Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On the Brink of Classes Starting: Some Thoughts About Teaching and the South Carolina Debate

Instead of writing something pithy and important about the South Carolina debates I want to begin by posting a very small piece of information I learned tonight. In my endless perambulation around blogs this evening, I visited New President's blog, and I discovered -- via a link provided there -- that six of my core faculty in The Program have won the university's teaching award, and one of my faculty, a person who is really very famous, has won it twice. That is more than any other single department or program in the university. As the term begins, with all these terrific people, plus the terrific teachers who haven't won an award yet, knowing this makes me feel like the academic equivalent of manager of the Yankees. Really it does.

Your favorite Radical won the teaching award some years back, just after getting tenure and about five weeks before her father's death -- yeah, the father who is up in heaven explaining to Ann Coulter's father why Joe McCarthy isn't currently available. It was kind of an emotional moment since Zenith honestly does value teaching, and our students are pretty sophisticated as an audience. But it was a particularly emotional moment since I knew of all the things I had accomplished up to that point, my father -- a physician and a great teacher himself -- would like that the best. And I was glad I could tell him about it before he died.

But speaking of teachers -- as Sherman once said outside Atlanta, Now that we're warmed up, let's get back to South Carolina, shall we? Barack Obama needs a good teacher before the next debate. I thought he did quite poorly last night, got flustered and unnecessarily angry, and said very little of substance about his policies or his record as a result. I was left utterly stumped as to why he commands such fervent loyalty. Obama's performance stood in great contrast to both Clinton's and Edwards' substantive summaries of their policy proposals, and it was also different from the easy confidence that he displays in his more formal speeches when, of course, he is alone and unchallenged. I mean, I have never liked the "Change" message, because I always want to know -- how will things change? Neoliberalism has been a big change too, and frankly I don't think it's so hot. But I thought Obama said virtually nothing last night about how he would govern.

Whether it is illusion or reality, Obama appears to be slipping and sliding around what appears to be a very odd record indeed, a record that has been carefully crafted for public consumption to emphasize three years as a community organizer over twenty-odd years as a corporate lawyer and a politician solidly embedded in the Illinois machine. GovTrack grades his record of actually appearing to vote in the Senate as Very Poor in comparison to his peers, and of course, his record of repeatedly voting "present" in the Illinois legislature was part of what made him testy last night, when the other two candidates didn't accept his explanation that this is just what politicians do in Illinois. Well, maybe it is, but then that wouldn't make him an agent of change, would it? Perhaps I am missing something here.

But back to teaching. In addition to a historian on staff,to explain to him that he's got to stop talking about how great it was that all of those white Democrats became Republicans because Ronald Reagan promised to bring affirmative action to a screaming halt, he needs a debate coach. In particular, he needs to learn how to cock his head and smile graciously, as Hillary does when people spout nasty accusations of various kinds at her and accuse her of being a liar (Obama twitches, fumes and interrupts.) And he needs to practice saying sentences that have a verb and an object and aren't only about him. Things like "My candidacy, and my life's work, is to end poverty," as John Edwards says so convincingly.

And as for change -- I'm not against change. Far from it. I'm just against people telling me there will be change and asking me to trust them that it will be a good change. Because after eight years of "What -- Me Worry?" Bush, the steady devaluation of my 401K due to White House mismanagement, a foreclosure rate in Shoreline that is going through the roof and reckless federal spending on a bad war, it's really hard for me to trust anyone who just tells me to relax and wait for him to deliver change because he's a good person and the change will be good. On the other hand, this is why I love John Edwards. Ending poverty, in my view, is a change that is concrete. It would even be a change if anyone tried and was only partly successful, which they haven't in over forty years. And unlike Obama, Edwards says how he will do the thing that he is making central to his campaign, not just that he wants to, which I also find heartening.

So when Obama can't say how change will come, this makes me think that either he doesn't actually know, or that he is just another neoliberal trying to woo conservatives and he doesn't want to say so because this would make the idealistic young not like him. Lord knows I'll vote for the man if he's the nominee, but I'd rather vote for Hillary if I can't vote for -- as Obama put it so succinctly and oddly (for someone who is above race) last night as he poked John Edwards in mock fun after all the fireworks -- "the white man."


Anonymous said...

Sorry Claire, got to stick up for my home-town guy here....Barack wasn't ever "a corporate lawyer and a politician solidly embedded in the Illinois machine," but actually worked for some amazingly progressive (dare I say radical?) organizations on the South Side here, then eventually as a civil rights/housing rights/voting rights lawyer and Con Law prof at U of C. I kind of hate what this process has done to his politics too, but I'm not sure we should be looking for resistance to the neo-liberal order from our presidential candidates (that resistance, I think, is our job...) I do agree about the need for the staff historian, though. I mean, REAGAN? Seriously?

gwoertendyke said...

i agree, obama did poorly in the debate, and i support his candidacy so it was painful for me to watch him slip and slide. that said, edwards could easily shine since there is absolutely no pressure on him whatsoever--and clinton....while her knowledge of the system is impressive, my distaste for her tactis grows each time i see her. the slumlord comment is the bravura--i've been taking it for 16 years--please.

gwoertendyke said...

i meant "and" the bravura.

Tim Lacy said...

Caveat: I have NO idea for whom I'll cast my final vote. I consider myself a pretty fierce moderate when it comes to politics. Paradoxical? Yes. That's me.

But, TR, on Obama: I can't talk about the S.C. debate---despite the fact that it looked spicy and I wish I could've seen it. But people have read Obama's books and, for those in Illinois, have watched him for some time. I've witnessed this pheonomenon first-hand here. They are quite comfortable with his character.

He's not spotless, but he's pretty clean. Per your first comment and the allusion to corruption (Rezko) that Senator Clinton threw out (really an attempt at guilt by association), he's still a person with a great deal of character. This cannot be underestimated. As was the case with Bush back in 2000, before some things transpired (hah!), people trusted his (reformed, folksy) character in spite of his lack of national political experience and absence of firm plans for what he'll do in office. - TL

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that Obama's deadbeat performance as a state senator is finally getting some attention. I echo your concerns about what sort of change he'll bring, given that not only was his attendance record terrible, he tended to miss or abstain from the most controversial votes.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that someone is also wondering about Obama's attraction. Interestingly GovTrack rates Hillary as a more progressive Democrat than Obama (I assume based on the bills cosponsored). In contrast to Obama's missing 177 votes out of 1086, since 2005, "Clinton missed 143 of 2394 votes (6%) since Jan 23, 2001."

Obama's absences and "present" votes raise serious questions about his ability to take a stand. It's much easier to say you condemn/support something (as needed) when you did not vote on it (even if you had a chance) than defend your vote!
Good analysis!

Tenured Radical said...

Congratulations on the "newly tenured" part, fellow radical!


cantdance said...

the "trust me, it will be good change" bit that TR alluded to worries me more than the present votes. Somehow though i am skeptical that Edwards will end poverty.

Justin said...

I completely agree with you as to your wondering how Obama commands such loyalty among his supporters, with just two big airy promises (I'll bring change, I'll inspire hope). Looking over Obama's platform reminds me a bit of Bill Clinton's supporting small fixes instead of tackling the big issues.

And I think I've read here that you are supporting Edwards; me too. His performance in the South Carolina debate pretty much sealed the deal; his ability to rise above the fray and stay focused on the issues, even when the camera was trained so much on Obama and Hillary's bickering—though it quite obviously involved some political calculation—made me respect him all the more. I hope he's on the ballot in November. ::Crossing fingers::

Anonymous said...

Dear TR,

As a pal, I just hope that such comments on how great everything at Z is are a little curbed by the fact of Recent Events, which seem to be fading from memory very quickly and quietly. Of course especially the recent teaching award winner is More Than Worthy of winning twice, but, um, he's retiring. This year.

Everything is not well. I do wish things to get better but I think it important to remember a bit the last couple years and just how unwell that program has been and with that in mind how it can continue to get better--but it's not the Yankees when you are losing some really good players all at once.

Anonymous said...

"Obama's absences and "present" votes raise serious questions about his ability to take a stand."

As one of Obama's Illinois constituents, I find that his absences (very numerous compared to Clinton, for example) raise serious questions about his capability of doing the job he was hired (after all) to do.