that conservatives have been cutting social programs relentlessly, both legally and illegally, since they were originally framed in the second New Deal, and that some of the "reforms" of the 1990's were originally tried out at the state level back in the 1960's. Welfare was always expendable because lawmakers have always hated it, and employ gate-keeping social workers to give out as little funding as possible so that a reserve army of cheap labor will always be available. They then disseminate vile images of the poor to a middle-class public that seems to believe much of what they read and see on TV because otherwise they would have to engage the idea that we live in a cruel, hierarchical society where a few of us benefit from the immiseration of the many. One of the things that struck me, then, when I saw the Pay as you Play legislation in the news last night (and I have to ask -- what part of what the government is doing right now constitutes "playing?" Could we get back to talking in serious words about the state and its activities?) was that the first thing Nixon did to fund the expansion of the war in Indochina in 1971 was to go after welfare benefits. So let's watch out -- keeping our mitts on the White House's military purse strings is an excellent idea, but I think we know from past experience that if W. wants to expand the war through a "surge" he will and that he will pay for it on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans if he can.

Read this book if you have a chance -- welfare rights organizers did change their world, for a while, and this would be a good moment to start reminding ourselves and our students what it might mean to restore a sense of humanity and responsibility to our political culture, and to start assuming that people who -- by all the values of our materialistic society have "failed" -- have a lot to offer themselves and us if given even the smallest amount of encouragement.

And imagine if the $1 billion we will spend on the war in Iraq today went to the public it was taken from in the first place for hospitals, schools, housing, day care, or job training. What then?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Like Jamaica Kincaid’s island birthplace in the Caribbean, Kauai is a very small place. You can’t circumnavigate the island because of the Na’Pali coast at the northwest corner, a set of towering cliffs surrounded by dense forest on one side and ten foot waves on the other. In between, according to my Hawaiian friend J whose family lives here, there are all kinds of sacred native sites and graves, so even though the map says you can hike through she warned us it would be stupid, rude and dangerous to do so. But if you could drive all the way around, minus the difficulty of driving through jungle and over cliffs, it would take maybe three hours. That’s how small it is.

Currently, I am in a coffee shop in Kapa’a, on the eastern coast. The shop and its inhabitants could have been lifted out of Mendocino county in the 1970’s, with the same grungy look; same excellent coffee; the same oddly gendered straight white boys with long dreadlocks, dreadlocked wives and dreadlocked babies; and same girls behind the counter in tank tops with nothing underneath left to the imagination. Except of course, they are not the same, so it all delivers a healthy uncertainty as to where exactly I am anyway, and what the date actually is. And I am sitting here posting to my blog through a wireless connect, which could not have happened even ten years ago.

One of the features of traveling anywhere is a heightened sense of not being where one is supposed to be, and therefore an uncertainty as to how to be, what to do, and who everyone around you actually is. And one of the features of traveling here is that there are lots of white people with lots of opinions about how the island is developing, all having rather disparaging things to say about someone else. They share these things with me in a variety of ways because I am also a white person. One of the most frequent things I hear from other whites is how it feels to be a “minority” here, and how you can get almost anything you want if you are a person of color, but as a haole (which is Hawaiian for white person) you are constantly running up against racial discrimination.

That this utterly flies in the face of reality is not the point: reality includes the fact that native Hawaiians on Kauai are often living twelve or sixteen to a two bedroom house or – something you can see in the neighborhoods around Kapa’a – people erect one of those sheds you can buy at Home Depot in the back yard as a way of adding an extra room. Native Hawaiians are also sometimes homeless, and living in a tent at one of the state parks. And much of the island is actually owned by very wealthy whites that run things through local proxies, often from great distances. Big chunks of the island have been developed for the second home market, and this has spiraling consequences for everybody born into ordinary circumstances on an island where space is ultimately limited (look at Martha’s Vineyard!) We were informed that a house quite near our rental, which is completely empty, as its occupants have returned to southern California, is on the market for 8.6 million dollars. Another house that we can see from our lanai (terrace) is owned by a physician who comes to the island six or seven times a year; otherwise the house also sits empty.

This is not to say that all white people on the island are rich. This is far from the truth, and there are white folks who were born and raised here who also cannot afford a place to live, and find that their claim to a “home” here – as most people experience their place of birth -- is consequently quite fragile. Or people who came here more than a decade ago to get away from it all, surf, work as little as possible and opt out of the rat race who now find that the rat race has come to them and pushed them to the margins. A subset of these white folks – men – focus their rage on tourists at the slightest provocation, which I suppose is a step up from focusing it on a mythical group of Native and Asian-American oppressors. In the times I have spent here I have never been spoken to rudely by a kanaka maoli (Hawaiian) resident, but I have been verbally attacked repeatedly by stressed-out white guys for crossing them in some way I could not have predicted. For example, last time we were here, N and I were getting ready to check out of a supermarket, and I asked a spaced out little girl with a shopping cart whether she was in line. She said no, so I moved my cart forward and started unloading stuff. The next thing I knew, I heard a loud male voice saying, “It’s people like you who wreck the spirit of Aloha!” It was a tubby, dreadlocked white guy who then started to yell at me like a New York cabby while his daughter cowered behind the candy shelf. Despite the fact that I conceded the place in line immediately, loaded my stuff back into the cart, told him that his daughter had said she was not in line, and subsequently kept my mouth shut when it appeared to be useless to say more, the guy refused to see it as a misunderstanding rather than as a deliberate insult and kept yelling at me until he left the supermarket.

I have had enough encounters like this with ragged looking, enraged white men that I would venture to say it is a general phenomenon of island life in which an ordinary middle-class college teacher like myself immediately becomes a “rich person” by having spent the money to come here on vacation in the first place. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter who I am or what my intentions are. This is something I simply accept, and really, it isn’t so hard. But it is also worth noting that it is a complex feature of a colonial economy that relations become complicated far beyond our capacity to explain them in terms of the causes and consequences of social conflict back in the North American metropolis.

Part of the cause of the disparity between rich whites and poor whites, and undoubtedly the rage of the white resident for the white tourist, is that there is very little work here that is not part of the service economy, and almost no work, I suspect that is well-paid. I don’t doubt that there is vast resentment among everybody, white or not, who labors for the rich on Kauai. But white Americans are not used to living without the illusion that, no matter how poor they are, they can’t move up in some way and achieve control over their own lives – this is why Ronald Reagan was so popular, even as he created the conditions for transforming good working class jobs into poorly paid service economy jobs. And of course the historic consequences of that are that mobility mostly doesn’t happen in a service economy. I think that is probably clearer in a small place than in a big place like North America, where the possibility that prosperity is just a game show away still lurks. I imagine a lot of white people come here from the other 48 states confident that they are choosing an easier life where they can get along with less money when, in fact, they have chosen an economy that is more expensive and thus much harder to get along in without working all the time, and working for people who appear not to work at all, and probably treat them rudely as a matter of course.

Meanwhile, I have to get off the internet, since the several cups of coffee I have purchased have had their predictable effect, and as soon as I leave this table it will be snapped up by the sprawling white hippie family that appears to be living on the beach with their multiple babies and who came here to get out of the rain. And yes, they all have dreadlocks. And maybe even trust funds.