Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rainy Day Academics #12 & 35

Well, they'll stone ya when you're trying to be so good,
They'll stone ya just a-like they said they would.
They'll stone ya when you're tryin' to go home.
Then they'll stone ya when you're there all alone.

Today's meditation follows along the lines of the above career advice, given by Bob Dylan to a young academic who happened, at the time, to be wearing a leopard-skin pillbox hat.

As for me, after generic academic rainy day moments, instead of getting stoned --er, I mean being passive-aggressive (though, `tis the academic way) -- I have learned to try to tolerate the discomfort attendant to actually confronting abusive people. Until the Unfortunate Events, I had almost never taken this approach to inappropriate, hostile or aggressive behavior on the part of colleagues. In fact, it was part of my recovery from this (now blessedly long ago) period in my life to learn to screen out other people's craziness, to dodge other people's crap more adeptly and not worry about things I couldn't change. I have colleagues who do this very, very well, and although it can be frustrating for those of us who sometimes need them to engage at key moments, I learned to understand why it buys them peace of mind.

But sometimes crap is unavoidable, given the personalities of academics; it gets delivered to the door, Federal Express, and you are asked to sign for it. So I also worked hard on becoming more adept at responding to crap maturely, directly and with dignity. My repertoire now includes a private conversation where I say, "Hey, this is what you did/what seems to be happening; this is why it isn't ok; you need to have respect for me." Or whatever. Email can follow under some circumstances, but the initial private conversation, uncomfortable as it is, is essential. Best case scenario is that the person tells you something you need to know that allows you to understand why they are behaving badly, even if you don't accept it, or think it is your fault; worst case scenario, they continue to behave childishly and begin once again to abuse you with their contempt and bad manners.

The results of my attempt to deal directly with the most recent unpleasantness fell somewhere between these two outcomes, after which the offender sneered in a parting shot, walking away, "Why don't you blog about it?"

Oooooooh. It's tempting, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

All The Oligarch Alumni News That Fits, We Print

You've seen this link everywhere, I am sure: Larry Kramer's speech to the GLBTQ reunion at Yale, called Yale's Conspiracy Of Silence, which is about how Larry's cherished dream of a "Gay Studies" program at Yale has been corrupted by women's studies, gender studies and (gasp!) queer studies. You can read a good critical follow-up by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed here.

It makes me glad I didn't go to the reunion. I have a number of old friends from Oligarch, which is what we call Yale here at Tenured Radical, who did attend. I respect them for it and would have liked to have seen them, but I had a history conference to attend and skipped out of town. It's just as well, since while some people I am sure found being closeted at college oppressive (I did too in many ways, hence my move to New York upon graduation) I am sure I would not be the first person to say that the Oligarch closet was a very, very sexy place. I spent my college years walking around in a haze of desire that was only partly fulfilled, leading to a perpetual and pleasant buzzing noise in my head, and hours spent under the dorm windows of a Certain Someone or two, debating whether the casual or the direct approach would do the trick. But, once again, I digress. To quote from an email I wrote in response to a query from a journalist about Kramer's lunacy:

One response I would have is that what Kramer is invoking is a genuine disagreement about the proper object of study, one that is generational inside the academy and out. A good analogy would be to compare the work of Lillian Faderman and Judith Halberstam. Faderman sees lesbians everywhere, and views the category more or less transhistorically. In addition to bad (or non) history), this is more or less primarily a political strategy in which history = visibility = civil equality. On the other hand, Halberstam, in a famous historical and literary work, looks at "female masculinity," arguing that "lesbian" is a gendered category, as well as a socio-medico-legal category, that means something different in different contexts.

Kramer's view of "gay history" is also quite Euro-Americo-centric, and really reads male as well, if you think about it, which makes it a minority position that is considered reactionary, not progressive, everywhere. To privilege a select category called "gay history" argues that the struggles of lesbian and transgendered people are fundamentally different (and less important), whereas actual history would argue that all three categories are separate but intertwined struggles. Kramer, in other words, reaffirms sexist, racist and transphobic hierarchies when he insists on "gay studies." And if he doesn't "get" queer studies, it means he isn't reading -- and, by the way, a man who wrote a novel called Faggots cannot possibly believe that "queer" is only, and always, a hateful word.

To emphasize that Kramer's beef is generational is not to say that everyone his age has failed to keep up with knowledge and politics as they have developed over the last twenty years, but it would be hard to find a younger scholar who would not be laughed out of the house for making these claims. The academic cutting edge is not "gay" -- nor, might I add, is the activist cutting edge "gay," and Kramer has always been very controversial in the activist community, brilliant as he is, because of his grandiosity and insistence that his views are the only ones that are correct.

But it's no accident that the only person Kramer invokes that is younger than he is is George Chauncey, and I don't think that either George or the Oligarch History Department would agree that Larry got George hired (George is far too polite to come out and say this, but I'm not.) I also think the fact that Larry basically hides every other gay person -- and lesbian! -- that Yale has hired in recent years (Joanne Meyerowitz, Michael Warner, Ronald Gregg, Jafari Allen, David Joselit) on their own and, quite likely, as a result of the Larry Kramer Initiative.

Finally, I would say that institutions do not permit donors to determine academic appointments, and they should not -- don't forget, they gave back the Bass $$ because of the same shenanigans, it was a far bigger sum, and it was earmarked for White People Studies -- er, Western Civilization. While insisting on autonomy from donors means that institutions can remain hidebound I suppose, it really means that you don't have centers for this and that popping up when there is no student demand or academic legitimacy just because it is the donor's fondest dream.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"Is That A Kennedy Dog?" And Other Portuguese Water Dog Trivia

"Is that a Kennedy dog?" someone shouted across the park the other day.

"Naw," I shouted back, to the delight of a number of neighborhood children circling me and my Portuguese Water Dog Breezy on their bikes. "She's an Obama dog!"

It's spring in Shoreline --very much so, and the park is filled with elderly people sitting and feeling the breeze, children playing, families having a pizza picnic dinner and canoodlers canoodling. Breezy and I were taking a healthful evening stroll over to the liquor store for supplies that might get yours truly through the rest of the school year, and at least one of us was keeping a sharp eye out for abandoned pizza crusts. Since I can barely bring myself to get in my car in the morning, writing about the academy and it's various problems is not in the cards this evening. I can, however, meditate just briefly on my life since Bo came home to the White House, an event memorialized by perhaps the cutest New Yorker cover ever.

Here's the deal: Breezy, whose hair is extremely long right now and who is as a result doubly fetching because of the black and white ringlets that cascade off her body, cannot walk down the street without her public noticing her. People who, last month, would have said, "Do you know what kind of mix that is?" now say hesitatingly -- "Is that a dog like -- Bo?!?"

"Yes," I say graciously. "Would you like to pat her?" And they do. Relentlessly. Walks take twice as long as they used to do. I would have to say, since at least three of Breezy's best friends are Labradoodles, and we recently attended a Labradoodle birthday party with cupcakes and everything where Breezy kind of stole the show from the birthday girl (who didn't care, as she was eating paper cupcake wrappers that had dropped to the ground) that the Labradoodle people are trying to be generous. But they are mildly bent out of shape at this turn of events, since they came within a curl of laying claim to the title of National Dog too.

Fame does have it's price, however: I am beginning to feel like Brangelina.

Breezy has always been popular at Zenith, but now she is an institutional asset, something I mean to inform (Not So) New President of at the earliest opportunity, since there may be some way that Breezy can help us with our diminished endowment. But she is, on her own initiative, already playing a critical role in recruiting new students. Now is the season when those who have been admitted visit, large clumps of them moving about the campus along with tours of so-called college-bound juniors and their parents. Breezy has always seen it as one of her jobs to catapult herself into these groups at every opportunity. When she sees one coming, she looks at me, and I say, "Do you want to go see the TOUR?" and she hurtles off in an uncollected gallop, to thrust herself upon strangers. It used to be they just patted her and laughed. Now I hear parents murmuring to each other approvingly, "You see that Vicki? Zenith's got a water dog?"

If we have a particularly high yield from our admitted students this year, you now know why.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Little Berks: Day 1

This year The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, the group that plans the triennial Berkshire Conference, is not meeting in its normal bucolic setting, but in the Big City -- Philadelphia, to be precise, home to the University of Pennsylvania and our fabulous new President, Kathleen Brown.

We are all shacked up in the Inn at Penn, along with a zillion or so track and field athletes from all over the world who are here to compete at the Penn Relays. This means that somehow -- and no one is quite clear how -- we middle-aged historians got bumped to rooms with one King bed, as opposed to the two double bed rooms we had signed up for. This caused some fuss, resulting in free breakfast coupons for the entire group, which my roommate and I plan to go spend. "All you can eat!" said one of us in excitement yesterday.

But of course, the real business of this organization is business. Last night, after drinks and dinner at the McNeill Center, we all settled down to a terrific panel on Women and the Economy with Tracey Deutsch (Minnesota), Felicia Kornbluh (Vermont) and Lisa Levenstein (UNC-Greensboro), in which questions of how we are positioned as feminist academics -- expertise, potential for activism, and pedagogy -- in relation to the current crisis was debated. Kornbluh also introduced a number of us in the room to WEAVE (Women’s Equality Adds Value to the Economy), a coalition of feminists and activists. WEAVE describes itself in the following way:

We are a community of feminist scholars and writers with expertise in history, economics, sociology, anthropology, women’s and gender studies, and social work. We also have many years of experience in journalism and advocacy, writing on issues of women, gender, and public policy. Building upon our collective base of knowledge, we have been in discussions since late 2008 on the implications of the arrival of the Obama administration for women. We have been particularly engaged in the emerging details of the administration’s plans for economic recovery, considered from the perspectives of women, and especially of working-class and poor women.

We want now, in the aftermath of congressional passage of the stimulus package and the administration’s formulaton of its first budget, to reflect on the principles that we believe should inform any approach to economic policy that genuinely seeks to enhance the wellbeing of women in the United States.

Cool, eh? I'm now on the mailing list, and if you want to be too, get in touch with Kornbluh.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This One's For You: What The Bush Administration Did For America

There are lies, and then there are lies.

There was Bill Clinton claiming that "he did not have sexual relations with that woman," for which he was impeached. Aides to Richard M. Nixon went to prison for crimes, and covering up crimes, that subverted the electoral process and that abused the power of government to investigate and punish Nixon's political enemies.

So how about the lies of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld? The lies about "a few bad apples" committing aberrant crimes at Abu Ghraib? Where do we stand as a nation on those?

Oh sure, you have been hearing reports on the news all day, but we are historians: we always want to look at the archive. So you might want to read this government report about the full knowledge Bush administration officials had about what was going on at Abu Ghraib, and other places where people were being tortured on the authority of the President of the United States. How did the Bush administration know? They ordered it, that's how. And they bought and paid for the lawyers who did the paperwork that gave them cover. Why, one of those lawyers was so smart the Bush administration appointed him to the federal bench! If you look at the summary of the declassified report released today, you will see that every branch of the armed services knew that what was being proposed was torture, that the so-called "legal reviews" were cooked, and the administration went ahead anyway and ordered them to do it. And they did. One striking thing about this report is that the word "torture" is used over and over in the narrative, as well as in the documents that were reviewed and are cited as proof of these human rights abuses.

Please remember that the executive branch and the media have instead, for all these years, insisted on the phrase "harsh interrogation" to describe what was done to prisoners in the custody of the democratic, freedom-loving United States government.

Where are all those Republicans who insist on accountability now? Where are the conservative intellectuals, screaming for the truth, denouncing government lies? And would a conservative administration have promoted the brutal torture of people they considered fully human? Christians? Whites? Someone needs to ask them this question.

On the Lehrer News Hour tonight, Lindsay Graham, the mealy-mouth Senator and eternal Presidential hopeful from South Carolina, reminded us that he has opposed torture all along, but that "we should only look backwards to look forward in the right way." Those who tortured and authorized torture "should not be criminally responsible" for what appear to the rest of us to have been politically-motivated criminal acts. "I don't want to prosecute somebody for a political difference," he expained.

I. Am. So. Ashamed. Of my country.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How Many Administrators Does It Take To File A Department Of Education Report?

Two. One to file the report, one to respond the barrage of stupid newspaper articles written about the report after the data is crunched by a non-profit conservative think tank.

This half-assed joke is a response to an article by Tamar Lewin in today's New York Times that ran under the headline "Staff Jobs On Campus Outpace Enrollment." The data, taken from Department of Education reports filed by 2,782 colleges and analyzed by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, shows that public and private colleges have about the same ratio of staff to student (8 and 9 per 100, respectively) and have bloated at about the same rate since 1987. Lewin writes,

In the 20-year period, the report found, the greatest number of jobs added, more than 630,000, were instructors — but three-quarters of those were part-time. Converted to full-time equivalents, those resulted in a total of 939,00 teaching jobs, up from 614,000 in 1987.

The largest number of full-time jobs added, more than 278,000, were for support staffs, and grew to more than half a million positions in 2007, from 292,000 in 1987. Colleges also added some 65,000 management positions, almost all of them full time; all told, they had 185,000 managers in 2007, up from about 120,000 managers 20 years earlier.

“Colleges have altered the composition of their work force by steadily increasing the number of managerial positions and support/service staff, while at the same time disproportionately increasing the number of part-time staff that provides instruction,” the report said. “Meanwhile, employee productivity relative to enrollment and degrees awarded has been relatively flat in the midst of rising compensation.”

Blah, blah, blah. Nowhere does Lewin suggest that fewer instructors could have been added if more of them had full-time jobs, or that actually most schools are actually understaffed. In fact, the way that this number is simply dropped into the piece as a comparative figure suggests that hiring hundreds of thousands of professors at servant wages and no benefits is not such a bad model for higher education, and perhaps something we might want to think about for administrators too.

Lewin notes that CCAP doesn't claim tuition increases are caused only by administrative bloat; cuts in state financing for higher education are also a factor she mentions (briefly). But - irresponsibly, in my view -- Lewin emphasizes the report's finding that students are paying the price of bad management decisions all the same, decisions that are the wasteful outcome of students' intense desire to be pampered, to be coddled and play! In other words, just like homophobia and mortage rates that adjust beyond people's ability to pay, tuition increases are a lifestyle issue.

Interestingly, CCAP seems to be located at The Ohio State University. Ohio is a state that has set the pace for destroying alternative education by its onerous accountability regulations. The authors of the report actually name the constant need to respond to government agencies as a critical factor in administrative bloat ("I've got an idea, boys," the economist said brightly. Let's get rid of the people who adjudicate racial and gender bias on campus and make room for more statisticians who do 'outcomes assessment.'")

And yet, much as I find this position dishonest and irrelevant to major issues in higher education today -- like the desire to escalate the testing mandate to include college students, the tax dollars that have been shifted to incarceration rather than education, and the ways in which the poor are structurally excluded from even imagining a college education -- it is a position and Lewin ignores it almost completely. It takes going to the CCAP website to figure it who they are, and reveal that the CCAP are not impartial observers with no agenda. What Lewin privileges in her article instead is the increase in student services that students are being "forced" to pay for -- but that they have foolishly demanded all the same. That's right -- blame the student/consumer: not cuts in public funding and financial aid, higher enrollments that are necessary to keep a college or university afloat in a politically hostile environment, or the many administrators who are hired to respond to idiotic questions about "degree productivity." Instead, we have this quote from the report's author that does not characterize the majority of the CCAP findings:

“A lot of it is definitely trying to keep up with the Joneses,” said Daniel Bennett, a labor economist and the author of the center’s report. “Universities and colleges are catering more to students, trying to make college a lifestyle, not just people getting an education. There’s more social programs, more athletics, more trainers, more sustainable environmental programs.” Read the report for yourself here.

Neither the article or the report talks about actual education, however. Indeed, and my comrade Margaret Soltan over at University Diaries is gonna love this, "more athletics" is just dropped in there, as if it is men's wrestling or women's crew that is jacking up tuition dollars, not taking your crappy, third-rate football team up to D-I and building them a $3 million stadium; or paying a coach $1.6 million a year.

Yeah, let's blame Title IX. Or better yet, let's just be direct and blame women, throwing in the men who aren't masculine enough to play big money sports for good measure.

And this is where Lewin's decision to produce this article as if it were written in an ideological and conceptual vacuum is, in my view, truly bad journalism. To quote from CCAP's mission statement, it "is dedicated to research on the issues of rising costs and stagnant efficiency in higher education, with special emphasis on the United States." It goes on to explain:

“Affordability” means not only rising tuition and other costs to the consumer of education services, but more broadly the burden that colleges impose on society. “Productivity” refers not only to the costs and resources needed to educate students and perform research, but also to the measurement and quality of educational outcomes. CCAP is also concerned about finding new ways to do things better – to improve affordability and productivity. In particular, it is interested in how the forces of the market can be used to make higher education more affordable and qualitatively better.

In other words, CCAP isn't actually interested in how teaching or learning actually happens, or indeed, what it means to be a student, a teacher or an administrator. It is interested in minimizing "the burdens" education places on society and maximizing the production of the cheapest degrees possible.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Off The Radical Shelf-- Chesa Boudin, Gringo: A Coming-Of-Age In Latin America (Scribners: 2009), $25.00. 226 pp.

Chesa Boudin's first solo trip to the southern hemisphere was in 1999, an immersion visit to the colonia of San Andres, Guatemala, during his senior year in high school. The trip launched a passion for travel, and for seeing the swift political changes sweeping the global south first hand.

Over the course of the next ten years, Boudin would return repeatedly, visiting almost every country in Latin and Central America. He observed, and sometimes participated in, an evolving socialist political movement during a period in which neoliberal policies promoted by the United States and its allies at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund first wrecked economies and, eventually, country by country, inspired political change. Boudin, a Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford and is now a law student at Yale, was in the right place at a lot of right times. In February 2002, he arrived in Buenos Aires in time to see the collapse of the Argentinian economy; and in chapters 5 and 6 he describes an extended stay in Venezuela, where he worked for Hugo Chavez. Subsequently, he observed the 2006 Venezuelan election, where Chavez was re-elected but the referendum that would have allowed Chavez to serve for life was defeated. This, for Boudin, is an important lesson about the possibilities for true socialist democracy: I hope this is true, although that story is far from over.

It's a winning book for many reasons, although I labored through some pedantic stretches that, since I am a faithful reader of the New York Times and The Nation, as well as of selected scholarly literature in Latin American history, felt too basic and pre-digested. The more personal parts, where the reader gets to observe the ordinary people whose lives are shaped by poverty and struggle, are most evocative of a region in transformation. The lighter touches about Boudin's own early naivete and learning processes will also resonate for scholars, organizers and travelers of all kinds who have made awkward cultural crossings in a sincere attempt to learn from others. Boudin practiced what is known in the student touring trade as "rough travel" - avoiding amenities and facilities designed to make North Americans comfortable, taking often bone-jarring bus trips from place to place, and digging deeply into the places he lived and worked. His growing sense of competence as a traveler and a learner is also worth following, as are his occasional references to the fear that attends being a conspicuous stranger in places one doesn't belong. One trip Boudin took on a river boat caused me to recall that mix of confidence and terror inspired during a day trip of my own in Chiapas, Mexico, where I realized to my great joy that I had learned enough about hitching rides in the beds of communal trucks to be fairly certain I could make it to the US border on my own if necessary. A few minutes later, a drunken scuffle next to me escalated into a knife fight, making me realize that such a trip would be, as my friend Sekou Sundiata once memorably wrote, a hard bop.

And Boudin's life has been a hard bop, leavened, as he points out, by access to some of the finest educational institutions in the world and by membership in a blended family of interesting and committed radicals who raised him to have the non-violent left politics he has. Brief references to his four Weatherman parents (a subject I don't want to rehash here) and their struggles against American imperialism and war back in the 1970s and early 1980s link Boudin to a longer radical past that is both his honor, and I suspect his cross, to bear. Why some people choose to beat him over the head with this I don't know, except one suspects a certain envy -- Boudin's productivity (he has participated in four books in about six years, although this is the first as sole author) would be excellent for any university scholar, and his name alone gives him the capacity to command attention in a way few young people can.

A theme that I wish Boudin had developed more in this book, without necessarily being more revealing about his family, are his lifetime "crossings" between two worlds: one, where he was the privileged son of one pair of upper-middle class intellectual celebrities; and the other, where he waited in line to be searched, along with the children of the poor and forgotten, to visit his incarcerated birth parents. These crossings, he suggests, may well have led to a lifetime of seeking in-betweenness. Traveling back and forth between the overdeveloped and underdeveloped worlds may be part of that desire to be in perpetual motion. I am hoping that as Boudin acquires distance, and the time for reflection, he digs more deeply into his own personal journey; feels less compelled, in his own work, to create links between his parents' generation and his own; and marks out a clearer agenda for a new political generation that, in its desire for change in the last election cycle, did not a political left make, whatever David Brooks and Fox News say. Instead, these progressive young people created the energy and organization necessary to revive, in the form of the path-breaking Obama presidency, a twenty-first century version of what Arthur Schlesinger once called "the vital center."

This issue -- calling a Newer Left into being -- may be the answer to my one great uncertainty about the book: who is it for? In part, I bought and read it because a friend suggested that I do so. However, I was also interested because I teach in a hemispheric American Studies program, and am constantly in search of politically engaged books that can help my students think critically about hemispheric politics and their positioning as workers and consumers in a neoliberal economic framework. And yet as I said, the book lectures a bit more than I would like, and necessarily perhaps, touches lightly on the specifics of NAFTA as it narrates the effects of trade policies on the lives of ordinary people. It attends less critically than I would like to why some regimes -- principally Mexico, where Boudin appears not to have traveled much at all -- embraced neoliberalism as a development strategy. And it does not address at all the ways in which people in Latin and Central America are often in struggle with each other, at the level of the community, over what they want from economic development, land ownership and religion. In fact, the biggest recent political phenomenon the book leaves out is the explosion in evangelical Protestantism in the hemisphere, and the wrenching -- often murderous -- conflict that has provoked over the past two decades.

My best guess, and this requires pinning this book together with Boudin's co-authored book on the Venezuelan Revolution (actually, there are two) and the co-edited collection, Letters From Young Activists, is that Boudin is indeed trying to call a new generation of the political left into being with his books. It is a worthy task and he is undoubtedly one of the people who could do it. The Boudin family is, whatever else you think about its historical legacy, a left-wing political dynasty, and Chesa Boudin's work to date suggests that he has taken up that work and carried it into the next century with sincerity, brains and passion.

Buy Chesa Boudin's Gringo here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In The News

I get lots of hits from my links to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication which I value and respect, so I hope they don't take this wrong. But unless they take a different tack soon, they might want to change the title of their "Chronicle Careers -- On Hiring" page to -- "On Firing".

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Notes From The Archive: Some Of Those Nasty Rumors You Heard About Some Feminists Are True

Every once in a while, as I plug away at my ongoing research on second wave feminism and anti-pornography activism, I come upon a piece of evidence that the rifts in women's liberation were far uglier than the accounts of them that have survived in many secondary accounts of the movement.

Not infrequently, some of these startling moments cause me to re-think central themes from the 1970s: racism, homophobia and what would come to be known as transphobia, among them. As one example, I realized today, while taking notes from one of the feminist memoirs I am reading, that I have underestimated the anxiety triggered by masculine women among some old-guard second wave feminists who were critical to the early years of the movement, anxiety that seems to have survived intact into the twenty-first century. In her autobiography Not One Of The Boys: Living Life As A Feminist (2000), activist attorney Brenda Feigen chews over the significance of clothing to the gender identification of lesbians, and comes to the conclusion that normal lesbians present androgynously. Noting that because they seek comfort, not the approval of others, Feigen states that it is "a well-known fact that most lesbians prefer pants to skirts" (emphasis mine). Reflecting that she never really understood her friend and comrade-in-arms Gloria Steinem's preference for "tiny skirts and non-functional heels," (Gloria is not a lesbian) Feigen goes on to observe:

at the opposite extreme, there are male-identified butch lesbians, who mimic men in the often swaggering way they carry and comport themselves. They don't seem happy being women (emphasis Feigen), and being a woman is, as far as I'm concerned, more a state of mind than a particular look. For the most part, this kind of lesbian will raise money for AIDS but not breast cancer. They are often caught up in role-playing, so that their relationships with more "femme" women (often helpless victim types) mimic the worst of extreme heterosexual behavior. I have trouble understanding the desire to be with a woman who tries -- whatever her method of doing so may be -- to look and act like a man. If I wanted someone manly in my life, I would be with the real thing.

In any case, fortunately, role-playing lesbians seem increasingly to be in the minority....Most lesbians I know are feminists who dress and act like normal/androgynous-looking women.

The use of the word "normal" is crucial, particularly in the construction of "normal" lesbians who are positioned as the opposite of queers (like me.) These butch and trans-identified women are, in Feigen's view, just perverts as well as enemies of true feminism, as are all transsexuals (I'm willing to bet this blog that FTMs do not count as "the real thing" from Feigan's perspective.) In case you missed her feelings on this matter, on the following page, Feigen shifts into full-bore transphobia. She slams MTF transsexuals who, in her view, "reinforce sex stereotypes about women," have a "thing about wearing women's underwear," and "are no friends of feminists, who have a serious mission on this planet -- not just play-acting and dress up." (134)

Well, alright then. Feigen, who worked with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project back in the 1970s, is currently an attorney in Los Angeles, specializing in entertainment and anti-discrimination law.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

All About Eve: Eve Sedgwick, May 2, 1950 – April 12, 2009

As I am a historian and not a literary scholar, I don't have much of a claim to memorialize Eve Sedgwick, who died Sunday after a long and brave struggle with cancer. I didn't know her -- I knew of her, I read her, and our paths intersected here and there. And yet there are often certain figures present at the founding of a field who provide glimmers of insight and inspiration, lighting candles in corners of the intellectual world previously dark. They have a disproportionate effect on all scholarship, reaching far beyond their own discipline or specialty to alter the way we think.

Eve was one of these people, and historians have felt her influence in profound ways. While many scholars would look at Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire and Epistemology of the Closet as Eve's most crucial contributions to queer studies, for me it was Tendencies, a group of essays that were like little diamonds strewn on the grass, gesturing at where the rest of us might go. All you had to do was pick them up and run with them. And we have.

It's hard to remember now, when the insights of queer studies are so entrenched in so many fields that the original theoretical frame has become commonplace, how much people like Eve struggled to be heard. But young people: pull up a chair and listen to your old Uncle Radical. There was a time not so long ago that queer theory, driven mainly by literary scholars, was so new and edgy and that you could actually read everything that was published in the field. What a club to be in that was! Why, Judith Butler wasn't a cult figure yet; one shared taxicabs with her. And Eve, criticized as she often was for claiming insight into the ontological condition of gay men at a moment when identity politics was about to implode (in no small part due to her efforts, though ironically people often claimed the opposite), was the mother of us all. A reader of this blog and a former student of Eve's reminded me last night on Facebook that in Tendencies Eve takes up Roger Kimball's attack on the "tenured radicals." And of course my ironic use of that phrase on this blog is a trace of Eve's influence that is now so commonplace, here on this blog and everywhere it appears, as to have utterly lost its origins in her deft approach to Kimball's right-wing ravings.

I haven't seen Eve in years and we were never friends. But I remember, as a much younger scholar, being fascinated by the steady, serene appeal of a woman whose self-confidence was never expressed as self-importance. Once, probably at American Studies Association, I went to a panel on teaching queer studies. This was at a time when queer courses were being taught at fewer than two dozen schools, and almost nobody held an appointment dedicated to the field. The problem of identity came up: were queer courses for queer students or all students? How did one navigate the chasm between straight and gay students in teaching this material --a chasm of hostility, shame and rage? Eve smiled happily and said, "Oh I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I am going to assume that they are all queer."

At the time, a novice teacher, I remember thinking, "Oh yeah, that will help." But as I grew in experience, I realized, of course, that is exactly how the queer class (not to mention all other classes) ought to be taught because -- well, it's true. To teach on any other basis would be to undermine what one is actually teaching. Furthermore, this fundamental truth can help us perceive, and struggle with, the mechanisms designed to produce "normal students" that we navigate and promote every day -- testing, grading, honors programs, majors, core curricula, requirements, and even regulations designed to "normalize" students with disabilities.

Ironically, of course, what this also points to is that queer studies has always contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. Viewed as too specialized, too marginal, and too abstruse for several decades, on a certain level the brilliant insights of Eve and her generation are in many ways now too obviously true not to melt into larger, more universal scholarly tendencies. A field articulated by autodidacts is now organized into lists of work mandated for doctoral exams, and I hear people in the know asking whether queer studies really exists as a discrete field under all the circumstances I have described.

But for now, let's pretend it does. And if it doesn't, perhaps --as Eve suggested on that panel so long ago -- we might then turn to the obvious: that it might be best to assume that all scholarly endeavors are queer.

Cross posted at Cliopatria. Go to Roxie's World for a collection of tributes.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Welcome Bo Obama: Middle East Policy Papers and National Health Insurance Await You

At some point yesterday my site meter went berserk. I checked the "referrals" section and saw dozens of hits that had "portuguese water dog" in them. Ah hah, I thought, Progress and Change. And sure enough, it appears that there is, at last, a First Dog. Bo, nee Charlie, the Portuguese water dog puppy, will be joining the Obamas at the White House this week. You can see him on the left, wearing a welcome lei and enjoying a First Pat. He is striking a typical PWD pose: as Barack strokes him, Bo is pressing up into the extended hand. Had the photograph been taken a bit later, Bo would be seen edging closer to lean against the President's leg, and finally, collapsing onto his shoes with his body pressed up against the First Shins.

As the Obamas will soon learn, full body contact is the position of choice for a PWD. One breeder said to me, "If you require a lot of personal space? Not the dog for you."

Already I have seen comments criticizing the Obamas for not getting a shelter dog and instead getting a dog from a breeder. To those people I say, give me a break. First of all, like many Portuguese Water Dogs, Bo was returned to the breeder from an original owner who could not handle his feisty ways (more on this below.) So although he wasn't rescued from a kill pen, it is only the breeder's thoughtfulness and professionalism, and care in choosing responsible homes, that kept him from being dumped anonymously. PWD breeders, knowing how difficult their dogs can be for many people who expect all pets to be passive, decorative and compliant, check out homes very carefully. All good breeders stress their desire to have a dog returned if the home doesn't work out: it's usually part of the contract of sale. And yet, a full sister of my own darling dog was dropped off anonymously at an animal shelter in Massachusetts by people who didn't have the patience, or perhaps the time, to train her. Only the microchip our breeder had paid to have installed in her shoulder led to her safe return.

Ironically, although the Obama campaign sought my opinion relentlessly for eighteen months, they are not asking for it at the precise moment that I have copious amounts of advice to offer. But since the one thing that nosy Americans are unable to do is restrain themselves from offering unsolicited advice about other people's children and pets, not only am I going to resist addressing the Obama family directly, I am going to confess that they are not my main concern. They, after all, have a staff -- perhaps the optimum conditions for raising a PWD. No, I do not worry about the Obamas.

It's the rest of you I am concerned about.

I am concerned that suddenly PWD's, or "Porties" as they are sometimes known, will become popular, and all kinds of people who don't have a clue will start breeding and buying them. This was, after all the fate of Dalmations, a tricky, high-strung, and high-maintenance breed, following the remake of A Hundred and One Dalmations. The adorable spotted puppies that people rushed out to buy turned into neglected adolescent hounds that chewed the furniture, peed on the carpet and knocked down the children -- predictably they soon filled the nation's shelters as unwanted, throwaway dogs.

There are three reasons that PWDs are particularly vulnerable to being exploited in the puppy market (aside from their irresistible cuteness; even as grown dogs they still look like puppies.) The first is that they are a breed that was more or less brought back from obscurity by their dedicated fans (which includes, by the way, the Government of Portugal), and there were comparatively few dogs to work with. This means there are serious genetic flaws -- one of which produces a heart defect and the other blindness -- which make the PWD a poor choice for the hobby breeder. The community standard for breeding these dogs includes genetic testing, and no one should buy a PWD puppy without proof that such testing has taken place. But my second caution is that these are highly intelligent, energetic, working dogs. When we were talking to breeders prior to adopting our dog, one warned us, "If you don't find something for them to do, they will find jobs for themselves." This is absolutely true, and leads to a critical piece of information -- this is not a dog who will, like many other dogs do, be so keenly desirous of your approval that s/he will figure out how to please you, eventually slipping seamlessly into the household routine. PWDs expect you to organize your life around them, making dog school essential to reaching equality, much less human dominance, in the relationship between person and dog.

Behind that fluffy mask is also a set of serious teeth which PWDs need to be taught, early on, to use gently; and children have to be taught to respect. When buying toys, go straight to the "power chewer" section.

Of all the people who spot my dog (pictured at right) on the street or on campus, and coo "What a cutie! What a love! How sweet!" as she presses her fluffy self into their bodies, tail wagging, at least a quarter have a story about a Portuguese Water Dog that they really didn't like. They tell tales of PWDs who were bossy and destructive, who drank noisily out of the toilet and barked loudly and imperiously if the toilet was closed, who plotted mayhem against valuable household items and pursued their plans in intricate and secretive ways. This is why all Portuguese water dogs need a job. My dog goes to the office with me nearly every day, for example, and spends a fair amount of her time getting in people's business and tending to the copious emotional needs of an academic community. When she is home she is well-known for rearranging household items (mainly couch pillows in ways that suit her ideas of where she would like to nap that day.) Without four solid walks a day, two of which include vigorous games of ball and running around the park with other dogs, she becomes impatient, intrusive and noisy. She is the only dog I have ever known who will walk in the room and begin to chat, in a voice that varies from a growl to a whine to a squeak, and she expresses her irritation at being ignored by sighing. Loudly. There is also a peculiar humming noise that is just conversational.

I'm not going to go on and on with boring dog stories, but the moral of the tale is that this is a breed that requires a proactive stance for the relationship to flourish. PWDs are one of the finest and most satisfying dogs to live with when cared for properly and, when neglected or expected to take care of and amuse themselves, they can terrorize a household to an extent few dogs are capable of. Since humans ultimately have the most power, the outcome for an out of control PWD is predictable: they get the boot. That may well be how Bo ended up with the Obamas in the first place. In closing, I have no advice for the Obama family, but all the rest of you? Go get a dog from a shelter unless you are an experienced dog owner who is well aware of how much time and energy this breed requires to become the wonderful companion dogs they can be.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Writing An Honors Thesis: It's A Big Frakkin' Deal

I just finished editing the last senior honors thesis chapter I have, although I imagine a few conclusions may come my way in the next 48 hours. My three seniors are pretty much on their own now. I have located as many split infinitives as I can find, and written primly in a comment for each somewhere along the line: "Never use a ten dollar word when a five dollar word will do" (where did I learn that? My grandfather? The Andy Griffith Show?) When I edit the same habits come up over and over again: at a certain point I hit one repetition, one misplaced semicolon, one odd word choice too many. "Eliminate this word wherever you find it!" I hiss from a red comment bubble; or, "History is written in the past!!!!!"

Editing theses at this stage is about the trees, not the forest; it is about wanting all the hard work to be shown to its best advantage; it is about teaching writing intensively at a moment when students are open to learning it in a way they may never be again; and it is about coming to terms with what the work, in the end, will be -- not what it could have been. For my students, at this point, it is about stamina. And with most of the thesis, even though you are busy pruning the trees at this point, you can see the shape, texture and significance of the forest emerging all the same.

But after I had finished everything I had on my computer, I took the dog for a walk and thought about how proud I am of all my thesis writers, every single one I have ever worked with. At my age you get very sentimental about things like this. Here I am nearly fifty-one years old -- my guess is that I have advised forty or more of these things, which signifies forty relationships that will always be special, forty people out there with whom I will always share the special bond of having seen through this scholarly achievement.

Since I have this bully pulpit, I just want to say to all of you, past, present and future thesis writers: it is a great privilege to be able to be part of the process of watching you grow and become defined as an intellectual. It's a huge achievement to complete your first major piece of writing, regardless of whether it is borderline publishable or whether it isn't exactly what you imagined it would be, but it is finished all the same. This year's group -- a passionate and committed trio of feminist scholars -- probably don't know that there are a whole crowd of spirits (The Ghosts Of Thesis Writers Past) cheering them on, but there are. These are, of course, real people, who have gone on to have a variety of careers, but no matter how grown up they are, or how far away they go, I feel that their spirits gather at this time of year to clap and cheer you new ones across the finish line. Eight of you are academics, three with tenure and two coming up for tenure this year; one is a very famous erotic writer and sex educator; one works in education policy and another -- her husband (and they met outside my office waiting for their thesis tutorial appointments) -- is a journalist. Three others are politically committed attorneys, at least two of whom are practicing law in the field they wrote their thesis in, and one of whom has devoted his life to defeating our nation's love affair with capital punishment.

So take heart, Zenith thesis writers of 2009! You are almost done. And it's a big frakkin' deal that you tried, that you stuck with it, and that on Tuesday your commitment to yourself will be complete when you turn the damn thing in.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Puff The Magic Sociologist: Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader For A Day, A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets

Longtime followers of this blog know that it is my deepest wish to write a book that will be sold one day in airports. Why airports? Well, some time ago a clever capitalist figured out that among the lay audience who passes through airports a certain percentage will want to read something of greater intellectual substance than a Jodi Picoult novel (of course, many academics see travel as a perfect excuse to read romance novels.) Because of the captive audience airports represent, travel has become an opportunity to sell more good books, as well as magazines that offer ten helpful hints to keep a husband sexually content. Some of these volumes are easy to sell in real life (anything about the Civil War, memoirs of addiction); and others may be harder to sell in real life (excellent non-fiction and, well, academic books) than they are to sell in the airport.

I often buy serious books being marketed to the average intelligent reader in order to figure out what I too might do to become an airport author. In passing through the Detroit airport week before last, I picked up the book I am reviewing today. I had heard Sudhir Venkatesh on National Public Radio a few weeks earlier; he is the author of Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets. Despite my reservations about what I had heard Venkatesh say on the radio, I decided to give it a whirl.

Verdict? I think this book is really disturbing, and if I were a practicing ethnographer rather than a historian I might be even more offended. The mainstream reviews of this book give little hint of this. They are remarkably, and similarly, bland. (Here is one by William Grimes of the The New York Times.) They are all more or less written from the book's publicity materials, down to sometimes identical phrases about Venkatesh putting away his clipboard and learning to ask the right questions. So I feel that I am contributing to the public discussion in a useful way when I say: I think Gang Leader For A Day is one of the worst, and certainly least original, ethnographic accounts of a black community I have ever read. Venkatesh's "hero social scientist" narrative, and the many ethical flaws in his field research that he tries to blur by making his own personal growth the centerpiece of the book, causes me to conclude that if this book is taught at all it should be taught as a perfect example of an academic exploiting a community to advance his career. There are many flaws, but perhaps the worst is not even what Venkatesh did as a graduate student in perhaps the most prestigious sociology department in the country, but his commentary on and lame excuses for his own behavior as a researcher.

Venkatesh's heroic view of himself as a "rogue" academic depends in part on everything he has written being new and fresh, which it is not, particularly when you consider that he is writing about Chicago, one of the most intensely studies cities in the country. And while some of his more academic work might be path-breaking, his desire to be seen as roguishly cutting edge in this book causes him to be self-serving in ways that are more than borderline unethical. For example, he fails to acknowledge any significant work on black poverty that preceded his own, except allusions to contributions in the field by his advisor, William Julius Wilson. One thing a knowledgeable reader with even light acquaintance with his field will see is that nearly all of Venkatesh's insights about the role women play in the informal economy of the Robert Taylor Homes can be found in Carol Stack's All Our Kin, originally published in 1974. Nowhere in the book (there are no footnotes and no bibliography) is the work of this path-breaking feminist anthropologist mentioned; nor do we see any acknowledgment that Black feminists like Johnnie Tillmon have been theorizing the condition of Black women on welfare since 1970. One might also point to the work of anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown or historian Annelise Orleck. There is no reference to any memoirs like Doreen Ambrose-Van Lee's memoir of growing up in Cabrini-Green (another Chicago Housing Authority project), Diary of a MidWestern Getto Gurl; or reference to accounts of black urban poverty by sociologist Elijah Anderson and journalist Alex Kotlowitz.

What is more disturbing to me, frankly, than Venkatesh's failure to acknowledge other academics, is the cavalier way in which he describes and excuses his ethical failings as a researcher in the field -- and if he expresses doubts about what he did from time to time, none of those doubts seems to have stood in the way of realizing his academic and financial ambitions. During the course of the book, he fails to file a plan with the Institutional Research Board until he is well into his field work. He hides what he is doing from his mentors (but does learn to play golf so that he can spend more quality time with his famous advisor.) He lies about the nature of the work he is doing (by omission and commission) to "J.T.", the gang leader who is his principle informant and his protector. He puts the lives and livelihoods of members of the housing project in danger through his self-important tattling about his research findings to J.T. When told explicitly by faculty and by an attorney that participating in illegal gang activities puts him at risk of criminal prosecution Venkatesh is a little alarmed, but keeps doing it. He participates in a gang beating; and, in the centerpiece of the book -- in which he claimed to have become "gang leader for a day" -- he represents himself as having "crossed over" to experience J.T.'s world as J.T. himself lives it. But Venkatesh evades actually doing anything so that he doesn't have to explain to J.T. why, for example, a sociology grad student can't punish a shortie with two shots to the mouth during the course of his research. Towards the end of the book, the gang's "accountant" gives him a set of notebooks that allow Our Hero to write a path-breaking article about underground economies: T-Bone, who gave him the data, is later killed in prison. While Venkatesh makes a point of saying that T-Bone never squealed on the gang, of course he did -- by giving Venkatesh the data. It isn't as clear to me as it seems to be to Venkatesh that, unless J.T. and his gang have no access to the internet, they would not have known this by simply Googling him and coming up with the article.

In fact, the principle narrative of the book is not life in the ghetto, but rather Venkatesh's ascent to the height of respectability and academic success set against the destruction, dispersion and failure of the community he observed. Venkatesh wins fellowships; the gang members and community organizers who run life in the Robert Taylor Homes simply "disappear." Eventually, when Venkatesh no long needs J.T., he ditches him. This occurs when Venkatesh follows his fate to Harvard, where he writes his dissertation as a member of the Society of Fellows. "For a time I thought that J.T. and I might remain close even as our worlds were growing apart," he writes on page 277, as he explains how he wrapped up the research by simply leaving behind the people who had fed him, sheltered him, protected him, and given him a career. This sentiment might be more accurately rendered as: they stayed in the Ghetto, the city of Chicago tore their homes down, and I went to Harvard --life is so unfair. In what is typical of the book (admission of what he did wrong, and that he hurt people, coupled with justifications for having done so) he continues:

"Don't worry," I told him, "I'll be coming back all the time." [Another lie, but not on the scale of the Big Lie, which was that Venkatesh was planning to write J.T.'s biography.] But the deeper I got into my Harvard fellowship, the more time passed between my visits to Chicago, and the more time passed between visits, the more awkward J.T. and I found it to carry on our conversations.[Translation: he began to figure out I was a big fraud, but fortunately, this awkwardness did not cause a man who beat people up for lesser insults to hurt me.] He seemed to have grown nostalgic for our early days together, even a bit clingy [emphasis mine]. I realized that he had come to rely on my presence; he liked the attention and validation.

I, meanwhile, grew evasive and withdrawn -- in large part out of guilt.

In this scenario,Venkatesh is playing Wendy to J.T.'s Peter Pan: guilt though he may feel, it is time for the rogue sociologist to grow up, marry, and get tenure at an R1 university. And I don't really see guilt here, frankly. I see a sociologist with a literary agent, becoming wealthier and more famous by exploiting the endless fascination that respectable people who live in comfort (and ride on planes) have for the poor. But what I also see is the recuperation of the "hero social scientist," who does what he wants and exploits who he wants on his way up the career ladder, without regard to any of the research ethics that have been developed over the years to govern such ignorant and irresponsible behavior. Perhaps Venkatesh's work for an academic audience is more careful and respectful than his attempt to engage a popular audience, Gang Leader For A Day: I hope so.


Hot off the presses: a conference honoring Carol Stack, and celebrating the 35th anniversary of All Our Kin, will be held at Yale University, May 1-2, 2009. Go here for details.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Sunday Night Follies: In Which The Radical Answers Four Questions

And now, to lighten your Sunday night of grading, lecture writing and sorting your socks for the coming week, here are four answers to urgent questions, none of which have been asked by my fans.

What Zenith college publication is still available in a printed copy?

One of you got it right, but yesterday's post gathered fewer guesses than I thought it would, so I'll tell you. The answer is: the telephone directory, which can be requested; they print one up for you and send it in the next day's office mail. This solution to an otherwise intractable problem was reached after a colleague of mine made an impassioned, and utterly sincere, plea on behalf of his departmental secretary, who was distraught at the change in her work environment wreaked by the loss of a printed Zenith telephone book. I was terribly grateful, and ordered one specially printed up too. Why? Because I can never remember how many people are in the Zenith history department, that's why. There is actually a list in the back of the printed version that allows me to count them up periodically. And I was grateful because sometimes I can't remember someone's name, but if I remember that person's department and look at the list of people in that department, it jogs my memory. And because if I don't remember a person's name, I can't look that person up in the Directory if I need to give them a call, can I? I can't. At least, not easily.

What do you do when you are not working, Professor Radical?

I read, blog, work out, and search the internet for television shows that feature beautiful teenagers and their very complicated lives. In my favorite ones, the teenagers live in southern California, but I adore Friday Night Lights, and those people live in Texas. I like these shows in part because the teenagers, whatever their class background, are concerned with more elevated things than money and grades: for example, they easily navigate complex love affairs, fidelity, being demoted to QB2, pregnancy out of wedlock, what to wear to Blair Waldorf's coming out party, wedlock triggered by pregnancy, whether to lose your virginity at 13 or 14, and terrible, backbiting gossip that would cause the rest of us to bend or break. Furthermore, all of these kids can be turned to in a pinch to help adults solve problems like alcoholism, bad marriages and chronic unemployment. Most seem to do quite well when they are more or less abandoned by their feckless mothers and fathers to live independently while still attending high school. I want to be more like them, and I want to be able to teach my students to be like them too. I also watch American Idol and try to imagine how job searches in history could be more like American Idol.

Why, after having taken a four-year break, are you once again watching American Idol?

Because the older I get the more sympathetic I am to Simon Cowell, who at his age must have to work very hard to keep the body he pours into that sweater for every show. But I also think people just think they can kick Simon around, and they do not see that he is a real person under that nasty exterior. For example, last week when that flaky chick who was at the bottom said she did not care what the judges thought about her performance during the previous week, my first thought was, "Well up your nose with a rubber hose, my dear, you cannot just care what they think when they say what you want to hear. Show business is a school of hard knocks. Get used to it, dearie." My second response was to identify heavily with what a slap in the face that was to Simon. I did not wish I was a free spirit like Flaky Chick and rush out to get an armful of tattoos. No sirree. My third response was, "Flaky Chick, you can't be on this show and just take, take, take. Have you learned nothing from Paula Abdul? If this is the case, then I do not care about you either." Simon thought the exact same thing as me and, expressing this for both of us in the most effective way possible, did not use his "save" for her.

When you are not obsessing about what it would be like to hold the copyright to American Idol and make gobs of money, what do you obsess about?

I obsess about how at a certain point I made a wrong turn in my life and did not become a Native Americanist, which happens to be just about the most happening field there is in American Studies and in United States history at this moment in time. This actually dovetails with my other life question which was why, when I had the chance to apply myself to an intro Anthropology class in college, I wrote a long abstruse paper on James Joyce instead. This decision, which netted me an "A" in Joyce and a "D" in anthropology, caused me to become more generally allergic to all courses related to anthropology, such as ethnohistory and Native American Studies. It also caused me to pursue an English major, from which it took me a long time to recover.

To learn more about the intellectual grounds for my regret on this count, go to this link for a podcast of a March 25, 2009 interview of University of Michigan History and American Cultures Professor, Philip J. Deloria (Note: if I were a Native Americanist, Phil Deloria and I might be best friends, but instead we are mere acquaintances, which is another burden I will have to bear for having obsessed about Joyce rather than paying attention when the TA was explaining kinship structure and cross-cousins for the fifth or sixth time.) The interview was done by my colleague, Kehaulani Kauanui, on her radio show "Indigenous Politics: From Native New England And Beyond," which originates at WESU (Middletown, CT). You might want to bookmark this site for more of Kauanui's interviews of critical contemporary figures in Native American Studies: they are really good, and because of the internet, they have a national audience.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The College Catalogue Goes Bye-Bye: Harvard Catches Up With Zenith At Last

Why does John Harvard look so depressed and defeated? Is it the endowment? Is it the quality of the entering class? No! It's the death of the course catalogue as we know it.

Following the Harvard Crimson, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Harvard University has eliminated printed course catalogues, faculty and student handbooks, and something called the "Q-Guide," in favor of on-line versions of all these documents. The "Q-Guide," which publishes summaries of teaching evaluations, is undoubtedly a grisly publication full of accurate, witty and devastating humor about our colleagues who work at an institution commonly known as the Northern Zenith. I am sure the Harvard faculty are glad to see the back of that one, Mary.

The move to web-based publishing is budgetary to be sure, but one administrator points out that the course catalogue will now be much more accurate than it has been. I believe this. I speak as a program chair who was adding and subtracting courses as late as last week for a pre-registration period that begins in two days. The Chronicle also reports that Harvard's dean of undergraduate education, Jay Harris, promises that "the online system will be much more dynamic." What they mean by this is not clear. A free laptop for all students registering for third year German who are willing to answer the following quiz? Pop-ups advertising the writing workshop? The ability to post your courses to Facebook? Tweets from your advisor?

I'm surprised that Harvard has not explained that this move is far more eco-friendly, which is the fashion of the day when it comes to explaining budget cuts that may affect the teaching mission. Using less paper is of course eco-friendly, although I wonder how the use of X amount of paper stacks up to the endless computer waste we now generate as campus commnities. "Eco-friendly" is what we were told at Zenith when they eliminated all the same documents several years ago, a move that was made without consulting students or faculty. Fortunately we at Zenith, in addition to being toadies of Moscow, Havana and Beijing, are all very friendly to things eco-friendly.

Nevertheless, there were tears at Zenith, and I expect there will be at Harvard too. Members of the faculty took most umbrage at the elimination of the course catalogue, although in varying degrees (none=1, lots=10: I was about a 2.) Some umbrage was due to the view that faculty should be consulted in all things; additional umbrage was taken on the theory that faculty ought to be consulted about everything associated with the curriculum and with their work as advisors. Still other umbrage was taken because faculty do tend to take umbrage at administration initiatives.

I understood both sides, and in the scale of available battles decided to save myself for another day while other colleagues marched and sang "We Shall Overcome." We still throw away tons of paper at Zenith. But back then nearly everything was duplicated in electronic and paper versions. Hence, like Harvard, in addition to the printed catalogue, we had an online system that had been created so that students could pre-register instead of submitting their requests on ancient, ladder-like paper documents which were processed by the registrar's office. On the other hand, I know intelligent people, of quite various political persuasions, who feel strongly about the elimination of the course book to this day. So there you go.

The comments section of the Chronicle article pretty accurately replicates the range of responses at Zenith to the demise of a printed curriculum. Deborah, who thinks the decision makes sense, feels "sorry for printers who are losing business nationwide," but not for the students or the faculty (whose handbooks, by the way, can now be easily changed by administrative fiat or by someone hacking into the system.) "While I love the 'going green' effort," says Jillian, "I hope that they are at least allowing those of us doing the advisement a few copies… some students just can’t grasp concepts when reading them on a screen…they need something tangible."

Is there research on this? Because what is there to grasp about, say, T, Th 2:40-4:00? Scroll down, and you see that, like me,"a CU alum" asks: "If the concept is literary theory, say, or an intricate chemical reaction then I can understand. If the concept is that Professor X is teaching seminar Y on Thursdays at 2:00 p.m., then I can’t. A student who can’t grasp that on a computer screen probably isn’t going to get into Harvard anyway." (Don't be so sure. According to one source, Harvard students were "bewildered" by the new version of Word released in 2007.) CU alum continues,"Of course, there will be some students with disabilities who will be unable to use the monitor, and some of them may be able to use a printed catalog instead. I’m sure Harvard will accommodate these students. That doesn’t seem to be what commenter #4 had in mind." No, it wasn't. And I'm trying to imagine what disability would make a printed catalogue more accessible than an on-line catalogue.

"I just think this is wonderful," says Lila, undoubtedly thinking of the bales of waste paper that there is little market for in the current recession. Nowadays much of what we think we are "recycling" is either filling warehouses or is being redirected from the Big Blue Bin to a waste dump, where it becomes a Big Wet Rock of pulp. Other commenters ask some version of, "It took Harvard this long to figure out....." One of the more interesting comments is from "JMC," who writes,

I’ve had two college-age children in last 5 years, both at small liberal arts colleges; one publishes course catalog on paper, the other only online. The paper catalog is SO much more useful—we have had no problems figuring out requirements for majors, minors, and distribution. The online version, while equally well written, is much more difficult to navigate. Like most people, I need to be able to flip between pages to compare things, to mark details with a pencil or highlighter, to dog-ear pages and scribble in the margins, in order to digest information like this. I’m truly sorry to see that Harvard has caved to this false economy. Use paper when paper is appropriate and necessary; the internet is great for many, many things, but this is not one of them.

Now JMC is exactly right about this, and it captures a core complaint of the Zenith faculty about the on-line system, which is that you can't "read" a website in the same way that you can read a book. In other words, you can't read it from beginning to end and mark it up. Many advisers used to do this, and it was a method for learning the whole curriculum prior to beginning the advising period. It was a particularly useful way to prepare for advising non-majors, or majors in interdisciplinary programs. (My one question, JMC, is -- "we?" Who were -- uh, "we?" I can hear the helicopter blades turning.)

But here's a quiz for Harvard, and for my loyal readers. The Zenith faculty ended up successfully drawing a line in the sand over the right to receive paper copies of which one of the following documents?

a) the faculty handbook;
b) responses to inquiries about missing library books and protested library fines;
c) the telephone directory;
d) the student handbook;
e) invitations to the President's Christmas party.

The answer will be revealed in the next post. And Zenith faculty, no fair telling (if, in fact, you remember) although it is completely fair to mislead others with your responses. While the world is waiting for an answer, check out the new episode of Farmer Radical's Garden News in a widget which is, of course, on the Left.

Friday, April 03, 2009

As If The Right Wing Has Not Had To Endure Enough, Now the Jury System Bites Them In The Butt

Lynne Cheney must be home banging her head against the wall. First she finds out that all but a very few of the men her hubby has been keeping in Gitmo are innocent after all. Now the culture wars have been set back a century or so by a Denver jury, in a recent ruling that University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was wrongfully terminated.

It is amazing to me (and makes me all teary about the Constitution) that juries often really get the nuances of a thing. Churchill was awarded attorney's fees, but only $1 in damages because of the plagiarism charges that arose in midst of the controversy. Churchill did appropriate someone else's work: there is no doubt about that. But the reason he was summarily fired, the jury argued, was because of political speech that was unpalatable to the governor of Colorado and the Colorado legislature. And that, they agreed, was wrong.

Satisfactory all around if you ask me. And just in case you think the Radical is a big Ward Churchill fan, guess again: you don't have to talk to too many Native Americanists to figure out what a thorn he is in the side of the field.

However, I am a big fan of due process, thank you very much. And by the way: I wouldn't have called all those Wall Streeters Nazis after 9/11 either. It was mean and factually incorrect besides. But I must say, popular attitudes toward the New York money people have changed eight years later, haven't they?

Hat Tip.