Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Radically Different Thanksgiving: Revolution, Terrorism and Pies

I've never been a great fan of Thanksgiving, except for the part attractive to all academics -- a big break before we start the Christmas push. When I was a kid, it was one of those endlessly long days where my reading was repeatedly interrupted for the sake of dreaded family activities. N and I usually celebrate it by staying home together, or by going to the movies. Rarely do we spend this holiday with any member of our very extended family, although I do remember one large, memorable Thanksgiving dinner where a small nephew wept inconsolably when the turkey was presented. "I wah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah- ant chicken fingers," he hiccoughed wetly, at the top of his lungs.

But this year N is abroad working on a project. En route to her final destination, she got stuck in Bangkok, where protesters have launched an all-out effort to dispose of their current form of democracy and replace it with another form of democracy that some of us see as more restricted and the protesters see as less corrupt. The parallels here to the post- Reconstruction south in the United States, a period which lasted about 80 years, seem unavoidable to me. But perhaps no one has explained it in as much depth as I need to dismiss that comparison.

The changes proposed by this middle-class movement, as I understand them, would include reversing reforms that had expanded the influence of the poor in the electoral process and strengthening the role of the monarchy. Because part of the strategy has been to throw a wrench into Thailand's primary source of revenue, the tourist industry, the protesters have occupied the international airport (where, speaking of Thanksgiving, they have set up facilities to cook delicious Thai food, according to the New York Times.) All flights in and out of Bangkok have been cancelled until the government either falls or does not fall. Having someone dear to you in the middle of a possible coup d'etat or what is beginning to look like an equally vigorous counter coup, is worrisome. But at least my dearest friend and boon companion is not in Mumbai, where things have turned truly horrifying in the last 24 hours. Expect updates over the next few days on this unfolding story from Chapati Mystery, a blog that will often tell you what the major media can't pull themselves together to know or care enough about in South Asia.

So on this Thanksgiving, can we thank the Bushies for dealing so effectively with terrorism, and for their unstinting efforts to spread democracy around the globe? Thank you George. Thank you Dick. Thank you Rummy. Thank you Condi. Let's send them all a pie -- and you know where to put it, My Friends.

But don't think my holiday is ruined. Partly this is because, stereotypical Tenured Radical that I am, I do not have an elaborate need to celebrate the failure of Plymouth Colony to go the way of Roanoke colony. My family of origin tended not to make a big deal of Thanksgiving either, aside from interrupting my reading. The Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) is Canadian and while she did her part, she couldn't get entirely revved up about celebrating the harvest on the wrong day. In addition, eating was not a competitive sport at my house, so the idea of a day devoted to planning and executing gluttony had no real appeal. This prepared me well for growing up and becoming educated to the notion that Thanksgiving has a pretty seamy past. Click here to access a ceremony that marks Thanksgiving as one of the holidays commemorating the end of indigenous sovereignty in North America, and while you are there, sign a petition to free Leonard Peltier.

And yet, I will be celebrating friendship this year with my work-family from The Castle, and giving thanks for the fact that to date the economic crisis has been managed at Zenith with a salary freeze, a few budget cuts and the addition of a few extra lucky winners in next year's freshman class. Several days ago, in response to my inquiry as to what I could bring to this festive event, I received the following reply:

Your assignment, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it is to bring pies to the Thanksgiving dinner. Scrumptious creations from either your own kitchen or a Shoreline bakery would be most welcome. If you prefer to bring something else, the Secretary is willing to negotiate. If you are caught or killed in the completion of your mission, the Secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions.


Mission Impossible Force.

Now everyone knows that Historiann the Queen of The Dessert is the blogger you want cooking for you (although I wish to god at this point that she were the Queen of Thailand and taking an active role in negotiations to open the airport and restore democracy.) But not everyone can have Historiann over for dinner on the same day, can they? So I went diligently to work. And thanks to the New York Times Cookbook and Chris Kimball, guest chef on National Public Radio's Morning Edition yesterday, two pies are sitting on my counter. My pies have a tendency to look like they fell from the Ugly Tree, but they taste delicious, which is really the point about two seconds after people start slicing into them. And - speaking of terrorism -- one thing they won't do is explode, as Dr. Victorian's pie did, when left on a live electric burner by mistake in its Pyrex dish just prior to serving the Holiday Dessert That Will Never Be Forgotten. Who knew Pyrex exploded with a horrific bang when exposed to extreme heat? Furthermore, if there is a pie holding the dish down and compressing the explosion, the dish sprays glass shards horizontally at waist level. Hence my deduction: that the pie itself can be a weapon of mass destruction. If you see any stray pies lying around the house this holiday, eat them immediately to avoid further mayhem. This is an order.

Ah well. Pie or no pie, at least we have more democracy in the United States this November thanks to Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee. I am actually thankful for that.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What Works For Christians Could Work For Academics Too

Pastor Ed Young of the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas has been urging his flock to improve their emotional well-being by having more sex. In fact, last Sunday he instructed the married couples in his flock to have sex every day prior to coming to church yesterday. The economic downturn (read: Republican trainwreck), in addition to the ordinary problems couples have (adultery, PTSD, child-rearing, exhaustion, quiet and/or open rage, working two or three jobs) are causing people to lose the intimacy that is the key to a healthy marriage, Young argues. In the longer term, the Seven Days of Sex should cause couples to at least double the amount of intercourse they have and “move from whining about the economy to whoopee!”

Well yes indeed. Of course, Young is not the first Christian to suggest this. From Henry Ward Beecher's gospel of love through Marabel Morgan's advice in the Total Woman that women should try sexy tricks like greeting hubby at the door wrapped in Saran Wrap, Christians have emphasized the critical role of sexual intimacy within monogamous marriage. And if you were Henry Ward Beecher, not to mention a few fallen televangelists too, outside of marriage too!

But what about the neglected sex lives of the less devout? I suggest we academics jump on the band wagon too, and apply this concept to the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in New York City, January 2-5, 2009. I hereby command seven days of non-stop sexual activity prior to the meeting: we can drop the monogamous marriage part -- it won't be appropriate, politically correct or legally possible for everyone. This should put smiles on a few faces, shouldn't it? I'm thinking friendlier preliminary interviews, kinder comments at panels, maybe even a little graciousness toward that unfortunate fling-person you did at last year's meeting who turned out not to be in an open relationship after all, or who told everyone you knew that it didn' good.

Of course, you have to work up to Seven Days of Sex. So let's all start practicing now. And who knows? Could lead to higher grades for your students, as well as better faculty-administration relations, even in a budget-cutting environment.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Who Says There Are No Jobs? Pish-Tosh!

Do you ever casually look for jobs on-line? I do. Usually when I am supposed to be grading or completing some other tedious task that is the bread-and-butter of my work as a tenured professor. I sometimes even apply for the jobs I find, but I have only been mildly successful at that pursuit, and never in a life-changing way -- a nibble here, a nibble there ("Finish your book, stupid," they write back on a postcard. "Oh yeah, right, I forgot" I say, and paste it in my scrapbook of Futile Acts.) But as I take little breaks from writing letters of recommendation so that many of my favorite students can go to graduate school and also worry about being jobless, I have been checking the listings and see if the economy has affected the market or that American Studies job at the University of Hawaii has opened up yet.

Of course, it's always 1933 when it comes to jobs in United States history or American Studies, isn't it? Yes, these are more popular fields than Renaissance Poland or Enlightenment Corsica, but there do seem to be fewer jobs than normal. OK, move to Tier Two: the creative job application.

This is how it works. For example, I have always wanted to work for UCLA, but if there were a job there in history I would never get it because someone in that department once fired my sorry ass, and she is the kind of person who holds a grudge. So how much better to apply for a tenure-track job in economics? My enemy would never find me there, guaranteed. And I bet I could also give it a good shot as chair of the English Department at the University of Minnesota: with all that course relief, I bet I wouldn't have to teach so many courses -- and have you heard of the New Historicism? I mean -- HELLO!? If Minneapolis is too chilly for the Radical household, a quick look at H-Net shows that there are an astonishing number of positions available in Qatar. I'm also happy to say that Zayed University in Dubai is hiring in history, as is New York University's campus in the United Arab Emirates. Or how about Professor of American Studies at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea's third largest city! This job is made for me. First of all, they do not want anyone Korean (qualified.) Second, their ideal candidate is "a talented and enthusiastic faculty member who will actively and passionately lead students in advancing their knowledge of English." That's what I already do! Except I would be a lot closer geographically to Kim-Jong-il, and that would worry me a lot.

But here's a good one, and it is totally local: Director of Alcohol and Drug Initiatives at Yale. That's a job that keeps a person stateside, without spending vast sums on sunscreen or wool hats, and I would never have to write a letter of recommendation again, nor teach Engllish (hell, they are so plastered, they don't even understand English!) But in trying to control undergraduate drinking anywhere, I would worry about acquiring a sense of futility about my work. Wouldn't you?

Ah well. Back to grading.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Radical Thanksgiving: Do Something for Someone Else

It's always hard to know how to celebrate Thanksgiving, particularly if traditional romances about the family don't really speak to you (a frequent problem for queer people.) It's even more complicated if you are also a Radical historian who is well aware that the first Thanksgiving in 1621, treasured in our national culture, was more or less the beginning of the end for the Wampanoags who were the primary native participants in the event. Already beginning to suffer from European diseases in 1621, by 1676 and the end of Metacom's war, the Wampanoags were scattered, exiled, dead, sold into slavery or had melted into the general population to try to protect themselves. Contemporary groups of Wampanoags have reconstituted themselves and regained small amounts of tribal land, most prominently in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

So Happy Thanksgiving! How shall we celebrate?

As I get older and fatter, and as I become more aware that many people in Shoreline are having trouble putting any of their meals on the table, eating myself sick - the other happy Thanksgiving romance -- has become increasingly unappealing too.
However, although I obviously don't have a lot of sentiment about clan-gathering moments, I have had a lot of nice Thanksgivings with various clans, who are actual and fictive kin of mine. This year, since N is off to spend Thanksgiving and about three other weeks doing some interesting work in a dictatorship far, far away, I have had a number of kind invitations, despite my bah-humbug approach to the holiday. I have selected dinner with my work family from the Castle, the Zenith building from whence all things Radical emanate. And lest you think I am being overcome by sentiment despite myself, I want to add this information: these are people who really know how to cook.

But here's another way to celebrate Thanksgiving: help someone else. The someone in need I offer to you, only because I have been alerted by fellow blogger Plains Feminist is Native American Activist Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabeg nation.) A writer and longtime political activist, LaDuke is the Executive director of Honor the Earth and the White Earth Land Recovery Project, two indigenous environmental activism groups.

But like many activists, LaDuke operates on a pretty thin margin, so needless to say, the destruction of her house by fire on November 9 has been devastating; in addition to her extended family's clothes and household possessions, LaDuke lost her library and art collection. To find out how to be part of rebuilding LaDuke's material life, go to this post by Plains Feminist.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Call For Papers: the Radical Becomes Serious for a Hot Moment

I am sitting at my desk looking at some lovely contracts for a new series in Recent American History, received yesterday from the University of Georgia Press. The series will be co-edited by yours truly and my former Zenith colleague, Renee Romano, who is now a member of that wonderful history department that has been assembled by Oberlin College. The series is going to be kicked off with an anthology, for which we have already issued a call in several venues. I have reprinted our call below:

Call for Papers: “Problems and Methods in Writing Recent American History.” We invite submissions of articles for an anthology on the methodological, political, and ethical challenges related to studying the history of recent events in the United States. The collection, which will be published by the University of Georgia Press and will launch a new book series featuring titles that explore American history since the 1970s, will reflect on the specific methodological challenges of doing late twentieth century history. Besides facing frequent suspicion that their research is not historical enough, scholars who undertake contemporary history are challenged to work outside an established secondary literature. They often encounter methodological problems that are foreign to scholars of a more distant past, such as negotiating with living subjects or trying to wade through the evolving sources available on the Internet. Topics that articles might explore include: when an event becomes “historical” enough to be a subject of research by historians; the role of oral history in research on recent events; the ethics of writing about living subjects, their friends, and family; the challenges of doing research on participants in social movements who are themselves now prominent scholars; the difficulties of finding archival sources, acquiring permission to use restricted archives, and being responsible to those who possess personal collections; how modern technology changes historical research, from tracking down emails or cell phone records, to using blogs and social networking sites as sources; dealing with the lack of perspective that the passage of time traditionally affords; and addressing how historians can or should borrow from other fields such as sociology, anthropology or political science when studying recent events. Essays should be no more than 25 manuscript pages and should be written to appeal to a general scholarly audience. Send abstracts to both editors by March 1, 2009; completed manuscripts will be due by September 1, 2009: Renee Romano, Department of History, 10 North Professor Street, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH 44074, and Claire Potter, Center for the Americas, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 06457. For more information, please email or

As an addendum, Renee and I are hoping that we will be holding a mini-conference prior to the submission of final drafts, where participants in the volume will gather here at Zenith and talk about the parameters of the field.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Portuguese Water Dog -- Er, I Mean, The "Lion" of the Senate, Returns

Teddy Kennedy returned to the Senate yesterday, as the New York Times put it, "flanked by his wife Vicki and his two Portuguese water dogs, Sunny and Splash." Much speculation has been raised about the role of these influential, rare and intelligent dogs in the new Obama administration. I'm not surprised about this. Sunny and Splash delivered a critical endorsement in the primary season that some have credited with turning the Obama campaign around, and they worked unstintingly for our current President-elect while Teddy was being treated for brain cancer. Right now, the Radical's informants are silent on what offices Sunny and Splash have been offered, but the advantages to appointing the Kennedy dogs are obvious: neither has ever sent an email that could embarrass them, their family or the administration. And they are Kennedys, underlining the point the national press seems to be going to town on lately, which is that the Obamas should not be scary to anybody because they are really just African American Kennedys (think Black Barbie.) Try Googling "Bamelot" and see how many hits you come up with.

But what Sunny and Splash will have to overcome are the three most common misunderstandings about the propriety of Portuguese water dogs participating in politics in the first place, and this, at least, is a serious issue.

Portuguese water dogs are already powerful movers and shakers in the Senate: why give them more influence? If Portuguese water dogs were as powerful as they would like to be , we would have national health care, bailing out the Big Three auto makers would not even be a question, banks would have been regulated up the wazoo, and the troops would be home from Iraq and Afghanistan now. We would also have a national "time out" every day at 11 a.m. when all citizens went outside, rain or shine, and chased tennis balls.

Portuguese water dogs are politically divisive figures and well-known biters of reporters. Also not true: in fact, they have hardly seen a reporter in the last eight years, having been crowded out by special interests and a variety of terriers who work for Dick Cheney (but who claim to be George and Laura Bush's "pets.") In fact, Portuguese water dogs dedicate themselves to currying favor with everyone and will continue to negotiate even after the bill is passed. They are well-known for constantly crossing --and re-crossing -- the aisle in true non-partisan fashion, particularly if Orrin Hatch has left an old potato chip bag in the wastebasket under his desk but Harry Reid dumped donut crumbs in his.

There was once a political scandal when a Portuguese water dog received a $400 haircut and it was reported in the national news; Obama will thus be endangered by the specter of gay hairdressers coalescing as a special interest to demand national bad hair insurance. There is some truth to this. But the cost of the haircut in question was exaggerated. How do these lies get spread? The top price for a wash, blow dry, clip, ear-plucking, and toe-nail trim is about $135, probably less at the Senate barbershop. And although it was repeatedly suppressed during the campaign, liberal as well as conservative policy makers are well aware that bad hair is a critical national security issue.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Edie Sedgwick: R.I.P., an online magazine devoted to death -- or, as they say on the website, "What death can mean to the living and what living may have meant to the dead" -- reminds us with this story by Paul Wilner that November 16 was the 37th anniversary of Edie Sedgwick's death. She died of a lethal dose of pills and alcohol, ingested accidentally, like so many fabulous people of that drug-addled era.

Sedgwick, a society hanger on of the Factory crowd was, as you may recall, one of the few celebrities associated with Warhol who was already a celebrity in her own right. She also brought money and class to a very ambitious artist at crucial moment in his career when he had neither.

But for my money, the best thing about Sedgwick (other than that she serves as the focus the book that best evokes Warhol's early Factory years, Jean Stein's Edie: An American Girl) is that she may have been the inspiration for Bob Dylan's song "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat," from the Blonde on Blonde Album. Even if you don't care for the half dozen Warhol movies she starred in (which for many of us are unwatchable without some kind of chemical intervention), you've got to admit she made cultural contribution there.

And speaking of cultural contributions -- Obit.mag seems to be defining itself in contradistinction to something we generally call "history," but which might be the cutting edge of a new field called "Death Studies"? Just guessing.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Oh, Canada! The Radical Overcomes

So for the last few days I have been in a Far Northern City at a Legal History Conference. I was invited there to be on a panel organized by Princeton History department newbie Margot Canaday (whose book, by the way, is coming out in the spring -- keep your eyes peeled.) It was a great panel, and since I had never been to a meeting of this particular society before, actually a Different Experience (always nice to know you can have one, after almost 25 years of being an academic, isn't it?) Lots of the people attending were legal scholars, some were historians of the law, and others (like me) were kibitzers who stomp all over the field while we write a book that is sort of about the law. I spent time with two dear friends who I hadn't expected to see; a third, also a kibitzing historian, ran up to me at registration on Friday, and said: "Thank God I know someone here!" Folks in the law definitely live better than we in history or American Studies departments: the meeting was held at the Fairmount Laurier, named after a distant relative in the Canadian branch of the Radical family, Sir Wilfred Laurier, once Prime Minister of Canada.

You can see how much I have had to overcome to become the Radical.

Anyway, the beds were soft, the conversation sparkling, and the money large and clunky when it wasn't just odd colors with pictures of that nice old lady on it. I don't know how Canadians deal with the bags full of loonies they get as change every day, except to give them away to the homeless so their pockets don't fall apart. Which they probably do, being Canadian. As one of many delightful activities at the meeting, I attended a dinner last night organized by Mary Dudziac (and also attended by Dan Ernst) of Legal History Blog. Mary, Dan and I held court on the blogosphere: it seems like everywhere you go nowadays people want to know how blogging works, how you got into it, and how you know what to do once you get to the blogosphere. The answers to these questions, almost uniformly among bloggers, are:

1. Easy-peasy (sometimes follows a discussion on the merits of Blogspot versus Wordpress);
2. By accident and because I like to write; and
3. You figure it out as you go along.

Since there were a lot of lawyers around I also asked a number of anxious questions about fair use, since blogging often entails theft and re-printing.

Mary, and an unpleasant flame skirmish on the previous post which I have since erased, have almost persuaded me to stop taking anonymous comments and/or to use moderation. The down side -- and it's a real down side for a blog like this -- is that very few people comment when you make it even slightly cumbersome to do so. But, as Mary pointed out, having people write anything they want about you and circulate it on your own blog is unpleasant too.

I'm not sure which is worse about being flamed (pick one):

1. Someone I don't know writing something nasty and completely ignoring what I wrote in the post so that s/he can elaborate on how much s/he dislikes me or what an idiot I am.
2. Said person dropping hairpins that s/he is someone I know, so that I don't know whether said commenter is a sock puppet of a known commenter, someone I truly do not know, someone I sort of or used to know, or someone I work with every day who is actually a sick f***k using my own blog to pick on me.
3. Losing my temper and flaming back, and hence revealing myself as a person whose poise can be temporarily disabled.
4. Having said commenter respond to being attacked in an equally nasty way by writing in a hurt, disingenuous tone, "Gee, I (sniff) just wanted you to engage my ideas," when in fact there were no ideas to engage -- just an accusation that I am an idiot or a hypocrite or a power-mad Peronista.

As the ever-fabulous Robert Self of Brown had noted at dinner the night previous (and I paraphrase), it isn't clear that more communication on the internet is actually better communication. What we do know is that people who take the trouble to comment are a very small proportion of those who read: I would say on this blog fewer than 1% of readers are commenters, and I bet that is even true of very popular blogs who get two or three times the hits I get every day. Thus, those who comment are, as the pollsters say, motivated. What this means, in my view, is that they are either truly interested in the post or truly interested in making contact with the blogger, and in the latter case, negativity is probably as much a motivator as admiration, if not more so.

And as if I haven't been tested enough in the blogosphere in the last 24 hours -- presto! I just discovered that I was in danger of being bumped from my flight. Why? Because I didn't pay extra to guarantee that I would not be bumped from my flight. Isn't the free market wonderful?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tenure, Tee-shirts and Triangulation: School Reform In The News

Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in the District of Columbia, is moving to abolish tenure for teachers. Because tenure is the third rail of public education, she claims she isn't. But she is. Rhee is in charge of one of the most troubled systems in the country -- or perhaps just the most visibly troubled, since the collapse of public schools in the nation's capital are a particularly vivid barometer of the terrible state of urban public education more generally. Her current plan is to reduce the number of tenured teachers in the system by offering salary incentives for teachers to give up their tenure and simply teach well.

Rhee's approach to change doesn't help sell what is actually a sensible plan: if you have followed her career, you know that she reacts to dissent in the ranks with the polish of your average despot. Her rock 'em, sock 'em administrative style makes her a lightning rod in a world that combusts regularly over the latest plan to educate millions of children without liberating public schools from the property tax funding system that gives rich public schools to the suburban rich and poor public schools to the urban poor. Rhee is controversial, not just because of her aggressive advocacy of free-market solutions, like charter schools and for-profit providers, but because of her youth, gender and -- what few people ever comment on -- that she is a Korean-American executive officer of a black system, in a city that is funded (or not, depending on how you look at it) by a very white Congress.

So Rhee occupies the third corner of a triangulated racial relationship, and is a referee in a pseudo-colonial struggle between the Federal government and the District of Columbia. You've got to wonder why anyone would take this job. For this reason, and my ongoing interest in progressive education, I am always eager for news of her latest battle with those who failed to resist standardized testing or No Child Left Behind but do resist anything that actually might create better schools, the American Federation of Teachers.

To give some ground to her enemies, Rhee can be breathtakingly nasty. On September 8, 2008, I heard an interview with her on National Public Radio's All Things Considered in which the interviewer raised the question about whether nurturing a collaborative relationship with the teachers' union should be more of a priority than aggressive new pay policies that bypassed the union and rewarded teachers regardless of seniority. "Where has that gotten us so far?" Rhee shot back acerbically. "Being collaborative and holding hands and singing 'Kum Ba Yah?'"

But criticizing Rhee for her lack of tact and sensitivity begs the question of whether, in a failing school system, tenure should be an absolute value, even though -- importantly -- it protects teachers who are actually working for politicians. Is tenure in the secondary school system a different animal from tenure in higher education in some regards, and thus more disposable? Perhaps: the differences are certainly greater than the similarities from my perspective, particularly since, for better or for worse, it doesn't seem very difficult to get a job teaching secondary school. But there are other differences. There is no particular status to obtaining tenure as a public school teacher, as there is with a college or university job: it merely signifies that you have been judged minimally competent in the classroom and have not given the system any reason to fire you. It awards job security, and puts the teacher on a seniority ladder. That most teachers are also unionized means that the tenure system and union membership are almost coextensive with each other. And unfortunately, what this means is that wonderful, creative new schools springing up in urban school districts have to give priority in their hiring to old, tired, burned out teachers who are available because they have failed at other schools (or helped other schools fail) rather than to the energetic, young teachers who will invest in the school's success.

So why do we have tenure in secondary schools at all? Mostly, it is the legacy of Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare: it ensures that teachers are not fired for political reasons as they were in the 1950s, and well into the 1960s. But unfortunately -- assuming that people more or less doing a good job who are not controversial don't need to be protected -- tenure, at the level of secondary education, has more of a tendency to safeguard the lazy and incompetent than those advocating for radical forms of social justice. Ask Debbi Almontaser, for example. The same Randi Weingarten who has opposed Michelle Rhee's plan to overhaul the teaching staff in the D.C. schools and claimed that ending the tenure system will create "highly paid, transitory teachers who will spend much of their time looking over their shoulders at one another" is the same president of the AFT who threw tenured principal Almontaser under the bus for defending an Arab-American women's group that printed a T-shirt with the slogan "Intifada NYC."

Almontaser didn't make the T-shirt, she didn't sell it, and she didn't wear it: she merely explained publicly that intifada has a more complex history than those focused on contemporary struggles between Israel and the Palestinian resistance might be aware of. In other words, she defended the right to free speech, and as a consequence was reminded by schools chancellor Joel Klein and her union president that as a tenured principal she has no free speech. Almontaser, a rising star in the school reform movement and a skilled interfaith educator, was removed from her school, the Khalil Ghibran International Academy. She is now riding a desk down at the school board, where she does nothing every day in the company of teachers who touch children inappropriately.

So what we can conclude is that Michelle Rhee is a danger to free expression because she has questioned whether tenure is serving her school system, while Randi Weingarten and New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (who pressured Almontaser to resign from her school and was recently mentioned as a possible Secretary of Education in the Obama administration) reenforced a chilling environment in which pro-Arab speech has been effectively suppressed. Their support for tenure seems to mean that a teacher or principle has the right to be paid indefinitely after her career is destroyed for purely political reasons.

And that has nothing to do with teaching, learning or free speech, does it?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Content of Our Character: Making The History Of President Obama

We did it. Oh my God, let me help the Bushies pack. I've been saving boxes for them. And once we're done, I'll start saving boxes for Joe the Senator, that skunk of a former Democrat who has succeeded in making himself completely irrelevant. Hope it was worth it, Senator Lieberman: at least you will have two wars and thousands dead to look back on when you are going through your memory books in two years.

I myself feel as though I have just been liberated from a dictatorship: I cried throughout Obama's victory speech last night, overwhelmed with relief, exhaustion and the hope that things would be different soon. And you know, wherever Obama comes down on GLBTQ rights in the end, he won't be out to to get us like the Bushies and their pals in the Heart(less)land were. Things have been so bad -- for example, using hideous, antigay initiatives to get poor, white conservatives to the polls to vote for politicians who were ready to turn the economic screws harder on those same voters -- that I would settle for just being left alone by the state and by the people of this great land. And if Obama can do better than that, well then, Goddess bless him.

In the midst of our long-awaited celebration, may I inject a request that our euphoria not cause us to over-read what has just happened? One of the things that is going to be a little hard to take over the next few days is the ooze of self-congratulation already begun in the media about the sea-change in American race relations, "proven" by the majority of the electorate having chosen an African-American man as president. I needn't remind you that, although put in context it was a resounding victory, many millions of people did not vote for Obama: some of those people will become reconciled to his presidency and many, I suspect, will not.

This means that we need to take with a grain of salt the announcement by pundits like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, that inequality, and the culture of racial meanness that has pervaded politics since Reconstruction, is officially at an end. "And so it came to pass" Friedman writes biblically, "that on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man — Barack Hussein Obama — won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States." He continues:

"A civil war that, in many ways, began at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, ended 147 years later via a ballot box in the very same state. For nothing more symbolically illustrated the final chapter of America’s Civil War than the fact that the Commonwealth of Virginia — the state that once exalted slavery and whose secession from the Union in 1861 gave the Confederacy both strategic weight and its commanding general — voted Democratic, thus assuring that Barack Obama would become the 44th president of the United States.

"This moment was necessary, for despite a century of civil rights legislation, judicial interventions and social activism — despite Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King’s I-have-a-dream crusade and the 1964 Civil Rights Act — the Civil War could never truly be said to have ended until America’s white majority actually elected an African-American as president.

"That is what happened Tuesday night and that is why we awake this morning to a different country. The struggle for equal rights is far from over, but we start afresh now from a whole new baseline. Let every child and every citizen and every new immigrant know that from this day forward everything really is possible in America."

After an entire election season of barely talking about race at all, suddenly an Obama victory has unleashed a torrent of reflection on slavery, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. (Um -- does anyone remember what happened to erode black citizenship after the civil rights movement? Like unprecedented rates of incarceration, ending antipoverty programs, and defunding public eduction?) Allusions to the horrors of American racism should probably be dealt with gently by the Obama administration, to be sure. Most white Americans don't really understand them, and they don't understand how they are implicated in inequality. But I am not comfortable with the announcement that Obama's great victory has simply bookended this history, and that we can now start all over. For example, on NPR yesterday, a white construction worker explained that he thought undocumented Mexican workers should be paid as much as he is, and that equal pay for equal work should be guaranteed by law -- but he doesn't want "them" in his union. Why? the reporter asked. Because, Joe the Carpenter explained, he doesn't.

Americans have a great fantasy about starting over. That was, in part, what the original colonial project in the Americas relied on: people who had mucked up their lives in Spain, or France, or England, or Scotland coming to try all over again in a place that they thought -- mistakenly -- was empty. Or Puritans leaving behind a corrupt church to gain God's grace all over again. Think of Lincoln surveying the scorched and tangled ground of Gettysburg battlefield, piles of bodies as yet unburied, and reassuring his audience that this evidence of political catastrophe marked a moment to rebuild American politics. Or think of the Mormons, piling their polygamous families in wagons and leaving their charred homes behind in Illinois, enduring endless hardship to get the shores of the Great Salt Lake, where Brigham Young announced firmly, "This is the place." And think of the Indians who had, in fact, lived in that place, and have been starting over ever since.

It's a myth, for sure. And yet, Americans do start over. Again and again. We fling history to the winds, we change our names, we change our genders, we change our noses and tummies, we change our wives, we change our vinyl siding. It is an indisputable feature of how Americans, and people who have longed to be Americans, understand the promise of this country. So it's wrong that we can just start over as if the long history of American crimes against black people never happened, but if we exercise some caution, it can be right too. After a Republican reign that has been a catastrophe, in which bad things happened one after another, each thing more incredible -- and predictable -- than the last, the nation has been liberated once again. This time we will be freed by a mixed race man, his father an immigrant, who will be the first black president -- not just in the history of the United States -- of the Western industrialized world.

But after the euphoria passes, let's get to work, shall we? Let's figure out what starting over really means and what it is going to take, on the streets and in the classrooms. Listening to John McCain's supporters boo and catcall the next President of the United States last night (something he and Sarah Palin taught them to do, just like Elizabeth Dole authorized that awful Jesse Helms-ian ad against Kay Hagen that will stain her otherwise good name forever) reminds me of the meanness that has been unleashed by the McCain/Palin campaign, a meanness that has lurked under the surface of every major Republican policy, and every major political season, since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. There's lots of work to do, but repairing our political culture is at the top of the list.

Oh -- and if you are a soldier in Iraq? Keep your head down and your vest buttoned tightly, friend. You're coming home.

For good post-election activities, click here for Barack's pre-inaugural reading list , compiled by Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Education. Your Radical is featured, as is her Zenith colleague Elvin Lim.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Tactics Borrowed From The Longest Campaign Ever: How To Avoid Being Elected Department Chair

Since we liberals are all spending this evening unable to do anything but check the polls every five minutes and watch film of people voting early in Ohio, I would like to distract everyone by turning to a pressing concern that occupies us all this time of year. Who will be the next department chair? I bet you are hoping it isn't you. But cheer up. Here are some strategies for campaigning against yourself.

Launch a court challenge against yourself demanding that you present a valid United States birth certificate to prove you were born in the United States and can legally be elected chair of the department. By the time you have dropped about a dozen subpoenas on yourself demanding extensive discovery, and by the time you get a hearing before a judge, the chair's election will be over. And I bet your colleagues will be so stunned by your capacity to sue --and defend -- yourself at the same time, they won't even mention it that you don't have to have to be native born to be department chair!

Refer to yourself in the third person constantly, pretending that your middle name is Hussein. Just drop it into ordinary conversation: "You can't fool John Hussein Doe! No sirree!" Eventually people will start to wonder if you are an Islamic terrorist. If this doesn't seem to be working fast enough, put on a full court press: "Y'know, I remember back at the madrassah not so long ago;" and, "As I said to Pops -- and let me tell you, its a real pain to get cell reception outside Kandahar..." Remember, all you need to do is plant a seed of doubt in their minds.

Address your colleagues as "My friends!" constantly. As in, "My friends! Was that on the agenda?" This is endlessly irritating, particularly to people who don't like you much anyway, who don't feel like your friends, and who would rather eat glass than listen to you address them like that week -- after week --after week.

Tell endearing jokes that incorporate your field of specialty. Say you are a Renaissance scholar, for example. Just slide up next to folks who are sorting their department mail and say, "Hey, I heard a good one the other day! What's the difference between a Renaissance scholar and a pit bull?" And when they say they don't know, yell "Lipstick!" and walk away laughing maniacally. This is a particularly effective tactic if you are a man and actually wearing lipstick at the time! Think about it, huh?

Spread the rumor that you are a socialist, and the first thing you will do is to redistribute wealth. This only works if there are substantially more senior people than junior people in the department. But associate professors who are suffering from salary compression, or full professors who are resentful of stars hired at twice their salary might react to this in ways you don't want. So if you see them starting to think of you as department chair material, casually mention some new taxes you want to propose when elected.

Tell people you are a maverick.

Find someone who is coming up for tenure, say tomorrow or next week, nickname that person Joe -- or Jo -- and drag him or her around with you everywhere to illustrate why your policies are good for the department. It's really important to also pick an occupation or a description as part of the name that will allow people to remember Jo(e), so that when your colleagues think of you, they think of poor, frightened, lowly Jo(e) too. I'm thinking of a name like "Joe the Oral Historian," or "Jo the queer." Something snappy that says "Everyman" to the world.

Practice a robocall voice, and one day when you have nothing else to do, call everyone in your department and leave a message reminding them to come to the meeting and vote for you. Then laugh -- maniacally, again -- and in your normal voice say, "Didj'a guess it was me? Didj'a? Didj'a?"

Okay, but even with all of these tactics, and despite what the polls say, you might -- against all odds -- win. So here's how you seal the deal.

Put a flyer in everyone's mailbox saying that faculty who filled in their own taxi receipts on their last conference reimbursement form will be arrested if they try to vote in the chair's election. Then you go the meeting all by yourself and vote for someone else! Perfect, eh?

And The Jury Is In: Professors Have Little Effect On Students

Just a day before the election, another piece of scaffolding invented out of whole cloth by conservative liars -- I mean, intellectual activists -- crashes to the ground: the notion that liberal college professors are indoctrinating their students. So sayeth the New York Times. According to an article in today's paper about a book just published by the Brookings Institution:

The notion that students are induced to move leftward “is a fantasy,” said Jeremy D. Mayer, another of the book’s authors. When it comes to shaping a young person’s political views, “it is really hard to change the mind of anyone over 15,” said Mr. Mayer, who did extensive research on faculty and students.

“Parents and family are the most important influence,” followed by the news media and peers, he said. “Professors are among the least influential.”

A study of nearly 7,000 students at 38 institutions published in the current PS: Political Science and Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association, as well as a second study that has been accepted by the journal to run in April 2009, both reach similar conclusions.

A second study, co-authored by conservative researcher, Matthew Woessner, confirms these findings. The bad news from my point of view is Mayer's view that changing the mind of anyone over fifteen is difficult. So much for the importance of Western civilization -- or any kind of civilizing influence -- in a college curriculum, something that has been a mainstay of conservative and liberal curricular conflict for several generations now.

Honestly, despite my naturally liberal desire to gloat, I find this all a little difficut to believe, which may mean these researchers are also wrong about me not being a radical ideologue who indoctrinates my students. In truth, the whole conversation is -- and always has been -- hogwash, intended to divert most of us from the great economic rip-off of America engineered by Republican operatives (oops! liberal cant! keeps slipping out!) Just try teaching Barry Goldwater's Conscience of A Conservative to an average group of undergraduates. They love it. They don't love it, however, because he was a conservative, or because he wrote about things that were eternally true, or because Goldwater appeals to the political sensibilities of your average fifteen year-old, but because the ideas are so fearless and it was such a bold attempt to alter the political landscape. Students want to do something that significant too.

And you know what? Students respond approximately the same way to the work of radical left intellectual Angela Davis, who was once fired by Ronald Reagan for being a bad ideological influence in her university classroom. This all leads me to the (unscientific) conclusion that most students are more interested in how to grow up to be significant, unique people who are effective citizens of the world than they are concerned with where to place themselves (or their professors) on an ideological spectrum defined by conservative academics.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Radical To The University of Connecticut: Cookies, Milk and A Social Worker, Please

This morning's Connecticut section of the New York Times featured this story about Colin Carlson, who has been taking college level courses since he was eight and now, at the ripe old age of 12, is enrolled at the University of Connecticut's main campus at Storrs. You can see a picture of him, talking to one of his profs, at left.

My first response? Oh yuck, not another one.

Apparently Colin applied to a number of liberal arts colleges, among them my beloved Zenith. Our admissions officers, according to the reporter, "suggested a few years at a prep school" rather than admitting Colin as a freshman in the class of 2012 and assigning him to the Naked Dorm. Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to end up in the Naked Dorm. And not everyone can afford to add another six years of what are essentially college tuition fees onto four years of college fees. I know this because every once in a while I scan the private school web pages in the area on behalf of my beloved and brilliant nephews, and realize reluctantly that -- aside from what I think are all the civic reasons why choosing public school is good -- it would take a lot of crazy bookkeeping in a large family to send even one of them to an area prep school. So don't think I am not sympathetic with Mrs. Carlson's frustration about the public schools: all you need to hear from a twelve year-old is that he does his homework in the hall between classes and suddenly you start wondering how you could rearrange your busy professional life around home schooling.

And yet, I would not want Colin in my classroom, no matter how special he is: thank you, Zenith admissions. I want to make this point because the colleges who show ambitious Moms like Mrs. Carlson the gate are always portrayed as the Grinch in this kind of story. It is one thing to have a young person taking a few college classes, but it is another to entirely lift this person out of a setting defined by age peers and put him in an educational setting where he will be socially isolated, except for his math and science professors (right? Because we know Mom doesn't think he's a genius because she caught him too many times reading Lacan or Joan Scott under the covers after lights out.)

Twelve year-old kids no more belong in a college setting (I don't care how smart you say he is) than they belong in the military or working in a factory. I'm not even going to comment on the rest of the piece, in which reporter Lary Bloom seems to have bought the story told by the University of Connecticut's public relations representative, and by Colin's mother, hook, line and sinker. Colin, we learn, is driven to achieve not just by his brilliance but by his social mission, which is to stop global warming.

Well, thank heaven someone is finally paying attention to global warming, that's all I can say.

We also learn that although Colin looks like Woody Allen (terrible thing to say about a kid) he has "better social skills." I would certainly hope so, although comparing this young man's social acumen with that of a guy who, in late middle age, had a love affair with and then married his eighteen year-old adopted daughter, is not much of a compliment.

But let's get back to some objective reasons why kids do not belong in college, shall we?

School is a social experience as well as an educational experience. Perhaps one of the most social aspects of school are the ways in which young people deal with emotional issues -- how to say "I'm sorry," how to cope with jealousy, how to compete and lose -- in an atmosphere in which other people are learning the same things and making the same mistakes. Those lessons usually have to be learned over and over, more or less throughout life. Furthermore, by college, whether a young person lives at home or in a dormitory, students are gradually introduced to aspects of growing up that are not only inappropriate for prepubescent children, but either unsafe or legally and practically inaccessible to them. For example, how to live semi-independently before you have to learn to live independently. How to budget your living expenses and pay bills, how to have a well-organized school life and get your laundry done, how to make a schedule without Mom there to help, how to organize their own transportation -- all without Mommy and Daddy's help. In fact, I would argue that learning these things from age peers is a particularly effective learning experience that cannot be replicated in your parents' house.

College teachers mostly do not know how to teach children, and there is nothing in their training that will ever lead them to learning how. I should think this would be self-evident, but it isn't to those who subscribe to the commodity transfer theory of teaching. It shows the most profound contempt for both college teachers and seventh grade teachers to imagine that they could just do each others' jobs. Is a college teacher going to notice that Colin is down in the dumps and call Mom to find out if he's ok? No. It's illegal, actually, under the Buckley amendment. When little Colin starts mouthing off in class, and the college students around him start acting like he is a freak, is the professor trained to handle a situation in which the object of discomfort and amusement is a young boy? No.

Learning is not a contract in which a set of facts, or critical thinking tools, are simply handed off the the student from the teacher. In the humanities and social sciences, college students bring a life experience to their courses that is expanding, perhaps more rapidly than it ever will. How can you teach Milton's Paradise Lost to someone who has never known or observed the anguish and rage of being cast away from a beloved person or place? How can you teach the history of the domestic Cold War to someone who may or may not actually know what a homosexual really is? How can you convey theories of deviance to someone whose only experience of being in the world is a keen sense of his own uniqueness?

I don't want to romanticize childhood or college by saying that they are incompatible, although what always sticks out about these stories is that the child is inevitably objectified. If you want to see the graphic evidence of this in Colin's case, look at the second to last paragraph of the story, which reveal as something so private that even the Radical's blogger ethic -- that allows for printing things that are already printed elsewhere -- does not permit this page to reprint it, so evocative it is of some uneasy revelation about the nature of Colin's genius. But it is also something that no twelve year-old boy I have known would want their friends to talk about.

Assuming, that is, that such a boy had any awareness of what a twelve year-old social circle was like.