Sunday, December 27, 2009

Memo To Department Of Homeland Security: You Suck

We are reading very little news from the United States while in South Africa, particularly since (thanks to my least favorite senator since Jesse Helms, Joe Lieberman) the health care bill is such a cock-up. But you couldn't log into a commercial email account without reading an account of this incident, in which a Nigerian man attempted to explode a device on board a Northwest flight from Amsterdam, just minutes outside of Detroit. Passengers and crew members are being praised for their quick response in extinguishing the device and restraining the bomber.

TSA officials are promising action, action action, undoubtedly in the form of more high-tech approaches to stopping terrorists before they are able to act. And yet, what we have so far is incredibly expensive and cumbersome security procedures that can be easily circumvented by your average Joe Terrorist. I have always wondered, for example, how metal detectors would respond to explosives made of plastic. Answer? They don't. I have also wondered why, since it is well known that one must remove one's shoes at airport, any terrorist would put explosives in his or her shoe. Answer? They don't: they sew the bomb in their underwear.

There are two machines that might -- and I say might -- have revealed the old bomb in the underwear ploy. One is the machine, which we encountered in the airport in Paris and is in a few airports in the US, that puffs air at you and analyzes the atmosphere for chemical residue. The other one is the X-ray machine, which was very controversial in the US for the prudish reason that it showed the faint outline of genitalia.

The latter machine might be ineffective in the case of a terrorist wearing fake genitalia full of plastique ("That's a joke, son"), but it strikes me that both machines ought to be in regular use. So what if they cost half a million each?

But there are a few other things worth noting:

1. This particular bomber's name had been given to the US embassy in Nigeria by his own father. And yet, despite the fact that there is now a whole group of security professionals who specialize in clearing the names of people who have ended up on the so-called "no fly list" by mistake -- a process that can take months or years -- a guy who is actually on the list was able to board a plane bound for the United States without being thoroughly searched.

2. Northwest is promising a second security check at the gate for all US-bound flights. And yet, when your favorite Radical changed planes in Amsterdam, where our failed bomber boarded his plane to Detroit,six weeks ago, there was a second check at the gate prior to boarding the KLM flight to Cape Town. At this security gate, in addition to a second search of hand luggage, there was a body pat-down for everyone. Have US passengers somehow been exempted from this extra security to date? Is it something that has been sensibly requested by the South African government? Enquiring minds want to know.

3. It was at this second search that a very polite Dutch security guard asked me to unpack my toilet kit and remove the Swiss Army knife that I had put there prior to a car trip in the fall but had neglected to remove prior to this trip. It had been picked up on a simple x-ray of my hand luggage. This knife, however, had made it through x-ray security at Kennedy airport. Explain that, TSA.

I do not obsess about these things since I truly believe if there is a disaster with my name on it I can't do much about it. What I do object to is that airline passengers are put through endless delays and inconveniences on behalf of security precautions that don't seem to work very well. They confiscate your scissors, make you take your belt and shoes off, and then let someone on the plane wearing an exploding jockstrap. The one piece of good news, I suppose, is that American passengers no longer assume -- as they did prior to 9/11 -- that cooperation and meekness in the face of jihadi fanaticism will give them the best chance of survival.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Is It? Or, On Christmas Eve, A Historian Puzzles Over What Happened At Camp

Several days ago my partner and I completed two weeks working in a South African summer camp for teenagers who have been affected by HIV. A few campers were actually infected and being treated with antiretrovirals (ARVs); most had lost at least one parent and other close relatives to the disease. As our stay progressed, the question of who in South Africa's mostly black townships and rural villages has not been affected by HIV was very present in my mind. Current statistics are that 1 in 8 South Africans are infected, although this is an estimate that many people will tell you is too low. As South African journalist Jonny Steinberg points out in his recent book, Three Letter Plague: A Young Man's Journey Through A Great Epidemic (Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2008), the stigma attached to a diagnosis and the erratic quality of health care extended to the poor means that many of those infected have never been tested; that many who have been tested are shut out of poorly administered treatment programs and simply go away to die; and that those who die from the effects of HIV, thirty years after the mysteries of the virus were first uncovered, are said by the hospital authorities issuing a death certificate to have died from tuberculosis, meningitis, or other opportunistic infections.

The camp I worked at is partly funded by an NGO that cooperates with the ANC-led government, and was originally funded by the Bush administration through USAID. It extends educational and medical resources to South Africa's poor majority, almost entirely black and often living in townships, large urban clusters of mostly tin shacks where basic sanitation and nutrition issues have contributed mightily to the havoc HIV creates in the human body. But the camp addresses another problem as well: that the disease also creates tremendous social disruptions in the kin networks that, as feminist anthropologist Carol Stack argued half a century ago, often help the poor to survive world-wide. Such disruptions have a particularly devastating effect on the young and on post-apartheid upward mobility. One young Soweto woman (I'll call her R) whose care I was charged with at camp described how HIV had transformed her life in this way: "Two years ago my mother died, and I moved in with my aunt," she said. "Then my aunt died. Now I live with her oldest daughter." In addition to going to school, she cares for two children who are both younger than eight; she also does the cooking and cleaning for the family to earn her keep.

Now reader, don't respond -- if you can help it -- with comments about how sad this is, since this girl is not sad about her own life. Quite the opposite, in fact, and as I have said in an earlier post, the South Africans I have met are simultaneously dissatisfied about their political leadership, angry about broken promises and inadequate public funding, and more optimistic about the future than an American would be in similar circumstances. For example, I am quite sure that R misses her mother, because she said so. Besides -- what child would not be distressed about losing two homes in three years? And yet, although she has quickly acquired the responsibilities of a grown woman, one might also point out that she has lost homes and also found new ones. As I got to know her, and she talked to me more as a friend than as a stranger who had accidentally become one of her camp counsellors for a week, I came to know her as a gritty, determined young woman, resolutely facing forward and ready to make a go of it in a South Africa where opportunities exist for the poor but can be exhaustingly difficult for an individual to grasp all by herself. R loves to read, she loves science and she hopes to go on to university to become a chemical engineer. The other girls in our cabin, several of whom were already mothers of children they cherished, had a similar grit. They spoke warmly of their love for books and for science, of the universities they hoped to attend, and of the careers they were willing to fight for. And having watched many of these young women in action, I have hope for them and for their dreams on this Christmas Eve.

One of the turns of phrase that expresses what I learned in my two weeks of camp, and that captures the suspension between what seems impossible and what the young people I knew claimed they would make possible, was this complex interrogative phrase: "Is it?" I heard it most frequently from a young friend and co-worker who was part of my activity team at camp (which was, dear reader, Nutrition class.) Said in a tone of gentle inquiry, or sometimes just acknowledgment, it was a listener's response to an unfamiliar story. Depending on context, it meant roughly the following:

"Is that so?" A polite acknowledgment that one has just said something interesting that requires no response.
"Tell me more." A heavy emphasis on "is" urged the speaker to expand on the previous statement.
"I find that hard to believe, but do go on." In this case, the phrase would be expanded to "Is it, now?" Skepticism was hardly definitive among my new friends, whose graciousness is unsurpassed in my experience. But the conversation that followed "Is it, now?" was usually actively comparative -- you tell me about yours, and I'll tell you about mine -- without being in the least argumentative.

This phrase -- "is it?"-- keeps returning to me as I try to sort my memories of camp, and of getting to know in brief and often surprising intimacy the wonderful South Africans I met there. I am trying to have faith that if I keep writing the stories people told me, recording my memories of what happened as accurately as I can, something will begin to emerge that will address the most basic question a historian can answer: "What happened?" In the two weeks I was at camp with several dozen counselors (all but ten of us South African, the majority Zulu from the Johannesburg and Durban areas) and 150 African campers between the ages of 12 and 20 (standard six through pre-matric) I heard dozens of stories like the one I opened this post with. And although I took notes, made recordings and took pictures I have yet to wrap my highly schooled intellect around what I saw, listened to and observed during these last two weeks (hence, my inability to post even after I returned to internet contact four days ago.)

One of the few things I can articulate clearly at this point, other than expressing my endless gratitude to the friends I made at camp who answered every question I asked and who were equally curious about me, is that I was dazzled by language itself for the two weeks I spent surrounded by the young black citizens of the new South Africa. As in a few other parts of the world I have been in, South African counselors and campers easily slipped from language to language (there are thirteen official languages here, including English and Afrikaans), and one of my closest friends was often beside me at key moments when campers or counselors were singing or performing, offering a priceless translation service that often included instruction on how a particular word was used and why.

The number of languages also sometimes had an effect on my brain that could only be described as crossed wires: I recall speaking to a camper once and hearing, to my dismay, the correct phrase come out -- in Spanish. He looked at me with amusement and replied, "Bonjour?" And yet although I came to understand virtually no words, as time progressed, I also grew to have a better idea what people were talking about by following expressions, tone and gestures. I learned to understand, for example, when a disagreement among the campers I was assigned to had escalated into an actual quarrel and needed to be dealt with. But I was also dazzled with the new expressiveness that English took on as well. Another wonderful way of speaking was the use of the word "borrow." "Can you borrow me a pen?" for example, is quite different from saying "Can you hand me your pen?" or "Can you give me your pen?" It expresses gratitude for your generosity in advance, acknowledges your connection to your own pen, and expresses a sense of obligation that will surely result in the timely return of the pen.*

When I mull over my experiences and my new South African friendships on this Christmas Eve, a part of my brain keeps saying "Is it?" I learned so much, but I also know it was so little. I have many things in my head, but I don't yet know what to make of them-- except that every experience I have had was a good one in some way, often because an African person was willing to take the time to explain, and to "borrow me" a bit of knowledge that would allow me to understand an event or song enough to record it in my notes. My friends taught me enough for me to have a glimpse of what it might mean to know more.

One vivid memory I have is, in the din of the dining hall, one of my campers would say after I asked her for a translation, smiling and shaking her head in mock reproof: "Radical, you must learn Zulu."

Is it?


*Returning pens is a skill my administrative assistants at Zenith know I could use some work on.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Letter From Johannesburg: Bafana Bafana

We arrived in Johannesburg yesterday and, although we did not visit the City Bowl on our first trip to Cape Town three weeks ago, for the first time since we came to South Africa it feels like we are in the Big City with Big City People. We are staying until tomorrow at the Crown Plaza Rosebank, which is in a suburb (think Westwood in LA or Park Slope in Brooklyn, rather than an American-style suburb) developed in the 1950s, as the apartheid regime was in the swing of creating separate living zones for “Europeans” and “non-Europeans.”

On the way into town from the airport I asked the driver why the South African football team is called Bafana Bafana. He replied, “`Bafana’ means a little guy who fights and win against the big guys. People started calling them that because in apartheid we could not compete with other teams around the world so we fell behind. So now we are ‘bafana’”

That perfectly describes my sense of this place three weeks in: this is a young nation that is eager for the world to know it better, and know it for the beautiful and friendly place it is. Part of why it is interesting to follow the preparations for the FIFA World Cup, for example, is that South Africa is painfully aware that people may still not want to come here, that most of the world does not know the new South Africa well, and that what they do know is crime, crime, crime. If fans are afraid to come to South Africa, the World Cup will not be the opportunity everyone here wants to show their best face, no matter how well they prepare. So the stakes are very high for this event next June: a lot of money has gone into capital improvements, which will be a worthwhile investment regardless, but the new stadiums and sports complexes will be a painful rebuke to a government that has a lot of claims on its money

It is simply true that crime is an obsession in South Africa: people tell you this, you don’t believe it, and then you come here and the warnings are endless. When and where to go to ATMs, don’t walk on the beach alone, never be alone anywhere, unless there is an electric fence, bars on the window and Chubb armed response on the way. While there are crimes that are shocking to US eyes (last year it appeared that “necklacing” might be back in the townships – putting a tire doused in gasoline around someone’s neck and lighting it, a technique invented for police informers in the 1980s) much of the crime is gang-related, poor people are the victims of the worst violence, and it is not dissimilar to crime we read about every day in American papers. Home invasions of affluent whites also receive a lot of attention, mostly because they can be terrifyingly brutal, but also I think because a lot of white people are obsessed with whether they, or their children, should remain in South Africa, and home invasions speak to a more generalized sense of apprehension even liberal whites feel when they are out of power in an African democracy that has not yet decided what it will be.

And yet, speaking as someone who was once attacked by a knife-wielding ten year-old on the Lower East Side when I stopped him from stealing my bike, has had one friend murdered and seen a total stranger murdered with a baseball bat, been sexually assaulted (the majority of women have been), has suffered two burglaries in two different cities, has been pick-pocketed, had cars broken into more times than I can count, it just isn’t clear to me that I am in more danger in South Africa than I am at home. Some of these crimes happened in dicey neighborhoods and some didn’t, but my feeling is that there is something very different in why people talk about crime in South Africa.

I do think that part of it is a kind of generalized anxiety disorder on the part of whites. Until 1994, whether they believed in apartheid or not, there was a big, bad state, a lot of acreage and a huge police force separating the black majority and the white minority. And while all the whites we have conversed with are attuned to the new South Africa, few are happy. Many speak about their anxieties by admitting that they have urged their children to go to university in Australia, Canada or England, and imagine making a life elsewhere. Some will say, only slightly belligerently, "Apartheid was a terrible thing. But it's our country too, you know." Part of me wants to say, Is it? Then I think that I made my home in a place where the main difference in the colonizing project was the ruthless decimation of the indigenous population, and I think it's much better to listen and learn.

But another aspect of this that is clearly cross-racial. Crime is one of five serious and widespread grievances against the ANC, the party that has a virtual monopoly on political power right now: the other four are education, housing, AIDs and corruption. Jacob Zuma, the recently elected president, is facing great expectations in all five departments, expectations that are tempered somewhat by the fact that he was recently brought up on sexual assault charges and escaped a conviction for corruption on a technicality. I’m not sure what that technicality was: one of my informants said dismissively that it was because the documentary evidence presented had been Xeroxed (which seems like a pretty good grounds not to convict if you ask me, but what do I know?) But as our elderly Afrikaans cabdriver (who worked in the finance ministry prior to his retirement shortly after Mandela was elected) said, “If Zuma does half of what he says he will do it will be alright.”

Of course education, housing, AIDs and crime are all connected to each other, and the country’s deficiencies are all a legacy of the apartheid regime. There was a great deal of violence, by the state and against the state, prior to 1994; AIDS had a special opportunity in South Africa because of apartheid labor systems that took husbands away from their wives for all but three weeks of the year; and the education provided to the majority of South Africans was deplorable prior to 1994, even more so because students organized against the state by boycotting school. While nation-building is a difficult and imperfect process that surely takes more than 15 years, it is also the case that the ANC party leadership appears to live very, very well; their connections are in a position to become very wealthy; Thabo Mbeki, the previous president made headlines by announcing, among other things, that AIDs could be cured by beetroot and other traditional remedies; and the vast number of Africans live in 12 x 12 dirt-floor shacks, many of which have been built out of prefabricated tin by the government in places like Khayelitsha on the Western Cape so that voters can be moved to dilute the colored and white vote there, and then more or less abandoned, the permanent houses that were promised left unbuilt. This strategy of moving voters around like chess pieces is failing: the ANC just lost its first election since 1994 in the Western Cape to a new multi-racial party, and organized protests in the townships are increasing pressure on the Zuma government to deliver on its promises.

But I would like to say one thing, having given you, dear reader, the short version of everything I have learned so far: this is one of the most interesting and exciting places I have ever been. The African people, and many of the whites, I have spoken to, are very hopeful about the future despite the daunting nature of these political and social problems. Ordinary people are also incredibly, exuberantly from my point of view, politicized. An unexpected outcome of the struggle against apartheid and its aftermath may have been that casual acquaintances in taxis, shops and restaurants talk to you about things like democracy. Our Afrikaans electrician back in Cape Town said at one point, for example, that he wasn’t sure democracy could work in South Africa. “What would work better?” I asked.

He thought for a minute. “Socialism,” he said finally. “Or perhaps communism. What we need to do is equalize the wealth in this country, not create a larger class of wealthy people who are also black.” And then he explained why.

You see what I mean? When was the last time you had such a conversation with someone you didn’t even know, much less in the United States. And when was the last time you had a chance to live in a country that was still bafana?

Posts may be suspended for the next two weeks: the Radical is traveling into the countryside of Natal where an internet connection may or may not be available.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why I Hate Reality TV: And It's Not Just Because It Is (Oxy)Moronic

Even though close friends of the Radical know that every once in a while I lapse into an intense fascination with American Idol, I hate reality TV. Except for the classic foremother of the genre, An American Family (1973), I've never seen one series that even approached something "real" that was worth knowing. But until now I have never been able to say why I hate them so much beyond a deep feeling that it is simply improper to make an ever so brief living by allowing a camera crew to violate your privacy for months. I also find reality TV boring: who watches Tori and Dean for example? Women who fantasize about a life folding laundry and talking to unemployed gay men who wander in and out for no reason?

Clearly I have reasons for hating reality TV that I have not been able to articulate, and it isn't because it's bad TV. I watch shows like Gossip Girl, Army Wives and the ever-mawkish Brothers and Sisters as though they were a form of demented religion.

There are, of course, the little things I hate about reality TV. For example, I am puzzled by the idea that your average housewife or househusband solving daily problems is of deep cultural significance when we can't even have a logical conversation about delivering routine health care to the American working family. I hate Survivor because a group of Americans (who are mostly white, but I don't actually care what color they are) pretending that they have been reduced to "savagery" is a form of neo-imperial racist entertainment that I can't even wrap my head around. Admittedly, the show has contributed useful phrases to the academic enterprise: has anyone else been on a search committee where, dizzy with the effort of trying to exclude any number of excellent candidates from a finalist list, it has been reluctantly agreed to that So-and-so will be "voted off the island?" But I can't watch even a commercial for Survivor without wondering why the indigenous people of Samoa don't pull themselves together to sue CBS.

Then there are the lengths to which people are willing to go in the name of self-transformation and personal fulfillment that seem to be most closely related to the desperation of participants in dance marathons and six-day bicycle races during the 1920s. Last night, here in South Africa, I watched a reality show that combines so many aspects of other successful shows that it makes you dizzy ( my friend asked, "Why do they always have a judge with a British accent?" I answered without thinking, "Because of Simon." But I'm right, aren't I?) The show is called Dance Your Ass Off, and features very heavy people who are competing to lose weight and become professional dancers. In between performances we see them rehearsing, blubbering about how bad they feel about themselves, and dieting (looking at the website, my guess is that as the show progresses they feel better about themselves and gush about that.) After the dance performances (which are quite good, and make you wonder exactly why dancers are supposed to be thin) they are scored on the quality of the performance and how many pounds they have lost since last week. One performer had lost nine pounds in a week, and I thought: isn't that dangerous?

But I now know precisely what I hate about reality shows after reading a full account of Michele and Tareq Salahi gate crashing a White House state dinner. And yes, it is entirely the fault of the Secret Service that their tawdry little scheme worked. But why did the Salahis do it? Because they are competing to be chosen for a reality TV show!!! This follows on, of course, the Colorado couple who caused several hundred thousand dollars worth of emergency services to be scrambled because they claimed, falsely, that their child had launched himself in a home-made flying contraption.

What to do, what to do? One thing that strikes me is that scholars have to go through Institutional Research Boards when working with human or animal subjects. We have to demonstrate the importance of the research and, particularly when humans are involved, show that the research itself is not causing harm or exploiting vulnerable populations (when animals are involved, researchers are still allowed to do things that are more or less ghastly to some of us.) Why is there no version of this for commercial television?

Now you may say that these fools who volunteer for reality TV have free will, and the right to contract to make idiots of themselves. They do. But you look at cases like the Salahis, and the Survivor contestants, or Mr.and Mrs. Heene, the parents who put their son at the center of a media s**t storm and landed him in foster care to boot, and you have to ask the question: who else are they hurting through their narcissistic desire to be famous at any cost? Might the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stop worrying for a moment about who is jammed in whose crotch at the American Music Awards and deal with this? An independent body needs to be commissioned to ask these reality show people to present proposals that demonstrate, unequivocally, that however shameless their participants are, no one will be harmed by the show and no laws will be broken in filmng it.

Some equivalent of a television IRB would ask the producers of the as-yet uncast "Housewives of D.C." (the show the Salahis are trying to get on) to present a list of stunts that their prospective participants will perform at any phase of production. If "break into a White House State dinner" were on that list, the IRB would say no, you can't do that, it's illegal. Then if they did it anyway, the telly IRB would cancel the show.

I understand that there are plenty of problems with IRBs, and frustrations attached to having to work through them. One would have to take that into account when imagining a commission that theoretically would have the power to censor culture before it was even made. The most frequent complaint I hear is non-experts seeing harm where there is none, and restricting social science research in particular. On the other hand, regulation, however imperfect, feeds a lively conversation about research ethics. Conversely, a complete lack of regulation produced research projects like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which African-American men were told they were being treated but were actually doomed to a long, gruesome death from the disease.

But there are things that are less controversial about IRBs that the FCC might usefully think about in relation to reality shows. They watchdog the exploitation of vulnerable populations, and take into account that people can be fully informed and make decisions that they wouldn't make if they didn't have a lot of problems already. They prohibit the commission of crimes. They prohibit the exploitation of people who are captive in some way. And some even look closely at how publishing the research might lead to unintentional misrepresentation of the subjects.

Indeed, the television and film industry already has a code stating clearly that there is "a duty to consider the welfare of animals under their control and that this care should be separate from the interests of film production." It applies to all "vertebrates" except for "human beings and fish."

So let's get on it about the human beings. And the fish, if you like.

Friday, November 27, 2009

We're Here, Because We're Here, Because We're Here, Because We're Here! Or, Why Disciplines Rule The University Roost

If you are the chair of an interdisciplinary program and see any meetings with deans or provosts in the immediate future, make sure you read University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jerry A. Jacobs' Interdisciplinary Hype in the Chronicle of Higher Education (11/22/09). It will prepare you for every tired old argument you will have to answer about why your intellectual commitments are not worth supporting. Arguing that there is major pressure for breaking the boundaries of academic discipline (oh, would that this were the case!), particularly driven by federal money aimed at supporting interdisciplinary research in the sciences, Jacobs expresses his view that "efforts to reorganize academe based on interdisciplinary principles would have disastrous consequences in the short term—and would end up reproducing our disciplinary or departmental structure in the long term."

There's nothing I despise like a wishy-washy man with no opinions.

OK, I wondered, interdisciplinary intellectual that I am, "Though I detest these things he says, why does he say them?" And the more I tried to figure this out, the more my irritation grew. The article articulates little that is "disastrous" in the short term, nor is it persuasive that new interdisciplinary structures inevitably revert to disciplinary forms in the long term because of something inherent in the act of knowledge production that we all share. It does not persuade, as it tries to at the end, that interdisciplinarians are the barbarians clawing at the gates of disciplinary civilization. Ignoring the ways in which universities act to constrain interdisciplinary scholarship by how they structure appointments, Jacobs expresses the "disaster" of interdisciplinary scholarship as pure tautology. Furthermore, by not even mentioning the ways that interdisciplinary scholars are inevitably forced to conform to discipline during hiring, promotion and tenure processes, Jacobs reveals the real point of the article: it is a justification for the "necessity" of maintaining the stranglehold that disciplines have on funding streams of all kinds as we enter an era of increasingly diminished resources.

Why it's the culture wars all over again, except this time the scientists have been folded into the critique (which is probably a good thing for our team: has anyone else in the humanities or social sciences noticed lately that the more you play with the "hard" science people the more seriously your university takes you?)

One red flag raised early in the piece is that Jacobs never defines what interdisciplinarity is, or what make the task of the interdisciplinary scholar different and valuable. His belief that all scholars are more or less the same and that we all demonstrate similar tendencies and prejudices in relation to an intellectual "other" produces polarized logic like this: "Alongside the image of academic departments as barren silos is another image of interconnected knowledge—a web." To paraphrase Horton, a scholar's a scholar no matter how small: we who choose to be interdisciplinary do not embrace and explore multiple routes to knowledge. In fact, we are just as intellectually intolerant as the next disciplinary guy. So why give us centers and tenure-track lines? Why not just turn your endowment over to the Taliban now?

Furthermore, Jacobs argues, such webs of connection (which are multi-disciplinary, not interdisciplinary) already exist and don't need to be argued for or institutionalized. And when they are, look at the chaos:

A recent example from Pennsylvania State University is instructive. Penn State has promoted research on homeland security, but the pursuit of that worthy goal has resulted in the proliferation rather than the consolidation of specialized units: no fewer than 21 research centers on various aspects of homeland security. They include units on terrorism, computer security, crisis management, infectious diseases, and nonlethal defense technologies. Each of the centers may represent a noble undertaking, but their proliferation underscores the fact that there are many aspects of complex issues, and that interdisciplinary efforts can lead just as easily to the multiplication of academic units as to their consolidation.

Well I agree: 21 centers on Homeland Security is idiotic. But this doesn't strike me as a problem with interdisciplinarity (which has never made a claim to provide thrifty forms of academic consolidation), but a problem of the federal government slapping the label of academia on a political agenda and military agenda and the university signing off on it so that they can hire faculty on the federal nickel. Which is an old story, dating back to the Cold War.

Interestingly, Jacobs moves straight from that example of wasteful proliferation of resources to: American Studies! Jacobs notes the age of the field, and gives a woefully insufficient view of the field's complexity before delivering himself of this peculiar judgement:
Indeed, American studies has been far more ambitious in its intellectual scope and more dynamic and enduring than most interdisciplinary fields. Here again interdisciplinarity coexists with scholarly specialization. A look at American-studies dissertations makes clear that they are every bit as specialized as dissertations in English and American history. Furthermore, American-studies topics have proliferated. The 2008 program of the field's annual meeting reveals the remarkable scope and specialization of researchers: Papers were organized by period (early American, 19th century, 20th century); by ethnicity (African-American, Asian-American, Chicano, Native American, Pacific Islander studies); and by place (border studies, cultural geography, landscape and the built environment). The conference included a variety of approaches to gender issues (gender and sexuality, queer studies, transgender studies) and global perspectives (global, transnational, cross-cultural, postcolonial studies, studies of U.S. colonialism). The examination of culture included popular culture, print culture, material culture, food, music, film, television and media studies, performance studies, and visual-culture studies. There are undoubtedly many accomplished scholars in the field—including Drew Gilpin Faust, a Penn Ph.D. in American civilization who is president of Harvard University—and many valuable pieces of research, but that does not mean that the field has achieved a more unified vision of American culture than those of its closest neighbors, history and English. (American studies has never ventured too far into the social sciences.) Indeed, if a unified theory of American culture were to be advanced, the current generation of American-studies scholars would be the first to challenge it.

Aside from the incoherence of the critique, here are the main issues: that the success, or failure, of the field is in Jacob's view, knowable by whether it has achieved disciplinary unity. And yet, no one who actually works in the field of American Studies is cited but for the admittedly successful Drew Faust, who was appointed to a history department for her entire career prior to leaving for Harvard University, where she is now president. Furthermore, Faust's Ph.D. (and her initial monograph on the slave holding mind) dates from a time in which intellectual historians (what Faust was when she was a newbie) often did their work in American Studies programs because historians who worked with literary materials were often believed to be peculiar. Nor does Jacobs mention that the failure of universities to establish tenure-track lines either in American Studies or in many of the fields he cites as part of the American Studies crazy quilt, which leads to the evaluation of American Studies scholarship through the deep prejudice of disciplinary values, often prevents young scholars from doing the path-breaking interdisciplinary work that they want to do.

In Jacobs' mind, disciplines are the parents and interdisciplinary fields, the children:

Going too far down the interdisciplinary path by ending academic departments, as some have suggested, would be a disaster. Departments teach techniques needed to conduct high-quality research. Disciplines establish a hierarchy of problems. Interdisciplinarity cannot exist without disciplines and departments. What happens when that structure is broken? Will all problems be equally important? How will quality be judged, and how will the most important advances be communicated?

Lurking behind these peculiar statements and questions is Jacobs' apparent fear of the postmodern, where all values dissolve, any method is good enough, and their are no hierarchies of anything. Interdisciplinarity is the anarchy that departments prevent, right? Wrong. Interdisciplinary programs and departments do all the things that Jacobs claims are the exclusive purview of departments: where does he think those of us who teach in them came from anyway? Furthermore, our students have to know more, not less, to survive in a scholarly atmosphere that is incredibly competitive, not only because bright students go into it for the challenges it offers, but because they must be willing to fight for jobs and respect from people like Jacobs who are firmly convinced, for no good reason, that to be interdisciplinary is to be second rate.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ask the Radical: Blogging and The Untenured Academic

Leaving the country often has the happy effect that people stop sending email to me almost entirely. Why sabbatical doesn't accomplish this I do not know, particularly given the vivid bounce-back I composed this time around. Only the chair of my department removed my from the distribution list in September, but I am pleased/dismayed to see that now everyone else has too. Perhaps while I was still state side some secret hope was cherished by many colleagues that I would, in fact, come to advertised meetings of various kinds? If so, I am happy to say that they have not taking to dashing their brains on the flagstones in despair that their coy invitations have gone unanswered.

Since arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, the most sustained correspondence I have had to date is with a group of very capable people who are taking care of my affairs (dog and house) while I am away. We have been in correspondence about the circumstances of a mysterious "alarm event," as ADT Security calls it which, as it turns out, was probably caused by my efforts to draft-proof the front door. But that is all.

Anyway, the lack of email allows me to catch up on messages I have failed to respond to all fall, either because they were too complicated, or because I was ambivalent about them in some way, or because I didn't know what to say. For example, the following questions were asked by a graduate student who heard me and several other bloggers do a panel several months ago. Since there is no point responding to the actual person (as the date of the assignment s/he wanted the information for is long past) I will answer these questions publicly:

1. What are the challenges non-tenured professors face when deciding to keep a personal blog?

Not using the blog to: a) spend most of your time venting about the oppressive condition of being you; b) publish humorous pieces that are just another way to express your boundless rage at those who offend you; c) say witty things about your students that portray them to a national audience at their most foolish and naive; d) waste so much time blogging, reading blogs, commenting on blogs and checking your Site Meter that you don't write anything else; and e) blog constantly about your cats (even though they are very cute and do twee things to distract you from working.)

2. What were your main concerns before you exposed your identity on your blog?

Unfortunately, I had no concerns. This is why I made a some critical errors (see 1a, 1b,and 1c above) that required varying levels of apology to others. I probably would have done d) and e) as well, except that I write about eight hours a day when left to my own devices, I no longer participate in memes, and I have no cats.

3. Do you think that blogs should be considered, in any respect, when a professor has yet to attain tenure?

Since the discipline in which I hold tenure (history) has barely dealt with electronic publishing at all as part of the promotion process, and also has a mixed record on how it regards pre-tenure scholarship published to a trade audience, I would hope that we would not start having a conversation about blogs that was not preceded by one that addressed these other critical issues. But I should think that participation in group blogs that serve a field or a discipline should be taken into account as much as book reviews or encyclopedia entries, which everyone lists in endless, boring detail on their vitae as if they took more than a day to write. Would I hold a blog against someone? Sure! If I was certain that a person had been caught in a huge bloggy lie -- plagiarism, seducing people on line by pretending to be someone else, and masquerading as a variety of different, malicious sock puppets on their own and other peoples' blogs are three examples that come to mind -- it would cause me to wonder about that person's general integrity and scrutinize other aspects of the tenure case a bit more carefully for similar flaws. It has been my unhappy experience that people who lie don't just do it in one context, and they tend to keep doing it. I stumbled onto the website of someone whose first book was plagiarized in the manuscript stage (although when this was pointed out, innocence was claimed and the problems were at least partly rectified.) Many years later, the web page was full of flamers about said person's personal history that were entirely irrelevant to scholarship but that fabricated a far more dashing past than the individual actually had. Honesty in personal relations strikes me as equally, if not more, important than scholarly integrity, since in most of our daily work we count on people to be honest in all their relationships.

Friday, November 20, 2009

When In Doubt, Blame The French: What To Do About An Anthem Malfunction

As anyone who has been following me on Face Book knows, I have been spending some of my free time on sports since I have been here. There's a show called Indian Cricket Highlights, about a sport I understand not at all, and my new favorite pastime is World Cup football. Indeed, all of South Africa is gearing up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, to be held in a brand new stadium in Cape Town next winter (our summer).

Why are sports such a big deal here? I can only guess. Although fans in South Africa are clearly engaged with following leagues in many nations, as people my age may recall, one form of pressure put on the apartheid regime in the 1980s (as American corporations were happily doing business here and universities fought their students over the ethics of investing in corporations that profited from apartheid labor economics) was to bar South Africa from international athletic competition. Although journalist Adam Hochschild, in his book The Mirror at Midnight (1984), describes South Africa as a notoriously "sports-mad culture," it isn't clear to me that this is more so here than in the United States. One can only imagine the howls of hurt and outrage from the United States were other nations to have protested George Bush's illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in a similar way.

Given this political history, in addition to the promise of sorely needed construction and service jobs, the World Cup may be symbolically important for the international profile of a recently democratic state that still so troubled by poverty, violence and unemployment. Budding C.L.R. James that I aspire to be, recently I have been riveted as well by an ongoing scandal in the politics of sport here: the "butchering" of the South African National anthem by South African Rasta singer Ras Dumisani prior to the rugby match between the Springboks and France played in Toulouse last Friday.

Anthems are often difficult to sing, and this one seems to present more challenges than most. Sung in five languages -- Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, English and Afrikaans -- it is a blend of old and new, combining parts of the African National Congress (ANC) protest hymn "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" with the pre-1994 anthem, "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika/The Voice of South Africa." And yet, since it doesn't seem like to much to ask for one's anthem to be sung properly, some have inferred -- or said directly -- that the French were playing mind games with the Springboks by deliberately hiring an incompetent singer. "The French from as early as 1959 were portrayed by one of their famous writers, Rene Goscinny, as shrewd, small sized warriors and therefore the birth of the well known Asterix," wrote one person who commented on this story in The Cape Times. "Asterix had a secret weapon called Cacofonix. a man that sang so badly that it would start rain and thunderstorms. The singing was so bad that all enemies would eventually surrender. Was this, maybe, the old French ploy when The South African Anthem was sung?"

Intentionally or unintentionally, the Springboks were stung and insulted, becoming emotionally unglued as they tried, unsuccessfully, to complete their normal pre-game ritual by singing along lustily. Apparently this was a disruption equivalent to preventing New Zealand's All-Blacks from performing a haka prior to a test match. One Springbok confessed after the loss that he had begun to weep at the pain of hearing the beloved anthem mangled and at his own frustrated efforts to sing the words correctly. Absent their pre-game ritual, the Springboks lost the match 20-13. Furious, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) has received an apology from its French counterpart, and from Dumisani -- although the singer also noted "that the French were to blame" for "sabotaging my performance with an old microphone and a bunch of school kids."

In an unfortunate (and possibly unintentional) reference to a recent political past, SA Rugby Blog reports the emergence of a Face Book site called Ban Ras Dumisani from ever singing again: a recent check revealed that it has acquired almost 7,000 fans. The plot thickens, however, since it was revealed almost immediately that Dumisani's name had been provided by the South African embassy in France. An anonymous source has suggested that the performer was probably stoned when he meandered his way tonelessly though the anthem, forgetting words and sometimes substituting alternative ones. This unnamed source suggested to the Cape Times that Dumisani had done well in rehearsal, but that by the time of the match "his condition was such that it was unlikely he would perform nicely."

Hence, the political story has shifted from the international sphere to the domestic. Although SARU's Oregan Hoskins is ready to close the book on this matter following the French apology (and really, when you compare it to accounting for the bad planning that went into the Maginot Line, this must have been an easy apology to make), South Africa's politicians have just begun to get into the game. Litho Suka, a Member of Parliament representing the ANC "has suggested that those who butcher South Africa's national anthem be charged with treason," and that Dumisani should be hauled up before a judge. The chairman of the National Assembly's sports committee, Butana Komphela, says that his committee will be meeting with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to demand some accountability from the embassy as well. The Sports Committee will be seeking assurances that the government will act "to ensure that all South African embassies have the correct version of the national anthem, the correct flag and will be able to source credible singers for national events taking place outside the country."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different: A Journey To South Africa

Over the next two months, I will be writing you from the other side of the world: the Radical family has decamped to South Africa. It's what we call travel, as opposed to vacation: a working trip, where time is set aside for study, learning, and writing, as well as relaxation and seeing some sights. For several weeks we will be in the Western Cape, mostly in and around Cape Town. In December, we will head up to the Johannesburg area to work for a few weeks, and then circle back down along the southern coast (what is called "The Garden Route." ) We will return to Cape Town for several weeks prior to our return to the United States. We will be in South Africa for a total of two months.

In this initial post, and in those to follow, I am trying to guard against sweeping statements and observations. Because I am an academic, and trained to do precisely that, I am sure that I will fail. But I will try all the same. It's my experience that taking one's self to an entirely different place creates a drastic shift in perspective that feels like a wave of new knowledge, but that the prospect of really "knowing" much about the place or society one has entered is much farther off. But here are a few snapshots.

Prior to our departure, a great many reasonable people (several of whom were friends from South Africa) went on at length about crime here and instructed us on how to avoid it; most also agreed that the Western Cape is less dangerous than the more industrialized areas around Pretoria and Johannesburg, which is where the bulk of the really serious crime occurs. As a former New Yorker, and now an inhabitant of a Shoreline community that is a site for regular street crimes, I consider myself rather sophisticated on this topic, and yet friends urged me to not assume that this knowledge would benefit me abroad. These conversations, and firm advice given here by the people who have been in charge of our lodgings, suggest that South Africans are aware of the possibility of personal violence at all times. We have been urged, for example, to submit to petty theft, much as one was often advised in New York back in the 1970s to carry a twenty dollar bill to hand to a mugger, as it provokes muggers to feel unsuccessful if you do not. But clearly things are different here. Signs on private residences and businesses warn potential intruders that there will be "armed response." Here in the village where we are staying, there are regular patrols by private guards in cars, wearing bullet-proof vests, and carrying automatic weapons. There are also unarmed citizen patrols, who are (as our volunteer neighborhood watch explained to me) "extra eyes and ears" who can call the police in by radio if they see something worrisome.

I confess, it all makes me terribly uncomfortable. But as we tell our students, discomfort is often the sign of a shift in perspective that can help a person learn new things. So I am trying to remain open as to what this more naked show of force might teach me about where I am.

On a certain level, while I don't discount the necessity for precautions. However, it does strike me as strange that whether one is in downtown Cape Town or in this small village on the beach, one is advised to take virtually identical steps to insure one's personal safety, even when one is also told that some spaces are safer than others. This has caused me to think about something that is also true in the United States, and which is a central theme in my scholarship: in most societies, there is crime and there is a conversation about crime, and while the two reference each other, they are not exactly the same. It is something it would profit me to think about in a comparative context while I am here. A second theme is that, as in many places in the world outside Europe and North America, it is a normal political and social condition that the state does not have a monopoly on the means of violence. The high reliance on private security in South Africa may, in part, reflect white paranoia and the fears of the property-owning classes in a country where unemployment is running over 40%. However, it also may reflect the genuinely poor state of policing here. Repression and surveillance are very different tasks from investigation, not to mention the community partnerships and economic development that really reduce crime.

For example, yesterday in De Doorns, a farming community in the interior Western Cape, 1,000 seasonal workers drove 3,000 Zimbabwean migrant workers out of their homes by stoning, accusing the foreign workers of accepting lower wages than were being paid to South Africans. The article I have linked to in The Cape Times does not cite any arrests; last night on the news, only two arrests were reported. In the United States this would just be a stunning outcome, and clearly the news anchor who was receiving the live report from De Doorns was stunned on a certain level. "You can't just have mobs running people out of their houses, can you?" (if you imagine a tonal uptick on the word "can" it becomes clear that this was a rhetorical question.)

Possibilities for the lack of arrests, and the inability of the state to control the mob, spring to mind. One is the vexed politics of policing in a country still so shaped by the ideological, political and geographical work of apartheid. Another is the possibility that the state has an interest in the indirect expulsion of migrants fleeing Robert Mugabe's violence as well but cannot -- or does not wish to -- take it on as a political or legal task. The stream of desperate African refugees exiting Zimbabwe is far steadier and larger than we in the United States, who have largely been exposed to stories of white farmers being driven out by Africans, had been led to expect. We met two young Zimbabweans on the beach yesterday, a brother and sister who arrived as refugees approximately when we arrived as tourists. Lucy told us, as she watched her brother Leonard swim in the ocean for the first time in his life, that the situation for working Africans is so bad that in her view "Only God can stop Mugabe." This opened my mind to the thought that the South African government sees itself as having a moral responsibility to these refugees that it cannot reconcile with its own problem of domestic poverty, inadequate housing and surplus labor. But these are only three possibilities, grounded very much in political theories I know well, and I have not yet found the local sources that might make my ability to analyze this event more place-specific.

To conclude, I am becoming very much aware that the blogger's dilemma is intensified and made more obvious when one is abroad and the temptation to interpret one's observations through the lens of similarity is strong. The freedom to write anything that comes into my head has to be balanced and restrained by a high consciousness about the uncooked nature of my observations and the terrible incompleteness of what even concentrated reading can accomplish in a short time. There is much that I am seeing that is new to me, and pinning it together with what I know, what I know I don't know, and what I have any authority to express an informed opinion about, is going to be a critical challenge for me as a writer and a scholar in the next several months. While I will return to U.S.-based topics from time to time, I will hope to do so as exercises in comparative and global historical thinking, keeping at the forefront of my mind that I have colleagues who have spent their entire careers to date learning the things that are now so new to me.

I hope you will want to stick with me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The American Historical Association Annual Meeting: To Boycott Or Not To Boycott?

As many of you are aware, in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the decision to hold the the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) became controversial. This is because the meeting will be held at a hotel owned by someone who helped to finance the campaign to repeal reforms that had extended political marriage to same-sex couples (nothing required churches to perform those marriages.) Your favorite Radical is, as we speak, making final preparations to depart for South Africa, where such discrimination is viewed in the national constitution as the equivalent of racism and is banned. What I think is also important to note is that South Africa is reputedly still a very homophobic country where, if it were put to a vote, discrimination against GLBTI (the I stands for "intersex" and is always included by South African queer activists) would be perfectly legal, although the return of institutionalized racism would not be. One legacy of colonialism is the strong association among many black South Africans between homosexuality and the general deformation of indigenous societies by white European domination. And yet, according to the reading I have done to date, the political legacy of apartheid is such that human rights are not viewed as something one puts to a vote. The fact that the vast majority of South African citizens are deeply homophobic is not, according to the constitution, justification for enshrining it in law that would re-classify South Africans in invidious ways that their -- and our -- history has shown to be disastrous.

Ironically, although I am permitted to marry in my own state (unless and until the Catholic and Mormon Churches decide to mount one of their odious homophobic campaigns here), that doesn't do me much good if I leave the state. If, for example, my partner and I are in a car accident in the state of New York on our way to JFK tomorrow, being married in Connecticut doesn't help us at all.

My nightmare? Ending up in a Catholic hospital after a dreadful accident in someplace like Nebraska, unable to make my own decisions: the only person who knows exactly when and under what conditions I wish to die is having all of our retirement money siphoned off by a self-righteous hospital administrator who wants me to live against my express wishes. The only thing that does help is having the money to hire a really good attorney, which we did two years ago. She drew up fourteen documents (seven each) which give both partners in our not-marriage a variety of reciprocal rights in relation to the other, and we can call her at any time of the day or night and have her threaten to sue, sue, sue. So that could work -- or some Bush-appointed judge might decide to wipe his behind with our paperwork while we wend our way to the Supreme Court.

But back to the AHA: the other thing to keep in mind this January is that Doug Manchester, the meddling capitalist douche bag who owns the Manchester Grand Hyatt (as opposed to the meddling Mormon and Catholic bishop douche bags who cannot confine their meddling to their own flocks), is also staunchly anti-union, an issue that I am happy to say that the Committee on LGBT History of the American Historical Association (currently led by Ian Lekus) has linked to the anti-GLBTI bias. You can read the excellent press release issued by the CLGBTH here.

For my mind, I would like to repeat something that I have said before: I'm not sure that it is the responsibility of the American Historical Association to respond to its members on the left any more than to its members on the right. But even though the AHA could not have anticipated Prop 8 or its outcome, the San Diego location has two problems that they could have anticipated. The first is that it's expensive as all get out. Both the AHA and the OAH need to address the fact that conference expenses escalate dramatically when vacation destinations (that I understand are intended to attract us) are chosen. While this has always been difficult for some members, for several years to come, most of us will be financing all or part of our conference expenses out of our own pockets, and comparatively few of us have deep pockets. Going coast to coast for a major conference now costs in excess of $1500, even if you are traveling in a budget-conscious way. That represents about a tenth of a good graduate student stipend, after taxes, and a hefty chunk of an assistant professor's salary.

So it will be hard to know who is boycotting and who is staying home because they simply can't afford it this year. It's time to start aiming for second cities, my friends on the Executive Committees of both organizations, for practical reasons if no other. Second, while Prop 8 was not even on the boards when this destination was chosen, Manchester's anti-union activities were -- or should have been -- well-known, which might have caused the Executive Committee to anticipate the possibility of an ugly strike that would cause at least part of the membership to feel they could not cross picket lines to attend. As a matter of fact, it is hard to imagine going many places in southern California where this is not going to be an issue.

As to the various forms of boycott recommended in the CLBTH press release, do what you must, but I have grave reservations about the power of boycott to affect the massively wealthy, and I often feel it is almost unseemly to, in effect, equate not going to the bar of Doug Manchester's hotel to, say, not riding the bus in Birmingham. Is it a good idea to deprive all of those workers of the tips that allow them to paste together their budgets? I'm just asking. We on the left have a somewhat over-inflated view of how much expressions of individual virtue mean to anyone except ourselves. (There are, for example, probably people who snarled at a certain point, "I am never visiting that %$&@* Radical's blog again!" and you know what? I've never missed them.) So it is, of course, an honorable thing to act on your principles in the matter of the AHA Annual Meeting. But try not to quarrel with your friends about it. And just know, that if you happen to go to the bar at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, you are still welcome at Tenured Radical.

A slightly self-censored version of this post suitable for forwarding to parents, administrators and senior colleagues can be found at Cliopatria.

Monday, November 09, 2009

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

I walked into the second section of my U.S. History survey (1865 to the present, don'tcha know) at Baruch College on November 9, 1989. I taught two sections in a row for $2,000 each which, with the $5,000 I made from the New School, and an occasional donation from my new girlfriend was enough money to live on for a semester. And I was hoping to God that I would get one of the jobs I had applied for.

I didn't get the big tenure-track job (note to my public: the Tenured Radical has the distinction of losing more jobs to more interesting and highly successful people than anyone else I know.) I did get the one-year job, which was actually supposed to be a three year job, which catapulted me into my current post with Zenith University. But that's another story for another day.

So I was standing at the lectern in the second section of my U.S. History survey that night after completing my normal routine, which was to work all day on my lecture, teach the first class, fix whatever went wrong in the twenty minutes between classes, and do it all over again for the next shift. And I was shuffling my notes around, for a class on the origins of the Cold War, no shit! when a student walked in and said, "They are tearing the Wall down in Berlin."

I said, "Huh?" Thinking to myself, That can't be happening, because the Cold war has been going on my whole life, and no one ever said it could stop. (Of course, I didn't know that sooner, rather than later, there would be a War on Terror because if this shit ever stopped, what would the arms manufacturers do.)

So my student answered, "Yes, right now, there's a whole mob of people in Berlin tearing the Wall down."

Needless to say, the class I taught for the second shift was substantially different. I took the bus across town an hour and a half later to our apartment in Chelsea, and watched the mobs at the Wall while we ate Chinese food. But before I settled down I clicked on our answering machine and my friend Andrew, who was living in Paris, and was (is) a man of great enthusiasms was shouting: "The Wall is coming down! We are all catching a train to Berlin to go watch!"

And I thought to myself, What am I doing teaching history when I should be in Berlin right now?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Hip-hop History Channel: Alexander Hamilton Rules

Snap along with Barack and Michele Obama as Zenith alum Lin-Manuel MIranda tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, in the persona of Aaron Burr. Awesome. Hat tip.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

And If You Give Us A Full Book Of Green Stamps, You Can Teach Macroeconomics

These noble bloggers provided the second notification of the evening that Patricia Turner, vice provost for the University of California Office of Undergraduate Studies (and henchman Winder McConnell, the director of teaching resources for that floundering institution) have a great new idea: get people to teach for free. The first time I saw this news on Facebook I wouldn't have believed it, except that the source was impeccable. According to the online edition of The California Aggie, freshman seminar instructors all received a letter asking them whether they would be willing to forgo the small sum they are paid for this work, $1500-2000 that is normally deposited in their research accounts. "Though Turner could not predict how much money the salary reduction would save," staff writer Lauren Steussy reports, "she stated that approximately 25 instructors agreed to forgo or reduce their stipend."

Other people are outraged, but Turner is undeterred. "When we were brain storming about all of the ways of dealing, I wondered if there were more faculty who would [forgo the stipend] if they were just given the opportunity," Turner said. "People had just done it before. So [McConnell] and I sent a letter saying that in the past, some people have declined these stipends. This is decoupled from whether or not we accept their course." Other Facebook gossip reports that on some UC campuses there are workshops being organized by Human Resources folk to cheer people up about their "furlough days" (pay cuts) by explaining that the free time will allow them to make expansive life choices with this gift that they have been graciously granted by the State of California.

Next week, Turner might want to write a bunch of faculty to ask how they feel about signing up for life insurance policies that stipulate double indemnity in case their death results from being pushed out of a train caboose. Or she might want to find out how many faculty would be interested in taking more furlough time and using it to explore the possibility of becoming sex workers in brothels owned and operated by the provost's office. If you can get 25 instructors to agree not to be paid for their work, anything is possible I suppose. But there is a lot of this going around. On my own campus, we are being offered the opportunity to teach an extra course and/or teach an eight week summer session for adjunct wages to help Zenith close its own budget gap. Compared to the report above, this seems positively liberal, I suppose, as does the fact that our salaries have been indefinitely frozen rather than cut. But no one raises what seems obvious to this Radical: that this pedagogical equivalent to a bake sale would, in effect, be a charitable donation to our employer -- minus the tax write-off -- since full time ladder faculty are paid a great deal more to teach their other regularly scheduled classes.

But there is a larger question at stake about the budget cutting measures that are starting to surface around the country: education is, and always has been, the equivalent of a loss leader at the department store. It's something the United States has to be willing to not make a profit on -- in fact, to accept large losses on -- in order to create generations of young workers, artists, politicians and technicians who are the nation's capital. Our state and federal governments have nickel and dimed higher education for so long that what remains makes no structural sense anymore, and it's no wonder that people do stupid, offensive things to make the cuts demanded of them. Is having the liberal arts taught to freshmen by volunteers what passes for a plan to re-imagine universities to meet the challenges -- economic and educational -- of the twenty-first century? Is the idea that nothing has to change about our values except to ratchet up the practice institutions have long adopted towards adjunct faculty and begin working full-time faculty as hard as they can be worked for as little money as they can be paid? Will we wax enthusiastic about new forms of noblesse oblige, in which some faculty, such as UC's Subhash Risbud, a professor of chemical engineering and material science, who has so much research money available that he is happy to teach a seminar in "his passion" (read: hobby) "of classical Indian music" for free? Are we not concerned that there are actually scholars of Indian music who might be employed to teach this field? For all we know the other twenty-four faculty who gave up their stipends are as blessed as Professor Risbud, but is this also a sacrifice expected of, say, the Chaucer scholar who intended to use that small sum to finance a research trip to England and has no other way of obtaining that money?

What is more appalling is that none of the stories that are beginning to seep out of higher education suggest that any of the measures being taken are temporary, nor is there a broader discussion about what the conditions might be that would return university teaching and scholarship to some semblance of normalcy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

How To Do Your Job: Stanley Fish, Save The World On Your Own Time

Save The World On Your Own Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Hardcover, $19.95.

Stanley Fish is a crank. An erudite crank, an influential crank, but a crank all the same. Which may be why I was inclined to like Save The World On Your Own Time, because although we are a different kind of crank, I occasionally found myself laughing and -- even when in strong disagreement -- refreshed to read someone who simultaneously cares deeply about the future of the academy and is willing to challenge us to re-think our key assumptions about our work. Even though I am not as well paid, or as accomplished, as Stanley Fish, I like to think that this blog plays a similar role and that I write in a similarly constructive spirit. Finally, I like him for being married to Jane Tompkins, who once wrote an engaging and truly wacky book about teaching, and I imagine that they must have a really interesting life together.

But the truth is that I have never read anything except an op-ed piece by Stanley Fish until yesterday, and that may change.

Fish, a literary and legal scholar, and one of the foremost authorities on the work of John Milton, first came to the attention of many of us beyond literary studies during his tenure as chair of the Duke English department, which he either ruined or took to transcendent heights, depending on where one stood in the culture wars. There, he was given an almost entirely free hand to hire and pay extravagant salaries to those who he considered to be the most cutting edge literary theorists: queer studies, for example finally got legs nationally in part because of Fish's support for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Moon. From there, Fish left to become the dean of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago from 1999 to 2004, which gave him an even wider scope to annoy people, and to hire a lot of really interesting people. Faculty hired under Fish's watch included Walter Ben Michaels (another opinionated literary scholar who has taken to broad-ranging critiques of the academy); and John D'Emilio, one of the finest scholar-activists in GLBT history, who had actually quit his academic job to become a full-time activist. Having read this book, my guess is that Stanley thought that was cool.

When I did a little research, I also found that Fish, who has a New York Times blog, is somewhat of an equal opportunity irritant, having been critiqued for his "radical relativism" by feminist Martha Nussbaum and anti-feminist Camille Paglia. That captures the spirit of Save The World On Your Own Time: in a hectoring tone that must have been self-consciously chosen, he gives us all a good piece of his mind, drawn from decades as a prestigious scholar and powerful administrator. There is something there for everyone, and I strongly advise you read it (particularly since, at Amazon, this little book only costs $13.00, and you can't even get most paperbacks as cheap as that.)

The book answers a simple question -- "What is the job of higher education and what is it that those who are paid to teach in colleges and universities are trained and paid to do?" The route to answering this question, in Fish's view, is embraced by three imperative that form a single ethic: "do your job....don't do somebody else's job and don't let someone else do your job."

My answer is simple. College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: (1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience, and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills -- of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure -- that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over.

If you think about it, that's a lot to ask.

Darn tootin' it is, but by the end of the book I was persuaded that it is not too much to ask. This simple statement (arrived at without a year of committee meetings, endless jargon and documents that faculty have fought over for a year in numerous venues) has a lot of appeal in a world where the job of a faculty member has grown more and more complex. Over seven short chapters, Fish repeats and elaborates on this mantra through three basic principles: faculty should not confuse their own political commitments with their teaching mission; faculty and students should not try to run the university or ask the university to act on their political commitments; and administrators should both govern effectively and act as forceful, and if necessary, aggravating advocates for the university and its mission.

During the course of the book, Fish goes after a lot of key issues, and the politicized classroom is foremost among them. Doing, or advocating for, whatever one likes in a college classroom is not protected by academic freedom, he argues, just because the person responsible is an academic: rather, studying, critiquing and writing about whatever one likes is protected by academic freedom. The central question about pedagogy should be similar to the question one would ask about such scholarship: is it good or bad? Is it effective? Has it conformed to the principles of responsible inquiry? Political issues are entirely suitable for the classroom when studied intellectually; these are also the criteria for what would constitute "good" or "bad" teaching of any subject, field or theoretical approach. In fact, Fish advocates on behalf of detaching "explosive issues" from their "real world urgency" and "academicizing" them for deployment in the classroom.(27) One would engage the question of whether George Bush was a good or bad president, for example, not by trading ideological barbs, but by asking students to debate what it means to be a good or bad president, and on what grounds one might make such a judgement.

But the teacher would not deliver herself of an opinion on the matter, nor would s/he encourage students to develop a consensus view that leaves one group of students an embattled, seething minority. To emphasize, Fish would argue the teacher's job is not to advocate, organize, or use the classroom as a place to persuade students of a particular political point of view. (87) Fish extends this critique to what is now common among liberal arts colleges like my own: trying to persuade potential parents and donors that what we do prepares students for twenty-first century citizenship and its dilemmas in any way that is different from what we did at the end of the twentieth century. Skewering what is now known as the "mission statement," he contends that it is not the purpose of the liberal arts education to produce better workers, mold an informed citizenry, send students out to work for social justice, or advance any kind of agenda whatsoever.(55) It is merely (and he would say that this is a big job) to educate students so that they can go out into the world to decide what they will do and how they will do it. To constantly be re-thinking and arguing for the "relevance" of the liberal arts education is to ignore what may be a larger truth: that such arguments with legislators, bureaucrats, parents and education "experts" are unwinnable, foolish and a waste of time. There may be no guaranteed use or exchange value to a liberal arts education. Despite this, we can still assert that the liberal arts plays a critical role in nurturing humanness and perpetuating civilization. In other words, stop marketing the liberal arts, and focus your time, effort and resources on teaching them.

I like these ideas, and I think everyone should read and think about them. I particularly like the idea of administrators doing their job well so that I can pay close attention to what I was educated for: teaching, scholarship and providing sane advice on who we ought to hire, not shadowing and carping at administrators. Like Fish, the older I get the less attached I am to shared governance. In part this is because I don't think there are many examples of faculties who have exercised it effectively and usefully, and in part, I don't think it exists except as something we gesture towards. I prefer a clear set of regulations that are effectively and fairly enforced by objective parties who are truly interested in what is going on at the level of the department and willing to intervene when people are being screwed. I would prefer pay equity. I would prefer a union. I would also prefer, as Fish suggests, to get all the information possible, to make the preferences and reasons for those preferences known, and then to forget about it while a set of competent administrators settles the issue in a way that is fair.(115)

OK, so we don't yet live in that world, but I would still like to. Under current systems of shared governance, vast amounts of energy go into tasks, small and large, that are delegated to faculty committees. There, initiatives that are usually hardly bold rot for months at a time and are decided on principle, not on whether they can be practically implemented or whether they support the teaching mission in a practical, legible way. In the rare event that interesting and unusual outcomes are agreed upon, such outcomes are not put into action effectively because even when faculty have agreed to something in principle they have done so on the assumption that any colleague who disagrees can exercise "academic freedom" by opting out. Preventing a member of the faculty from opting out of a curricular mandate passed by the faculty and listed in the catalogue is viewed as treachery if done by a faculty colleague and abuse of power if done by an administrator. And what a small minority of faculty do, or do not, believe can cause an initiative to be abandoned altogether.

I think this book is right about a great many things, although I think Fish often sees issues as "simple" or "easy" that are neither thing. As a scholar who has spent his career in large universities, he doesn't see the ways in which a principle like shared governance could be rehabilitated for a small college, where it can play an essential community-building role, and where administrators are a daily presence in the lives of many faculty, untenured and tenured. The desire to make issues clear-cut hits a particular nerve when Fish describes the line between teaching about politics and doing politics in the classroom as clear, and governed by ordinary rules of appropriate speech and behavior that are well-known to all. As he writes,

if I harass students, or call them names, or make fun of their ethnicity, or if I use class time rehearse my personal political views or attempt to win students over to them, I might well find myself in a disciplinary hearing, either because I am abusing my pedagogical authority or because I am turning the scene of instruction into a scene of indoctrination.(83)

Well, true enough. But, although this isn't a bad standard by which to judge one's own behavior, that is not usually the nature of the complaint or the problem. And while Fish reserves plenty of bile for conservative critics who pick apart syllabi for "balance," and comb voter registration list for faculty names, he ignores a large middle ground of struggle between faculty and students over what constitutes useful knowledge, how people teach and learn, and what role changing students' minds about what they already believe must ultimately play in a classroom for them to be receptive to a syllabus or set of readings at all. He spends little time on the art of listening, something that is sadly neglected in most academic settings. He completely neglects what I consider a big issue when one is considering the politicization of contemporary classrooms: that many academics have been inspired by politicized classrooms and don't have much perspective on why some students might be intimidated or angered by them. Worse, very little effort is put into teaching doctoral candidates, or young PhD's how to teach, what is an appropriate classroom ethic, how one might "academicize" volatile issues that are of great importance to students, and how one might make decisions about what is appropriate in the classroom. I am not suggesting that it isn't possible, but rather, that the assumption is that smart, accomplished people don't need to be taught how to teach and that is not true.

A final thought: it is interesting to me that so much work about the politics of the academy comes from literary scholars, and I wonder whether taking these questions to people in other fields would help us with that big middle that isn't holding Fish's interest. For example, how do we academicize good and evil? Teach Milton! Easy, right? Well perhaps not for the twentieth century historian, since that big middle is often populated with subjects and people who are not easy to depoliticize: whether, for example, to use communism, fascism, Peronism or American foreign policy for your discussion of good and evil are highly politicized choices in and of themselves. And while I respect the work of literature very deeply, I do get a little tired of constantly being told how easy or effective it is to do X, or Y, or Z by teaching a poem. But that aside, whatever you have heard about Stanley Fish, read this book and talk to your colleagues about it.

It's part of doing your job.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Next Week, For My Benefit, President Obama Will Play Basketball With Lesbians

What, exactly, has happened to feminism?

If Joanne Lipman's peculiar rant in yesterday's New York Times about why women should only blame themselves for the lack of gender equality in the so-called "post-feminist" world was not enough to inspire this question (see Historiann for extended commentary), read today's paper. A front-page story by Mark Leibovich features former Clintonista Dee Dee Myers wagging a finger at President Obama for playing sports with men. Forget it that a grown woman who calls herself Dee Dee, and whose job description seems to be pundit, is accusing the President of not taking female people seriously. Forget it that Dee Dee would know better than anyone that it is not always a good thing for the President to relax by playing with girls.

No, I am going to lay those issues aside and cut to the chase: who the President plays basketball with has nothing to do with key feminist issues like the right to choose, equal pay for equal work, violence, homelessness, child care, health care, social security, welfare or institutional discrimination.

That's right, you heard it here first. Back in the 1970s, feminists never really cared about whether the boys had a tree house or not, they cared about whether men were running the world and ruining women's lives from the tree house. Gender segregated social spaces, while they reinforced male privilege, were in fact only an effect and a fringe benefit of what virtually all men, of all social classes and political convictions, believed prior to women's liberation: that it was their natural, biological, divine and constitutional right to run the entire world and keep all the money, jobs, property, education and power for themselves. Men, as well as women, were encouraged to believe this by law, theology, psychiatry, and science. These fields were almost exclusively male because of schools that admitted almost no women; global churches that gave women no authority to interpret scripture; political parties that didn't promote women for public office; unions that didn't organize women or fight for their right to work; and corporations, universities, police forces, law firms, construction projects, brokerage houses, fire departments and hospitals that didn't hire women. Men hung onto their exclusive right to run the entire world until feminist politicians, attorneys and grass-roots activists (as well as male politicians who suddenly got it they could be elected by actually serving the interests of women voters) forced them to give it up by making gender discrimination illegal.

To return to the New York Times for a moment, what seems really sexist to me is the article itself. For narrative flow, Mark Leibovich relies on crude gender stereotypes of boyish boys who play sports and do guy-guy stuff; meanwhile the girly-girls at the White House plan showers and tea parties that the menz are excluded from. Describing Obama as a "an unabashed First Guy’s Guy," Leibovich notes that since he was elected the President "has demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of college hoops on ESPN, indulged a craving for weekend golf, expressed a preference for adopting a `big rambunctious dog' over a `girlie dog' and hoisted beer in a peacemaking effort."

Can I just say, Mark, that aside from the fact that they rarely get elected to anything, this would describe a lot of lesbians I know too? Or Sarah Palin?

OK, you might ask, what is Leibovich's take-away political point in this story? It is that "women" (the word feminism does not appear) will not trust the President to respect them or take their issues seriously because, when not with his wife and children, he socializes primarily with men. "While the senior adviser Valerie Jarrett is undeniably one of the president’s closest White House confidantes," he writes,

some women inside or close to the administration complain that Mr. Obama’s female advisers are not as visible as their male colleagues or, they suspect, as influential.

"Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer.

Is the point of the story to remind us that Hilary Clinton is not President? Enquiring minds want to know.

For Myers, "looking like" -- or what I would call proxy politics -- would be an acceptable substitute for serious policy commitments that might promote women's rights and/or proof that they exist. But hold your horses, my friends! You might remember that Bill Clinton looked like a feminist, and he filled his administration with women. But as it turned out, he treated individual women badly (including his very intelligent and capable wife, now Obama's Secretary of State), and promoted economic policies that were bad for women around the world. Recently I made an argument that it was a strategic error to mistake the mere inclusion of "people who look like me" for intellectual and institutional transformation, but I've got to say, Valerie Jarrett and Dee Dee Myers sure don't look like me. If Obama hired Nan D. Hunter of Georgetown Law we could get closer to someone who "looks like me," but to really nail it you would have to go for....oh, a gas station attendant in a Cold War film noir.

But to get back to politics, women's liberation, as a movement, relied on structural critiques for its great successes, not social critiques or gender essentialism. The idea that men who are in the company of other men are inherently incapable of reaching conclusions that are good for women is not a correct feminist analysis, or a logical one unless you believe in universal male stupidity, and it gives a great many men a big pass for a long history of discrimination. Feminist history teaches that one can, theoretically, trust a president who is not, at all times, accompanied by a simulacrum of "me." Why? Because who the President plays basketball or golf with (and I've got to ask, I know I have bad knees, but how many women over 35 are actually competing to be bumped and stomped at lunch by a bunch of menz?) does not need to be an issue, as long as the President works effectively with people -- women and men -- who take gender equity in all spheres of life seriously.

Like much of what passes for the media's coverage of national politics, Leibovich's article masks social commentary as political news and by doing so, drowns the potential for a feminist agenda in symbolic issues and hurt feelings. In the 1970s, feminists like Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the ACLU understood that breaking the barriers that kept women off the basketball court and out of the policy-making room required lawsuits and legislation, not socializing. By turning feminist ideas into pragmatic political action, they changed laws and policies that prevented women from access to all forms of work and education. Gender-segregated social space became important to feminist attorneys, not in and of itself, but when it facilitated the exclusion of women from participating equally in work (holding business meetings at men's clubs), or when women paid equal dues for unequal access (private athletic clubs, where women were barred from swimming so that men could swim in the nude or restricted to tennis and golf reservations in non-working hours.)

True, men often countered challenges to exclusive social spaces and schools by waxing eloquent about the importance of male-only spaces to manhood itself, justifications that feminist attorneys countered by pointing to the critical role these spaces had in corporate decision-making and professional networking. So I admit that social space and political space do overlap, and if competent, willing female Congressional aides had been overlooked when Obama's people were picking golf and basketball companions (the article presents no evidence that this is the case, only that it might be) I would be a little pissed. But I would probably still care more about the President's position on DOMA, ENDA or the Helms Amendment. What is wrong with sex segregation is when the men involved actually believe that women are not in the room because they are less intelligent and capable, not that men (or women for that matter) might play some pick-up hoops in between a foreign policy meeting run by Hilary Clinton and a skull session on the health care bill run by Kathleen Sibelius.

What this article best illustrates, once again, is not a political problem, but a distressing standard for what counts as good journalism in what is purportedly one of the nation's finest newspapers. Other than the fact that I am sick of the New York Times pandering to its right-wing critics by criticizing the President for something -- anything! -- and pandering to the soft news market with human interest stories about politicians, I would like to point out that in this post-JFK, post-Clinton, post-John Edwards moment, this feminist Democrat sleeps better at night knowing that, when not with his family, Obama relaxes by playing competitive sports with the boys, and is not wasting political capital that might otherwise be spent on health coverage for women and children on schtupping interns, videographers and campaign volunteers. As a feminist, I think that this is not only better for "women," but for the United States, and perhaps the world.