Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Following Dr. Virago over at Quod She, I went to a website where you can make a map of all the states you have visited.

I am proud to say that I am not one of those typical liberal-lesbo-Hillary-democrats who has skipped all the states between Pennsylvania and California. Note the state of Idaho, in particular, where I spent large chunks of my childhood and played tackle football until, to my great dismay, it was discovered by the boys not on my team that I was a girl.

OK, I also get it that the map utterly screws up the design of my blog. But what to do? I'm not that good at HTML yet.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


OK, I have to admit that, much as I amused myself with it, yesterday's post was whining in drag. However, like Fox News, I believe in balance. So I decided that today's post would be to write five heretofore hidden facts about my job that contribute to my happiness.

1. The man who stepped in to be chair of The Program this year, since I was on sabbatical for half the year, has done a darn good job. Let's call him Dr. Hawthorne. Dr. Hawthorne is one of those colleagues who people never ask to do things until gradually the assumption takes hold that it is somehow his fault that he doesn't. Even though he hasn't been asked. And yet, when we asked him to, he rose to the occasion and revealed himself to be a more than mildly competent administrator, as well as a deeply generous and likeable person who shows an almost daily consideration for the well-being of others. He also brings cookies and little cakes to the office. This has been a bit like hiring a nice new colleague, actually, without having to do stuff like teaching him how to use the electronic advising system.

2. My feminist politics seminar is going great. The students do the reading and oh, are they smart. And they never respond to a book that I love that also happens to have been written twenty years ago by saying, "Well, this doesn't seem very up to date."

3. I love my office.

4. Last year Zenith gave me barrels of free money to chill me out after the Unfortunate Events, some of which I still have and am using (in part) to fund a fabulous (research) trip to Hotlanta in a couple weeks.

5. The reality of being a full Professor has begun to dawn on me: it means that I can really do whatever I want and that being restrained and gracious are suddenly seen as virtues rather than subservience. It means that La Professora refers to me as "Your Fullness." It also means that I can write what I want, publish it wherever I want to be read and I no longer have to be concerned that someone will use it as evidence that I am not a serious person. Because of this, I have not only been blogging, I have been doing some more commercial writing, written a piece for a literary magazine and have completely reconceptualized the book I was working on before I was derailed by the Unfortunate Events so that literate people who are not academics might read it too. Being a full Professor also gives me the option of rocking my head back and forth and chanting "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah -- nyaaaaah" should restraint and graciousness fail and I need to pull out the big guns in an emergency. I have never actually seen anyone do this at Zenith, so I think I would have the element of surprise on my side.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Boop Boop De Doop!

I have had a bumpy few days, oh fans of the Radical. A tenure case I am connected to is slowly making its way to the end of what we euphemistically call "the Process." Separately, the lousy History Department poohbahs and their various minions once again made it clear that Women Do Not Count. We female bodied people all agreed after the hiring meeting that we could have sent our votes in by carrier pigeon for all that any of the men listened to what we said. One of us would raise a point about scholarship or fit in the department and one of the male bodied people would raise his hand as if he was going to respond to this point but would then talk enthusiastically about -- himself. Or what someone who retired five or six years ago would have thought about the candidates. Or tell us that the candidate that was preferrred by the male-bodied was brilliant! Brilliant!

Oh but never mind. I'm sure the hire will work out. And no, it wasn't the one who I so avidly hoped last week would prevail, but bitterness is not called for: it's a nice candidate all the same and perfectly smart. He is a male bodied person who, as I understand it from the meeting, has "muzzle velocity," a phrase which I believe is something in man-speak that means "I love you!" If it means something else, I hope I can acquire it, as it seems to be an admirable quality that causes the male-bodied to pay attention. Soon I will find out-- instead of going to the department meeting this week we girls are going to have a Koffee Klatch instead and I will ask them if I have "muzzle velocity." On the other hand, what do *they* know?

But enough of the History Department. Here's the good news: my dean (I think of him when he does good as *my* dean) is trying to get the provost to approve putting tenure-track lines in programs. This is a very good move. Actually, when my dean does stuff like this I want to do things like send him flowers and hop up and down. Or tell him he has muzzle velocity.

This was particularly good news in a one-week period in which news about The Program, separate from the usual fol de rol dished out by the History Boys, is not so good, particularly for the person who will be in charge for the next two years. Moi. I have learned that, upon becoming chair of The Program in July, I will have to deal with the consequences of muliple Missing Persons, launching two searches (if I'm lucky); the possibility that at least one member of my faculty will be lured away by a Research I university; and several other absences and possible absences that will just about complete the job of eviscerating one of our concentrations; one and perhaps two post-docs in The Program forgoing the second year of their fellowships to take jobs; searches for two post-docs for the following year that have to be done regardless of whether these post docs stay or go; and a possible failed joint search with yet another department which will surely have to be re-run next year if it actually does go down in flames.

Mother of God. It is best not to think about it. "Finish your book while there is still time, Radical," Sailor the Dog whispers in my ear as we nod off to sleep.

But the good news is: the dean has a plan -- tenure track lines that we would control ourselves, thus making The Program less vulnerable to departments screwing up or getting shirty on us or not tenuring people because they are interdisciplinary. And frankly, most departments don't "get" interdisciplinary work and we have to spend endless hours explaining what The Program does, and that it is really A Field, with Journals and Graduate Programs and Stuff. I don't know why they don't ever seem to understand this, but they don't. Or they do, and then they say, "Yes we'd be happy to hire with American Studies as long as the person can teach two sections of statistical analyis." It's a lot like saying, "I'd love to hire someone who can teach History. And Physics. Whaddya say?" No seriously -- the number of people with American Studies or Cultural Studies degrees who can teach quantitative whatever could dance on the head of a pin with the angels. And quantitative types think cultural analysis is like reading the backs of cereal boxes for a living.

So if the dean's plan works this is all good. And I think it should work because he wants it to, and he is a more or less conservative guy who should be able to sell it. Also it won't cost the provost a nickel (okay, maybe a nickel) because we would be using lines that are already vacant. The problem is -- if it goes through, the search (or possibly search-es, since the dean has encouraged us to go for two lines) will run -- next year.

So the one good thing that has happened (and I have not told you several of the bad things -- like getting sucked into a meeting and getting yelled at relentlessly by a colleague who was yelling at everyone and seems to be losing his marbles and missing my train so that the only way I could get to dinner on time in Big City was to take the Acela for zillions of dollars) has happened at a moment when I am least able to greet it with the unmixed glee it deserves.

But since recovering from the Unfortunate Events I know that the Goddess reveals her logic all in good time. She has muzzle velocity.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Today Extravaganza paid a visit to Zenith -- dressed very spiffily in a blue tennis shirt with the collar popped, and a silk designer tie discarded unworn by his paternal unit (paisley on one side -- navy blue with white spots on the other -- can't magine why it was put aside by a grown man.) He came to my lecture class to check out the scene.

It was an ok class on my part, and we had a great book on a gay Asian community, but the participation rate was unusually low for a class not notable for its participation anyway. This is particularly difficult when the entire session was supposed to be devoted to discussion -- probably ten kids in a class of forty speaking consistently -- although queer studies classes can be like this: "We're gay -- why do the reading when we can talk about ourselves?" I had previously vowed to deal with this once the history search is over, and in a way that preserved my carefully detached, post-promotion trauma sensibility. But as we got into the last twenty minutes, conversation dried up utterly. I looked around and said, "How many people finished this book?"

Two students raised their hands. Two. I had a few words to say about that, and returned to an article we had read for Monday. In the past I might have ended class with a severe lecture and ended it in a huff ("Don't leave in a huff," says Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, "Leave in a minute and a huff.") But I just ended by saying they needed to finish the reading for next time. Whatever.

As Ex and I were walking back to my office, he confessed to horror that *college students* were so fully unprepared. The eighth grade would never dream of such a thing. "And," he said, "Did you know that one of the kids was doing email on a computer?"

No I did not. I thought the little so-and-so was taking notes. I thought people only did that kind of thing in law school. That was the final straw -- I went into full huff, if belatedly.

So upon my return home, the following email went out to the class:

"Please note that participation in class discussions is one of the
requirements of this course. Let me clarify what I mean by that.

"Participation requires completing the reading thoughtfully for the class for which it is scheduled on the syllabus.

"Participation means speaking and making a contribution to the general discussion. It means responding to your classmates as well as to me. It does not mean allowing a small number of your classmates to carry the load for you and teach you about what you have not read. In the future, if participation is as low as it was today, there will be a quiz.

"It has also been brought to my attention that at least one member of the class was checking an email account during class. I am not even going to say what I think about this. Please do not bring computers or any electronic device for use in class in the future unless it is required for a disability and we have discussed it in advance."

There are disadvantages to being too relaxed, people. No one ever said the Radical was plannng on being a pushover for the rest of her life.


Footnote: I came across this post as I was doing a careful read through on April 3, after having discovered that my blog was widely read at Zenith. I considered taking it down, and decided not to. The update is that -- for whatever reason -- snarky emails, comfort level, a good communication of expectations -- communication in the class is significantly better. And I relented on the computer when the student involved offered a gracious apology.

Monday, February 19, 2007


We had the last of four candidates today for our open tenure-track position. I've been nice and detached from the whole process as part of my mental health regimen -- wasn't on the committee, didn't have an investment in the outcome. La, la-la. Said to myself at the beginning, "Wouldn't it be nice to like everybody? Then when we have that meeting at the end where we go around the table and everyone is duking it out and insulting each other and the untenured people look like they are being attacked by Vikings, I would say magnanimously: 'I like everybody! Hire whomever you like!'" My blood pressure would be about 90 over 70, and I would float home, and N would say "Anything happen at work today?" And I would say, "No, not really -- and you?"

Yeah, it would have been nice. And yet, my position was threatened because I had reservations about the first three candidates -- and in the case of one, my reservations were, as they say, Fatal. (This is how we speak in the Zenith history department. When you say such a thing -- which means the candidate is Not Acceptable, and I Cannot Be Held Responsible For The Outcome If Defied, you shake your head gravely and say, "I am afraid my reservations are fatal.")

I won't say why, since I think the only problem is that the candidate was a preemie: pushed out on the market prematurely. Ivy schools tend to float such candidates on schools like Zenith because it's a "good" job but doesn't expose the undercooked graduate student to the rigors of an R-One school where the book is supposed to be done by reappointment. Because, of course, when we see them the dissertation has barely been started and will be finished by June, which means it will be an Ungodly Mess, and the poor tyke will pretty much have to begin all over again to write a book. I think if I met this candidate a year from now, when s/he was better cooked, s/he would be fine and the dissertation would have gone through at least a second draft. But heck, I was willing not to kick even about hiring the preemie if it came about, so very, very conflict averse am I right now.

But I wanted the last candidate to do well. "Thrill me, Chill me --- never let me go until you...." You know. That's how you want to feel about hiring someone even if you are Determined Not To Care. And (Holding Breath) the candidate was a .......woman.

OK, you're probably saying, "Don't hold your breath, Radical."

And I've got to tell you she smacked the ball out of the park. Not just with my crowd (we were casting covert glances at each other as we felt the energy in the room rising -- could it be? Could it be?) but with Dr. Grumpo and Professor Hatrack and Dr. Shoetree! Why Hatrack even asked his traditionally pointless and confusing question and she handled it like a pro, answering it like it really made sense, smiling at him warmly and pleasing him no end. Heck, everyone might even vote for her, she was that good.

Oh frabjous day -- Caloo! Calay! You see, I really did want to care after all.

This just in from Rainbow History, via Karen Krahulik at the Committee for Lesbian and Gay History of the American Historical Association:

"DC’s LGBTQ community lost a long time friend and ally yesterday with the death of Barbara Gittings yesterday from recurrent breast cancer. Ms. Gittings was closely involved with DC’s Mattachine Society and with eastern regional gay organizations such as ECHO and ERCHO. An out and outspoken lesbian, she edited The Ladder, the Daughters of Bilitis magazine, in the mid-60s. She was an organizer of the early picketing demonstrations of the 1960s, a forthright ally in the campaign against the APA designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder, and involved in the development of gay student activism in the 70s. In 1971, Ms Gittings was actively involved in organizing support for Dr. (Frank) Kameny’s campaign for a seat in Congress. She and her life partner Kay Tobin Lahusen have documented much of gay activism in the 60s and 70s. Their personal archives fill an entire apartment next to their home in Delaware. Ms Gittings and Ms Lahusen had moved within the last month to Kendal at Longwoods, a retirement community in Pennsylvania.

The local and the national GLBTQ community have lost a founder and a role model. No plans have yet been announced for a memorial service. Rainbow History will be adding a memorial page to its website for anyone who wishes to contribute memories or tributes to the page (email to"

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Racism and Tenure at MIT

On Friday, James Sherley ended a twelve-day hunger strike intended not, he claims, as an attempt to reverse the negative decision in his tenure case but to highlight racism in personnel decisions at the Massachuestts Institute of Technology. This is what I know:

1. Sherley does stem cell research, but on adult, not embryonic, stem cells. Sherley believes that the latter practice is immoral, since it involves the "killing" of day-old human embryos. I use quotes around "killing" here to give a nod to the idea that not everyone (for example, me) believes that it is unethical to use human embryos in this way. According to my research Sherley believes that he was denied tenure because of public statements he made opposing colleagues' research on embryonic cells. A white member of the faculty would not have had to pass such an ideological litmus test, he charges, but he has been fired for making an ethical position known.

2. MIT says the decision has been reviewed several times since it was originally made in 2005, and there was no racism involved. I have not seen a comment on the ideological question.

3. At MIT, 4% of the tenured faculty are from minority groups. Fewer than half of all scholars reviewed for tenure are actually awarded tenure. I have not seen figures on how many members of minority groups are reviewed for or awarded tenure, but 4% of the standing faculty does seem pitiful. Not as bad as Harvard Law School, but still pitiful for a top research institution.

This is a tangled and difficult case to understand from the outside for many reasons, but I would like to start with one thing: of course there is racism at MIT. If you doubt the reasons I might assume this, read Cheryl Clarke's essay, "The Failure to Transform," in which she tackles the question of homophobia in the so-called "black community." Clarke argues that rather than deny homophobia, or resist dealing with it on the theory that racism is more important, black intellectuals and political leaders must understand that the larger homophobia of society in general is shaping to blacks' view of queers. Lessons learned from the struggle against racism can, and should be redeployed against homophobia inside and outside the "black community." Thus, the question is not, is there homophobia, or is it worse here than elsewhere, but what are we doing about it?

Regardless of his work, which may or may not be tenurable at MIT on its own merits (whatever that may mean), I do not doubt that Professor Sherley's tenure evaluation occurred in a university context that was, and is, racist. I also would not be surprised if most white people at MIT do not perceive this. Let me explain.

Racism, and the other -isms, takes many forms at institutions of higher education, one of which is to portray people who point out racism, or gender inequality, or homophobia, as crazy or just covering up for their intellectual inadequacies. Sherley probably didn't help himself much in this regard by choosing the hunger strike as a tactic, not because it is a crazy thing to do, but because it is a grave thing to do and is probably more appropriate for a situation with much higher moral stakes than a tenure case. Like trying to get American soldiers to stop waterboarding you, or freeing your nation from colonial slavery. And a tenure case at MIT, for God's Sake: how many people can get seriously committed to what goes on at one of the most elite institutions in the country, one which wouldn't hire most of us if we offered to work for free?

But here's where I would like (as a white, queer, feminist if you didn't know) to muster some sympathy for Professor Sherley, whose politics in general I would probably more or less disagree with. Racism in higher education, because it does not take the form of physical violence, and mostly does not take the form of direct name-calling, is not taken seriously at virtually every institution I know. Tell me if any of the following things that happen, or have happened, at Zenith are familiar to you:

1. Racist assumptions in judging a candidate pool. Jobs in the study of race are silently reserved for people who identify racially as part of the group under study (this is also true for the study of sexuality and gender.) White people are usually not considered for these jobs, and (white) people often complain loudly about this. But here's the racism: people of color working on people of color are usually eliminated from consideration from "unmarked" jobs (read: most jobs) that are really, well, for white people studying white things. Thus, an Asian-American person working on Asian American intellectual history could be hired for an Asian American history job (a big part of which would be teaching a social history survey of the field, which would not be this person's field exactly) but not a U.S. intellectual history job, which would be unspokenly presumed to be for someone working more or less on white intellectuals like William James. Someone white or black working on W.E.B. DuBois would be seen as an African-Americanist, and someone in the hiring meeting would point out that "we already have one." This means that, for example, all Asian Americans with Ph.D.'s in history are pitted against each other for the six Asian-American history jobs posted each year.

2. A large percentage of the black students who matriculate as undergraduates are Carribbean and African, and are aggressively recruited to the university. African American students, outside of a few students most elite schoools are interested in, are not aggressively recruited -- or rather, a very small pool of students is aggressively recruited by a large number of schools. When it was suggested at Zenith that recruiting in the South might produce well-qualified black applicants (assuming that there aren't more well qualified African Americans in New York and New England, which I do not believe) the admissions office said their budget would not stretch that far.

3. Overheard at Zenith: a scholar of color with a scholarly book in press being criticized by a white colleague for articles s/he had in non-academic publications because it was evidence that s/he "wants to be one of those public intellectuals, not a real scholar." Please note that "public intellectual" is not just racially coded in this instance, but connotes "unprofessional" and "troublemaker," so it is an insinuation about racial identity, a presumed political stance and a lack of intellectual depth. All without mentioning race explicitly.

4. Encountered in a meeting: an administrator who, when I had proposed a tenure-track line in Asian American history for the fifth or sixth time, since we hire adjuncts to teach these courses and they are always full, told me that he "just wasn't convinced that Asian-American history is a mature field," and that it was "too soon to tell."

5. White colleagues who say publicly they do not believe in race as a viable category of intellectual analysis, and that to talk about race at all is "racist."

Now there are equivalent nightmare scenarios for women and queers, but I am going to stop here so that I don't lose my focus on the MIT case. And I want to be clear that I don't know whether Professor Sherley was denied tenure because of endemic racism at MIT: in every failed tenure case, there is plenty of evidence on all sides, and it is probably true -- as it is at Zenith -- that some people skate through the process because for some reason they are beloved by those in charge. And those in charge at elite institutions are invariably white men, which I have been told is not by design but merely an "accident of history." The accident in question, of course, was outright refusing to hire women and blacks for decades, rather than having to find indirect ways of keeping them off faculties.

Whatever, as Extravaganza would say. But there is a phenomenon I would like to draw attention to nonetheless: when I have seen a candidate hired or promoted to a lower standard than usual, it is always a white person, sometimes male and sometimes female. And when a man with more or less ordinary qualifications zips through some evaluative process like a hot knife through butter (a tenure case, a hire) that a woman, a queer or a member of a minority group would get nailed on this is called a "beloved son complex" by those of us who tend to feel resentful when we see it happen. In other words, there are some white men who see in younger white men something that reminds them of -- well, themselves at that age. And the idea that they could retire, knowing that the department, or the university, is still in the hands of young (white!) men with their values, is compelling -- so compelling that they sometimes make idiots of themselves extolling mediocre or flawed work as "brilliant!" because the author has had the gumption to resist "fashionable scholarly trends" (which means every important intellectual stride the field has made since 1968.) And to speak for those of us who watch this happening all the time-- it isn't giving up on making interesting hires that gets to you once you get used to it and realize you should just go home and do your own work. It is being in those crazy-making discussions where bad work, or boring work, is being represented as "pathbreaking!" because of the human package it comes in on.

It can be really exhausting. So I don't doubt that Professor Sherley's response to being turned down for tenure, in addition to all the ordinary pain, is refracted through a similar exhaustion. Whether he should have gotten tenure or not, I can't say. But if he were my friend, I would tell him to move on and save his career if possible, because most of us don't give a damn what's happening at MIT.

We've got too much going on in our own houses.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

An Interesting Observation

About a year ago, a literary journal asked me to write a piece on a period of student activism on my campus that was characterized by a struggle over whether Zenith, by enacting rules preventing certain kinds of expression by students, had violated the principle of academic freedom. It was a particularly ugly and jejeune form of student activism, produced by a kind of identity politics that is hard to identify with if you are older and then hard not to identify with, because you know they are right and you just hate the crudity of the organizing style.

The administration was supported in their suppression of this activism by many faculty; as it so happens, your Dr. Radical was on the famous "other side" (surprise!). I was far from alone: there were a great many faculty of all political, racial and sexual persuasions who saw in this moment the potential for repression of dissent among faculty on campus as well. It was one of those instances where the left and the right find a single issue over which they can bond, leaving the centrists growling at everyone. I supported the students past a point at which I now recognized I should have stopped, although I don't think that they were affected much by my participation or lack thereof. The political protests they staged got so out of control, and began to pervade the campus so completely as to produce vile classroom behaviors, at least one truly frightening demonstration in which an administrator was taken hostage for several hours in a stairwell by about a hundred enraged students, and hideous opinion pieces in the student newspaper in which students ripped each other and a variety of faculty and administrators to shreds in the kind of language you really don't want to see in a university. I would still stand by my original decision to support the students in the face of the powers that be suppressing their dissent, but at a certain point I recognized my responsibility to withdraw that support because I thought the ethical turn things had taken was very wrong.

OK, I felt a little like Richard Hofstadter and Hannah Arendt after the Columbia sit-in, but hey. Every moment you can channel the consciousness of a dead person is a moment to cherish if you are a historian.

So anyway. I accepted the assignment from the journal, not to keep the controversy going, but to attempt to re-think what the students had been trying to express, and to try to make sense of what I thought of the position(s) I had taken at various points in the conflict. It has gone through a couple revisions, and as part of the final one, I sent it to several administrators who had been on the front lines of policymaking and enforcement. I wanted to get their perspectives on my argument and make sure I was representing fairly what they had done and said. Yesterday, because of the snow day, I sat down to make sense of their comments, many of which were quite useful. I also found that there were several facts of local history that are taken for granted at Zenith that are not true at all. So this raised an old, but always interesting question: how do certain "histories" get written when something else actually happened? Why do people get invested in this untrue story, to the extent that it is retold and acquires the status of truth? This is particularly intriguing at a college or university, I think, where part of what students, faculty, and administrators do is tell stories about the past constantly, making all of us a kind of living archive of truths, half-truths, and narratives that are fictional but which express some kind of "truth" about the institution and its past.

I was well absorbed in re-writing this article when all of a sudden I realized something. One of my chosen readers had sent the piece to the university's lawyers.

Oh yuck.

I would like to attribute this discovery to my archival skills, thank you very much. One of the things that you cannot teach in graduate school, and that you only learn through endless hours reading the mail of dead people, is to look for something I can only describe as "tone." In other words, a writer has a certain voice, a handwriting, a grammatical style that you get used to, a voice that changes sometimes with different correspondents, but that is also pretty recognizable over time. If the writer's tone or even handwriting shifts, you have to ask two questions: is the authorial provenance of this document correct? and/or, What happened? Why has this person become curt, or uncertain, or huffy, or rude? What's going on here? This also becomes important if you are doing political history, as I do, since before Xeroxing, and even after in the case of secure or confidential materials, memos circulated to government bureaucrats, rather than a new copy being sent to everyone concerned. People would jot down comments on the document as they read it, without necessarily signing or initialing them. Being able to decipher the "conversations" in the margins, and matching handwriting to the names in the copy line, is critical to figuring out what became of the ideas and information articulated in the document. This "conversation" is often as much the story as the outcome of whatever process you are studying.

What clued me in to a second, "mystery reader" of my article was not handwriting, since the document was circulated electronically: it was the use of the Track Comments function in Word. The administrator in question had included chatty little asides in those bubbles in the margin that Track Commments creates, all of which bore a name, date, and time. These comments basically continued the conversation about a topic about which we had disagreed in the past, but offered no serious correction to what I was representing, and sometimes praised me for a reflection or point of analysis that the reader thought was insightful. Sometimes these were accompanied by a phrase inserted in the text in a color identical to the bubble's color. They were all written in the first person, and often addressed to me by name. It was also clear to me that this administrator does not know how to use Track Changes since bubbles were sometimes inserted with nothing in them, a sure sign that something had been written that was removed at a later point when the question or issue was answered elsewhere (or by someone else.) Then, in the same color type, I would find these short, curt comments -- no bubbles that would identify the author -- that said things like "the university has never made this claim" and "there is no guarantee of this in any university document" and "the rule on this is clearly written on page 13 of the regulations, no representation to the contrary could be made."

Wow. Now, I want to be clear that no one has suggested that I not publish this piece, nor was I told to make any specific changes of any kind. But I think two things. First, we were exactly right that suppressing student speech had implications for the faculty (and the students let us down by losing control of what they said and did: this relieved me of any lingering worry that I had let them down.) And second, I understood that I was taking a risk by delivering this article into the hands of my employers that something like this, or worse, might happen. But I saw it a gesture of colleagueship, professionalism and respect, not to mention a desire for accuracy. Because you could say that I invited scrutiny in the first place, I have mixed feelings about the fact that this was sent to lawyers (to check for what, precisely?) but I have no mixed feelings about not being told straightforwardly that this was done.

I think it was wrong, and dishonest, and I find it worrisome. I am also annoyed that a gesture I conceived partly as a way of putting the whole episode to rest, at least among the adults concerned, has ended in creating grounds for further distrust. How pointless.

Coming up: by request of a reader, a post on the Hunger Strike at MIT. Stay Tuned.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


While I have several private Valentines to give out, this year's public valentines go to:

Nancy Pelosi: enough said.

The President of Zenith (aka, The Big Guy), who cut through all the crap on my promotion, promoted me himself, and told me ungrudgingly after it was over: "Sometimes you have a choice between following the rules and doing the right thing. I'm so sorry this happened." I really love this guy.

Dr. Victorian, who has never let me down once in 16 years.

Flavia, CP, Horace, Tony Grafton, Dr. Virago, Lesboprof, my correspondents in the blogosphere.

Dr. Crazy, who isn't much of a correspondent, but whose posts sometimes make me laugh for days.

Bitch, Ph.D.: how could I not? What a fierce chick.

La Professora, my stalwart pal at Potemkin.

Happy Valentines day, yall.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


So I have received a least one email, and have spoken to several students in class, to the effect that they have lost their syllabi. I just send them another one by document attachment and it's no big deal, but it wasn't until the student wrote to say "I just can't handle paper anymore," that I thought, Huh?

I have heard colleagues boast for several years about the advent of "paper-free" courses, made possible by ordinary email and things like Black Board, Web Pages, and so on. It is possible that soon the whole world will be paper-free. "Help the environment!" read my email from Citibank. "Get your statement on line." I wanted to write back, "Help the environment! Stop investing in people who rape the earth!" But I didn't, and I even had a moment of wondering whether I could reduce my three or four bags full of waste paper that the recycling folk pick up every week by going "paper free" with my other services. Not until the history search is over, I think, but maybe. And I won't pretend I'm helping the earth, since the only reason I can go "paper-free" is because of a computer that -- if it is ever disposed of -- will probably put fierce chemical shit into the environment.

I don't know what it means that students may be losing the skill of "dealing with paper" but I do know that I never, ever lost a syllabus in college or graduate school, and if I had it would have been part of a larger disaster, like leaving my whole binder on the bus. Have whole rituals disappeared, like buying those little stickies that you put over the punch holes so your syllabus doesn't rip out of the rings? Or do my students just stuff everything in those bottomless backpacks that nothing ever emerges from but a water bottle and a cell phone? Before we went "paper free" on drop add (really a good thing, since I discovered about ten years into my career at Zenith that if you refused to sign off on a schedule change for a student, many students were simply likely to sign your name for you) I remember being presented with a three-layer form that became increasingly ripped, disheveled and stained before being turned in to the Registrar -- who, I presume, sterilized them in a microwave before she allowed her staff to process them. But sometimes those forms would return to the backpack, probably eventually working their way to the bottom where they formed a moist layer of compost, never to emerge again. In April, students would show up with petition forms to drop a class they had -- well, intended to drop.

Is "learning to handle paper" a life skill -- like, say, spelling, that you can get computers to do for you but is also wise to learn in case you ever need to write out a Valentine's message by hand? Should we be teaching it as one of those things you append to a class description, along with "citizenship," "speaking," and "engaging cultural difference?" Does it require a support center, like the Writing Center or Math Workshop? Or is this just another little bit of trivial annoyance to add to the life of professors: that from time to time we will be asked to produce another copy of the syllabus -- hopefully not too many weeks after it has been lost in the first place.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


And we are in the middle of a job search at the Zenith History Department, which means next week is scheduled more closely than I have had a week scheduled in two years. I remember the day -- shortly after I was hired at Zenith (and was instantly put on a search committee -- harbinger of Things To Come) that I discovered I could lecture right off the top of my head. I had been working so hard on the search I just had had no time to write a lecture. So I scribbled five things I knew about state centralization in the progressive era United States down on a piece of paper during the department meeting at noon, added a few more pieces of blank paper for good measure (this was a dodge so the students would not notice I had no lecture: clever me!), and ran in and started to teach.

And by gum, it worked. In fact, I thought at the time it was one of the best lectures I had ever given, including my class on Andrew Jackson's tax policy (otherwise known as the Tax of Abominations, which I really do just love, particularly because I can never get enough of that badass secesh John C. Calhoun.)

OK -- you can't always do it this way and secede -- er, I mean succeed. And I don't want to do it this week because the other thing I have learned over the years is that being unprepared is just as stressful as squeezing out time you don't have to prepare. But it's a good thing to know you can do it if you have to, isn't it?

Friday, February 09, 2007


If you are an academic reading this blog, you probably already know that Drew Faust, a southern historian (and a really fine human being) has just been made the first female President of Harvard. I am not in awe of Harvard (although anyone who tells you they don't think Harvard is the Final Club is either lying, lying, lying, or occupies a distinguished chair at the University of Chicago), but I have to tell you I am very impressed by this.

Next thing you know Harvard will be competing with Yale for who can be the first to establish a real tenure-track for junior faculty (see previous post.) And if Drew is in charge, Harvard will win. Watch out, Big Blue.

Although, as the New York Times notes, there are unnamed sources who are concerned that Drew isn't "tough enough" for the job, be assured that there hasn't been a cane riot at Harvard for about 125 years, so she will not be required to wade into a scrum of freshmen and sophomores to preserve the dignity of the university. And believe me, for those of us who know her, she *is* tough enough.

I say "us," since I have known Drew for close to twenty years: in fact, she was instrumental to hiring this Radical for her first actual academic job, one that inexorably led to Better Things (although that job was, in itself, a better thing than the Radical had, which was adjunct work in the CUNY system.) And I am not surprised that this happened. In fact, I am sorry that there isn't a betting pool for who will get college president jobs, since I would have won this one, although the odds would have been rotten. Practically everyone who knows Drew thought she would get this job, and the rumor mill has been grinding away for about a year and spitting out the same name every time. So, yay.

That said, here are a few random thoughts:

1. This is a victory for feminism, even if it did occur at Harvard. They will say it was about Drew's qualifications, not her gender, and I believe that, but it is still a victory for feminism.

2. There is now an opening as Dean of the Radcliffe Institute. Ladies, start your engines.

3. I am going out on a limb here but -- this will probably also signal a shift in hiring at Harvard, to wit: when minority, queer and female scholars apply for jobs there, it has a better chance of being a fair fight. I believe this, not because I believe Harvard is ripe for change, but because Drew will make it so. And she may even do it in such a way that Harvard believes diversifying its faculty was Harvard's own idea in the first place.

4. Um...what am I doing with my life? I don't think I work hard enough. Really.

I might conclude by saying that, on her way to the top, Drew has made a lot of friends. Since this is not always the case with people who are very, very successful, it is worth emphasizing. The other statement I want to make about this is: there are a lot of tenured people in my age bracket, left and feminist though they may be, who now have no excuse not to view themselves as members of the establishment because of this appointment. Even your queer Dr. Radical (who is vowing, even as she writes, to Work Harder.) As I wrote this afternoon to a friend who is also an old friend, colleague and ally of Drew's, "You know you are settling into middle age respectability when one of your friends becomes President of Harvard. Please advise."

She wrote back: "Absolutely...amazing." And I think she was referring to all of the above.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What Do We Do About Tenure?

If you haven't already, go to Inside Higher Ed (a link is to your right on this page: I still don't know how to do links in the text with a Mac. Help, Combat Philosopher!) Yale has made the stunning announcement that it *may* institute a real tenure track for junior faculty, rather than the "use 'em and lose 'em" policy they have now. My colleague Steven Stowe, who occupied such a slot at Potemkin, called his the "Folding Chair of History." I think the word "nurture" was also used in there somewhere by Yale, although I suspect that probably won't be part of the plan.

I have never understood how Yale and Harvard got away with a policy of making tenure impossible for 99% of its hires without having been investigated by the AAUP like other schools are. Even Princeton had a policy 15 or 20 years ago when I interviewed there that it called the "pipeline." One's chances of getting tenure were part of a mathematical formula whereby only a certain percentage of the faculty could be tenured at any given time. It was a bit like a horse race: the odds changed from year to year as people left for other pastures, retired, died, and tenure cases above you succeeded or failed. And even though I imagine it was a bit hair-raising for the untenured folk (it certainly was for me, just listening to the description -- I dropped out of the search when another job presented itself), the theory behind it was sound on a certain level: that a tenured-up faculty is potentially less vigorous and less open to the new ideas that younger faculty bring with them. Also, unlike other schools, if you have been following the stories about Princeton in the news, it wasn't about tamping down the payroll, since that university is so successful financially it appears to be struggling to keep its non-profit status, to the extent that it is voluntarily treating graduate students like people with regular human needs that require a significant budget.

But here's what worries me about tenure: the huge amount of intellectual energy and human spirit that is consumed by it. At Zenith, we have recently gone through a period in which, for the first time in the history of the institution, people are not getting tenure -- sometimes people who have written enough that they could reasonably come up for full professor. This means that younger ladder-track faculty are unbearably anxious about their futures, and it means that those of us presenting tenure cases that would have been smack-down perfect less than five years ago spend hours making arguments that are then sliced and diced by our T & P committee, and then we have to go back in and make even better arguments. We spend a half hour addressing the four teaching evaluations that characterized the candidate negatively which some member of the committee on a wild power trip has identified as "a serious concern." I don't think it is going too far to say that it isn't just the intellectual energy we use in the tenure process now -- it's the spiritual energy. And getting tenure is less the celebration it used to be than a moment where people end up cynical and rightly self-absorbed because they have been put through too much. Or feeling like they got pulled off the embassy in Saigon while their peers waved their arms helplessly below.

People often ask the "dead wood" question, as if this is something that can be anticipated at such an early stage of someone's career -- and say "Well, do you want more people like that? And if occasionally the standards are set too high, isn't that ultimately a good thing?" And my answer (and I bet it isn't only me) is: "Hmmm. No, but -- ." And I think about what other line of work in the world puts people, productive or not, who are at the end of their careers in charge of judging the ideas of the young, which seems to me more to the point. If the computer indsutry were run like university faculties, we would all still be using electric typewriters.

Which is what leads me to think that we might want to get rid of tenure, and I think those of us who have benefitted from the Goose and her Golden Egg might want to stand up and say so. Why?

1. It creates a frozen job market, where the majority of openings are at the most junior ranks. This raises the stakes on tenure significantly, meaning that a person in a field like English or Philosophy, who has a book out and should be hired as an associate (must be, really -- or with the assumption that s/he will come up for tenure soon) has a minute chance of getting another academic job. It also means that people who tire of working where they are for some reason can't move at more senior levels, and can work virtually forever at a level of minimal effort and/or competence without being motivated to change professions or jobs. For this reason, we might also wish to abolish rank.

2. Tenure consumes the first seven years of a new Ph.D's life and almost ensures that that person will not take intellectual risks that might be held against her by anyone. Only the boldest and brashest young scholars, and those who are mentored by very powerful people, can take the chance of writing that field-changing book that is going to cause controversy. Look at someone like Richard Hofstadter, whose great dream in the 1940's was to publish in the New Republic. Indeed, one could argue that people like Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Hannah Arendt (who were in a tenure system, to be sure, but not the high-stakes one that exists now) would not have been the scholars they were without that constant engagement with the public sphere in their early years. Publishing to a wider public -- at Zenith, at least -- is not only not "counted" toward tenure, it is sometimes held against a younger person as an indicator that s/he is not intellectually serious. And God forbid you should write a book that really ticks off a couple of big names! People who are controversial are often in great danger of not getting tenure and -- at Zenith of late -- they don't.

3. The tension and quasi-legal quality of the high-stakes tenure process means that a tenure review is preceded by multiple reviews, often annually (at Zenith, a tenure track person is *not* reviewed only in the first year and the sixth.) The Zenith provost's office talks about this as an opportunity for mentoring, but in reality, it is a barrage of criticism aimed at young people who are constantly getting ready for a review, or getting ready for an observation, or recovering from same. Some of that criticism is aimed at "protecting" the department or university should tenure not ultimately be conferred, and can thus be erratic, meaningless and -- if followed -- push the scholarship in the wrong direction. It also means that the impulse is for young people to meet some standard for tenure at Zenith -- not find out who they are intellectually and act on it with conviction.

4. The trend at Zenith is for each reviewing body -- department, T & P, the Faculty board that reviews decisions, the Provost's office, and the Board of Trustees -- to outdo everyone else in their "high standards" so that they retain their "credibility." People talk like this, really they do. And as I may have said before on this blog, the problem with high standards is not that they are high -- it's that they are standard. And that the tenure decision becomes all about those who already have tenure showing off about the "excellence" they are promoting.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007


This is the central idea of D'Souza's new screed, "The Enemy at Home": that I and others like me -- leftists and homosexuals (and Hillary Clinton, who is not like me *at all*) - are responsible for 9/11 and the ignominious, pathetic, tragic, mind-numbing failure of George W. Bush's valiant effort to find Osama bin Laden, eliminate Al-Quaeda, and turn Iraq and the entire Middle East into a democracy.


Friday, February 02, 2007


N. and I have cut a deal this semester that Breezy the Dog comes to school with me pretty much every day so that N doesn’t have to break up her writing to do dog things. This is fine, as coming to Zenith is one of Breezy’s favorite activities: there are long jogs around campus, where you can often find an old sandwich under a tree, and lots of admirers who want to make much of her. One time the President’s office called me on my cell as I was walking with her across the front lawn and said, “Would you bring your puppy up to say hello to everyone?” I have a crate in my office, a baby-gate for the door, and I’ve loaded up on dog supplies for the term. Since, with the advent of e-mail and JSTOR, none of us needs the file space we once did, one drawer serves as a storage cabinet for Greenies, dog food, rawhide chews, treats and a box of 1-quart plastic bags suitable for “picking up.”

Breezy has been coming to work off and on since she was about six months old. If I haven’t explained this before, she is a Portuguese water dog, otherwise known as a “PWD.” And PWDs crave constant companionship. In fact, they don’t even like to be in the house with you and not touching. They get in the shower so they won’t have to be alone for the five minutes it takes you to bathe. As one of the breeders we consulted warned me, “If you need a lot of personal space, this is not the dog for you.” Also if you want quiet: when Sailor feels that she needs something (like the cheese you are eating, or more room on the couch) she starts to talk. It’s a humming noise that sounds kind of like this: “Verrrrrrrrrrr.” She does it over and over, softly, and sometimes with a little yip at the end, until the problem is resolved.

The only reason Breezy can come to work (since dogs are officially not permitted in Zenith university buildings) is that my office is no longer in the humungous social sciences Complex where Someone who will remain Nameless once brought a large, unneutered hunting dog to work. The dog galloped relentlessly and unsupervised around the building until one day it took a small chunk out of an administrative assistant (probably because the Xeroxing wasn’t done properly.)

My move to a new building (the Castle) was not precipitated by the desire to bring a dog to work, but it helped, since I believe the union got involved with the dog bite thing, it was all very unpleasant, and Edicts Were Issued. But, in addition to sharing much of my day with a few congenial people and staying out of the way of campus gossip, bringing Breezy to work has been a bonus of moving to the Castle. It is a snug little Federal House that I share with six or seven other colleagues and 1.75 secretaries. Breezy is a big hit with everyone, and particularly likes office hours, when she can run in and out of my office, visiting with the students who are waiting to see me and who seem to keep a lot of snacks on hand that they are more than willing to share. I have only had one student who did not like her, and frankly, that was not his only flaw.

The reason I bring this up is that Breezy’s presence in the building periodically provokes a conversation about the pros and cons of bringing dogs to a teaching institution. Some people are afraid of dogs, and don’t want to have to navigate that, and there is the argument that they prove a distraction to our serious enterprise of teaching, scholarship and learning. I don’t think I buy this, except the fear, which is one reason I have a crate. But I do know there are many pros.

Animals are cheerful, they make other people cheerful, and the happiness they spread around the world lowers stress. When Breezy is rushing around doing her thing, whether it is running pell mell with a tree branch in her mouth, or holding office hours, she invariably leaves people in a better mood than they were before. In other words, for the same reasons people take dogs to nursing homes and hospitals, dogs belong in school. Probably cats do too, but they are exceptionally hard graders, so they are a tougher sell.

Students who are shy about coming to office hours can break the ice by asking questions about Breezy, and very often the first real thing a student will tell you about himself starts with the phrase: “Well, MY dog….”

Students who are crying, and who we are not allowed (through good judgment and on the advice of attorneys) to comfort with more than a Kleenex and a lifesaver, can touch and be touched by the dog. This is one of Breezy’s particular skills. She is very empathetic and, if I have not emphasized this sufficiently, loves full body contact. She is really good at sensing when a student is about to start crying, and will often tip toe over and put her head in said student’s lap. Should petting the dog cause the tears to flow rather than be staunched, Breezy works her way upward so that eventually she is sitting fully in the student’s lap, with her head wrapped up against said student's neck, licking the weeper's ear. You can't giggle and cry at the same time, and I think Breezy knows this.

It is not unusual for Breezy and I to be minding our own business when the phone rings, and someone on the other end says: “Send the dog down, will you?” code for: I have a weeping student in my office. And I will say to Breezy, “Go see X!” She hustles her butt down the hall to comfort whoever needs comforting.

Which leads me to my main point: Breezy allowed me to remember last week, after two years of being away from Zenith, that students are often more isolated than we know and dealing with that is one of the constant challenges a teacher faces. Students are almost never alone, but even the ones with lots of friends are often lonely. Students can also be too insecure to reach out for the kinds of connections with faculty that a university is supposed to offer, either personal or intellectual, but that can elude all but the most self-confident kids.

Taking breezy to the office reminds me of an earlier time in my life, when I was better connected to students than I am now. I was, of course, younger, I had more energy and wasn’t afraid of getting snarled in the endless, time-consuming entanglements that knowing students in trouble produces. Before I moved to Shoreline a few years back, I used to have students to my house for seminar meetings or reading week parties. Before we weren’t allowed to drink with students I used to bring them champagne on the last day of the seminar to celebrate the great work they had done and thank them indirectly for being such good kids. I played squash with them, and I sometimes went to their plays and art exhibits. Before I had all the responsibilities being a senior member of the faculty entails, I had the energy to make sure I saw each student in office hours at least once, and the time to go out for coffee spontaneously with the last student who was in line.

Changing isn’t bad, and more distance from students may even be a good thing, particularly since I am now so much older than they are. I am supposed to offer stability, authority and experience, not anything that might be remotely perceived as friendship. But Breezy’s office life brings the unexpected bonus of reminding me that students value the time they have with me, however constrained it might be, and that making even the slightest intentional and personal connection lets them know that I value them.