Wednesday, June 27, 2007

So Enough About You, Let's Talk About...


I got tagged by Adjunct Whore and Tim Lacy for this meme. The rules are that:

I have to post these rules before I give you the facts.
Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog (OK, I think Adjunct Whore forgot to do this, but I read her anyway so it was a nice surprise. I suspect I will forget to do this too, and thus demonstrate again how difficult it is for me to color within the lines.)

1. Because of birth order issues, and the very large family I got adopted into as a spouse, I have three nieces, five nephews, three great nieces, and nine great-nephews. You can see this family leans towards the Y-chromosome, which is OK, because for a girl, I kind of do too. Two of the nieces and all of the nephews are roughly age peers.

2. I was a college administrator when I was in graduate school and I got fired (by a really famous, as well as famously difficult, historian) for reasons I promised not to reveal in exchange for the university not contesting my unemployment claim. Let it never be said that I am not an honorable Radical when it comes to promise-keeping. So I went on the dole, thinking of it as a federally-funded dissertation fellowship for which I had made no application and that only required going to Chinatown every two weeks, standing in line and swearing up and down that I was looking for work. Which, in a more abstract sense, I was.

3. Back in 1981, I was at Studio 54, at a party being hosted by the New York Post, and a heavily made up man in a white suit and blue eyeshadow who was standing next to me tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention and said, "Excuse me sir, but I need you to step away from me so an embarassing picture will not be taken by a tabloid." It was Tony Curtis.

4. My great aunt Harriet Potter, who was a librarian in Guilford before World War II when Connecticut was a very rural state, invented the book mobile.

5. I am a first generation American on one side of my family: my maternal family is Canadian.

6. I met my first shrink at a cocktail party.

7. About ten years ago, I realized that I have had mild attention deficit disorder all my life: I break all tasks, including reading and writing, into small manageble chunks that can be accomplished in fifteen minute bursts. I think I learned to do this in the tenth grade when I found myself sitting in front of chemistry problem sets unable to function. I realized, however, that if I did them one at a time over the course of about four hours of television and/or novel reading, I could get them all done to hand in on Monday. I think my father may have had a related brain glitch, as he did not really learn to read until the fourth grade, but then had a long, successful and highly educated life as a doctor.

8. If I had my life to live over again, and could pick a fantasy job, I would become a cop and solve incredibly difficult mysteries.

OK, who to tag up? We already know so much about Gayprof.....OK, I know he already got tagged, but let's go with Combat Philosopher, and add Lesboprof, Oso Raro, Notorious, Ph.D., Horace, Neophyte, aka Mouse, Clio Bluestocking, and Sisyphus.

Who's On First? College Ranking Systems

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities otherwise known as NAICU -- is that pronounced "Nay-koo" or "Nay-soo?" -- has rolled out a sample template that, when filled in with real data from real colleges, will allow potential students and their parents to compare institutions: the curious will be able to click on various parts of the webpages, and go to data bases kept by the colleges themselves that give more detailed information. You can read about this innovation in making the process of choosing a college even more time-consuming and hideous than it already is at the Chronicle of Higher Education: click here. This is part of a growing effort, I think, to topple the supremacy of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and sell colleges in ways that they wish to be sold rather than forcing them to meet criteria set by (yecch!) journalists.

You know, I think the way to really make the Tenured Radical 2.0 blog fly to a general audience would be to develop the Radical Ranking System for Colleges and Universities. Because I just have to ask -- why do we need to rank colleges and universities in the first place? Who profits from this? And will it be so much better for each college or university to hire more institutional research people to assemble the data for NAICU than it is to have the little research bunnies over at US News and World Report tabulate the questionnaires? And under what circumstances might such a ranking really need to include, as the Chronicle so gracefully put it, "results from specific assessments of student-learning outcomes?" NAICU, by the way, is resisting this, because they claim that you can't put all institutions in the same box, something I think pretty much everyone thinks is one major flaw of the current ranking system. Public universities apparently feel otherwise, since they have been bullied by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings into providing some kind of assessment of learning outcomes, because of ominous news that the Bush Administration was discussing a No Child Left Behind Act for public higher education as well.

Sometimes I almost think we should be grateful the administration is kept so busy screwing up the Middle East for decades to come. Imagine what they might accomplish if they had time on their hands.

I would like to make one point here which should illuminate the philosophical source of my sarcasm on the question of assessment and the question of ranking. It is not so much that it is dumb to put all colleges and universities in the same box: it's dumb to put all students in the same box. What is wrong with "specific assessments of student-learning outcomes" is a) the point of education at all levels is for students to learn to assess themselves and figure out what they need to know; and b) the phrase "student-learning outcomes" is utterly meaningless.

Ranking and assessment assume that a college or a university is good when it can promise, in four years, to turn out a student who is a certain kind of well-functioning product. But students are not products: they are people who are evolving into citizens, workers and neighbors. Thus, students and their parents should not be comparing schools to each other. The correct comparison is to match up what the school offers with what the student herself thinks she wants. In less enlightened families, that will mean matching the school to what the parents want or will pay for. The NAICU plan will probably come closer to meeting this ideal, although personally I think people should just visit and talk to the students that are already on campus. They know, better than anyone, what is or is not happening in the classroom and the dorms.

At Zenith, folks are constantly having fits about some feature of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and I am sure there will be some movement in the fall to join these other SLACs in NAICU and secede from them. It is said that the Board of Trustees loves them and keeps pushing for a higher ranking, but I have hung out with a lot of trustees, and none of them has ever said such a thing to me, although perhaps this is out of fear that I will detonate myself if they do. I dunno. But I would say the chief detraction of the damn rankings is that every time there is some kind of policy change regarding class size or advising or whatnot, the assumption on the part of many of my colleagues is not that it is intended to help us do our job better, but that it is intended to elevate our rank, which usually hovers between 10 and 12. The good news is that nothing we have done has ever moved us more than a point in either direction, which allows everyone to sit in the faculty meeting where the ranking is announced and smirk happily.

There was, I would like to note, great dismay all around one year when Smith somehow managed to dunk on us. "A GIRLS' SCHOOL!! AAAAAAAAH!!!!!" (Full disclosure: I have one family member who attended Smith and liked it very much, thank you.)

A Zenith student once wrote in a comment to this blog that s/he liked the rankings because, growing up in New Jersey, s/he had never heard of Zenith, and s/he discovered it through the national rankings. This caused me to wonder whether this student had grown up in the Pine Barrens or something, since everywhere you turn at Zenith there is a kid from New Jersey, but it was a good point all the same. The rankings advertise one's presence; they make one known in places like New Jersey and Nebraska. But I also had another response, since it reminded me of that thing some people say when they are explaining why they are against abortion: "If my Mom had had an abortion when she was pregnant with me, I might never have been born!" to which my response is always -- "So?" I mean, if I had never known about you, I wouldn't have known to be sad that you weren't here, right? And if you hadn't known about Zenith, you might be playing tennis at Rollins getting a big tan in February, happy as a clam, and probably not saying all day, "I wish I were at Zenith where it's really cold and icy all winter."

You really would not. So I appreciate the inherent Kismet of this student having discovered Zenith, but that's not why I like the rankings: I like them because I don't have to do anything to make them happen, I am not responsible for them, and nothing that the rankings do or don't do affects me in the least, for good or ill. They are one of the things in my life that I put in the win-win column. And given how hard I work on my teaching, scholarship and institutional labor, that is a fabulous thing indeed.


Update: regular and sane readers need to know that I am temporarily exercising my God-given right to delete comments, since the trolls (or a single troll under several names) are once more spamming me with pointless ones. Those who wish to trade remarks with others who have contempt for me can exercise their freedom of speech here. If my blogger ethic is not clear enough, let me remind everyone that I take down comments that are unrelated to the blog post and/or have no purpose other than to insult me or someone else. As an example, I just took down a comment that insulted Pat Robertson by asserting that he was a friend of the Radical's. I don't know why someone would want to hurt Pat Robertson this way, but I'm not going to stand here and do nothing while they do.

Monday, June 25, 2007

History Activism and the Bush Administration, Part III

In response to this post and this post on the attempts of the Bush Administration to keep itself from going down in history, Barbara Weinstein, President of the American Historical Association, e-mailed me to explain why the Executive Committee of the American Historical Association (AHA) is not currently storming the gates of the White House as I had requested. With her permission, I publish Barbara's response; in a nutshell, she reassures all of us that the organizations representing professional historians in the United States are not "sitting on their hands," as I put it, while the Administration passes a large magnet back and forth over the RNC server. Quite the opposite.

"I think Tony Grafton has already responded to your comments about the AHA and the OAH not doing enough to protest the machinations of Cheney, Bush, & Co. regarding government records," Barbara writes, "but I just wanted to add a few words. Although I personally feel like we're never really doing enough, given the size of the outrage, I'm afraid the staff wisely insists that we lodge our protests" through the paid professionals in Washington. "As Tony may have mentioned," Barbara continues, "the AHA is the largest contributor to the National Coalition for History, and we pay most of the salary for a full-time lobbyist (Lee White, a very energetic and determined guy, who has his office in AHA headquarters). I think OAH is the second largest contributor. The NCH website was the source of the HNN post, and Lee and Arnita Jones (AHA executive director) are always alert to any issue of this sort, and do what they can both to support those opposing executive policies, and to express the AHA's position as publicly as possible. Perspectives has also been full of articles decrying government secrecy (including my April column), most of which have been reprinted on other websites. The real problem is that our means of action are limited. With past administrations, expressions of outrage or simple exposure would sometimes be enough to get the government to reverse its policy. But these guys are shameless. So we work as closely as we can with Waxman and with whatever groups are bringing legal complaints, and hope Congress votes or the courts rule in our favor, since denunciations seem to have no effect. If you" -- that means all of you, readers -- "have any suggestions for other steps we might take, I'm all ears."

You might want to send your suggestions to the comments section at Tenured Radical 2.0, rather than spamming Barbara and proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.

I am also pleased to say that the Southern and the Berkshire Conference are members of the NCH, so all of my dues everywhere are going to this effort. Yours too, assuming you paid them this year. And if you don't join these professional organizations because you think you can just read the journals in the library, and get the job ads on H-Net, and you aren't giving a paper at the annual meeting, reconsider your position, because this is one way of not sitting on your hands as the Bush Administration unimagines its own history.

Friday, June 22, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

If you go to the ever-fabulous Lesboprof, you will see that you can get your blog rated. Hers is rated R.

So I went to Mingle 2, which is actually a dating site that does this on the side, and found out that:

OK. So I was feeling a little downcast, as I am very competitive, even with people I do not know, and I thought: what is Lesboprof doing that I'm not doing? (Probably many things, come to think of it: she's considerably younger, and you will notice which one of us is up blogging on a Friday night and which one of us is not.)

Then I looked at the justification for my rating and saw "dick x 4, dead x 2, sex x 1." And I thought, that I should have used the word dead seems reasonable: dead tired, dead wood, whatever. And sex only once? Not so bad. I would have thought more, since I teach the history of sex. But "dick?" OK, I would say it but I wouldn't write it down. Was this in my pseudonymous days, that I referred to someone or ones -- colleagues, students, strangers, people who spam my blog over imagined slights -- as "dicks?"

Then I recalled my last post. Mingle2 is referring to my discussions of the Vice President of the United States. So only my invocation of this truly obscene man, who once flung the F-word at that lovely Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) on the Senate floor, has saved me from being right down there with Shreck III and Evan Almighty.

Don't you just love the internet?

The Perils of Nanny Dick: An Update on the Bush Administration Archive

According to the New York Times, Dick Cheney's office has consistently resisted any oversight of how his office handles classified materials: you can read about it here. That oversight normally comes from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), an agency that was established because of the advocacy of the American Historical Association in the last century. But here's the beautiful part: when the NARA office that deals with the preservation of classified records persisted in its attempt to do its job under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, Cheney shifted tactics from simple obstruction and tried to get the office itself abolished.

These. Bush. People. Are. So. Awful. And the mystery is -- why didn't they think they would ever get caught at this? Or did they think they might get caught, but they would have so effectively gutted the justice system by that time that none of their lying, filthy deeds would be prosecuted? And I have to tell you, it is one thing to go after prosecutors, but going after archivists is low. Not even Richard Nixon went after archivists.

History News Network has a post up that is a summary of today's New York Times article: you can see it here. But once again, I wonder why -- along with Gayprof, in a comment on a previous post -- the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians has been sitting on their collective hands? True, in March, the AHA urged all of us to write our congresspeople to support a bill reversing Executive Order 13233, W.'s original move against the historians. But I see nothing on the AHA's advocacy page about the hearings currently being held by Henry Waxman (D-California); to look at the scope of the Waxman investigation and why it should concern us as scholars and citizens, you need only go to the webpage of the Committee on Governmental Oversight. And I have received nothing from either of these professional organizations to which I pay hefty annual memberships (OK, because of size I am not counting the Southern and the Berkshire Conference, and I am letting the Historical Society, to which I do not belong, off the hook too) alerting me to the issues at hand and what we, as historians, might do to be heard in this matter. And, as Gayprof pointed out in a comment on a previous post, why are we six years into this Administration and this has not been a major professional organizing issue for American historians and our colleagues in other fields?

What gives? Make a difference here, bloggers. To write Representative Henry Waxman, either to express your personal concern or to bring in expert testimony from historians, go to this link. To contact Arnita Jones, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, click here (don't worry: this is not her personal email.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

RIP: Antioch College

There is no rule that a college or a university has to last forever, but I find the closing of Antioch College a little sad. Signs indicate that the expansion to a university with satellite campuses that will survive the closing of the original residential college may have been overambitious, which only makes the loss of this radical educational vision even worse, in my view. A liberal arts college will disappear leaving a cash-driven degree mill in its wake. Antioch alum Cary Nelson (the other Tenured Radical) has this post at Inside Higher Ed, and there are a variety of comments attached to it, many of which seem to be saying "good riddance to bad rubbish."

The view that Antioch's time had passed seems to follow two strains of thought. One is that Antioch's radicalism and out-of-the-box educational philosophy was so retro, noxious and impractical that its loss should be celebrated. A commenter cites as proof of this a diversity mural at the college that (shockingly!) had no white men in it, although some of us might argue that this might have been an ironic point the artist was trying to make -- that you notice when the white men have been removed from a visual representation, and your outrage tells you something about what you are privileging as an artistic or social vision. And I am curious about whether these angry white men ever get it that the only time they seem to be ripshit about the failure of diversity is when they are left out, and that the loss of Antioch, as Nelson suggests, is probably a larger blow to diversity.

The other premise draws on the marketplace theory of education that has given us vouchers, charter schools, for-profit public schools and No Child Left Behind, ideas that have failed to transform secondary education a jot except by turning it over to the testing industry. In other words, if students or their parents don't want to buy it in sufficient quantities to ensure a healthy profit, it's no good. If Antioch failed, it failed for a good reason related to mismanagement or its own lack of vision. The people have chosen.

I have very little to say about Antioch that is knowledgeable about the institution, but I've known some amazing people who went there, a number of whom were older women of color who had gotten involved in community organizing and parlayed that into an opportunity to go to college. However, assuming that Antioch's demise represents some higher education version of Lani Guinere's "canary in the coal mine," I would argue that there a few things we need to fear.

The first is that higher education is becoming more homogenous. It is harder and harder to put together a list of colleges or universities and claim that they are really distinct from one another, except in terms of location, size, fees, specialties that they may offer in the arts or sciences, and/or the reputations of particular departments in their fields. Schools that used to be distinct in their outlook and pedagogical philosophy have either gone out of business (Antioch); become a business (Bennington, the Union); or have consciously moved to the middle (Zenith, the New School, Pitzer.)

The second is that we cannot continue supporting private or public education through tuition payments, whether that tuition is paid fully by those who can afford it or by loans, grants and scholarships for those who can't afford it. Higher education is a necessary resource, not a luxury or a business. Whether it is an Antioch -- a school that must have been heavily tuition-driven -- or a Zenith, where full payers who are paying close to 45K a year are still not paying what it costs to educate them, education is in a perilous place if we keep expecting it to pay for itself and respond to what the "market" demands. The market usually demands a certain kind of conformity of thought, whether you are talking video games or publishing; and sure, a new idea can shift that paradigm, but the outcome is often a new conformity that is sustained by those who want to profit from it until yet another new idea causes it to be abandoned.

A great society creates an atmosphere where creativity is valued for itself, and where ideas, and the institutions that sustain critical thought, can sustain their traditions whether they are on the margins or on the mainstream. As David Palumbo-Liu once wrote in an article called "Universalisms and Minority Cultures" (differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies 7:1: 188-208), margin and mainstream ought not to be seen as competitive with each other, but rather as in productive tension, in which each is necessary to the other and the circulation of ideas from majority positions, to minority positions, and back again, is a sign of a healthy political culture.

I don't know whether these issues will be addressed any time soon, but we needed Antioch, and there should have been some way to sustain its vision of multi-generational, pragmatic, radical undergraduate education.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Bush Administration Has No History

I learned on National Public Radio this morning that the investigation of White House email practices, that began with an investigation into the firing of Federal prosecutors, has revealed a widespread practice in the Bush White House of erasing emails and evading the terms of the 1978 Presidential Records Act. According to NPR, there are only 130 emails remaining of any sent by Karl Rove in the first term. The Wall Street Journal reports that according to the House Oversight Committee chaired by Henry Waxman (R-California), 51 of 88 White House officials have been deleting their emails from the Republican National Committee server. You can read the full story here.

National Public Radio also reported this morning that lawyers for the RNC, who have acknowledged that White House advisors and staffers used RNC email accounts purposely to avoid going through the White House server and be subject to the terms of a federal statute (read: avoid public scrutiny and make prosecution more difficult), say that although they took steps to prevent the deletion of emails on the RNC server, a full four years of Rove's emails prior to 2005 have gone missing and cannot be recovered. “Republicans,” so the Wall Street Journal writes with a straight face, “said there is no evidence that the law was violated or that the missing emails were of a government rather than political nature.” Well, I’m glad we cleared that up, Chief. Only the political emails. Thank God.

These people are legendary in their capacity for corruption and their need to treat the rest of us like fools. I bet dead Presidents like Grant and Harding are laughing their heads off as they clear space in Presidential Hell to leave room for the Bushies.

But I am going to suppress the incipient political rant and insert a history rant instead. Because, as Ron Hutchenson points out in the Kansas City Star, each Presidential administration has a legal obligation to preserve its own records. For those of us who rely on Presidential Libraries and other government archives, the increasing use of portable telephones and email has been a worry for this reason and other less nefarious ones. Why add the problem of portable phones? I'll tell you why. Remember how, on the West Wing, Josh Lymon did a great deal of his important business walking from place to place talking urgently on the phone? I'll tell you what you did not see: Josh Lymon taking out a notebook and making a memorandum of what transpired during the call. And yet, at least as late as the Reagan administration (I have not yet been to the G.H.W. Bush Library yet), telephone calls were recorded in some way, and ended up in memorandum form. I have spent most of my time at the Reagan Library working in the Elizabeth Dole papers, and there are tons of memos that she sent to the White House that are accounts of telephone calls she made doing the President's business. All of Reagan's advisors did -- and this is a practice I can vouch for going at least as far back as the FDR White House. And it isn't just that they needed a record of who had been spoken to and why to hold people to account or keep a policy discussion going; they had an acute sense of history. This sense of history was bolstered by people like Johnson and Nixon who taped things both so that they could screw people (I mean this figuratively, of course) and so they could have a full record of their ability to steer the country through perilous times.

OK, so cell phones disrupt this practice significantly. Why? Because the calls can't be recorded, and no one is tied to a desk where they can jot down a few notes or call in a secretary to jot down a few notes.

Email poses a different sort of problem, and it isn't clear how it will affect archival collections or the use of archives. By its sheer volume and ease, email creates the potential for a more significant and dense written record than we are used to -- one that is potentially even unwieldy -- by making a face-to-face meeting unnecessary, or by allowing people to do business they might normally do over the telephone, or by expanding the time available to do business. Look at how much email traffic any college professor creates in the course of a day: it is downright nineteenth century. In 1890, you could drop someone a line in the morning, and by 1:00 they would have told you whether they were coming to dinner or not. Email has, ironically, revived an epistolatory style that had vanished for several decades. So presumably, with email, we would have a denser sense of how political people live, whom their friends were, how policy documents developed as they were sent back and forth, and so on. Of course, you would have to have the tenaciousness of a Carolyn Eisenberg to knit all that information together in a way that makes sense, but it can be done, it is done, and very fine, useful political history is written this way. Knowing what people actually did while making policy, as opposed to what you assume they did because they were “like that” ideologically is what we call good history. Not leftist history, or conservative history, or unbiased history. Good. History.

But emails are far more fragile, even if you aren’t destroying them deliberately. The problem with email as a record, or potential archive, is the problem with all computer technologies: it becomes harder to access any electronic file the older it gets. How many of us have tried to open a Word Perfect file from six or seven years ago and found that it is inaccessible because the program itself is no longer compatible with the version that created the file? And at least many of us print those documents out. Who prints their email? I ask you.

Of course, archivists are working on these things, but they can’t preserve what they don’t have, and they don’t have access to servers that politicians don’t want anyone to know about, or emails that have been successfully deleted. Now it is Congress and the public that the Bushies are primarily concerned about, but it is historians as well. Their idea of an historical legacy is one that apparently is untroubled by the facts of what actually happened. It is not news that the Bush administration has declared a Cold War on historians: in his first year as President, W. issued a Presidential order that made access to modern Presidential collections far more restrictive, and cut off access to a great many documents that have nothing whatsoever to do with National Security and would have been released to the public in a timely manner as they were processed. The Act was also retroactive, and made the Freedom of Information Act Process more prolonged. I filed FOIA’s for domestic policy documents a year and a half ago out at the Reagan that I haven’t heard a thing about; as I understand it, three years is not an unusual wait for domestic policy documents. Documents of government agencies are also affected by this administration's zeal for concealing things. Those of us doing research in Justice Department papers at National Archives II in the first months after the Bush Administration took over had a lot of trouble getting an archivist’s attention, much less a table to work at, because Bush flunkies were busy reclassifying documents that had been released, and classifying documents that had never been secret in the first place. And to add insult to injury, National Archives funding has been cut even as Presidential libraries are becoming privately financed entities. There are documents you can't get that haven't been restricted: there just aren't the financial resources available to pay trained people to process them.

Needless to say, the archivists at most federal facilities are beside themselves: at one Presidential library I visited I was asked to take the time to request documents I have no earthly use for, only because large numbers of what are called “piggy-backs” will push a FOIA up the priority list. In other words, archivists are working within what is left of the system to get as much to historians as possible. But I hope that the American Historical Association will have an opportunity to testify before Congress about what is happening, because historians should be beside themselves too. And I would like to see conservatives like David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh (not to mention a certain political historian who seems to be obsessed with college athletics), who have criticized liberal and radical historians for crimes of facticity, step up to the plate here. It isn’t unrealistic to imagine that what Bush and his cronies has done will damage political record keeping, and the ability to use political records in a timely manner, for some years to come, and it will certainly prevent any but the most superficial and ideological accounts of this administration from being written any time soon.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

In Which the Radical Descends Upon Madison Avenue

I have always thought I had a little bit of the haberdasher in me, but now I know I do, since I have successfully collaborated with Extravaganza to dress him for eighth grade graduation, shepherding him through a variety of men's stores downtown and on Madison Avenue to put together the Perfect Outfit. He actually picks his own clothes very well, and has an acute sense of personal style that some adults will never achieve, so all I have to contribute is what grown ups usually contribute on such missions. He is also a striking boy, as are his brothers, so dress him in a paper bag and he looks good; go to a little effort and he looks like a movie star. Since Ex was deserving of both a birthday present and a graduation present, we had agreed some time ago that we would go to New York and shop for his first Stylish Suit (my partner N. was a 50% backer of this expedition, you will be glad to know.) We completed this mission today, and had an absolutely marvelous time. I took him to brunch at a French Bistro I know on the Lower East Side; he took me to dessert at a resturant in the former Little Italy that serves nothing but rice pudding in twelve or fourteen different flavors.

Oh, and speaking of movie stars, when we got off the train and into Grand Central, there was a massive film crew filming Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road on the Vanderbilt Avenue steps and we saw Leonardo Di Caprio dressed as a 1950's suburban commuter.

Now I said I wasn't going to write about people without their permission anymore, and Extravaganza is my real nephew, so I can't even pull the composite character bit. This means I have to withold all of our witty conversations, as well as a number of interesting questions he asked me about the city that I know well and love, as we coasted past Potemkin University, various historic folksinging joints and the Stonewall Inn (I try to keep the history lectures to a minimum.) For the same reason of course, you will hear no family drivel, which you wouldn't find interesting, but we can be consumed by it for hours. And I will tell you nothing about the eighth grade at Shoreline Middle School, which is a hotbed of intrigue, and about which I like hearing because the stories are hilarious and the eighth grade was the nadir of my own life and the life of nearly everyone else I know. In contrast, Extravaganza's eighth grade seems to be full of wonderful kids who are more or less nice to each other. By re-living the end of middle school vicariously I hope to finally put to rest my own youthful trauma.

I will tell you, however, that recently some idealistic community philanthropy group had the poor judgement to sponsor a lip-synching contest for eighth graders in Shoreline and surrounding (wealthy) towns. Shoreline middle schoolers chose songs from Broadway shows; a quartet of white boys from Richbury chose a rap song called "Nasty Girl" by Nelly, which has as part of its verse, "I need you to grind your little ass and hips...." You've got the picture. I said innocently, "What did everyone think of that?" Extravaganza said, "Well -- these guys were, like touching themselves! And like -- banging against each others butts with their -- and we were, like --" speechless, is what he might have said to complete the sentence, but he demonstrated it instead: mouth dropped open, eyes wide in mock surprise. I can only imagine.

Partly I tell you this because I think it is hilarious, and partly I tell you this so that the next time you are complaining about your university or college job you can imagine what it would be like to teach the eighth grade.

So what did we buy? We bought this suit and shirt (btw, the model is not Extravaganza):

To accessorize, we purchased a pair of pale yellow socks, which picks up a pinstripe in the shirt; a pair of white cruise shoes and one of those belts they started making so preppies would stop stealing their father's neckties to hold their pants up, in pale yellow and white regimental stripe.

Pretty snappy, eh? We think so. Not even DiCaprio looks as good as our Extravaganza. Not by half.


Morning non-fashion question: Has anyone noticed anything odd going on with Sitemeter?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Letter To An Anonymous Blogger

I just posted this as a comment on Tim Lacy's History and Education: Past and Present, and realized that, although it is part of an ongoing discussion Tim has been trying to spark about anonymous blogging, the post I attached it to was old enough that it might get a little lost. This is my own reflection on anonymity, and on having come out as a blogger. I have edited it a bit more because I am a compulsive re-writer; I have also not included a link to the blog under discussion so that no one is confused that it is a critique of that blogger. It isn't: this is a smart blog by a graduate student, with great posts, and you can find it over at Tim's place.

Dear Tim,

Thanks for sending AnonymousBlogger to my post about relinquishing my anonymity -- I do think anonymity raises ethical and practical issues that everyone at all ranks of the profession ought to think about on an ongoing basis, and not just those unprotected by tenure. As I reflect once more on my blogging life prior to my decision to give up anonymity, several things come to mind.

When we publish things anonymously that are incautious, and we are more likely to do that when we believe ourselves to be anonymous, there are immediate and sometimes long-term consequences for ourselves and for others. There's the equivalent of the flaming email phenomenon -- putting up a post in a fit of rage, or self-righteousness, or manic humor -- in other words, making a set of thoughts public in a way that doesn't engage one's own super-ego as it should. I know because I've done it, and I had to go back and edit or delete a bunch of stuff once I came out that seemed funny at the time (was, in fact) but was potentially hurtful since the humor depended on sarcasm or on exaggerating the characteristics of composite characters that real people were too likely to see as themselves. I remember at the time how differently I saw some of these posts once I had to imagine the reality of them being attached to my name, and to real people at Zenith. That change in perspective is a learning experience I have not forgotten.

But even when the posts are serious and accurate, I do think you need to ask yourself, before publishing something that is critical of others, would I stand up for this in public? After all, simply because something is the "truth" doesn't mean you should publish it. If you can't imagine saying such a thing to someone's face, or don't want to engage your own critics publicly, you probably shouldn't put something up on the web.

I want to emphasize that I personally don't feel critical of anonymous bloggers, and complications in my blogging life will not necessarily be problems on your blog. I am, after all, well known in my real life for taking all kinds of risks either to get a laugh, to make a teaching moment work in a memorable way or to get something done that I think is important. But assuming that your identity as a blogger is privileged information still means that you risk having to be personally accountable for what you write anyway. There is a high risk that some people will discover who you are eventually:it's clear to me that a number of anonymous bloggers' identities are well known to a circle of friends, for example. If you have been hiding your identity to avoid consequences or retaliation, that will be over in a flash when someone -- anyone -- who gets really angry at you wants it to be. And things could get really ugly -- people might know for months before you have any kind of tipoff and have re-thought your blogging ethic.

There are also intangible questions about how the people around you may perceive collegiality and professionalism. Whether what you have been posting is truthful or not, some people will think you have been dishonest in spirit if perhaps not in fact by recording and publishing things without their permission or without attribution. That really is damaging to a reputation, and you can't control the damage, because the people who will think that don't necessarily know you or want to know you. The ones who do know you may feel betrayed -- and this is drawn from my experience of discovery: a variety of people who knew me and thought I was a decent person felt puzzled and hurt when they thought I was blogging about them (when in fact I was not.) And that required a lot of straightening out -- from friends, to students to casual acquaintances -- and I am quite sure I will never really have an honest exchange with everyone who was upset or misperceived a post. Now that I am out, if someone is offended or thinks they have been written about, they can just drop me an email and we can straighten it out. If they don't, it's not because they can't, and it's a decision that I am not responsible for. More important, someone can look at me in a meeting or during a conversation and say, "I hope you aren't going to blog about this." And I can reassure them that I won't -- even if I want to!

Now I want to say that your blog, AnonymousBlogger, is a wonderful, thoughtful contribution as many anonymous blogs are, and I really love hearing things that graduate students and untenured people might be hesitant (afraid?) to tell me in my potential role as gatekeeper to success. These are things I need to know. But I have also been in the position of having been abused by anonymity and it has changed my view of it a bit. This may seem unfair or irrational, but I must warn you that there are many people -- if you are using your blog as a place to address charged topics -- who will simply think anonymity is cowardly. I certainly thought all the racist and anti-semitic stuff I got from the "anonymous" commenters in relation to the Duke lacrosse affair, in addition to being offensive, was deeply cowardly. And I continue to think that the historian who turned these people loose on me by posting my email address on his blog, behaved in a highly uncollegial, unprofessional and frankly, unethical, way by exposing me to what was not critique or criticism -- it was just crazy abuse, where anonymity became a weapon that he deployed through other people to punish and intimidate someone as an object lesson to others. So did HNN, in fact, where this person is listed as a regular contributer: they chided him in a column, and as far as I know he never responded to them. I know he never explained his actions to me.

The most serious problem from my point of view is that this person and I had a genuine difference about the content and meaning of my original post, and his took a great stretch of the imagination to either articulate as genuinely harmful or justify such a public, personal and vicious verbal assault. What the blogger and his cronies said I did, I did not do: I did not spread or make false charges about the students under indictment. Actually, I reported on coverage of the case, not the case itself, in the service of making an argument about race and culture that compared how those students were depicted in the press to another case. Frankly, even if I had made false charges against these students, it would have been without material consequence to them because I have no standing in their lives, their community or in the legal case. I was in no way responsible for the situation that brought on the press coverage in the first place, or Duke's decisions about how to deal with it. But the anonymous people attached to this blogger wrote emails and letters to my colleagues, officers of the university, trustees and to me: as I came to understand, they have also been sending abusive, obscene and racist email to members of the Duke faculty. Only when I began to investigate their real identities by filing complaints with their servers did they stop. I still don't know, because of the multiple anonymous comments and the accounts opened under pseudonyms, whether these were many real people, a couple real people, or whether it was just the blogger himself in a fit of paranoid rage and grandiosity. And not inconsequentially, although the blogger claims to be engaged in a campaign for justice that has held up factually in recent decisions in the Duke case, that he deliberately misinterpreted my post and fails to exercise any retraint over the "anonymous" comments to his own site, many of which seem to be from right-wing conspiracy theorists, frankly calls him into question as a scholar as well as a colleague in my view. As far as I can tell, he has one identity as a historian and another as the convener of a bizarre, right wing conspiracy group. And the two identities cannot help but overlap because they belong to the same person.

This is all a way of saying that the question of one's reputation, and one's responsibility for the reputation of others, is a very serious one indeed. It has many dimensions that anonymity makes very, very ethically complex. I don't want to be hard on you or any other anonymous blogger, because I'm not against anonymity in principle, but in no way should you feel that you are protected from the consequences of other people's perceptions of you because your name isn't on the blog, nor should you think you are immune from people making judgements about you that may be really unfair. It simply isn't so, and even if you wish to remain anonymous, you need to write as if you were not anonymous. And you need to police other people on your site who are anonymous, because no one knows that a comment written under another pseudonym, or by an anonymous commenter, isn't also *you.* That said -- as people advised me when I was pondering the question of coming out -- remaining anonymous is useful because it makes it harder for people to google you and have your blog come up before any of the articles and books you have written!

Good luck, and happy blogging, AnonymousBlogger: I will continue to read your blog which is, if I have not made this point sufficiently, very fine;


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Am I That Name? Why the AHA's Gender Policies Make Sense to Some of Us

I've been participating in a fascinating discussion about graduate advisors over at Ferule and Fescue; instead of recapitulating it, I'll just send you there.

I also want to thank those people who commented on my last post: you were, in turns, funny, sweet and -- most importantly -- you took the post in the spirit it was intended. Mary Dudziak took the trouble to do a retrospective post on my book, which was also really nice.

So in the spirit of following up on other people's posts, I want to point to a fair amount of chatter in the history blogosphere on the question of the American Historical Association's requirement that panels at the Annual Meeting be gender diverse: you can get to much of the discussion, and some interesting commentary, by going to this post by Rebecca Goetz, the Historianess. Rebecca has included a number of good links to other posts on the topic, and also engages in a spirited debate in the comments section (and in the post itself) over gender, and gender equality, in the historical profession more generally. Why, she argues, when we should be focused on structural inequality, should the AHA have a policy in place that serves to make women "tokens" on panels where their only function is to sit there and "be" women? Furthermore, she implies that this rule on the program committee might cause a panel organizer to limit her/himself in choosing participants, and perhaps compromise the intellectual integrity of the panel.

OK. I understand where Rebecca is coming from, and if you read the whole thing rather than my necessarily brief recapitulation, you will see how thoughtful she is. But -- even though her observation is sensible, and Denise Riley and Joan Scott would be jumping up and singing hallelujah at Rebecca's accurate take on the epistemological issue at hand -- I beg to differ with Rebecca's conclusion about how the policy affects women -- and men -- in the historical profession.

The AHA's requirement is not senseless. Discrimination against women in many intellectual fields, history being but one of them, has been directly connected to what spaces women are -- or are not -- permitted to occupy and what networks they have been excluded from. You can go very far back, to 1912, when AHA president-elect William Dunning wrote J. Franklin Jameson to say that the AHA council meeting could not be held at the Century Club in New York because Lucy Maynard Salmon would be forced to enter through the Ladies' entrance and it would make her feel like a second-class citizen. Jameson more or less called him a sissy in response; Dunning went ahead and rented a faculty dining room at Columbia where Salmon could be a historian, not just a "lady" who happened to be a historian.

Fast forward to 1930, when "The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians [was] response to women academics' sense of professional isolation," as the website explains. "Although allowed to join the American Historical Association...women were never invited to the 'smokers,' the parties, the dinners and the informal gatherings where the leading men of the profession introduced their graduate students to their colleagues and generally shepherded them into history jobs in colleges and universities." One of the things our foremothers were responding to was the direct connection between these informal networks and the access women had to jobs, status, and publication in the American Historical Review. And let's be honest -- with all the talk about mentoring and networking in our professional circles (we hold workshops on these activities at annual meetings and urge graduate students to develop these skills), anyone who thinks that hiring and publishing have been transformed into utterly objective processes where connections do not matter, and scholarship alone reigns supreme, is not paying attention.

And of course, black scholars continued to be discriminated against in the same way long into the twentieth century. As with barriers to the employment of women, few white historians were willing to challenge the racial segregation of public facilities that meant black scholars not only had little access to the networks, in many cases they couldn't even register for the convention without breaking the color bar and getting arrested. Fred A. Bailey has a great article about the efforts of the Southern Historical Association to alter this in the November, 2003 issue of the Journal of Southern History: Bailey focuses on the central role of John Hope Franklin and determined white allies in this desegregation effort. And I have to tell you, the Southern is still one of the best integrated history conferences -- race, gender, sexuality, you name it -- that I go to, thanks in part to the efforts of these progressives.

Lack of diversity in the profession is not ancient history either, as my three examples might inadvertantly suggest, and racial diversity is a topic that deserves its own post. But gender: let me tell you. I am just old enough (49) to remember a time when many of us women were mentored in part or wholly by men, because -- well, there just weren't that many women on history faculties. And if you didn't want to do your primary graduate work in the emerging field of women's history, forget it.

This is a long way around to explaining to a younger generation of scholars -- men and women -- from a vantage of almost twenty-five years as a historian observing change in the profession, that integrating panels by gender is not just an annoyance, or some kind of PC bandaid intended to cover up "real" problems. Take a look at the AHA's Lunbeck report if you don't think the organization takes gender discrimination seriously. I want to say that I take these younger historians' concerns seriously too. But I would also like to point out that although assistant professors are living in a different world than the one even I came up in, it is also one in which women are successfully getting the majority of Ph.D.'s in history but oddly, not the majority of jobs. And yet, in departments that are predominantly male, it is not infrequent to hear people grumbling about quotas when it is suggested that perhaps seeing men's scholarship as inherently better, or hiring women primarily to teach the history of gender, is still pervasive.

I repeat: clearly it is time to find a new way to articulate the values of equal opportunity, in a way that makes sense to a younger generation grappling with a changed gender terrain. But I would like to make three final points:

1. The gender diversity rule, by asking you to include more than one gender on a panel, should expand, not shrink the pool of people you are considering for a panel. For example, because of gender diversity, when I was but a wee Radical, I once asked Alan Brinkley to be on a panel of mine on women in the New Deal. Alan, you may have noticed, does not work on women, but is a prominent scholar all the same. By asking a scholar, who happened to be a man and didn't work on gender, we got a terrific comment that authoritatively connected what some people might have perceived as marginal work to the field of New Deal political history. Finding a woman in those days who worked on the New Deal and didn't work on women would have been a feat. Gender diversity, while not a direct path to intellectual excellence, did lead there. And as an aside, Alan was really flattered to have been asked to join a conversation that otherwise, at best, he might have observed from the audience.

2. As I have grown older, I have been in the Brinkley position. If saying "we need a woman" gives some younger scholars the incentive to work up the nerve to ask me to work with them, terrific. And it has given me the opportunity to meet young people whose networks I am not automatically going to be in because of age and status differences.

3. The AHA's rule is simply not about discrimination against men, period: this is a right-wing canard that has unfortunately become common sense in centrist and liberal discourse over the past decade. A panel with three to five men on it and one woman has actually offered the lion's share of opportunities on the panel to men. I am not saying that discrimination of any kind has precluded an invitation to a woman, but we all know that we tend to operate within our own networks, particularly as we are entering the profession and we worry that we will not be taken seriously by those as yet unknown to us. And those networks can be very gendered.

All of these points emphasize that crossing gender lines can encourage scholars who -- let's face it -- are enmeshed in different but not insignificant contests for authority that continue to be marked by gender hierarchies to challenge themselves to interact more broadly in the profession. Even though women are not completely excluded from many fields as they were in the past, and you could argue that some subfields in history are quite feminized, several subfields -- political history, foreign policy, military history -- are dominated by men. The above examples also should suggest that the AHA's gender policy can push scholars to cross generational lines as well.

It would be hard to convince me that this is a destructive rule because I have no pervasive sense that a panel is worse off by "adding the woman:" ok, we're not asking you to add any old woman -- find a good one, like Rebecca Goetz, for example. But try. Because although gender diversity does not necessarily mean you will go outside your networks, it expands the chance that you will. Choosing someone for your panel who you would not otherwise have though of will have a variety of good effects and should not be a burden.

So let's scrap the tee-shirt that says "Token." How about, as Rebecca's post underlines, one that says "Equal Pay for Equal Work?"

Sunday, June 10, 2007


I need to say that Kenneth Ackerman's new book, noted on Mary Dudziak's Legal History Blog, makes me want to scream. This book is in chain bookstores everywhere and will be purchased by the thousands.

Do I want to scream at Mary Dudziak for shilling this book? No. I admire her. And I have many reasons to be grateful to Mary Dudziak, only one of which is that she has mounted this great blog that helps us keep up with what is coming out in the fields of legal and political history. The other reasons will have to remain a Mystery as they have to do with Very Secret Professional Business.

Back to Kenneth Ackerman's book. I'm sure this is a fine book, but its very appearance plays to an ongoing trauma of mine. My trauma is this: I cannot tell you how many more or less general books have -- and will be -- published about the FBI. It is like the Civil War: there is literally an endless market for such books, and they are mostly all the same. And they sell many copies before they go out of print.

So why has my book about the FBI, a first book, but all the same quite different from the rest, one that has some spiffy stories in it and weaves a particular period of the Bureau's history into the New Deal state making project -- why has this book never sold like hot cakes? I ask you. Hence the screaming part. And actually, this Ackerman book makes me scream less than some of the rest -- he actually did what I did, took a chunk of J. Edgar Hoover's life that was very underwritten and explored it thoroughly. There is at least one book out there, aimed at a very popular market for which, as far as I can tell, the author read my book and then re-wrote it with conversations that he pulled out of his head, and without an argument that would serve only to confuse the general reader. That one made me want to scream and cry. And maybe sue.

You are now wagging your virtual finger at me and saying, "Stop the whining Radical, you got tenure with this first book, didn't you?"

We-e-e-ll, yes.

"And isn't that worth a lot of money over the years?"

I guess so.

"And you get a little check once a year that is usually between $100 and $200, don't you?"


"Isn't it the case that many authors never see a dime beyond their advance money?"


"Have you ever gone out of print in nine years?"

No (feeling small now).

"And if you look at the Amazon site, there are 53 people selling your book from $2.73 on up. At Labyrinth, an independent bookstore where you should always be shopping, you can get it used for $6.98, $15.02 off the cover price, damn it! Doesn't that suggest that a lot of people are actually reading your damn book? Maybe adopting it in their courses? And that they don't feed it to the pigs afterwards?"

Yeah. So?

"And doesn't a graduate student run up to you once in a while and -- in an appropriately breathless way -- ask if you are, in fact, the actual author of this book?"

Yes. But I wanted fame and lots of money and to be on the Lehrer News Hour. And to be desired by all. I especially wanted to be desired by all.

"Hush up and get back to work Radical. You know, Tinkerbell isn't writing your second book while you work on blog posts, you nitwit."

OK. Bye. You are right. I've stopped screaming now.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

How the Radical Picked Rags to Riches in the Belmont

1. Todd Pletcher would not have run her if he didn't think she could win.

2. She's a *big* girl.

3. She has a reputation for taking no guff from the colts.

4. Curlin had to be tired after that effort in the Preakness.

Thus spaketh the Radical. And Rags to Riches, brother to Belmont winner Jazil, daughter of Belmont winner A.P. Indy, becomes the first filly since Tanya (1905) to win the Belmont stakes. You can read about the terrific race she ran against Curlin and the other colts at the Daily Racing Form.

Right on. This is one special thoroughbred.

My next predicition: this will turn the three-year old season on its head. Buy your Breeder's Cup tickets now.

Future blog post: why handicapping horses draws on the same skills required of a professional historian, and how the Radical ended up as a handicapper in the first place.

Sunday Update:

Here is Rags to Riches heading for home, on the far left. She looked calm and determined the whole way. I'm in love.

The horse to her immediate right is Curlin, and on the far right is Tiago, who you should watch for a four year-old season, if you are thinking of becoming a player. That mildly crazed look on his face is partly stress from running so fast, and partly a mild lack of concentration, probably resulting from the exceptional crowd noise the unexpected excitement of the race produced. Taigo will learn to tolerate this, I think, kind of like you learn to tolerate giving a lecture while students wander in and out to get water and go to the bathroom.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Life as a Broker: The Role of the Committee Chair in Faculty-Administration Relations

In order to stay better informed, your Radical has signed up for the free daily updates from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Like every other periodical and newspaper that comes into this house, I can't read all of the update, much less all of the Chronicle, which is why I did not use my remaining research monies to buy a horrendously expensive on-line subscription. But I do like scanning the update for items of interest: I also started scanning Inside Higher Ed when they started linking me, which may be part of their strategy for linking bloggers: "Bring 'em into the light, boys!" Sometimes what I see in my daily scan are items of great interest, sometimes they are small pieces that cause me to think. And when I think, I blog. It's inescapable.

Today's food for thought was by a fellow named Gene Fant, who was a department chair at a small southern college, recently became a dean there, and is writing about how one is transformed in the eyes of one's colleagues upon becoming an administrator: you can read it yourself here. One thought that struck home was his description of a colleague watching him cut a piece of cake to see if, as a dean, he cut it differently. Ouch. One imagines folks peeking in the bedroom window to check how he is putting his pants on too. This is a good reminder that one of the down sides of taking on administrative responsibilities above the level of chair means having one's colleagues remind one of the possibility of pariah status that is imminent should one come to be perceived, as we say at Zenith, as "a tool of the administration."

In Tony Soprano's world, some of the things that are said to administrators, or faculty consorting with administrators, would cause a person to sleep with a semi-automatic under the pillow. I know this because although I have never been a dean (not at Zenith, anyway), I have been a chair of a major university committee. And after I became chair of the committee, I cannot tell you how many senior people came up to growl in my ear, "Just remember, you are there to defend the faculty from the administration." I was still an associate professor at the time, and it has occurred to me more than once that the Unfortunate Events were not entirely disassociated from the fact that I did well on this committee, which generated fear that I might Do Too Well and Rise Too High -- higher than a Radical ought, in any case. Some of the whisperers, and their cronies, were critically involved in the Events, and the connection seems - well, odd, shall we say.

But who's counting? As the working class kid in The History Boys says to one of his teachers, " 'Istory's just one fuckin' thing arfter another, in'nit Miss?"

Anyway. My experience differs from Dean Fant's in many ways, in that I was not in charge of budgetary matters. Specifically, Fant refers to the pain of having to say "no" to so many people, and worries -- in a play on the "girl who cain't say no" in the musical Oklahoma -- that he will be perceived as "The Dean Who Just Says No." When I look back on my experience as a committee chair, "no" would have been easier than some of the difficult things we had to figure out as a committee. I was in charge of trying to make policy and implement policy, mustering faculty votes on items of greater or lesser consequence (what changes are *not* seen by the faculty as matters of great consequence? I ask you), keeping a university committee moving as quickly as possible through an agenda without jamming my opinions down their throats, and making sure that the appropriate people were consulted about things.

Committee chairs are also in a strange position for which there are very few rules or customs. They are not administrators but, on a faculty that imagines it wants to govern itself without being told what to do by "the administration," they occupy numerous roles that could be described as "deaning lite": they are buffers between policy makers and those governed by policy; in a leadership position where they are more or less making policy on behalf of the faculty and persuading administrators to go along with it; conduits for administrative desires that the faculty is being asked to variously address or accept; and receivers of all opinions, great and small, about virtually everything. My committee had broad oversight of what was loosely termed "educational policy": this sometimes included what was taught (authorizing new majors, and major changes in existing majors); the conditions under which teaching occurred (schedules, grading modes, instructional computing that had a direct impact on faculty work); and shifts in pedagogical philosophy or strategy.

Without going into the details of what I did, let me say that it was a huge learning experience that has forever changed how I understand university politics and how universities work. And while, unlike Dean Gene, I did not have to say no to people who wanted money, I did sometimes have to say no to my different constituencies: no, that won't work; no, I can't put that on the agenda; no, I can't let you make that change because it will contradict other policies we are already committed to; no, you can't agree to one thing when you are alone with me and then go tell your friends, when it proves to be unpopular, that I am a shill for the administration and you never went along with that policy in the first place.

Have you ever been called a liar in public? I have. Actually, it was in an email written by one of the authors of the Events, so it was more or less private. Try less.

To conclude, except for a few really nasty people, it was actually a pretty positive experience, since there aren't a lot of opportunities in university life to learn something entirely new. I can't tell you everything I learned, but here are a few things that should be useful to all faculty, regardless of rank, when thinking about their relationship to the daily struggles we are involved in:

1. I was blessed with an extraordinarily thoughtful committee, including two wonderful students who had great ideas and were not shy about about expressing them, and who represented their constituency well. I also worked with some really good administrators, who were terrific resources at important moments. But even if you aren't working with the people you would have chosen, remember: everyone, absolutely everyone, has strengths that can be relied upon, even people you have had a dim view of previously. Find out what those strengths are and encourage them to employ them. Furthermore, those to whom you have been historically ideologically opposed have a point of view too, and often they share that point of view with a great many others. Hence, such people are an important liaison to that community. Try not to let discussions get polarized, and focus on converging points of view whenever possible. Taking the time for individual meetings to discuss what similarities can be assembled on any issue, before people take sides in public, is well worth it.

2. Because of the above dynamic, I would propose a theory that most universities operate in a huge ideological middle ground that has a tendency to isolate those on the left and on the right. Part of your job, when in charge, is to preserve that middle ground and help people on the margins make compromises; the other part of your job is to preserve the intellectual and pedagogical freedom of those on the left and on the right, and make sure that their interests remain connected to and supported by the broad middle.

3. Never allow a vote to be taken unless and until you know how it will turn out. I learned this from Lyndon Johnson.

4. You are in charge of preserving features of academic freedom on most committees you might ever be elected to or chair. That said, some of your colleagues will try to get away with all kinds of shit in the name of academic freedom that are really about bettering their own lot, or shutting down a discussion that they don't want to have. There are two ways of handling this, and saying "no" is rarely an option, because you really have no authority other than what people will consent to give you. One way to get around such an obstacle is to say, "Look, this is what I need from you and why. Now, here's something I might be able to do in return." It was always my philosophy that you should never go into a meeting without something on the table that you are willing to give away, even if you have put it on the agenda deliberately so that you can throw it away. And you should never go into a meeting without something that the other person hasn't thought of that they might really like: for me, these things never cost a dime, because I had no budgetary power -- but my committee did have the power to shape people's lives. And when you have a chance to do someone a favor by bending the rules appropriately, do it.

OK -- but when someone is trying to get away with something stupid and obnoxious, sometimes you just have to tell them to stuff it. This is -- and needs to be -- very, very rare. At one point I had to point-blank tell a chair s/he was going to make a certain change if I had to make it myself since *both* of us knew that the reason presented for not making the change was utterly ridiculous and designed only to block the policy on principle: a dean, and two people from the provost's office looked at me with horrified pleasure as I did something for which they would have been crucified on the college Great Lawn. I cannot tell you what this thing was because it breaks my final rule, which is:

5. Discretion. Never do or say anything that you would be ashamed to admit, publicly, in front of the entire faculty, but also -- part of brokering deals with people, or even forcing their hand, is not going out and making them look stupid or weak afterward. I learned this from the British Raj. In fact, you need to go out of your way to thank those who have conceded what you want from them and give them credit for the outcome, even if the negotiation has been very unpleasant. If your policy, once brokered, is to not founder at the point of implementation, your best move can sometimes be to present what has occurred in such a way as to put the other person in the best light possible and minimize your own role. This becomes particularly difficult at times because, I am sorry to say, people will lie, or say that you lied (see above) about what they have said or done to protect their own reputations at the expense of yours, and you have to suck it up. Defending yourself puts you in a position of weakness: move on to the next thing, and if the policy you have implemented is a good one, people will soon forget.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Daily Radical

In an effort to keep up yesterday's momentum on book revisions, I am limiting today's blogging to pruning, adding links and what I believe is a phrase originally arising at New Kid on the Hallway: "random bullets of crap." (Thursday update: I'm told these random bullets were first named by Ianqui.) So without the bullets (which, as an anti-war Radical, I will pretend is a gesture towards ideological consistency -- OK, I admit it, I don't know how to do bullets), here goes:

Added links are: Mary Dudziak's Legal History Blog, Adjunct Whore's Narratives, and that terrific medievalist squadratomagico. Why no one else? I told you -- I'm trying to keep up momentum! And I am generally lazy about links.

A small bit of happiness and political progress has come our way in Shoreline. The Board of Aldermen voted Monday to provide official identification cards to illegal immigrants so that they can identify themselves to police, open bank accounts, get driver's licenses and function like the law-abiding people they generally are: read about it here. Police in Shoreline (a legendarily uneven lot who are dealing with a federal corruption probe at present) are already operating under instructions not to question people they stop about their immigration status, which helps them investigate crimes and protect everyone from felons on the loose. This new law will give people living here illegally the basic tools to protect themselves from violence and exploitation, although -- for those small people who seem to view this as a free ride for the undocumented -- they will not be protected from poverty, hard work, lack of health care, poor housing and low wages. Despite this, already there are howls going up around the nation that our city is providing a "safe haven" for immigrants. Well, yes. And what are we trying to keep immigrants safe from? Violence by people who are already citizens who stalk, beat, torture and rob them, knowing that an illegal immigrant keeps a lot of cash around (no bank account) and will not call the police or testify against them if the police are called (threat of deportation.) And employers who promise to pay workers and then don't because the workers are entirely powerless. You see why in Shoreline the status of illegal immigrants does not appear to be precisely the ethical issue it is cracked up to be in Arizona.

Honestly, I have never understood why illegal immigration was such a big deal anyway. Why *not* let everybody come? It certainly made the nineteenth century interesting.

Anyone see that our very own Dean Dad now seems to be a regular featured columnist (blogumnist?) at Inside Higher Ed? I learned this by checking the "referrals" on my site meter, which I do regularly to see where I am being picked up. I never claimed not to be a narcissist, fans of the Radical. This is not only good for Dean Dad -- he who is a smart cookie, entertaining and a great writer -- but good for academic blogging in general, if you ask me.

In a final note, did anyone see this article in the New York Times by Samuel Freedman about little Kevin Robinson of Doylestown, PA? Robinson is pictured at left, in a picture stolen from the Times. According to Freedman, Robinson got into a good college by basically doing nothing at all except minding his p's and q's. No test prep, no worries, no college essay written by his Mom. The moral of the story is: maybe refusing to stress out about getting into college is ok after all. How is it that, since I support the sentiment that college admissions should not be so stressful and that the kid seems like a sweetie pie, I find the story itself so noxious? I dunno. Maybe because I don't think that it is the fault of students, or even their parents (who should probably know better), that the college admissions process is so horrid. It is the fault of the colleges, Samuel. How about doing a story about a college that doesn't market itself as God's gift to higher education, and that admits most of its applicants so the students are not forced to market themselves as God's gift to higher education?

Such a crabby Radical. OK, back to the book.

Monday, June 04, 2007

One Thing Leads to Another: Blogging Dilemmas and the Sopranos Upcoming Finale

OK. So I was adding a final comment to the previous post, in which a Zenith student has raised some interesting issues about sexual identity and classroom dynamics in the Hallowed Halls, a conversation enriched by several contributions from Gayprof and Adjunct Whore. And as I was doing it, I was having the conflicted feelings I always experience when I end up writing in response to an issue that is specifically about students and life at Zenith. I can only express the attraction-revulsion dilemma this way: remember when Al Pacino, as Michael Corleone, I believe in Godfather III, (having mistakenly thought he has taken the business entirely legit and cut his own ties with organized crime) snarls: "The family. Every time you think you have gotten away they reach out and suck you back in again." Godfather purists will forgive me, I hope, for having the quote, and possibly even the movie chapter, slightly wrong. But it is one of the down sides of being "out" as a blogger: one of the reasons I started blogging in the first place was to have a space in my life that was not governed by Zenith and its peculiar ways. And yet, inevitably, I am asked direct questions about very specific doings there, because students lurk on my blog, and they are actually interested in how things work and why. And part of me wants to say, look, this blog is not office hours. And part of me says, yes, you have a right to be interested in this, and it is a piece of why you are interesting to me that you care about these things, so I will do my best to answer your question. That's when I get sucked back in. Again.

I have no solution to this problem. I think it is, perhaps, My Fate. The topics of Fate and Family lead me to my real preoccupation-- the end of The Sopranos, my favorite television series, which is imminent, and something to which I can pay complete attention now that school has ended for the summer.

Last night, Bobby "Bacala" Bacalieri was killed, and Silvio was put into a probably irreversible coma. Tony is now holed up with Paulie Walnuts and a few other retainers in what I believe is Junior's old house, cuddling a nasty looking automatic weapon and probably watching his life pass before his eyes. N says she is sure Tony will be killed, an idea I am resisting. And before all this happened, Dr. Melfi dismissed Tony as a patient and AJ, Tony's pathetic excuse for a son, was only able to respond to the threats against his family by blubbering, "How am I supposed to maintain with all this going on?" His father, rightly, picked him up out of bed and threw him into the closet.

I know there is going to be a shriek of horror from a lot of bloggers out there who actually know what they are talking about, but this is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy in my book. I was immediately reminded of the several stagings of Macbeth I have seen in which the damned trees really do start walking and Macbeth goes down alone. As he has known he will. As we *all* know we will. In other words, I am well-educated enough to understand that this is how it must be, but I am devastated all the same. Moreover, unlike Shakespeare, who had all of English history to draw on (as well as a lot of excuses to make for the Tudor monarchy) and was, therefore, always ready for a sequel or prequel to be commissioned, part of what the Sopranos' producers are doing is ensuring that the series can never, ever be revived.

And yet, must everybody die? Even Paulie Walnuts? And at the hands of Phil Leotardo, a man whose family, as Phil himself once memorably said, was mistakenly named at Ellis Island "after a ballet costume?" I know the New Jersey bunch are all murderers themselves, but it seems hardly fair to ask all of us to have bonded with Tony, his crew and his family, over the years and then make us all watch them die. And yes, I get it that part of the point may be making us all shift our ethical perspective and understand that our pleasure in watching the show has made us complicit in some terrible way: just as complicit as Carmella who, for all her pain over Tony's infidelities, has neatly compartmentalized how she profits from his "business;" just as complicit as Meadow, who hopes to go on to law school and work for social justice, paid for by her father's blood money.

This would be the point in the post to say that my preferred ending is that Meadow will step up at the last minute, help her father take charge, and take over as consiglieri, an idea I am sure I should take to therapy myself, along with how pissed I am at Dr. Melfi for cutting her ties to Tony at such a crucial moment.

I probably realized the depths of my own complicity a few episodes back when Christopher Moltosanti, having once again slipped back into his personal hell of drug and alcohol addiction, rolled his car and was bleeding to death. He looked up at his uncle and said: "Help me, Tone." Tony reached over and squeezed Christopher's nostrils shut, suffocating him (and significantly, leaving no clear heir to leadership in the family, a role to which Christopher had revealed himself as deeply unsuited over the course of several seasons.) Of all my friends, I was the only person who believed that Tony was doing exactly what Chris was asking him to do. I guess I'll take that one to therapy too.

In the end, when these television programs become so important, the endings can never be satisfying: Mary Richards turning the lights off in the studio; the last helicopter taking off from the MASH camp; that weird final episode of "Seinfeld" where everyone ends up in jail, a grim commentary on how trapped they were as actors by the success of the series. My least favorite was the end of "Queer As Folk." This was a series I loved because it allowed me to stay in touch with the pleasures of a queer community I left behind in New York (not to mention with my twenties) and could never have in Zenith or Shoreline; ultimately you could say it foundered because not even TV characters can stay young forever. This otherwise fabulous show ended with homophobes blowing up Babylon, the disco - sex club, and all the characters retreating into marriage, affluence, parenthood and middle age. The lesbians, having survived infidelities of various kinds, moved to Canada with their babies, where life was supposedly safe from the effects of homophobia. Yuck.

Really successful television programs can mark off a whole historical period in a person's life, which I suppose is why their endings are such important cultural events. When the Sopranos began, I was living in Zenith, had not yet gotten tenure or finished my first book, and was geting the first seasons on videotape at Blockbuster. So in a sense, Tony and I grew into middle age together. And he is going to die, and leave me to deal with what comes next by myself?

The bastard.

On the other hand, the new season of Big Love starts next Sunday. And in a polygamous Mormon family, you are never really alone.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Ask the Radical: The Dreaded Grade Dispute

From time to time, the Radical will take direct questions about how to proceed in delicate matters not occurring at Zenith (refresh your memory of the Blogger Ethic, or just try to imagine the consequences, if you don't understand why she does not address controversial events at Zenith any more.)

This dispatch is just in from the Land of Contingent Labor:

"Dear Professor Radical: I was recently accused of giving a student a failing grade because I am allegedly biased against him. When he lodged the original complaint about the grade, I provided him with all of the reasons for his grade, including not answering assigned questions, not addressing gay people in a class about sexuality, and not answering questions when asked during his presentations even though answering questions was part of what was expected in the presentation. His response to my explanation was to accuse me of reverse discrimination.

"The Chair of my department has chosen to take both the grade dispute and the accusation seriously because of another incident in which a student used a racial slur in my class, and my disagreement with how this was handled.

"Any thoughts on how to address the issue with the student and with the Chair, since I am leaving this job soon anyway?"

Well, first of all, it's good that you are leaving the job. And I would say that even if you and the Chair did not have a vexed relationship stemming from a previous incident, unfortunate as it may seem, s/he is obliged to take a complaint seriously if it has been made (although I hope that s/he has the good sense to correct the student that what is being alleged is *discrimination,* period. "Reverse discrimination" is one of those phrases -- like "partial birth abortion" - that has been specially designed by radical conservatives to give a particular ideological spin to such a situation.)

But what should be done? And what does a faculty member -- contingent or not -- have a right to expect in such a situation? As Director of American Studies off and on I have periodically been asked to step into grade disputes in which both the student and the faculty member are in a state of outrage, and my job, as I perceived it, has been to resolve the situation but not necessarily decide who is telling the truth, even when I think I know. Let me give you two situations, each drawn from real experiences:

1. Student A appeared in my office in tears, saying that Professor X had refused to look at, much less grade, her senior work, because the agreed upon terms of the tutorial (that A and X would meet on a weekly basis to discuss said work) were violated by A. A never showed up for the tutorial appointments, X charged. A, on the other hand, claimed that after much back and forth over meeting times, X was never able to establish a regular time, and often did not show up at times that had been scheduled with A. A became discouraged, stopped trying to schedule appointments, and just wrote the paper. X rebutted this vociferously, claiming that A was "a liar."

What I thought I knew: that A was kind of a sweet, slightly out of it, young woman who I knew superficially and had never, to my knowledge, been involved in a dispute of this kind. I also had no reason to suspect that A was not being truthful, and what she said resonated with other complaints I had received about Professor X. My experience with X was that s/he was extraordinarily creative, somewhat high-strung, more likely to get into disputes with other faculty than some colleagues, forgetful, and unlikely to perceive that s/he had contributed to the misunderstanding, however unintentionally. My instinct was that Student A was probably telling some version of the truth; furthermore, A could not graduate without getting a grade for this work, so somehow a grade needed to be produced lest the dispute get really ugly.

2. I got a call from Faculty Y, saying that s/he was outraged on behalf of student B, who was taking a class with Professor Z. B had turned up in Y's office hours in despair, saying that the term paper that sie wrote for Z had received a failing grade. Y claimed that Z's grade was due to transphobia: that B, as a transgendered student writing on a trans topic, did not hirself believe the work was graded fairly, and furthermore, that in all hir meetings with Z during the term, felt harassed and criticized, tried to do what was asked, but nothing ever seemed to be good enough for Z. Y demanded that I confront Z about transphobia and insist that the paper be re-graded fairly.

What I thought I knew: I had taught B, who was an average student but had not distinguished hirself in any way that was apparent to me; Z was a young colleague, with very high standards, whose courses were universally perceived as quite rigorous. But Z was also queer, very politically conscious, and a devoted teacher; therefore I thought that discrimination against a particular student was unlikely. My sense was that Z was probably in the right in this matter, and that B was not lodging the complaint out of spite, but out of some genuine frustration about how to meet Z's standards. Complication: Y, who had originally called me, was a very senior colleague, and Z was very junior.

In both situations, what I did was this: I interviewed all parties, gathered information on their perspectives and then asked them to agree that final work would be submitted to me for my evaluation and submission of a final grade. Both students received grades sufficiently good to, in one case, graduate the student; and in the other case, move that student into hir major of choice. While both pieces of work were inferior, I did not believe that a disputed grade was a good reason to bar the student from progressing on to the next stage. In neither case, therefore, did I fully validate the faculty member's position, although I worked very hard to be supportive and sympathetic to each.

In the case of A, no actual grade had to be assigned, since the senior work was pass/fail: thus, while the work itself was admittedly quite odd, and bore the marks of not having been critiqued and supervised by a mentor, the student had clearly made a good faith effort to complete it, it was quite long, and represented what would normally be considered to be minimally acceptable in terms of meeting the graduation requirement.

In the case of B, I asked hir for previously submitted written work; I asked Z for the course syllabus and for the roster of other grades given in the course. I also asked that Z write several paragraphs that covered B's ungraded work for the class -- participation, absences, visits to office hours. B and I talked about this document, and with a few minor emendations, we were able to agree that it fairly represented hir efforts in the course, which had been slight in these areas. I also talked to B about the course readings enough to get a sense that sie had not done much of the reading for the course, which probably contributed to hir confusion about what sie was ultimately being asked to do -- or could do -- in the term paper. And when I saw the term paper, I understood that the paper sie had written was autobiographical, and not the critical essay engaging class readings that sie had been asked to write. When talking to B, I also learned that sie had submitted similar personal essays to Professor Y in another course, and received high marks for them. Therefore, although it was not Z's fault, B was correct in thinking that sie was being held to a standards different from those sie had previously experienced: Professor Y's concern for B's well-being during a difficult life transition had caused Y to allow B to not meet the course requirements and submit more personal writing instead. It was unclear to me whether Professor Y had explained to B that sie had been exempted from the standard Y had used to evaluate the rest of the class.

Neither of these incidents exactly mirrors the problems my correspondent's question raises, one of which is very disturbing: that the instructor being accused of discrimination has reason to believe that s/he is being discriminated against. It seems to me legitimate that a faculty member ask a student to modify offensive behavior and be supported by the Chair; and I would question what the student who did not wish to talk about gay people was doing in a class about sexuality. The latter student does not seem to be there for legitimate learning purposes, and Professor Contingent was right to ask him to participate honestly in the course.

That said, what does the faculty member have a right to expect from the Chair in relation to these incidents? Certainly that her side of the story will be listened to, taken into account and perhaps even given sympathy. But if the Chair is doing the job right, s/he will solve this problem in a way that is least likely to have reverberating effects for the faculty member and for the Department, even if it means tempering support of the faculty member by recognizing that the student has a legitimate point of view. This is even more likely as an outcome if Professor Contingent's contract is due to expire shortly: having an ongoing dispute with a student on behalf of a faculty member who you will never see again is a lot of wasted labor and unwanted attention for no gain. The Chair will also recognize that most disputes represent conflicting points of view in a "he-said-she said" situation that are not likely to be resolved by more talk, either because one party has an interest in covering up the truth, or because the situation was genuinely perceived differently by two individuals committed to differing points of view. In either case, the faculty member is unlikely to have her perspective completely validated, because to do that would invalidate the student's perspective and prolong the dispute to no good purpose. And prolonging the dispute -- or opening up the curriculum of the program to ideological scrutiny -- is not in the Chair's interest. So if I were the Chair, I would do what I did in both situations above: make all parties feel listened to and grade the work myself.

What can the faculty member do? Well, I would have a couple suggestions for the future.

1. Students are often drawn to controversial classes, and controversial teachers, for reasons they themselves do not understand, and their form of resistance to ideas that upset their worlds can be refusing to learn and getting into conflicts with the teacher to get attention. Furthermore, in some public systems, students can have difficulty getting into the classes they need to fulfill graduation requirements, and might end up in a queer, critical race or feminist literature course because it fit their schedule or there was a seat open. I could not recommend more strongly that controversial courses be offered with a credit/fail option, partly because students with ambivalent feelings about the material do not have to be graded on prior knowledge or affinity for the material at hand, and partly because it encourages students to take risks and not become hostile and defensive when they aren't understanding the material or don't wish to fully engage.

2. For many years after a particularly unpleasant incident in one of my classes (which included unfounded charges of sexual harassment and racism) I had a code of civility on my syllabus: students were asked, in the first class, to discuss the code while I was out of the room, amend it if they wished, and then we would all agree to it. At the time, I was also having particular trouble with students being disrepectful to each other, which inevitably produced conflict with me as well. This "contract" worked like a charm -- less because I could use the code to discipline students, but because we talked about how we would treat each other and students felt that they were full partners to the agreement.

3. For any faculty member, at any level of experience, I would also say: if you find that you are persistently getting into conflict with students, without necessarily ascribing blame, you need to ask yourself why and how to address conflict, or avoid it, without intervention from outsiders. Most frequently, asking a student for a private meeting to discuss what is happening, perhaps even with another colleague present, is a better way to address bad behavior than to confront a student in front of the class (which may have escalated Professor Contingent's problem with the student in the sexuality course) And giving a student a C- without any oppoprtunity to do extra credit work, or re-do failing work, is also bound to cause a conflict with a student to escalate, particularly when the student has framed the problem as an ideological dispute from the get-go. It's unfair but true: sometimes it is worth finding a reason to give the student a reasonable grade just to get them out of your life. And it is simply the case that some students -- like those people who are constantly suing others for real and imagined insults - go around fishing for trouble, and you need to be alert to them when they show up. Don't get stuck fighting out a crazy situation because you "know" you are right. Right you may be, but it sometimes isn't worth your peace of mind to fight it out to the end.