Monday, June 29, 2009

How Will We Write The History Of The Man In The Mirror; Or, Who Was Michael Jackson (To You)?

Last Thursday night, my iPhone -- which only works intermittently in the hills of Litchfield County, CT, and only then if you stand in the exact right spot in the house -- buzzed to indicate a text message. I looked down. "Michael Jackson died :(" read the message, sent by a colleague and a good friend (the Radical's agents are everywhere.)

Wow, I thought: and only three days after Judy Garland.

It is good there is no internet where I was, otherwise I would have spent the rest of the evening on my computer looking for the very few details that were (and still are) available. I also missed most of the relentless tributes, as there is no television in this little retreat either. Friday morning I did decide that I needed a New York Times, so I went to the grocery store out in Northford, CT, where I have shopped since about 1986. The woman at the check-out station was weeping, tears rolling down her face as she rang up my purchases efficiently. "Pretty bad, huh?" I said, gesturing at her grief by handing over the newspaper with its huge picture of Michael on the front page.

"First Ed McMahon," she sobbed; "then Farrah Fawcett, and now Michael Jackson...who could be next?" She was inconsolable.

Since Jackson's sudden death from drug abuse -- er, heart failure -- a lot of people have compared this moment to Elvis's death. I remember that moment vividly. Coincidentally, Elvis died on my parents' wedding anniversary. When we got the news on the radio that was often playing in the kitchen, my mother was visibly distressed. She looked out the window and said, "Elvis and I were almost the exact same age," which was only sort of true because my mother was two years older then Elvis. It was only years later that I learned the full story: Elvis spent his final minutes on the toilet, and his final days in a darkened bedroom gobbling uppers, downers and Dannon yogurt. Like Michael, Elvis was also preparing for a tour, and part of that process was losing weight so that he could execute those bizarre karate kicks that became his signature, and squeeze into white spangled jumpsuits that were slit to the navel. He believed, according to Peter Guralnick, that because yogurt was advertised as a "diet food" that he could eat cases of it (this is the kind that is flavored with heavily sugared jam, you understand) and still lose weight.

Not just similar in death, Elvis and Michael Jackson are being compared constantly as artists too. Anyone who ever met Michael Jackson is being asked for a tribute, and you won't be surprised to learn that -- despite his obvious lack of good health for over a decade -- everyone is shocked as well as devastated. One obvious place to go for a quote is Lisa Marie Presley who was not only Elvis's daughter, but you may recall, Michael Jackson's first wife. "I am so very sad and confused with every emotion possible," she said in Australia's Herald Sun.

I think the check-out lady in Northford did better.

Both Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley were hugely talented people whose careers stalled. Michael was probably musically more innovative, but it is hard to know what Elvis might have accomplished if he hadn't been packaged as something that could be sold over and over again to aging female fans willing to pay top dollar to get a sweaty scarf tossed in their faces in Vegas. The tragic, campy comparisons seem more apt: unbelievable grandiosity (sequins, anyone?); endless spending to buy happiness, inner peace and the company of people who didn't real care about them; an off-key attraction for children (Elvis liked to have little girls in white cotton panties over to play, and the mothers of Memphis happily obliged); and sudden, untimely death aided by an unscrupulous physician who aided and abetted fearsome physical self-abuse.

The other thing they had in common was that people told them what they wanted to hear: eat as much of the yogurt as you want, you'll get thin. Those children are coming over to play with you, it will be fine, they don't have parents who will want to be paid off to keep their mouths shut about what goes on at your house.

The people who surrounded Elvis and Michael were the mirror.

I would add Judy to this list of tragic comparisons, and I wonder why she isn't being mentioned by anyone. Perhaps it is because all of her destructive behavior really was aimed inward, although the fact that her children have lived similarly sordid lives suggests that at least a couple other people got hurt by her excesses. Both Elvis and Judy were binge eaters, binge drinkers and binge dieters, puffing up and slimming down at terrible cost to their psyches and health. Oh, when Dexedrine was in vogue! Both had their careers molded by systems that only the canniest stars were able to use to real artistic advantage.

Michael's physical changes, and his career, were different. I've always been uninterested in his whitening complexion, perhaps because I am a white person who likes to get darker when possible, because I am a historian who knows that Black people come in many shades, or because I really think Michael's whiteness was more transgendered than transracial. But he was also physically debilitated over the years as he fought being fixed by age, gender and race. Ongoing drug use didn't help, and neither did the pain and damage inflicted by cosmetic surgeons and dermatologists who did what their client wanted regardless of the effect of chemicals, scrapes and surgeries on his general health and appearance. I saw an item on the Huffington Post only a week ago asserting that what amounted to a partial amputation had been performed on one of Michael's ears over time, since cartilage was needed repeatedly to rebuild his ruined nose. This may or may not be true, but it can't be grislier than the truth, when you look at a face that has nearly disappeared in the past two decades. Imagine how much his body must have hurt, even aside from the toll his brilliant dancing must have taken on his ligaments and joints.

But, as with my views on Judy and Elvis, this is not everyone's perspective. Fans are lost in grief over the fantasy that was cultivated by Michael Jackson Incorporated. What has seemed to me to be a grossly underweight, mutilated man in terrible psychological and physical pain seemed to his fans to be a star. What I believe was a physically and sexually abused boy, who subsequently visited similar behaviour on children put in his way by greedy parents, was believed to be innocent of any wrongdoing by his fans -- and a court -- when he said that the children lied. Other incongruities abound. For example:

I saw: A beautiful black child (who was a year younger than me, so I have watched him age) become a shrunken, pasty skeleton with long stringy hair, no affect and no public personality when offstage.

Fans saw: The beautiful person they believed lived inside the ruined body.

I saw: An adult who invited little children to his house constantly, spent the night in bed with them, decorated his property like a theme park to entice them, and who went on television holding hands with a teenaged boy and acted shocked that anyone could be dirty-minded enough to believe that he would "ever hurt a child." Now if Michael Jackson had been a queer theorist, or a member of an organization advocating the decriminalization of all intimate and sensual relations with children, I would have thought this was interesting, and even radical. But he wasn't, he was just delusional: all of these observations say "child molester" to me.

Fans saw: Peter Pan; someone who "loved children" and was "really a child at heart." (Note: this "nice Peter" is the Disney version. The J.M. Barrie version of Peter Pan is dark, jealous and stole people's children because he hated grown-ups. He also didn't care what happened to the children as long as they satisfied his outsized ego by admiring him.)

I saw: A person who showed all the signs of having been a fearfully abused child, was terrified of the world, paid women to have children who he then raised in ways that were beyond controlling and eccentric. I wondered to myself, as the children walked around with drapes and veils over their heads, does he even talk to anyone in his family? Because I have got to say, if any of the rest of us did that (much less hold a baby over a hotel balcony in what was, I suspect, not a sober moment) our children would be in foster homes.

Fans saw: A loving father protecting his children from a cruel media who would otherwise have hurt them in some unnamed way.

I could go on, but I won't. While Michael Jackson was far better able to keep control of his career than either Elvis or Judy, and donated millions of dollars to good causes, he seems to have met the same bitter, sad end as they did. And like them, he has left a pile of troubles behind for other people to solve, as well as weeping fans who look at pictures of their hero and see:


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Universities, Awake! or, the Crisis of Higher Education

In Hazard or Opportunity? Inside Higher Ed's Doug Lederman reports on yesterday's meeting of college and university administrators sponsored by the Lumina Foundation. While higher education is not in complete free fall (health care and the struggling newspaper industry are the comparisons where systemic crisis is provoking drastic change), the hand writing is on the wall. Some of you might be concerned about the agenda at such a meeting, since the Lumina Foundation is a proponent of practical education that is aimed at turning out obedient workers, not citizens bursting with critical thought. And your worries might be compunded by the fact that Ohio, which has been a leader in shutting down alternative education options in the state by imposing rigid certification mandates, was heavily represented as a source of change.

But much as I dislike the messenger, the message is worth listening to. "As is often the case at such events," Lederman writes,

those in attendance heard mostly from those who believe that higher education must change and who have sought to respond aggressively. Eric D. Fingerhut, who as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents has led his state's efforts to impose greater efficiency and centralized control on a group of public institutions that had, like those in many states, operated largely as free agents, made it clear that the "crisis" Ohioans face is not the recession of the last year but the larger and longer-unfolding "transition of the economy of the industrial Midwest."

That enormous challenge, Fingerhut said, is "why I want to grab our leaders by the lapels and say, 'Don't you see what's going on around here?'.... The fact is that the ability of future generations of this state to sustain our commitment to a vibrant system of higher education is very much at risk."

These questions are important. In fact, I can't imagine who those people are who don't think that higher education needs drastic reform, as we look into yawning budget gaps and students stepping into the abyss of endless debt so that they are qualified to graduate and take an -- internship?

In the opinion of this Radical, higher ed is on a precipice of non-sustainibility, and it's not because there are too many faculty or that we make too much money. Colleges and universities serve fewer people, less well and at greater expense than they ever have. But structural and policy issues are well-hidden in the personality-driven human interest stories that appear in the media. While many of these narratives feature suburban parents rending their garments about how they will tell their children that pricey, private schools are off the table, others feature desperately indigent teens who have lifted themselves up out of the gutter to snag a coveted Harvard scholarship or a place on a Big Ten football team. Even the current employment crisis has provoked little news about the situation of a vast number of people: college educated parents who can't afford a public university or a private university without asking their children to take out enormous loans.

That paying back college and graduate school loans for several decades has had a depressing effect on our economy, masked by easy consumer credit, makes perfect sense to me, but if any economists are working on this, I don't see it in the news. But you know what? if people aren't paying their mortgages and credit cards, I doubt they are paying their student loans either. Is anyone writing about this?

Had they invited me to this conference, I would have suggested the following topics for discussion:

Is the function of a university system to pass on the aggregate knowledge of a civilization or to teach students to think critically about the world they live in? Since I have been a university professor, the answer has been: pay for everything you can! Don't decide! Why shoudl we pander to student interests by actually hiring people in fields that are relevant to their interests? And while the answer to this question is not either/or, liberal arts colleges may now be forced to suck it up and begin to specialize, making consortia arrangements with other public and private institutions to cover the gaps in their curricula. For example: I loved the classics -- studying Latin in many ways was my introduction to reading primary sources as a very young scholar. I also love my colleagues in the Classics department at Zenith, of whom there are too few, given how good natured and competent they are as a group. But frankly, given how few students are served by this field, every college may not need a Classics department of its own. I would argue, however, that every college needs a Center for Contemporary Politics, where intellectually flexible, interdisciplinary scholars drawn lead students in vigorous debates about the ideological, cultural and political changes that are shaping their world and future. Precious few universites are ready for what will happen tomorrow, and by the time tomorrow happens, it's too late to set up a new department or program, much less hire and tenure people in it.

The federal government needs to start spending education dollars on young people who do national service, military and non-military. Zenith, for example, made a big deal of it a few years back that we were setting one place aside each year for a veteran of our current war. One? Give me a break. Places like Zenith need to cut a deal with the government in which we expand our student body by thirty-forty students, offer all of those places to veterans of the military and Americorps, and cut a deal with the feds that we will discount the full cost of their education by 25% if the government pays the whole freight without any loan burden to the student.

Shift money out of the penal system and into preparing people for a college education and budget lines dedicated to lowering tuitions drastically. A great many states are so in hock to prison guard unions and private prison contractors they don't know what to do. You think Social Security is the third rail of politics? Ha. De-carceration is the third rail of state politics, my friends. And yet it is a fact that the prison population is also on the bottom rung of our population when it comes to literacy and numeracy. It is another fact that the greatest deterrent to criminal recidivism is educating people and making them employable.

The federal government needs to return to actually spending money to support education; in return, colleges and universities should de-privatize. That's right: you get, you should give. Right now, everything that private universities give to their communities is voluntary: gifts in lieu of taxes, fresh-faced volunteers sent into the community, and creating "culture" that people outside the university can pay to attend. But what do they get to do in return? Collect donations from their alumni, which said alumni then deduct from taxes that might otherwise go to support public education; reserve the right to exclude any student for any reason; set whatever price they choose; and hoard money in endowments.

Higher education needs to start paying more attention to what is going on at the secondary level and vigorously fight unnecessary mandates, particularly the testing mandate associated with No Child Left Behind. Right now we in higher ed pretend this has nothing to do with us, but we are wrong. Billions of dollars of state and local money that could be going to higher ed, as well as to secondary ed, are going to test prep, testing, and "outcomes assessment" done by for profit consulting firms. This is money going down the drain that could be devoted to high school to college transition programs that would actually prepare students for college, and to underwriting tuition at public universities. Furthermore, testing is homogenizing education, and that homogeneity is creeping upward: more and more students expect content in a class, as opposed to debate about ideas. Fewer students feel confident that they can write an academic essay without a structured "prompt," although curiously, at my school, they write blogs, songs, plays, and film scripts with ease and creativity. What else can explain this gap between their unoriginal, often openly craven, papers and the vigor of their creative labors than the fact that they have learned to suppress critical thought in their academic work in order to score well on tests?

I am the last one to say that an economic depression will be "good" for higher education in and of itself: the short-term outcome will be more students excluded from college and more students taking on impossible debt. But is it time for we educators to change the system?

You bet.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Another Year, Another Job Market: When Not Perfecting Your Tan This Summer, How Can You Prepare?

"And by the way," I wrote in a message to a young scholar whose book manuscript I would love to sign for the new monograph series Renee Romano and I are doing at the University of Georgia Press, Since 1970: Histories of Contemporary America, "There's nothing that accessorizes an interview outfit like a book contract!"

Which got me to thinking: it's been a long time since there was any Radical Advice for the job-lorn. One by one, jobs are starting to appear on the web and in those odd paper newsletters our professional organizations still send out. So what can you do now to get ready for a new job season? Well, it depends on what kind of job seeker you are. None of the advice that follows is comprehensive, and if we are really lucky, this post will draw a lot of comments from readers willing to share experiences that will correct, amplify and enrich it.

For The Market Novice

If you have never been on the market before, you need to draft a job letter that can be re-crafted to suit different applications. Depending on where you are applying you will want to emphasize scholarship or emphasize teaching; depending on what the precise job description is, you will need to emphasize certain features of your education over others. Ideally, this draft letter will be considerably longer than the letter you eventually send out (no more than two pages), and when you re-write it for specific jobs, you will be cutting parts of it, and modifying others. For more on the job letter, see this post and the comments section that follows.

But what else should you be doing? Well, think about what fields you will be applying in and draft a couple syllabi. Trained in nineteenth European century intellectual history? Draft a Western Civ syllabus, and a Modern European Intellectual History survey. You are writing your dissertation on World War II memorials? Well, how about a seminar on twentieth century patriotic culture? I wouldn't get more specific than this if I were you: if you get far enough along that you are being asked for courses, you will want to look at the department website and see what specialized sources they need. But at least you won't be cobbling together all your syllabi at the last minute. And there's nothing nicer in a preliminary interview than to have a candidate present a syllabus for us all to talk about: on both the searches I was on this year, we asked for syllabi in advance of the preliminary interviews, and it helped us learn more about the candidates as teachers and scholars.

You should be drafting, and revising, as much of your dissertation as possible. You will be competing against people who have been on the market for two or three years who have a book coming out, people who are finishing post-docs and already have a contract, people who just defended. If you only have two chapters done when you go on the market you are at a disadvantage. This is because prior to interviewing you the search committee may find it hard to believe you will complete your degree by July 1, or that if you do finish, it will be because your committee wants to get you situated and, within reason, they will sign off on whatever you have written.

Practice not going around telling people that you won't go just anywhere for a job. It causes them to believe that you are a snob, or that you have your head up your butt about the state of the market, or that you don't really care about getting a job. Or all of the above. So practice not saying it: it is really immature, and it causes people -- especially those who are in charge of recommending you -- to think poorly of you. If you really want a job, and you want a shot at this career, you may need to go to someplace that seems like anywhere to you, but is actually somewhere to the nice people who already work there. If your attitude gets back to someone on a hiring committee (because as Walt said, it's a small world after all), you might as well have not applied.

You also need to be honest with yourself about why you think this, because you may need to start planning an alternative career now rather than waiting for the perfect job in the Bay Area that 500 other people are not applying for. If you can't go anywhere because your partner won't allow it, be clear with yourself that you are risking putting the career you have trained for on the shelf because the relationship you want to be in, and the person who says s/he loves you, requires it. If you won't go anywhere because you refuse to live outside a major city, or a particular major city where you have made your home, be clear that you may be sacrificing years of graduate study because of your own limitations about what constitutes an acceptable life and/or job. "I don't want to" or "I am afraid to" is not the same as "I can't." Be clear about the difference, and the consequences.

For The Battered Market Veteran

You've been through it all before, haven't you? And it hurt, whether it was the first year or the sixth year. You did your best, and it didn't work out. But here's the good news: you have a crop of letters you sent out, and if you are lucky, you had some interviewing experience, and you now have some work that is going to carry you over next year.

Your first task is to put last year behind you, dust yourself off, and figure out what to improve -- if anything. One way of doing this is to re-circulate your job letter to your committee and have them look it over. Better yet, if there are people you know as friends who have recently served on search committees at other institutions, get one or two of them to look at your letter. But if you got any interviews, chances are you have a good letter, and all you need to do is update it to reflect the accomplishments of the last year. One hint? If your degree was just awarded, your "dissertation" is now your "book."

And let's suppose you got interviews, but got no offers. This doesn't necessarily mean you did badly, or even that someone else did remarkably better. I was impressed this year in one search we ran how well all the candidates did: each candidate proved s/he could have done the job superbly. The thing I see most frequently on the job wikis is someone griping that s/he did such a terrific job in the interview and the fact that s/he didn't get an offer means that the search was rigged in some way. There are two problems with this: one, you might be wrong that you did great; and two, you might not have been the only one who did great.

My suggestion? See if you can activate a connection to get some feedback on one or more of the interviews you did. You might not be able to talk to a search committee member yourself, but your dissertation advisor might be able to call someone and either have the conversation or find out if someone is willing to talk. Just remember: you don't want to hear about the other candidates, and you should never ask why you didn't get the job -- both questions are really rude. You should ask what you did well, and what you need to improve. And you should thank the person for taking the time.

Finally: finish something. Whether it is submitting an article, finishing revisions on an article that has come back with reader's reports, writing a book proposal and sending your manuscript out, whatever. You need to show that you are moving forward in your career. Everyone knows how much time it takes to be on the job market, particularly when you are teaching adjunct, but the further out you are from graduate school, the higher expectations are about your scholarly trajectory. Do not agree to write any: book reviews, encyclopedia entries, or anything else that fills up a curriculum vita with entries that have nothing to do with original scholarship.

And finally? If you have been on the market for years and have not landed a permanent position that allows you to make a life, you may wish to start looking at other kinds of jobs. It is not admitting fault to do this: many wonderful scholars get kicked to the curb and never get back on track with a teaching job, but that doesn't mean you can't find another career that will let you keep on writing and shield you from the annual ego-battering of the market. Even as you apply for jobs this one last time, begin to talk to people about this and ask them to help you. Well-hidden secret: most people who write don't have tenured academic jobs.

For Those Re-entering The Market

Much of what I have to say on this topic is here, including a lot of interesting commentary about whether wanting to change jobs is evidence of a character defect on your part (no.) But I do have a few other things to say.

First, be clear about why you want another job. Want to live with your partner, rather than commute? Probably a good idea but be aware that living with your partner can cause you to break up, since both of you have become accustomed to having a lot of time alone and have developed routines and friendship circles that aren't automatically inclusive. It happens to more people than you know. Angry at the people you work for? Well OK, but it is surprising how similar most colleges and universities are to each other, and if you don't encounter the same frustrations, you may encounter different ones. You might try to see if your issues can be addressed, or if you can insulate yourself better by shifting your relationship to those problems. Just thinking there may be more to life? OK -- could be true. You better find out.

But after considering these questions, if you still want to go on the market, no job that is more prestigious than the one you have now (equally or less if this is driven by family needs) should be off the table. Every once in a while I get a priceless piece of advice, and ages ago it was Peggy Pascoe who told me to apply for everything within reason and allow the people who interviewed me to show me why University X would be a great place to make a career. So while you may have ideas about what place would be worth moving for, they are inevitably under informed. What does it hurt to kick out another letter?

If you can, call someone you know and talk to them about the job before you apply. A few times I have had a good conversation with someone who has said, "Oh yes, the ad says twentieth century, but the department is pushing to hire someone who can do urban." Or I have found out that they are under a mandate to find what is known in the biz as a "star," and I ain't their kind of star. And you know what? No harm, no foul. But ask your friends to be honest with you if there is some reason you should not bother to apply, because writing a job letter -- as all the newbies on the market can tell you -- is time-consuming, difficult work.

In your letter, ask for what I would call limited confidentiality. Give them the name of a colleague who will be writing for you who they can call to find out how much the institution will regret losing you, and then simply ask them to let you know if they feel they need to make more general inquiries that will expose the fact that you are on the market. But balance your understandable desire for privacy with another issue, which is that you may want to put it out there in a limited way that you are interested in moving so that your name comes up when people are soliciting applications. True, you do not want to make your current colleagues feel that you have one foot out the door. But many senior jobs are never advertised, people recruit to increase the intellectual, racial and gender diversity of their pools, and you want people to know that you can be moved for the right job if that is true. Second, if there is something that your colleagues and administration can do that would take you off the market, why not tell them and see if it can happen prior to a negotiation over a real job?

A final note: what if there is a tenure track job being advertised that you want to try for as a tenured person? It might not work, particularly in this economic climate, but it never hurts to ask if they would consider your application. All they can do is say no.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why Wait For Gay Marriage to Get Yours? AAUP Committee On Sexual Diversity And Gender Identity Wants You!

This opportunity for concrete activism just in from Ian Lekus, chair of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History (CLBGTH), an affiliated society of the American Historical Association (which is still the cheapest membership of all time: $US 5 for students, retirees, and the unemployed, to $US 150 for lifetime members. So join!)

This note is to update you all on the "Harvesting the Grapevine" project, sponsored by the Sexual Diversity and Gender Identity (SDGI) Committee (which I have chaired since November 2005) of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and funded by the Arcus and Gill Foundations, among others.  In 2006, the SDGI Committee wanted to provide historical and sociological analysis of those campuses which had secured LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination clauses and/or partner benefits.  The idea was to build recommendations based upon those cases for the many more campuses that had not secured either kind of freedoms.  Accordingly, after winning a substantial grant, we hired Dr. Lori Messinger of the University of Kansas to do this research, and her (and her team's) findings will be published in the September issue of Academe.  We're on stage two of our project then, drafting a second round of grants to make the dissemination and implementation of Dr. Messinger's recommendations a reality.

Accordingly, the Committee is looking for new members who have the time and perspective to help make this project successful.  Members would not have to be historians, but we are looking for folks who have had experience with either giving or taking webinars and other cost-effective vehicles for disseminating information.  Also, our Committee has become very East Coast: we need Californians or Westerners in general to provide necessary geographical balance.

So, if you know of any such colleagues who may be interested in this type of informed academic activism, then please refer them to me at as soon as possible.

Charles H. Ford, Professor and Chair, History
Norfolk State University, Norfolk, Virginia
AHA Member

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And It Rhymes With Rich: New York Times Reports On Humiliating Mother Of The Week

As frequent readers of this blog know, the Radical occasionally takes an interest in secondary education when she is not kicking serious butt over the trials and trevails of the university world. I admit, I can take a sharp pen to people from time to time, and I have gotten into trouble over it. But occasionally I run into story that inspires real awe at the capacity of others to rip other people a new one.

This week's winner is a well-to-do Goody Two-Shoes in Upper Manhattan named MeMe Roth.

Yes, her name is really MeMe, and her children might as well transfer to a school in another state. At least, I would not return to P.S. 9 on the Upper West Side of New York after today if I were them. According to this story in today's New York Times Ms. Roth has a paying job at an organization called National Action Against Obesity, a non-profit organization for food fascists. The mission of this organization, other than stigmatizing fat people?

Through education, legislation, and most importantly—parental action—National Action Against Obesity works independently and as a consultancy to reverse the obesity epidemic by eliminating ‘fake foods’ from the food supply, barring junk food from schools and eradicating Secondhand Obesity™ (obesity handed down from one generation to the next, as well as from citizen to citizen), while encouraging exercise across all ages. Success relies upon wholly re-imagining what the U.S. population considers “normal” food consumption and “normal” exercise. When the majority is overweight, America cannot be normal.

And normal is what we want to be.

In service of this noble mission, MeMe Roth's volunteer activity is to purge junk food from P.S. 9 as well, and to ensure that her daughters are humiliated on an almost daily basis as they submit to their mother's surveillance rituals. In the process of ensuring that these poor children will spend a lifetime in therapy and acquire a serious eating disorder, MeMe has managed to make a number of people at P.S. 9 very angry. At least one parent, teacher or administrator seems to have a friend at the New York Times, which is how this hair-raising little tale ended up on my morning coffee tray. Ms. Roth, according to reporter Susan Dominus,

has no problem with the school lunches provided at the highly regarded elementary school on Columbus Avenue and 84th Street. What sets her off is the junk food served on special occasions: the cupcakes that come out for every birthday, the doughnuts her children were once given in gym, the sugary “Fun-Dip” packets that some parent provided the whole class on Valentine’s Day.

Those bastards!

“I thought I was sending my kid to P.S. 9, not Chuck E. Cheese,” Ms. Roth, a trim, impassioned 40-year-old from Atlanta, said in an interview. “Is there or is there not an obesity and diabetes epidemic in this country?”

When offered any food at school other than the school lunch, Ms. Roth’s children — who shall go nameless since it seems they have enough on, or off, their plates — are instructed to deposit the item into a piece of Tupperware their mother calls a “junk food collector.”

This solution seemed to be working pretty well until Ms. Roth’s daughter dutifully tried to stick a juice pop — a special class treat from her teacher on a hot day — into her plastic container. The teacher told Ms. Roth’s daughter to eat it or lose it, and according to the child pointed out that she had seen the young girl eating the corn chips served with school lunch — did that not count as junk food?

This prompted one of Ms. Roth’s infamous heated e-mail messages to the school. Which, in turn, prompted administrators to pull her daughter out of class to discuss the juice pop incident, which only further infuriated Ms. Roth, who said her daughter felt as if she’d been ambushed.

Of course, the teacher was right: putting a frozen juice pop in a plastic box, and putting the box in your book bag is a recipe for disaster. And she was wrong to argue with the poor, terrorized child about what was, and was not, junk food. But in case you think making her children collect all the junk food they did not eat to present at the end of the day - I suppose to prove that they did not eat it - is the strangest thing about MeMe Roth, read on:

Her extreme methods have earned her attention before: The police were called to a Y.M.C.A. in 2007 when she absconded with the sprinkles and syrups on a table where members were being served ice cream. That was Ms. Roth who called Santa Claus fat on television that Christmas, and she has a continuing campaign against the humble Girl Scout cookies, on the premise that no community activity should promote unhealthy eating.

Now I'm not against good nutrition, and I'm certainly not for feeding children endless amounts of sugar, although it is not generally the children of the well-to-do who seem to suffer most from sugar oppression. Anyone who has been to a Latin American country where there is no potable water but literally truckloads of Coca-Cola (not infrequently you see people in their twenties with a mouth full of rotted and discolored teeth happily downing an Orange Crush or two) has a few things to say about the destructive influence of the sugar industry. But unlike the underdeveloped world, where American agribusiness disposes of nutritionally worthless excess crops grown with federal subsidies, the overdeveloped Upper West Side is not really famous for being a victim of sugar dumping.

So I guess someone at P.S. 9 has fixed MeMe Roth's little wagon, haven't they? Tune in tomorrow as MeMe storms the Times newsroom and puts Susan Dominus in a little Tupperware box too.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Professors Of Academic Medicine Are Different From You And Me*: Blowing The Lid Off Publishing In The Sciences

The next time a scientist on your Tenure and Promotion committee gets sniffy about the publishing pace of a colleague in the humanities or social sciences, tell them to read this post from Margaret Soltan, our university ethicist on call over at University Diaries. Then tell them to put a sock in it.


If you are not a literature professor, or even an undergraduate English major as was the Radical, this title derives from the following (undoubtedly apocryphal) encounter between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald: ‘You know, the rich are different from you and me.’
Hemingway: ‘Yes. They've got more money.’

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What, Exactly, Is The Gay Agenda? And What Part Should Repeal Of The Defense of Marriage Act Play In It?

I had missed it that the federal Department of Justice (DoJ) had filed a brief supporting the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) until my Facebook friends went berserk over it on Friday. DoMA, for those of you who have been living under a rock, withholds federal recognition from any marriage contract not enacted between a man and a woman (read Jennifer Finney Boylan here on the application of that idea to transpeople), and licenses states to void gay marriages contracted in other states that are illegal under their own laws.

Many queers see Obama backpedaling on GLBT issues, and point to a campaign statement where he explicitly objected to the provisions of DoMA. I suppose it isn't worth it it to point out that Attorney General Eric Holder is not the President: he is only the President's right hand. My capacity for outrage is currently taken up with other things, such as: why paying bonuses to financial industry executives represents a crucial commitment to the sanctity of contracts, but paying benefits that were promised to retired auto workers is not. Or why Congress is setting its hair on fire over auto dealers losing their livelihoods, but seems unconcerned with the reverberating effects of auto workers losing theirs. I do have some room for other topics, however, and it seems clear that Miss Mary Obama needs to get his s***t together and communicate his good will to queers in a more concrete way than he has to date. I would add that queer people may need to pull themselves together too, as my buddy Bear Left is urging. "Don't Moan, Organize!" he advises. And yet, Bear, as you point out in the post, gays and lesbians are very organized.

I guess my question is this: is the brief really an outrage, except in the realm of symbolic politics where every queer victory is one step closer to Utopia, and every loss another step towards the Gulag? The Daily Kos has a selection of responses to the government's position on DoMA, and on the brief's effect on Obama's relationship to queer voters. The overall sentiment is that seems to be here that Obama had a chance to weigh in on the side of gay marriage, and not only did he fail to do so, but he weighed in on behalf of the status quo.

But this may be a good thing, because the status quo is legally quite fragile. DoMa has created fertile ground for a crushing wave of lawsuits, particularly now that some states have legalized gay marriage. One attorney I consulted in Connecticut thinks there will be major litigation under the commerce clause (click here and look under "Section 8, Powers of Congress"), as married couples working for national corporations are transferred to states that do not support, or that explicitly prohibit, their marriages or any benefits derived from them. These people will sue in federal court for access to the employment benefits they were entitled to but are then denied in state #2, even though they work for the same company. And they will win.

In this vein, check out law prof Nan D. Hunter over at Hunter For Justice. A former Clinton appointee, she has been working on these things for a long time, and infers that we are seeing the Obama administration play out a political game ultimately aimed at overturning DoMA in Congress. Congress will see a tsunami of litigation bearing down on them, she argues, and act to avert it by voiding their own stupid legislation. She also suggests that the arguments made by the DoJ in last week's brief are relatively superficial, sending a subtler message than the pro-marriage folks are able to hear right now in the wave of frustration and rage over the Prop 8 decision in California. A feeble case for restricting marriage was certainly the strategy in Connecticut, according to a member of the State Supreme Court who voted with the majority and who I had dinner with after the decision was published. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal did what he was supposed to do, which was to defend the constitutionality of the marriage law, but let's just say that he and his team didn't produce the kind of compelling brief we have come to expect from them in other matters, nor did "Swinging" Dick Blumenthal himself appear to argue for the state.

What are the advantages of sending DoMA back to Congress rather than steering multiple cases through the courts? Well, it might be faster, for one thing. Another is that social engineering from the bench has become a huge source of political conflict in this country, and the opposition it engenders can be crippling to a progressive agenda. Every piece of legislation should meet a rigorous constitutional test prior to being enacted, and the enactment of social change through federal legislation makes progressive change part of a democratic process that is more likely to produce consensus after the fact (unless, of course, you are a follower of John C. Calhoun's theory of concurrent majority.)

There is now a long history of judicial interventions that have overturned discriminatory laws, and very few of them have had the impact that progressives have hoped, or that has been achieved by say, the Wagner Act, the 1965 Civil Rights Act, or Title IX. Two failures of what conservatives call "legislating from the bench" are prominent, in my view: school desegregation and abortion. Half a century after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), our nation's schools are as (or more) segregated than they ever have been, and our private universities call themselves "diverse" when 5-10% of the entering class is African-American, and 20% are "students of color." Kevin Kruse's 2005 White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism demonstrates how whites in Atlanta successfully used what laws and institutions were available to them to re-segregate the geography and public institutions of their city, including its schools. Furthermore, court-ordered busing, as a remedy to residential segregation, has been a disaster, even though a great many people my age, black and white, benefited from it enormously.

And of course, as I have discussed recently here and here, the struggle to preserve abortion rights in the United States has become a principle rallying point for conservatives, and a source of endless litigation, during which women's reproductive freedoms have narrowed dramatically as "contraception" and "abortion" have become categorically merged by conservatives, religious extremists and the family values crowd. Thirty-five years after Roe v. Wade (1973), a woman's constitutional right to act on a private consultation with her physician by not bringing a pregnancy to term has been devastated in multiple ways, and corrupted the process of vetting judicial appointments by allowing one issue to dominate over others.

I've come a long way toward being sympathetic to the desire for gay marriage, but I continue to believe that it has consumed vast resources that might have been devoted to achieving universal access to: decent housing; good schools committed to educating citizens that are safe for queer kids; accessible higher education; universal health insurance; non-discrimination in assigning pension, death and federal retirement benefits; equality in adoption laws; equality under the law for women and children; ending discrimination in family court; full funding for public health outreach and research into communicable diseases; universal day care; immigration reform; disability rights; pay equity, a living wage and anti-poverty legislation. Citizens have a fundamental right to these things, whether they are married or not. As one of my favorite organizations, Queers for Economic Justice has pointed out on multiple occasions, the reason gay marriage is perceived as a middle class issue is because it is a middle class issue. Poor people have no property or rights to convey through marriage, nor do they have to worry about visiting someone in the hospital, because they can't get into one anyway. And why does "Don't ask, don't tell" not muster the emotional outpourings that gay marriage campaigns do? Because, as Janet Halley pointed out in Don't: A Readers Guide to the Military's Anti-Gay Policy, educated middle-class queers either don't approve of war, or they don't need to sign up for military service to get access to human rights that are currently privileges in the United States, and that they can find a way to purchase. In queer academic circles, at least, while marriage is the gay agenda everyone loves to hate, military service is really off the radar. In other words, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell (Don't Care!)"

If the Obama administration is not getting sucked into an eight-year struggle over DoMA that saps energy from their other social initiatives, then I would say that they have already learned the lessons queers need to learn: that there are some critical things that support a dignified life, and the right to marry is at the bottom of that list. I say this knowing how much people want it, and even having felt the warm fuzzies as it has passed, state by state. But that said, my gay agenda is to live in a country where marriage is purely a choice that people make out of sentiment, but one that conveys no material privileges whatsoever.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Let's Run Away From The Girls! And Other Strategies To Make History Relevant To A Twenty-First Century Liberal Arts Education

Did Linda Kerber, Emily Rosenberg, Penny Von Eschen, Elizabeth Borgwardt, Nancy Cott, Joan Hoff, Marilyn Young, Ellen DuBois, Mary Dudziak and Mary Frances Berry die when I wasn't looking?*

I was a little concerned about this when I picked up my New York Times this morning and saw that none of them were quoted in Patricia Cohen's article, Great Caesars Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing? I guess they just weren't answering their phones yesterday when they weren't called.

Tradition, as you guessed even before reading the article, would be represented by diplomatic, military, economic, constitutional and intellectual history. These fields a, the article asserts, are being crowded out of university history curricula by (you've guessed already, haven't you?): the history of gender, and that other feminized field, cultural history. "Job openings on the nation’s college campuses are scarce," Cohen writes, "while bread-and-butter courses like the Origins of War and American Foreign Policy are dropping from history department postings. And now, in what seems an almost gratuitous insult, Diplomatic History, the sole journal devoted to the subject, has proposed changing its title."

Horrors. Change the title of a journal to reflect changes in the field? What else must the profession endure?

Aside from what you have already noticed -- that "tradition"="quality"="what you really need to know to live in the world" -- the association of "tradition" with "male" is sealed by the fact that not a single woman is quoted in the article, not even women working in the fields in question. Because, you know, once you add gender or race to your inquiry, you aren't really in those fields any more. Tu comprends, mon chou?

In case you are still in doubt as to the destructiveness of women's history to the profession at large, you have the helpful graphic pictured at left which demonstrates (without the appropriate gross numbers) that women's history is eating the profession alive. And then, to provide appropriate pathos about the extinction of men from the historical profession, there is a lonely little petunia in an onion patch, a first-year (male) grad student whose name is being withheld by me out of mercy, who whimpers that he feels "a bit like the last woolly mammoth at the end of the Ice Age. 'Being a young historian in this field is thus a rather lonely and sobering experience,' he wrote, adding that some historians treat his chosen specialty with 'genuine derision.'”

Do we have any doubt that these monsters are -- women? No, we do not. Because why else would you ask a first year graduate student in any field for his or her opinion before consulting any one of the distinguished women in the fields in question?

Naturally, it is the permissiveness of the 1960s that is to blame for this travesty, not to mention the pervasive cultural rot that allowed women into the profession in the first place:

The shift in focus began in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when a generation of academics began looking into the roles of people generally missing from history books — women, minorities, immigrants, workers. Social and cultural history, often referred to as bottom-up history, offered fresh subjects. Diplomatic historians, by contrast, generally work from the top down, diving into official archives and concentrating on people in power, an approach often tagged as elitist and old-fashioned.

Over the last three decades the number of history faculty members at four-year institutions has more than doubled to 20,000-plus, said Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research at the American Historical Association. Yet the growth has been predominantly in the newer specializations, spurring those in diplomatic, military, legal and economic history to complain they are being squeezed out.

In 1975, for example, three-quarters of college history departments employed at least one diplomatic historian; in 2005 fewer than half did. The number of departments with an economic historian fell to 31.7 percent from 54.7 percent. By contrast the biggest gains were in women’s history, which now has a representative in four out of five history departments.

The closest we get to women who actually teach in any of the fields under question being asked for their opinion is a quote from Anthony Grafton, who is now officially dubbed an Honorary Woman for trying to make this point, even though it didn't affect the reporter's perspective a jot. His perspective that these fields are not gone but have "shifted focus" is immediately countered by two other scholars for whom only "tradition" will do:

....critics like David A. Bell, the dean of faculty at Johns Hopkins University, argue that traditional diplomatic and economic history are still the specialties that are best suited to deal with America’s problems today.

Simply giving everyone a place at the table is just not affordable in an era of shrinking resources. “I’d love to let a hundred flowers bloom,” said Alonzo L. Hamby, a history professor at Ohio University in Athens (n.b.: note reference to the famously destructive Cultural Revolution that gutted intellectual institutions in the People's Republic of China), but “it’s hard for all but the largest departments or the richest.” In his own department of about 30 faculty members, a military historian recently retired, triggering a vigorous debate over how to advertise for a replacement. (A handful of faculty members had the view that “military history is evil,” Mr. Hamby said.) The department finally agreed to post a listing for a specialist in “U.S. and the world,” he said, “the sort of mushy description that could allow for a lot of possibilities.”

You mean like gender?


*And these are just the Americanists. Lord only knows how the female Europeanists are faring in these days of want and strife. Phone home girls!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Work That Euphemism Does: A Few Thoughts on the Recent History of Abortion

As I composed yesterday's immoderate post on abortion, one of the things on my mind was that the various factions that loosely make up what we call conservatism's "right wing" have won at least one battle in the culture war. Over the last twenty five years, anti-abortion lobbyists have succeeded in altering how we speak about abortion; in turn pro-abortion lobbyists have altered their political speech. Both strategies have had negative consequences for women's right to terminate a pregnancy and have shaped the history of abortion through language. For example, I favor, unequivocally, the right of all women to choose whether or not they wish to bring a fetus to term. And yet the ideological space, and the language to speak in that space, has become severely limited since Roe v. Wade voided state restrictions on abortion in 1973.

In cruising websites yesterday to write my post, I became specifically interested in the various derivations of the words "choice," "abortion," and "life" as they described political stances and strategies. The abuse, or misuse, of the word "life" receives the most attention from the left, particularly in the wake of tragedies like the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, although many in the pro-life camp have hastened to condemn the taking of all lives. But many who oppose abortion are single issue folks, who are enthusiastic about capital punishment, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and so on. These people have been schooled to call themselves "pro-life": and yet, what they are is anti-abortion. Their politics do not encompass, as one of my faithful conservative readers, JackDanielsBlack noted in his dissent, an overall philosophy that supports all lives, unequivocally. "I think the real problem with many pro-lifers," Jack writes, "is that they fail to embrace the 'seamless garment' or 'consistent life' ethic expounded by the late Cardinal Bernardin -- if you're against abortion, you should also be against capital punishment, euthenasia, most (if not all) warfare, etc."

A similar criticism might be leveled at the pro-choice lobby, which has not successfully linked the right to abortion to other critical legal and social issues that have been affected by neo-liberal and family values legislation. Not since the Carter administration have pro-choice groups supported the absolute availability of reproductive choice, much less abortion, for all women and girls. Many women who get pregnant do not have access to good birth control, either because they are too young to receive it in states that require parental consent; because, thanks to abstinence education, they do not know how conception occurs and how to prevent it; or because they do not have access to health care of any kind. Feminist organizations have failed to link all of these issues in a way that makes the idea of "choice" meaningful for all women.

And girls, by the way, are women too. Girls are fully capable of deciding whether they do, or do not, wish to have a baby, regardless of what their parents or boyfriends think. A girl who is old enough to care for and nurture a baby is old enough to decide not to have one, and for a parent to force a child to have a baby against her will is child abuse. If those parents want another baby, they should have one.

In fact, the question of whether we actually mean access to abortion when we say "choice" is important. People like me are schooled by the powerful NARAL Pro-Choice America not to call ourselves "pro-abortion," but rather, to use the euphemism "pro-choice." In deference to those who find abortion abhorrent, we are asked to focus a lot of our energy on the equally euphemistic "alternatives" that will "limit unnecessary abortions." This means birth control, in case you don't know what I am talking about, and this particular euphemism does the additional work of asserting that "abortion" is different from "birth control" (i.e., we who are "pro-choice" don't support the use of abortion as birth control -- even though it actually is, in the end, a form of birth control, if not a convenient or painless one like the Pill.)

We who are "pro-choice" rarely say, as I did above, that we believe abortion is a right, and that a woman's bodily integrity should be inviolate. Rather, we support the right to a much more universal concept, "reproductive freedom." I can't help but think that these linguistic changes have had an effect on younger generations of men and women, who must find it harder and harder to think clearly about actual abortions and their impact on real lives from a feminist perspective. The language is simply no longer there and frankly, we almost never talk about abortion as a good thing at all: the expectation is that if you have one, you will regret it; regret is what allows you to recapture your morality, as Juno's grief about giving her baby up for adoption in the 2007 movie of the same name licenses her return to the last few years of her "innocent" childhood. Back in 2006, Ms. Magazine tried to replicate its historic pre-Roe petition, published in the inaugural issue, in which 53 prominent American women (including Billie Jean King) came out as having had an abortion and not regretting it. It didn't make much of a splash. What I suspect is that using the actual word "abortion" puts you out of the liberal mainstream nowadays, and being glad that you had an abortion is unspeakable.

Half the time NARAL's message may just pass over people's heads, since there is no pro-abortion equivalent for the iconic posters of second trimester fetuses that anti-abortion foes are so fond of. What kind of poster would effectively show a woman who has just received a second chance to own her body and live her life unencumbered by a baby? Or a teenager getting to be a kid instead of a mother at sixteen? Furthermore, if it is a war of words, the anti-abortion folks have won by laying claim to a set of qualities that many among them actually possess. Being "pro-life" as a generic concept is hard to quarrel with. Despite the factions in that group who support the death penalty and war "to save our freedoms," pro-life reads as loving, caring, nurturing, sensitive and community-oriented. Being pro-choice, however, is easy to ready as liberal in the worst, market-oriented sense of the word. Only privileged people really have choices, in the grand scheme of things, and to reserve your right to make choices by yourself, come hell or high water, is selfish, mean and individualistic. One way to fight back, in my book, would be to change the language of choice to better reflect the fact that the qualities ascribed to both groups are pretty evenly spread across society, regardless of one's position on abortion.

As Donald Critchlow's excellent book The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective points out, NARAL (formerly the National Abortion Rights League, now NARAL-Pro Choice America) has practiced a politics of retreat for the last quarter century. They have preferred to participate in shaping the limits on abortion rather than fighting for open access, on the theory that this might mollify those who wish to void Roe altogether. This means they have backed off on nearly every critical legislative issue related to abortion (parental consent, paternal notification, funding for women in the military, access of women on public assistance to abortion.) Not only have they failed to establish a stable status quo with those who oppose any and all abortions, they have managed to preserve a "right" that is, practically speaking, available to fewer and fewer women because of the tangle of legal obstacles and false science (such as the notion that preventing conception, or knocking out a bunch of cells that have divided a couple times with a morning after pill, is actually abortion) that have been put in the way.

Language points us in another important direction that supplements Critchlow's analysis: NARAL's website (which, by the way, for its web address, has dropped the NARAL in favor of ProChoice alone, perhaps a harbinger of a name change that will drop all references to abortion.) Look at the first page of the website, and you will see the word "abortion" exactly once, and that in a link to a headline news story. But the word choice appears nine times (in contrast, National Right to Life uses some version of the word "abortion" nineteen times on its opening page.) This tells us something about the politics of NARAL: what it is fighting for is in code and open to interpretation. It is something we are embarrassed to talk about, and the real meaning of our politics is only available to insiders. This linguistic strategy may reflect a desire to bring as many people as possible who support abortion in any way in under the same tent, but I'll tell you right now that it isn't working. Worse, this language makes accommodating to limiting women's bodily autonomy the only strategy. It obscures and deflects the fundamental feminist issue at stake: the point of abortion rights is a woman's right to own and govern her own body, and to make her own decision as to whether she will become a mother. This right ought not to be abrogated by family, age, economic condition, marital status or the state. Once you compromise that right, you have missed the point.

The picture above depicts Ann Lohman, a.k.a. Madame Restell, the famous Manhattan abortionist, being arrested by the authorities in 1878. The nineteenth century press used the word "Restellism" as a euphemism for abortion. Hat tip. Cross posted at Cliopatria.

Monday, June 08, 2009

If President Obama Supports the Culture of Death, Then I Do Too

Those of you who do not get the New York Times may have missed the feature story describing the confusion and uncertainty abortion protesters in Wichita, KS have been afflicted with since the murder of Dr. George Tiller shut down all the women's health clinics in the city.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, one of the most well-known anti-abortion organizations. Seven years ago, Mr. Newman moved his organization’s national headquarters, its leaders and his family from Southern California to Wichita to focus a national spotlight on Dr. Tiller, whom he described as “the flagship” of the country’s abortion business.

“I think it’s too early to say what comes next,” he said.

Although Operation Rescue worked for years to close down Dr. Tiller’s clinic, his death was never the outcome Mr. Newman wished for, he said. Of the man charged with killing Dr. Tiller, he tearfully said, “This idiot did more to damage the pro-life movement than you can imagine.”

Well, cry me a river.

Operation Rescue denounced the murder of Dr. Tiller. Scott Roeder, who was unaffiliated with any organization working to end abortion, has been charged with the crime. But Operation Rescue is an organization that walks the line of illegality in its behavior all the time, and then is "shocked -- shocked, I tell you!" when some lonely, angry person takes them seriously and kills a doctor because his head has been filled with blood-soaked fantasies about the murder of darling little blonde and pink babies. In Operation Rescue-Land, they protest that propaganda issued on their website (like this and this) has nothing to do with the murder of George Tiller and other acts of extreme violence against women's health clinics and abortion providers. And yet, making unsubstantiated charges that Tiller himself was operating outside the law and that he was killing women with botched procedures misrepresented Tiller as a vigilante himself, when in fact he was operating within the law and within the best practices of medical care.

Fact number one: women want to choose whether to bear children or not, and it is within their legal right to do so. If it ceases to be legal to obtain abortions, they will still do it. Fact number two: fetuses are not babies. They are imagined babies. They are babies in waiting. But they are not babies.

The so-called pro-life movement houses a great many lunatics, if you ask me, and that all these lunatics aren't killers is probably something we should be thankful for. Another banner posted to the Operation Rescue website labeled "Obama wants you to click here" takes you to this portion of the site, where you learn that President Obama wants you "to sanction the killing of infants born alive" and "to embrace a culture of death." Click on the first link, and you might make your way eventually to Senate Bill 1095, the Born Alive Protection Act, which Obama voted against (in Operation Rescue-Land, he voted in favor of infanticide.) The bill, which passed in July 2002, is ntended to undermine Roe by creating a chilling effect. It means you could go in for a perfectly legal abortion and come out with a million dollars or so of medical bills after the hospital fulfilled its obligation to put your living but unviable fetus on life support.

Click on the latter link, and there is a large quote from an Obama speech where he asserts his support for reproductive freedom -- otherwise known as a culture of death. Got it?

But to get back to Troy Newman's fear that the murder of George Tiller will harm his group: it's hard to imagine how Scott Roeder could hurt Operation Rescue more than they have hurt themselves already. But I sure hope so. Who printed up those signs informing us that "God Sent The Shooter?" Operation Rescue certainly hasn't taken any responsibility for getting them off the streets, lest the misimpression be left that they and other so-called Christian anti-abortion groups are full of hate and bile. But perhaps Newman's real fear is that the foot soldiers of the movement, who devote themselves full time to picketing clinics where abortions are provided, will emerge from their fugue state. Perhaps they will realize that what they are involved in is violent and not Christian at all, and they will go home to make real lives devoted to actual people, rather than the innocent imaginary babies that populate their Manichean fantasies.

If the Tiller family has any strength left after this ordeal, and they want to do something to honor George, my suggestion is this: a huge, whacking civil suit against Operation Rescue much like the one Southern Poverty Law center founder Morris Dees won last November against the Imperial Klans of America. Not only do such lawsuits establish necessary links between the atmosphere created by hate groups and the violent actions of lone individuals, if they succeed, they impoverish the organization and starve it to death.

Now that's a culture of death I can get behind.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The 400 Posts: Tenured Radical Speaks; or, What the Historian Learned When Ze Went to the Blogosphere

And what do I ever do but frikkin' speak, you might ask? Well, in honor of the 400th post on Tenured Radical I thought I would post a talk I gave as part of a panel on blogging the fall meeting of the Little Berks, October 5, 2008. I had the honor to have two distinguished co-panelists, Clio Bluestocking and Heather Prescott of Knitting Clio.

Almost two years ago, I started writing a blog called Tenured Radical. This means that today I am fast approaching what is known among my kind as my second blogiversary. In that first post, on October 17, 2006, I assumed that every academic would understand the title of the blog as an ironic gesture. Nonetheless, I explained to an as yet unknown audience that “long ago, when the new right decided to undermine the intellectual foundations of the nation, one of the big charges made by radical neocons was that universities were full of ‘tenured radicals’ who were indoctrinating the youth of America. The not so big secret, of course, is that universities and their faculties are far from radical, and that tenure is one of the features of university life that makes academics cautious at best, conservative at least. We need to change that….if you keep reading this blog,” I promised, “you will get some insight into the mysteries of the system, and what kind of people folks turn into if they don't keep ironic distance.”

“That's why I'm blogging,” I concluded. “Ironic distance…. Because frankly, boys and girls, being an academic isn't as much fun as it used to be, and I think we need to do something to change that.”

Going back to read some of those early posts, I am amazed that a forum was created in my lifetime that allowed a person to announce an agenda and begin to self-publish for free; mildly embarrassed at some of the things I put up in those first months (and at the reasons I put them up, although some of the same things are wicked funny), and more than a little proud of what I have accomplished as a writer and a public intellectual over the last twenty-four months. I have learned a great many things that I never would have learned had I not started blogging, including how to sit down and knock out a piece like this in a few hours, do a couple quick revisions, and feel pretty good about putting it out there for a lot of people I respect to critique.
I also think a great deal more than I used to about how technology alters public culture and provokes democratic change, as well as about what it means to create accessible literary arenas where people can disagree about important ideas. I read about technology, video games and robots. I think about what it means to compile an electronic archive that one can re-write almost indefinitely (in fact, Nancy Cott, Director if the Schlesinger, is currently working on a project to archive feminist blogs permanently, which will cause a blog like mine to ultimately be “fixed” in a way it never will be while it is up on Blogspot.) I think about anonymity, since most bloggers and many people who comment on blogs, are anonymous. I myself began blogging anonymously, and then stopped, something I will say something more about later if you are interested – and while I have a strong position about the dangers of anonymity, it also has an important place in academic life in allowing senior people to hear things from students and from the untenured that they would not otherwise be told.

My life as a blogger was launched about two months after having switched to an Apple MacBook Pro, a machine that I am having a prolonged and happy relationship with. So in love was I with my Mac that blogging led easily to a whole set of other skills that have caused me to fantasize about asking for a transfer to Zenith’s IT Department should I, by some grisly and vicious twist of fate, be elected chair of anything in the next three years. I have learned Photoshop. I have learned to steal code off other people’s websites. I have learned to write HTML script so that I could link to sources in what is now – because of blogging mainly – called the MSM, or Mainstream Media; and I learned how to re-program my computer to account for the various glitches and bugs that appear in Blogspot. I know how to fight an infestation of spam bots. I learned how to configure an RSS feed so that all the information I need to start a fresh day of blogging appears as if by magic. I learned a whole new language (for example, that there are things that are part-human, part-fantasy personae called “trolls” and “sock-puppets,” who are somewhat like banshees, and can cause a lot of trouble until you get them under control.)

I can trace your IP number.

I learned that there is a whole cadre of right-wingers and libertarians out there, many of who do not have their own blogs but who shift the same conversation that they are having with each other from comments section to comments section. These people believe that the blogosphere is a radical free speech zone governed by a complex set of principles about democracy, truth, and what one pest that inhabits my blog recently called “truthiness.” (A self-proclaimed foe of mine, who calls himself Right Wing Professor, and is drawn to me for obvious reasons, recently went on a prolonged rant in my comments section about Obama fundraiser and former Weatherman – now tenured UIC education professor – Bill Ayers – having “confessed to multiple murders” in his memoir, Fugitive Days. That this is not true, but a moral extension of the truth – in other words, something that could happen when you set off bombs in public places -- should give you a sense of what “truthiness” is.)

Not by accident, my persona as the Tenured Radical (who also calls herself TR) was launched during a period in my life characterized by professional crisis and self-doubt, a time that I happily no longer feel any need to dwell on. But my flippant call in my inaugural post for “ironic distance” and “fun” was as close as I could get at the time to saying what I really felt, which was that if I couldn’t resolve my anger and frustration at how my writing had been purposely trashed as part of a departmental political struggle, I would need to do something else for a living that did not require publishing or writing, and fast. I can hint at the extent of this existential crisis by adding that, in addition to exploring the blogosphere, I was also having lively conversations with the dean of admissions at the Yale Law School, and snuck off one Saturday morning to take the LSAT.
Now, some of you are going to say “Aha! Just what I thought! Blogs are not writing, or scholarship. They are therapy!” Well, no. I was in therapy, and lots of it. What I needed to do was to learn to write all over again with confidence, grace, authority and wit. I needed, in short, to learn to have fun again. And that was one of the most important things this historian learned when she went to the blogosphere.

Blogging is, first and foremost about writing, and writing in a way that foregrounds play as well as intellect. This makes blogging fundamentally different from how we were all brought up to write in history school, which is that writing is first and foremost “our work.” Think about it: one of the earliest conventions we learn as graduate students is to greet a person we don’t know, not by asking “what are you writing?” but, “What are you working on?” In a book I would recommend to all of you, which I read shortly after I began blogging, Ann LaMotte’s Bird By Bird, Lamott (who is not a blogger, but sort of writes like one) goes on at often hilarious length about the difficulties of taking on a writing life as one’s work. They are all difficulties that are very familiar to historians and, I would wager, often accentuated by the general condition of being women working in institutions that are sexist to a greater or lesser degree (something by the way that we don’t talk about much any more except by sharing anecdotes.)

Among the difficulties addressed in the book are being simply unable to write because of an incident, or incidents, of writing trauma in the past (check!); ordinary forms of attention deficit disorder that cause you to interrupt writing to feed the dog, do the laundry, watch TV (check!); rejection (check!); the problem of getting useful, accurate, and swift feedback so that you can tell whether what you have written is good or bad (check!); wanting to have fun instead (check!); and difficulty in keeping a continuous focus on one’s work, a focus that cannot be achieved if one does not write every day (check! And check!)
Now, part of why this book appeals to me is that Lamott talks about very difficult things in a funny, and not a tragic, way (like having someone tell you for malicious reasons that what you have written is a horrible book when in fact you are fairly sure it is a good book that needs another set of revisions.) That was very helpful to me because it wasn’t just that I had been traumatized by such an incident, it is that there is virtually no academic script that doesn’t relate obstacles in one’s writing career as having a tragic and permanently damaging outcome. Such outcomes might include the indefinite delay of a well-deserved promotion, as in my case; but there are also worse outcomes: people lose jobs, or –worse, if you really imagine yourself as a writer – you never write again, even if you do keep your job. And what Lamott argues is that there is no way to solve this problem but to write.

Write every day.

Blogging helped me do that. As I did I began to write little essays about the condition of our lives and the work we do, and people responded to them: essays about teaching, about the dilemmas of the twenty-first century university, about what it meant to be a good senior colleague, and most of all – some of my most popular posts – the evils of the tenure system and a job market clogged with good people who can’t find work. One result of these essays was I got something from blogging that I never anticipated: new colleagues! For surely, part of the trauma of my temporarily derailed professional life was discovering that there were a small number of people I worked with who were really willing to take the time to really damage my reputation as a writer and scholar if they could – not just take the time, but commit to that project. Then there were the bulk of my colleagues at Wesleyan, who really came through for me, but over a period of years, paradoxically became yet another reminder that I lived in a world that was perhaps permanently divided between friends and enemies.
The blogosphere is divided up between friends and enemies too, of course, although unlike me, because my essays about politics and culture have drawn a broader audience (including a group of military wives, an oil man in Dubai, some sock puppets who live in Brooklyn and a manic woman who writes practically in poetry and calls herself The Diva.)

Many academic bloggers simply have a devoted cadre of like-minded followers who advise and encourage them. This can be particularly helpful to many who are assistant professors, adjuncts or graduate students when they must cope with bad news. For example, one young historian, New Kid on the Hallway, did not have her contract renewed at third year review (having already left another job for her own reasons.) She shared this news with the rest of us in a short, dignified post one day. Similarly, I have come to know well and take regular counsel from a younger group of bloggers which includes: an English Lit prof named Flavia (who was the first blogger to link me), a historian named GayProf, who refers to his cheating ex-boyfriend as "My Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies)," Oso Raro (who blogs at Slaves of Academe and is a truly gorgeous writer), the fiercely feminist Historiann (known to Early Americanists as Ann Little), Moria who I knew when she was a Mouse, and so many more. Not only did New Kid receive an outpouring of sympathy – the kind of thing I can say, by experience, that you are not likely to get from your actual colleagues (both because it is awkward and because you are hiding in your office weeping), but as she worked out her final year, moved to a visiting job and then went on to law school, was able to draw on a substantial network of junior and senior people about how to navigate her professional transitions.

Another category of academic blogger for whom virtual reality is almost universally positive is the network of Mom-bloggers in academia, who have certainly opened my eyes to how problematic it still is to be a mother, or someone who intends to be a mother, and also have a professional academic career. Notice I did not say parent: it is quite clear from reading these blogs that the husbands and partners of female academics are not subject to the intrusive questions, unwanted advice, and sheer prejudice that women who are wish to be, or are, simultaneously on a tenure track and planning a family.
Which brings me to the question of anonymity, something that we could explore further in the discussion. Anonymity allows people, many of who are untenured, to write about volatile and contentious issues, or who, for professional reasons, want a clear boundary between their academic writing and their blogging.

As I said earlier, I began anonymously and “came out” about six months into my career as the Tenured Radical. I came out for a variety of reasons, but principally because I had been unmasked at my own institution (and had been for at least three months before I discovered it), and because I came to believe at that point that remaining anonymous made my ethical position as an observer of academic life quite dicey.

Coming out gave me an advantage in other ways as well. Since I have gone public, I have been invited to join interesting group blogs, write articles for print and internet publications for actually quite good money, be on panels about blogging, do a cluster on feminist blogging for an academic journal, and I have interesting people. I have been linked to and written for a variety of prestigious publications on the right and on the left such as National Review Online, the Village Voice, American Historical Association Perspectives online, History News Network, the American Federation of Teachers web log, Inside Higher Education, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. In other words, I am read. So in addition to making me think harder, write more and – I think – write better, I have, in conventional and unconventional ways, acquired what every academic and every writer wants: an audience.

What blogging also allowed me to do was think seriously and productively about what brought me to this profession in the first place, and work specifically to make that thing happen in a new way. For me, what I have referred to elsewhere as “my second career at the same institution” has also caused me to think seriously about how I got to this point and what I want out of writing. Because of blogging, I write every day, something that makes it possible to be a writer all the time, not just on weekends or on sabbatical, as I often did when writing was the “work” that came last because it required so much more focus than everything else. And this has reshaped my writing habits substantially. Time spent doing other things (teaching, say, or chairing) is time when I am taking a break from writing, not the other way around. Even if large projects are completed slowly, to write every day is to keep continuity in my creative habits that nurtures a sense of connection to my writing as primary work – not work that gets done when my work for everyone else is finished.

As a blogger, I also get to be a historian who engages regularly with contemporary history, which is a messy and exhilarating business. Those of you who follow Tenured Radical know that in addition to writing about the past, I get to be a cultural critic, essayist, unrepentant goad to right-wingers and faux Dear Abby for young historians. That said, this kind of cultural work on the internet is considered highly suspect by many scholars I know, in part because there are virtually no rules that govern blogging, and the university world is obsessed with rules and the respectability that comes with following the rules. Blogging is also an activity associated most strongly with the young, which makes a middle aged scholar-blogger even more suspect as a serious intellectual. I have had conversations with some of my colleagues in which you would have thought they were talking to someone who had taken up competitive skateboarding at the age of fifty.

It is the best kind of middle-aged crisis, I think. While blogging has involved me in some unpleasant interactions in the university world, it has also included me in a diverse intellectual circle of people, most of them younger than I, and many of who are graduate students or working adjunct. In other words, my new colleagues are people I really wouldn’t know otherwise, and I have to tell you, I learn a lot from them. This, in turn, has allowed me to re-engage with my old colleagues in a freer, and sometimes pleasantly detached, way, and with a sharpened sense of consciousness about what higher education ought to be doing.

Blogging also allows me to write short pieces, work on form, voice, and getting complex ideas across to an audience that I need to entice in order to keep them reading. I sometimes compare it to a pianist playing scales: to the extent that blogging is not, perhaps, the most serious scholarly form, to take it seriously is to become a better writer. But best of all, I am read every day and my readers write back. They tell me what they think, and sometimes they tell me that my writing made a difference to them. Sometimes they get angry with me, and because of that I have become a keener listener and also grown a tougher hide. I have come to terms with something that is often difficult to face in the scholarly world, particularly given our systems of high-stakes evaluation: that sometimes there are people who really hate what you think is your best work. This, I will say in conclusion, has made me a braver writer.

And it has made me a historian who is once again having fun.