Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: (Don't) Ask, (Don't) Tell Memorial Day Edition

Congressional Dems Reach Down And Locate Their 'Nads: Will long-standing legal discrimination against gay and lesbian service people be struck down this summer? We at Tenured Radical certainly hope so. Although we are more than ambivalent about armed conflict, we are not in the least ambivalent about the right to serve in the military without discrimination because of race, gender or sexual orientation. As Janet Halley argued years ago in Don't: A Reader's Guide To The Military's Anti-Gay Policy (Duke, 1999), this has not been an overwhelmingly popular item for queer activism. The fight for marriage -- by which overwhelmingly white, well-to-do queers confer rights and wealth on each other just like straight people -- has been far more popular than the right to military service, which is often the path to citizenship, education and income for people who are working-class, immigrant and of color. And of course, many of these people who want to work hard and earn a decent living via the military are queer.

The marriage campaign has also been able to capitalize on lots of cute kids saying on camera how bad they feel because their moms can't marry like other kids' parents, possibly the yuckiest but most effective tactic among the bourgeois queers who have made this a top priority and kicked other more substantial economic and political issues aside. Indeed, queers in the military pose quite the problem for activists, because dollars to doughnuts, gay and lesbian soldiers are conservative queers. Maybe, if gay and lesbian activists talked to military people, the movement would even have to stop acting as though Andrew Sullivan is the only conservative queer around.

There are many things that have distressed me about DADT, aside from the fact that every generation of my family has served honorably (two cousins of the Radical as recently as Gulf I), acquiring careers and benefits as a result of their service that they would not otherwise have had access to. Ergo, I object in a very personal way to seeing this form of national service and citizenship barred to people who find it meaningful and useful. But what has distressed me most is that, as the argument has dissipated that queers are unsuited by "nature" for national security roles of all kinds, the argument against queer military service has boiled down to the most despicable dynamic that discrimination relies on: that it is the object of discrimination who causes the problem, not those who discriminate or tolerate discrimination. Thus, the gay man or lesbian becomes the thing to be eliminated if good order is to be maintained, not the intolerance and prejudice of those around hir. This is the implication of
this story (in case you needed clarity on this issue) in which queer soldiers raise concerns about whether they will be harmed by other soldiers if DADT is repealed. One noncom explains that it would be fine with him if men and women under his command were queer, as long as he didn't know about and -- what? Get grossed out?

This is why numerous GLBT students are being told by public school districts to stay home and complete their high school diplomas via distance learning: because if a queer kid is being bullied and tortured in school, the best thing to do is remove the kid, right? No matter that it is the school principal's job to ensure that no child is bullied or harmed -- just as it is the officer and NCO's job to ensure good order in any given unit.

Any officer or NCO who cannot lead when DADT is repealed should be relieved of command. It's that simple. S/he should be relieved of command because s/he cannot obey orders, and because s/he cannot lead others to obey orders effectively either. And you know what? I think this Radical may have greater faith in the officer and non-commissioned officer corps than the politicians do. Ours is the best trained military in the world, and our military personnel will do their job.

The United States military will have to undo generations of official homophobia to make this work, and they have no one to blame but themselves. I believe they can; I believe that the officer corps understands that it is their job to lead; and that they will make it happen. While there is no lack of racial discrimination in the military, there may well be less than there is in the society at large, since the principles of unit cohesion mandate resisting social forces and beliefs that undermine it (not the reverse, as conservative ideologues would have it.) But as the story I linked above points out, it is the ways in which the repeal of DADT opens the door to full citizenship and zero-tolerance for all kinds of discrimination against queers that has been the endgame all along. Much more than marriage, military recognition of gay rights will unravel structural discrimination against queers because military employment and production dominates our society -- particularly in those places, such as the south and California, where anti-gay initiatives have been used so cynically by the Republicans.

Just In Time To Repeal DADT: And by the way? If Zenith students aren't doin' it for themselves, their relatives are. Recent grad Peter Lubershane tells me that his cousin Josh Howard has made a documentary film from David K. Johnson's The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government called -- The Lavender Scare. And happy 85th birthday to gay activist Frank Kameny (pictured above, courtesy of Howard's website) -- you are as sexy as ever, and you outlived J. Edgar Hoover!

Summer History Blogging Fun:
Here's a terrific new history blog written by a former Zenith honors student named Molly Rosner. It's called Brooklyn In Love and War. As Rosner describes it, the blog is "about the nation’s history filtered through the well-documented relationship between my grandparents. I never knew Sylvia, but she and my grandfather, Alex, wrote hundreds of letters during the years that Alex was stationed abroad during WWII. Most posts will look at a letter that helps the story of these two people – who are both typical and unique – unfold." After leaving Zenith, Rosner went on to do a master's degree in the oral history program at Columbia University. She's a wonderful and imaginative writer, and you might want to put it on your favorites list. If you are a literary agent, you might want to get in touch with her: the blog would be a terrific platform for a book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Positively 30th Street Early For The Train Cheesesteak Blogging

There has been radio silence for the past several days because, although she has many virtues and resources, the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) -- with whom I have been visiting -- does not have WiFi. Fortunately, however, Amtrak now provides a WiFi connection in its Philadelphia station, and I have arrived here early enough for my Shoreline train to have a cheese steak sandwich for lunch. Hence, I am inspired, and wish to debunk the following three myths about what is known elsewhere as "the Philadelphia Cheesesteak Sandwich," or "Philly Cheesesteak."

First of all, there is no such thing as "the Philadelphia Cheesesteak Sandwich." It is called a cheesesteak, and the only place you can actually get an authentic one is in Philadelphia or its immediate environs. If you are anywhere else in the country -- with the exception, perhaps, of the portions of New Jersey that are in proximity to Philadelphia, and towns no further south than Wilmington, DE, what you are being offered is a simulacrum of a cheesesteak. But no one who actually lives, or has lived, in Philadelphia would call it a "Philly cheesesteak." The modifier is utterly and completely redundant: when you see it in use, you know you are dealing with a poseur of a restaurant (or more likely, a restaurant chain.)

Second, there are people -- most of whom have not been raised in and around Philadelphia -- who think that cheesesteaks are nutritionally unsound. This is crazy talk. The basic ingredients of the cheese steak are: American cheese; a portions of cow so tough and unwanted that they must be shaved razor-thin, frozen, fried and chopped up in order to be chewed at all; a white Italian roll with thick crust; salt; and grease. Lots of grease. I ask you -- under whose rules are these things not good for you? Particularly when you add fried onions and peppers, you have at least three parts of the food pyramid covered. In other words, you are practically done for the day in terms of nutrition, and should feel free to eat ice cream for all other meals.

Third, I have heard non-Philadelphians say that after a cheesesteak, you will be so full of calories you won't have to eat for hours. This is absolutely not true. You will need to eat again immediately. You will need a Tastykake for dessert.

This concludes today's advice from the City of Brotherly Love. Stay tuned for an item later in June on the nutritional value of Scrapple.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

If You Don't Teach Well, At Least No One Dies

We at Tenured Radical are sorry to hear that Zenith alum and historian of Africa Tim Burke, over at Easily Distracted, was temporarily sidelined by a bout of diverticulitis. For the non-cognoscenti, this is a manageable, chronic condition that tends to introduce itself with excruciating pain. From here on out, it's Fiber City, Tim. Get well soon, you hear?

As anyone in our tribe might have done, Tim used this small emergency and its resolution as an opportunity to blog. In a meditation on the state of two large, amorphous industries, higher education and health care, he writes:

Academia’s issues I see from the professional’s side, medicine’s problems from the perspective of the clientele. The first perspective tends to put me in the position of an apologist, the second as accuser. Maybe between the two some kind of insight is possible, though when I add it all up, I’m left with the sense that many modern professions are simultaneously indispensable, a high water mark of social progress and hopelessly screwed up in ways that can’t really be fixed by outsiders or insiders.

In the absence of any systematic fix, as Tim notes, we are all left to meander our way through the maze of what the insurance industry and the government call our "health care options," feeling lucky if we make a good connection with a physician and get decent care, or fighting grimly to hang on when we can't seem to make sense of why we are being treated with what appears to be diffidence. Like patients in our polyglot health care system, students at university are told in many ways that they get the education they deserve: if said student goes to a large, anonymous diploma factory, s/he must not have exhibited the virtues or intelligence necessary at precisely the right moment to have been admitted to a prestigious SLAC, Ivy or flagship public U. If s/he goes to a prestigious school, and can't seem to navigate it, pick the right courses or succeed in class, s/he is told that s/he is under prepared, irresponsible, immature, lazy and failing to take advantage of the cornucopia of opportunities just beyond hir grasp.

Think about it: as teachers, do we sometimes mistake the romance of what we do for its reality, and judge students accordingly when they don't perform? How many of us watch Gray's Anatomy because the idea of being able to get our health care at "Seattle Grace" hospital (despite the occasional psychotic shooter as in last night's season finale) is so seductive? Everything at Seattle Grace is handled by a skilled, empathetic and highly trained surgeon. People are reproached for their failings, and grow as a result of it; residents who make mistakes apologize for them. Patients get the outcomes they need, not the ones that happen to be available at the moment. (And by the way? I know this is totally irrelevant, but Cristina Yang is my idol: last night I was sucking back the tears as she found the courage to take charge of McDreamy's surgery.)

What Tim Burke points out in his post is that becoming a client can provide useful perspective on how we, as professionals, treat others to whom we are responsible. I found this extremely provocative. Long-time readers may remember that last fall I fired my primary care physician in a rage because the practice wouldn't refill my asthma meds when I was in the middle of an attack. But the larger issue was that actually making an appointment with any doctor in that practice -- much less my own -- had become a gargantuan, alienating chore. My doctor didn't think I needed an annual check-up; she preferred to phone in prescriptions without seeing me; and in the incident that resulted in the firing, refused to prescribe because I had not had an office visit in over two years and left a time for me to visit the office for my asthma on my office answering machine. I didn't get the message, of course, being sick and at home, and when I called to check about the appointment I had already missed it, and there wasn't another one for five hours. Meanwhile, I was sucking wind big time. They suggested I go to the emergency room. Practiced wheezers know that asthmatics are the last people treated in an urban ER (although at my age, murmuring "chest pains" can get me ahead of the bluish seven year-old from public housing.) Instead, I fired their asses and called my gynecologist. She fixed me up with the prescriptions I needed to help me breathe and the name of a new PCP.

Who, by the way, I love. She is funny and nice. She is younger than me (this is key, by the way, when you are in your fifties.) She does medical histories herself. She delivers all instructions in writing. She explains things. She says, "Call when you need us and we'll get you in." She watches all the same TV shows I do. If she were a cardio-thoracic surgeon, she would be Cristina Yang.

There's a lot in the story about the tortuous path by which I have found my dream doctor that hints at common frustrations about the medical system as it exists, even for those of us who have what passes for really good insurance. Doctors who are too busy and discourage their patients from coming in; staff sending patients for an expensive, time-consuming ER visit rather than taking a little extra time and care to talk to them directly and/or see them regularly; blaming the patient for not having overcome the barriers put in the way of care; the failure to make relationships that convey an ethic of care to the patient; and "managing" patients rather than establishing a set of cooperative practices between patient and physician that enhance wellness.

But Tim is right: the parallels to similar failures of professionalism in the academy are intriguing. My guess is that many undergraduates experience college with the same sense of powerlessness and frustration that I experienced in the failed relationship with my first PCP. How many of you have colleagues who have no scheduled office hours? Who are abrupt and peremptory with students in a way that discourages them from seeking help, or even making contact? Who then blame students for not having come to office hours? Who are often unavailable even if they have posted office hours? Who give assignments without saying what they are for or what the student is supposed to learn from them? Who give grades without any comment or instruction about what is right or wrong with the paper? Who deal with students who are not learning -- not by teaching them -- but by sending them to the writing workshop, the learning center or for tutoring by another undergraduate?

And the question is: how might one act on what might be conceived as a professional obligation to point these systemic flaws out and offer some comprehensive solution to them? I agree with Burke: it's hard to imagine. But perhaps not impossible. What I do know is that the testing structure, and demands by people who are not educators for what is now called "accountability" do not add up to the kind of close work and critical thought that would be necessary to re-invigorate the teacher-student relationship. The result is that some of us do what we are paid to do in generous and caring ways and others do not, and with the exception of the occasional teaching prize here and there, teaching is a set of professional obligations that one either takes personal responsibility for -- or not.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another One Bites The Dust: On The Richard Blumenthal News And The Politics Of Mendacity

What is it with lawyers this week? It wasn't bad enough for your favorite Radical to be read out of the community of queer scholars yesterday for reductive identity politics by a hotshot New York law professor who does not hide her sexual orientation (which could be described as....?) There is worse news, at least for the people of Shoreline.

This morning, I scooped up the paper of record from my front porch to discover that Richard Blumenthal has lied by omission and commission about his military service during the Vietnam war. Is this a crime? No. But whether by commission, omission, or inference, coyness around stigmatizing issues -- such as evading military service to promote one's career -- is, as Tennessee Williams' Big Daddy would say, "mendacity!"

As we historians are aware, it is also sleazy. As in the even more puzzling case of Pulitzer Prize-winning Joseph Ellis, I don't think anyone has ever asked Richard Blumenthal if he served in Vietnam: he just offered it up.

Blumenthal has responded to the New York Times "that he had misspoken about his service during the Norwalk event and might have misspoken on other occasions. 'My intention has always been to be completely clear and accurate and straightforward, out of respect to the veterans who served in Vietnam,'" he said.

The yuck factor on this is pretty high, and the political costs may be too. While this event is dissimilar to the Spitzer call girl scandal (in that lying is only a crime under certain circumstances), it demonstrates a similar contempt for voters that will be hard to put aside on election day. Other than the fact that there seems to be a whole generation of ambitious white men who are now embarrassed by the strings they pulled to evade Vietnam (which is why I took particular delight in Dick Cheney's unbuttoned and nasty honesty when he snapped that he had "better things to do" than fight in Vietnam), it is stunningly arrogant that Blumenthal thought he could leave the misimpression that he was a combat veteran and not get caught eventually.

For those of you who don't keep up with Connecticut politics (and why should you? The intricacies of political corruption in the Nutmeg State are so difficult to follow that it is hard to remember which mayor was indicted for what), Blumenthal should have been a shoe-in for Christopher Dodd's open Senate seat. But this is a real blow to an already troubled campaign, because here we have another driven and competitive man who -- by lying about something essentially unimportant -- now appears to have contempt for all of us. The outcome of this may be that a state that perpetually returns a veto-proof Democratic majority to its own legislature, and where even many of hte Republicans are still liberal, may soon be represented in Washington by two conservatives: Joe Lieberman and Linda McMahon, the founder and CEO of the fantastically successful pseudo-sports league, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc..

It is a puzzle what is wrong with Blumenthal. He has been a good attorney general for twenty years, and was believed to be unbeatable. But his campaign has been uninspired and clumsy: this is just the latest and most boneheaded manifestation of a candidate who doesn't seem to know what he is doing. And while The Daily Caller is claiming that this information about Blumenthal's false claims to comba service was fed to the Times by a McMahon campaign that is functioning like a well-oiled wrestler, my question is: why shouldn't the McMahon people have revealed this? Why turn the stigma back on them?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Who -- And How Many --Paid For Your Sabbatical This Year?

So what percentage of your faculty is adjunct or contingent labor?

In the first fall faculty meeting at Zenith every year, we vote faculty privileges to a long list of people. It includes athletic staff, librarians, and a long list of adjunct or contingent labor. Some come as post-docs and visiting full-time assistants (relatively well-paid contingent labor with benefits); long-term adjuncts with benefits (mostly in the languages, although there was one women who taught in an interdisciplinary program for well over ten years as an adjunct); and then a string of people brought in to teach a course or two. Lately this budget has gotten hammered as part of Zenith's attempt to restructure its budget to meet the financial crisis. I didn't see the list because I was on sabbatical, but it was probably cut to about two thirds of its usual size.

But still: it's usually about four pages long and, as I argue below, this is why I get to go on sabbatical. And that's just Zenith, a liberal arts college with just over 3000 undergrads. The truth is, our normal budget -- which covers a generous sabbatical/leave policy that has been fought for over time by faculty and administrators -- relies on the availability of cheap contingent labor. I often wonder, when I boot up our web page and see that Zenith boasts of a 9:1 student faculty ratio: Does that ratio include all that contingent labor? It must. Because even taking radically different course and advising loads across the university into consideration, I have two-three times more advisees and enroll between 60 and 80 students per semester in a normal teaching year.

Ain't no 9:1 in Radical country. Stupidly, I've always wondered about this.

So this morning, I received an email from one of the top correspondents for the Radical News Service, California Cathy, directing me to Confessions of a Tenured Professor by Peter D.G. Brown of SUNY-New Paltz, the tenured radical who founded The New Faculty Majority.

The article, which just appeared in Inside Higher Ed is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a clip or two:

I am also asked by tenured faculty why on earth I would be spending so much time and effort advocating for a group of "others" whose fate I have never shared. I suppose this is a perfectly legitimate question, but I do find it a bit odd. Why wouldn’t I insist that these precarious colleagues be allowed equitable compensation, job security, fringe benefits and academic freedom? And why shouldn’t I want them to have equitable access to unemployment compensation, professional development and advancement?

With a light touch that few of us are capable of, Brown argues that this this is a

scandal [that] is neither little nor secret: the vast majority of those well-educated, skilled professionals who daily teach millions of students in our classrooms are actually being paid far less than the workers who nightly clean them. Ad-cons are treated as chattel or as servants who can be dismissed at the will and whim of any administrator from departmental chair to dean or provost. And woe to those ad-cons who elicit the wrath of their campus presidents! They can be non-renewed without any due process whatsoever, simply zapped, either individually or by the hundreds. We all know this, but most tenured faculty colleagues choose to simply look the other way. C’est la vie. Tough luck. Life just isn’t fair. Keep on walking and change the subject....

It is time that more tenured faculty woke up to the fact that their entire professional existence, replete with their comfortable incomes, their fascinating research, their coveted sabbaticals, their agreeable teaching loads of less labor-intensive and more satisfying courses — all this is made possible by the indispensable efforts of a million ad-cons doing so much more for so much less.

This isn't news to the hundreds of people out there who comment on this blog during job season, with varying levels of rage. And it isn't news to me, but Brown's articulation of this problem as one that deserves a collective response has caused me to reconsider the question of whether advising young people not to go to graduate school isn't a feeble response to the state of the academy today. There are many, many things wrong with the way we do business as scholars. But thinking about it carefully, while I resent being asked to take personal responsibility for what is a structural problem (and occasionally display that resentment, to the dismay of some of my readers), the un- and under employed, and their close relatives the under-compensated and uninsured, are right to be angry at all of us who occupy tenured and tenure-track positions.

Brown is right: like the bourgeoisie everywhere, our perks, comforts and prestige rely on the exploitation of a vast reserve army of labor. Joining that reserve army is the threat held over every tenure-track person, the persuasion that molds them into conformity with the system in the very years that their ideas should be devoted to changing it. And if there were a commitment over a period of years by higher education to hire people full time, the job market would suck up unemployed Ph.D.'s like a sponge.

Here's the takeaway (other than the fact that every sabbatical I -- or you-- have ever had was essentially paid for by someone else's cheaply purchased labor. It's not that there are no jobs. There are plenty of jobs that pay virtually nothing, and higher education has balanced its budget on ill-paid labor, paid for course by course, grad student by grad student, for decades.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Timeless Questions Edition

Why Aren't There More Women In The STEM Fields? That's Science, Technology and Math, for you girlfriends and girly-men cowering in the liberal arts and life sciences. Go to Historiann to read about hazing rituals at dissertation defenses in the sciences, and everything else the AAUW was afraid to tell you. The full story is at Thus Spake Zuska, a science blog where Zuska tells the story of her own defense. Not only are grad students at many places expected to make elaborate meals for the committee, but they are then supposed to sit there and be ritually insulted --all in good fun, of course.

"The problem with research science is that it operates like little fiefdoms," Zuska writes. "Everybody in their own little kingdom, no oversight over the whole enterprise. Everybody making up their own rules about acceptable behavior and what kinds of douchebaggery will be tolerated in this lab versus that one, this defense versus that one. No one goes around observing what is taking place in each little steaming hellhole. The patriarchy of university labs is structurally much more like families, or church congregations, than like corporations. Abusive practices can be hidden in plain sight, despite clear stated norms against beating the children and having sex with them."

Kudos for moving from a train-wreck of a story to a smart institutional analysis of sexism in action, Zuska. I would add one thing: it's not just science that has little fiefdoms. What is wrong with a lot of departments that have become more or less dysfunctional could be traced to a similar lack of institutional oversight. And the lack of supervision -- even though the university administration will freely acknowledge in private that they know about (and, of course, abhor) the systemic discrimination and abuse that is occurring -- means that the strongest personalities in the department get free rein to run things as they choose. Forever. The result is a kind of Lord of the Flies atmosphere, in which these bullies hand out favors to those who are willing to accede to the dysfunction rather than have their work and careers impeded by kicking at the bricks. The dysfunction thus becomes ingrained across generations, even as administrators reassure you that those perpetuating it are dinosaurs on their way to retirement. No one can ever tell you when those retirements will occur, of course. That they will ever retire, barring a sustained inability to function at all, assumes that staying home and bullying their spouses will be equally satisfying and remunerative.

The best part is this: if you belong to such a department, are drained by watching various indignities and injustices occur, and spend a lot of time figuring out how to defend yourself from the hideous internal dynamics that are sustained by these people, you then get to walk around the university listening to other members of the faculty tell you what horrible people your departmental colleagues are, as if somehow it was your responsibility to fix it.

Why Do We Always Talk About Lesbians At Tenured Radical? Because at Tenured Radical we are just obsessed with lesbianism. Everything lesbian compels us. We have a lesbian Barbie. Although we draw the line at watching Ellen DeGeneres on American Idol, we watched every episode of every season of The L Word, no matter how terrible, no matter how confusing the sex scenes, because we are so about lesbians here.

So we are really curious as to why Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia, who was quoted extensively in this story about Elena Kagan (strategically placed near the wedding announcements in today's Sunday Styles section of the New York Times) chose to address the SCOTUS lesbian drama in this way:

being single in your 40s or 50s still “remains something that has to be explained.” And until the legal profession makes it easier for women to get ahead while, at the same time, having a family, the attitude will persist.

About six months ago, Ms. Franke said, a group of female graduates of Columbia’s law school gathered to discuss their law careers. One of the questions posed by the older lawyers was whether younger lawyers saw themselves as feminists. Many said they did not. “The older women were aghast,” Ms. Franke said.

The problem, the younger lawyers explained, was that their older peers told them they could easily balance the demands of work and family, but didn’t explain how. “They think there is a glass ceiling,” Ms. Franke said of some of the young students. “They see it as, ‘I have to make a choice not to have a traditional family.’ ” For those who remain single, though, “the reason should not have to be explained.”

It was an utterly reasonable answer, I suppose, under some circumstances. But why didn't Franke point out that being in a non-traditional, lesbian partnership is one viable way to be fully supported in one's emotional, sexual and professional life? I never publish anything without two sources, but with people like you punting on this one, Professor Franke, no wonder ambitious lesbian legal scholars are still in the closet.

Does Maureen Dowd Really Think That This Was Helpful? Enquiring Minds Want To Know. And by the way? My lesbian niece, a future attorney who does not go to an effete Ivy-League law school and would be a terrific candidate for SCOTUS, told me once that the National Enquirer is always right when it comes to printing people's secrets because this gossip rag has been sued so often in the past. My niece was way out ahead of me on the John Edwards love child thing for this reason. So unless Elena Kagan outs herself, there is no lesbian story as far as I am concerned until I see it in the grocery store. I may, however, continue discussing sexism and homophobia until the cows come home.

Why Is May 16 A Holiday Celebrated By Queer People Everywhere? Pick the most appropriate answer:

a) 14-year old Marie Antoinette married 15-year-old Louis-Auguste who was unable to consummate the marriage for years, but became the King of France anyway. Subsequently, both were beheaded, and Antoinette was dogged by charges of lesbianism ever after.

b) Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia. This was either queer, illegal, incestuous or just not very nice, depending on your point of view.

c) Pope Benedict XV canonized the transgendered Joan of Arc as a saint.

d) It is the birthday of Liberace, Adrienne Rich, Cheryl Clarke, Tori Spelling and the Tenured Radical.

e) All of the above.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Radical Did Not Go Out With Elena Kagan, But Other Ivy League Grads Did: This Week On The Elitist Supreme Court

Last night when Jim Lehrer asked David Brooks and Mark Shields, "How do you see the Elena Kagan nomination now? It's over a week," this Radical moved to the edge of her seat. Which commenter was going to say the L word first?

No, no, not liberal.

Instead, after the normal reassurances that Kagan will be confirmed, just try to find something wrong with her, she was a good dean, she has no opinions about anything, blah, blah, blah, suddenly Shields and Brooks went on a tirade about SCOTUS being an elitist institution. (What, you thought it was a good thing that the highest court in the land was peopled with the best legal minds in the land? Think again, mister. Or sister.)

From the transcript:

MARK SHIELDS: I have to tell you, I mean, I am so tired of Ivy Leaguers. I really am. I want somebody who went to a state university, who didn't grow up in the Eastern time zone, who worked nights, maybe, to pay for their own books, who either was in the enlisted ranks in the United States military or knows somebody who was, somebody who just really didn't -- is west of the Hudson, and east of Malibu.

MARK SHIELDS: There's a great country out there with an awful lot of people in it, and maybe somebody who went to night school once. I mean, why do we -- why do we restrict it to this pool that -- you know, I really just think it is terribly elitist. I mean, it sounds like the British ruling class.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, Mark and I should be happy that it's all Catholics and Jews on the court now.

JIM LEHRER: You guys are covered. That's easy for you to say.


DAVID BROOKS: Personally, I'm the only New York Jew not on the court, so I'm a little pissed off about that.

But I actually agree with Mark. I think the politics of it are bad, by the way, for exactly that reason. People look at it, oh, another Harvard Law. And, you know, they're very smart people and they're very fine people. But it is true that it would be nice to have somebody from the heartland of the Midwest, you know, Chicago, for example.

No, I'm just kidding.

(Editor's note: David Brooks went to the University of Chicago, something his audience is rarely allowed to forget for more than a day at a time.)

DAVID BROOKS: No, I agree -- I agree with Mark, somebody, you know -- it is -- and this is true, by the way, of the Obama administration in general. There's a lot of Harvard and Yale there up and down the ranks. And it is a narrow slice of America.

MARK SHIELDS: When Lyndon Johnson was just absolutely rhapsodizing about how brilliant Jack Kennedy's Cabinet, President Jack Kennedy's Cabinet was, Sam Rayburn -- you know, there were all these Ivy League pedigrees and everything else -- Sam Rayburn said, "I just wish one of them had ever run for sheriff, Lyndon."

Well, I just wish somebody had run for sheriff who was nominated to the Supreme Court, who had been out in the political process and put their name on the ballot.

I've got a good idea: what about Harriet Miers? Didn't she run for sheriff or something?

I mean, please David and Mark. Elena Kagan did not grow up in a bubble, she grew up on the Upper West Side when it actually wasn't such a tidy place as it is now. Remember the 1970s in New York guys? Furthermore, unlike her male peers, if Kagan hadn't been so out of control smart and hard-working she wouldn't have gotten a chance at anything, especially not that Princeton B.A. In case you think being in the right eating club separated her from reality, it is also relevant that except for Elena and her father, everyone in the Kagan family is a
public school teacher, and Kagan herself went to public school prior to college.

But let's look at the rest of this elitist court. Granted, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy have very suspicious credentials. But
Sonia Sotomayor's single, working mother got her through school at the top of her class so that she could be plucked out of the crowd to go to Princeton. And if you are thinking affirmative action, just stuff it, will you? Any of us who actually work in elitist institutions know perfectly well that people of color and women, in order to be even eligible for affirmative action, have had to be better, smarter and more hard working than anyone else.

Let's look at that consummate elitist
Clarence Thomas, who was abandoned by his father, had a mother was too poor to keep him, and was raised by his working class grandparents. His grandfather hauled ice and coal for a living: there's a soft life. Or let's take a gander at Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was turned down for a Supreme Court clerkship in 1960 because she was a woman (and was also, as a woman, treated abominably by Harvard Law School, as all women were until well into the 1970s.) I suppose it couldn't matter less that Antonin Scalia's father immigrated from Sicily, and worked his way through college and graduate school. Scalia only went to a parochial high school because he was on scholarship and, as an Italian-American of a certain generation, was also probably the object of horrible discrimination (despite being valedictorian of his class, he was not admitted to Princeton.)

In other words, when working- and middle-class people work hard, and are recognized for their success by being welcomed into the nation's top schools, we should probably pass them over for positions of public trust and leadership. I cannot help but think that this sudden concern about SCOTUS being packed with pampered, out-of-touch elitists has something to do with the fact that Obama has now nominated two women in a row. As always, when too many women show up, deep concerns about declining quality suddenly emerge: this is perhaps the most twisted version of that conversation I have yet heard, and from two men who should know better. And readers -- can you really imagine a woman or a person of color being nominated for the Court who did not have a top-drawer Ivy League resume?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ova There! Ova There! Send The Word, Send The Word, Ova There!

After reading a critical piece in the New York Times about the booming market in Ivy League ova earlier in the week, Radical Correspondent Oklahoma Annie writes that she was "incensed" by it:

What’s going on, in summary, is this: Agencies who traffic in human ova are seeking the highest achieving young women from top universities as donors, and are offering them upwards of $10,000 to donate their eggs.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which set the $10,000 cap on payments in its guidelines, is now “concerned” that young women may be lured by excessively high payments to become donors “against their own best interests.”

Now, excuse me, but we’re talking about the top percentile, crème de la crème of American elite universities, and we’re afraid they won’t be able to make informed decisions about their own health and finances?

Well, OK, so we’re also talking about 22 year olds, so there may be something to that. But hey, this is the first time I’ve heard it argued that women are being exploited by being paid too much.

I think it’s a load of paternalistic crap. (I want to see the gender and age distribution of the members of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.)

What really aggravates me is, here is one thing in which women are uniquely positioned to make more money than men, fair and square, and we don’t want to let them fully exploit their advantage “for their own protection."

Couldn't agree more, Annie. Go to this this California sperm bank and you will see that inseminations start at under $500, which means that the donors can't be getting more than a hundred dollars a squirt. Methinks you are onto something, so let's investigate further.

When you read the whole article, you will see that Annie's outrage is well founded on several levels. Egg donation, as it turns out, is not to be undertaken lightly, since the primary damage cited for women is psychological -- only several paragraphs lower does the author mention that the procedure itself, which includes stimulating the ovaries with massive amounts of hormones as well as surgery -- has medical risks. In other words, an egg is not an egg: it's a pre-baby! And for the rest of their lives, these poor women will be haunted by the specter of "their" babies out there in the world.

Not inconsequentially, the notion that every egg is a complete soul would be the position held by the Catholic Church, the LDS Church and numerous evangelical Christians, as they wrap numerous forms of contraception into their jihad against abortion. Furthermore, Annie's point about how threatening it is to the cult of true motherhood when women game the market in white designer babies has a longer history. Remember when Mary Beth Whitehead refused to hand over Baby M to William and Elizabeth Stern in 1986, and the papers kept referring to her as the "surrogate mother" -- when, in fact, she was the actual mother? And do you recall that when working-class Whitehead demonstrated true grief at giving up the baby, she was reminded repeatedly that she had no right to her feelings because the baby had been bought and paid for? That it was upper-class Elizabeth Stern who really had the right to grieve?

Clearly there are big stakes here. As Annie observes, even a liberal newspaper seems committed to constantly instructing women as to what they should think and feel. I can't help but notice that in its handling of this issue the New York Times also invokes the specious claims among anti-choicers that abortion, at any stage of gestation, inflicts lasting psychological damage on women. "Temporary feelings of relief are frequently followed by a period psychiatrists identify as emotional 'paralysis,' or post-abortion 'numbness,'" reports the conservative Elliot Institute (as if paralysis and numbness are technical terms requiring scare quotes.) "Like shell-shocked soldiers, these aborted women are unable to express or even feel their own emotions. Their focus is primarily on having survived the ordeal, and they are at least temporarily out of touch with their feelings."

Note the use of the phrase "aborted women," which cleverly conveys that these failed mothers are grieving for the privileged access to womanhood only childbirth provides, a maturing process that can never be complete once they have terminated a pregnancy. If a woman believes that she is not distressed following an abortion, it is simply proof that she is "out of touch." On the other hand, this anti-abortion website goes out of its way to urge women that they can trust their feelings and maternal instincts during the process of bringing a pregnancy to term and giving the baby up for adoption; and that they will always feel good about themselves for making this decision to give a close relative to complete strangers.

I would add a final comment: if the egg donation procedure has risks for women (and all surgical procedures do, including egg implantation), then why aren't we concerned about the routine use of these hormones and surgeries on women who are trying to use their own, or other people's, ova to grow babies in their uteruses that they cannot conceive without technology? The women who, if they are successful, often end up carrying high-risk multiple pregnancies? Because it's a multi-billion dollar industry, that's why, in which all of the money goes into the pockets of fertility docs, for-profit labs and Big Pharma! Ever wondered whether Elizabeth Edwards' battle with cancer has anything to do with the "miracle" of giving birth to twins at an age when most women are completely infertile? When was the last time you saw a front page article about the long-term risks associated with thirty-something and forty-something women juicing up their ovaries with dangerous chemicals over a period of anywhere from one to five years?

But that's cool because they become mothers, as opposed to becoming unnatural, selfish women whose only goal is to pay for college and graduate school.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

That's Right, The Woman Is (Huh!) Smart-er: On The Elena Kagan Nomination

At a certain point you hit an age where you look around you and there are Other People who are reaching the pinnacle of their careers while you -- well, you have a book, some articles, a good job at a snazzy little school and a well-read blog. Of course, the best may be yet to come. But right now I look at Elena Kagan and myself and see the similarities: educated at a single sex school (check!), and among the first generation in at the all-male Ivies (I was class of 1980 at Yale, she was 1981 at Princeton.) From then on our paths seem to have diverged. I labor in semi-obscurity at Zenith, she is shucking a top job in the Obama administration for a series of nasty encounters with the chipmunky Jeff Sessions and the opportunity to change history on the Supreme Court.

I, in contrast, who could have gone to law school with the other smart, ambitious women (which is what the female Dean of my residential college told me to do) will keep my day job writing history while I wait to see if I can monetize my blog or win the Pulitzer Prize. All right, there isn't room at the top for all of us; while some are called to make history we also serve who write the nation's past. Nonetheless I do have a few regrets about roads not taken. Although we women of the 1970s were all hot out of the starting gate, some of us made it to the rail and some of us didn't. I got to tell you, my only conclusion is that Elena Kagan worked harder than I did, earlier than I did. She was a risk-taker, I stuck to what I knew I could do well. And to be brutally frank, Elena probably spent way less time drinking beer and chatting up chicks in lesbian bars, gay discos and ACT-UP demos than I did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Or did she? Did I mention that there was something else Elena and I might have in common? Or so sayeth those who can't stand the sight of an intelligent, successful woman who seems to have done almost nothing wrong beating out a lot of less-deserving men. Despite the fact that she kept her nose to the grindstone and kicked a lot of male butt along the way, what seems to be emerging as the Kagan story is whether she is a lesbian or not.

Is it still the 1970s or what? Smart woman, ambitious, not married, no guy in sight -- she must be a dyke!

Now, I want everyone to be a lesbian -- really I do. I want Phyllis Schlafly to be a lesbian. There are even selected men who I like so much that I think of them as lesbians. For these reasons and more, I would think it was cool if Elena Kagan were a lesbian. If I were not already happily partnered, I would consider sending a message through third-party channels that being the accommodating husband of an Associate Justice on SCOTUS would be exactly my cup of tea. She could make history, I could make cookies for those long, esoteric discussions about the Second Amendment. I would learn to iron, so that every morning from October through July I could press the funny little neck object the female justices wear before I skipped off to the National Archives.

But do we queers need to follow the Christian right's valorization of heterosexuality as a litmus test of good citizenship and insist that all of "us" are inherently progressive and trustworthy? Michael Wolff at Newser says that the question everyone was afraid to ask Sonia Sotomayor will be asked of Kagan because, other than her scholarship and her suspiciously collegial relations with conservative faculty as Dean of Harvard Law School, she has no judicial paper trail. "You can feel it," Wolff writes, "We are just on the verge of articulating our right to know somebody’s sexual point of view." Wolff's only slightly tongue in cheek rationale is this: in the absence of any proof that Kagan will go mano-a -mano with the Court's radical right, having it come out that she is a lesbian would cheer up everyone who is left of center. "For the left, her being gay would be good news, confirming her progressive sensibility," he explains. "While for the right, being gay signifies all the rad-lib expansive-interpretation issues that would surely be spelled out by her judicial opinions, if she had any."

Do we really think that queer people have a "sexual point of view?" Try that one out on J. Edgar Hoover, why don't you? Or Roy Cohn? Or a certain New York City based conservative female expert on education who keeps coming into conflict with other conservatives about gay stuff?

Seriously, only straight people would believe that a candidate for the Supreme Court or any other high office is more trustworthy on progressive issues because s/he is queer: it is such a perfectly reductive example of what counts as politics nowadays. "I'll take one of these, and one of those -- and the court won't be balanced if I don't have one of those....." What strikes me as a little more interesting is what slipped out on The News Hour last night about the sexism internal to the Court. Marcia Greenberger spoke to a situation that many of us are familiar with: that it is sometimes hard for men to tell women apart. "One of the historic things that people used to joke about," she said, "was that, with two women on the court, for a long time, Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Ruth Ginsburg, lawyers used to call them by each other's names and confuse them. They were still tokens. It was still: It's one of the two women. Having more women turns those women justices into justices, and makes them part of the normal routine, that we have male and female justices."

Speaking as someone who has a senior male colleague who repeatedly calls me by the name of another female colleague, even though we have worked together for eighteen years, I say Amen to that, sistuh. But the part I liked best was when regular legal commenter Marcia Coyle pointed out that not only would three women make for a more diverse and representative court, it might make for a smarter court. As Coyle noted, "when you look at his list, what was considered his short list, it was dominated by women. And they are some of the best legal minds in the country. So, I think he was looking for diversity in experience. And, also, I think he was looking for someone who can really do the job."

That's right -- the woman is (huh!) smart-er!
That's right?
That's right!

Harry Belafonte and Julie Andrews, "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" -- although oddly, Julie seems to disagree.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Marry That Book Before She Gets Much Older!

Despite the strange weather, and an oil spill in the Gulf as big as Rhode Island, it's the beginning of summer break and you know what time it is! Time to get gussied up and get hitched to that book manuscript again! This time the relaitonship will work, I swear: there has been counseling, there are promises not yet broken, and for some of us a new computer will get things started on the right foot. So in the interests of a proper, Connecticut-style traditional wedding, the Radical recommends the following news items to you this week.

Something Old: Looking to warm up by writing an article? Well, look around you and check out who the buildings are named for. At UT-Austin, there is a dormitory named after a member of the Ku Klux Klan, so says Thomas Russell (who used to teach there.) The dorm was built in 1954, and named after a former UT law professor, William Stewart Simkins, who used to boast of his time defending white womanhood in formal speeches on campus. While students don't seem to have been aware of Simkins' white supremacist past scratch the surface of many buildings in the former Confederacy and see what you find, children; then start on the other parts of the country), the UT administration is. Russell has recently posted his research on the topic. Not accidentally, Russell argues, the dormitory was named shortly after Brown v. Board of Education. "During the 1950s, the memory and history of Professor Simkins supported the university’s resistance to integration," Russell argues. "As the university faced pressure to admit African-American students, the university’s faculty council voted to name a dormitory after the Klansman and law professor. The dormitory carries his name to the present day. During this time period, alumni also presented the law school with a portrait of Professor Simkins. Portraits and a bust of Professor Simkins occupied prominent positions within the law school through the 1990s."

Something New: And it is so rare in the historical profession! We've got a new journal out published by Routledge called Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice that is devoting itself to out-of-the-box historical writing. As the website describes it, the journal "allows historians in a broad range of specialities to experiment with new ways of presenting and interpreting history. Rethinking History challenges the accepted ways of doing history and rethinks the traditional paradigms, providing a unique forum in which practitioners and theorists can debate and expand the boundaries of the discipline." Hat Tip.

Something Borrowed? Somebody said to me the other day that a certain fabulous feminist scholar was toying with the idea of ditching Nirvana and heading to one of the best Little Women's Studies Ph.D. programs in the East. No, no, no it ain't me babe, although for a few months the door was cracked open and I appreciated the peep inside. Back to the real news: even if this scholar is just a loaner, this university continues to make a serious effort to recruit and retain the best feminist faculty around.

Something Blue: Or at least I find this depressing. For those of us who write about the political history of pornography (is there more than one of us? enquiring minds want to know) we will probably have to start calling it "sex porn" soon. The Week writes that Americans are becoming addicted to "war porn," combat images and video from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that critics charge are no more than snuff films. "No one loves this kind of footage, says the military blog Mudville Gazette, more than the mainstream "news" business, which gets a ratings boost whenever they employ it, too."

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Like Sands Through The Hourglass, So Are The Days Of Our Lives: Having The Courage Not To Go To Graduate School

You would think that May would signal the winding down of things at Zenith. In fact, as we all know, the liberal arts college has a tendency to crank things up toward the end of the year. Didn't spend enough of your budget? There will be a memo asking for suggestions on how to do that. Last year, when I was chair and everyone was in ex post crash-o mentality, we saved a lot of time via a memo telling us that departments and programs were prohibited from spending down at the end of the year, although how they would be able to sift legitimate from illegitimate expenses was not clear. ("Six skateboards? Why did sociology purchase skateboards?") Prizes and various awards must be given, and we will be solicited for the names of ever-more students to receive them. Committees that have been ruminating on this or that will be rushing legislation to the floor of the last faculty meeting. These motions will be greeted with suspicion by a great many people who haven't bothered to attend a meeting all year, and who will table them: "We can't hurry an important decision like this!" they will snarl.

Subsequently, many of these ideas will die on the Island of Tabled Motions.

In the middle of all this chaos, there are the former students who write to ask for recommendations. They've been cooling their heels in Teach for America and prison re-entry programs, toiling in obscurity as paralegals at Dewey, Cheatham & Howe and Doing Good Deeds in far-flung places. Spring has come and -- guess what? There's no summer vacation! You don't get to advance to the next level of work in the fall! Furthermore, since liberal arts colleges now specialize in ginning up nostalgia (and saving money, I presume) by holding alumni reunions and commencement on the same weekend in May, the recent B.A.'s thoughts turn lovingly to:

Graduate school. As Monty Python would say, "Run away! Run away!"

Frequent readers might recall that I was critiqued roundly in the comments section of this post for suggesting that people contemplating the PH.D. might want to evaluate their chances of getting an academic job more thoroughly prior to choosing a program that suits them only for being a college professor. "I'm gobsmacked that someone who calls herself radical could publish something so reactionary," wrote one of my kinder critics. My suggestion that any person contemplating the PH.D work for a minimum of three years post-B.A. to imagine the numerous other life choices available was also rejected by many. "Why would you hold back a talented person who knows exactly what s/he wants to do at the age of twenty or twenty-two?" is a collective version of what I was asked. "If I wait, I will be almost thirty when I get my degree! Too late to start a life!" others whimpered. The most heartfelt responses were some version of: "On what grounds can you -- and people like you -- deny me the opportunity to have something precious that you already have?"

I do not yet control the fate of the historical profession, much less the academy at large, and regulating the supply of jobs to meet the demand is the committee I keep requesting, but to no avail. Give me time, why don't you?

Seriously, let me say two things: I don't think there is anything particularly radical about encouraging people to get a PH.D. in say, history or English literature. It's not like you will be educated to join the IWW, after all (although if you go into sociology you might have a crack at it), or to redistribute wealth. In addition, as I will be 52 in a couple weeks, color me silly, but I don't think 30 is too late to change direction in life, voluntarily or involuntarily. One valued family member of mine is, in her thirties, embarking on her fourth career, and I would say that each one of them has made her a more interesting and productive person.

I also don't think any education, PH.D.'s in the Humanities included, is a waste, even if it doesn't lead you to the career you thought it would. Could be a waste of money, but not time.

However: the idea that life will pass you by if you actually take time to live it (as opposed to studying it, or acquire more education to enter life at a higher level than ordinary folk) is worrisome to some of us who watch talented people graduate from our universities only to return a year later to say that they want back in. I worry that it is a symptom of being part of a generation of over-scheduled overachievers raised to believe that the sands of time run quicker if you aren't writing a memoir about your alcoholic mother, starting your own film production company or scoring big time with your new band in those crucial twelve months after graduation. The concern seems to be that living life is an uncertain proposition at best, a huge waste of time at worst. Those of us who advise contemplation and acquiring experience outside the classroom are perceived by Generation Adderall as hopelessly out of touch.

Rather than seeing me and my colleagues as gatekeepers, however, I would like these hopeful young people to do the research themselves before embarking on this journey. In particular, in the comments section of my earlier post I was initially appalled, then angered, and then moved, by the numerous bitter remarks by commenters who claimed they had been lied to by their own college professors about their future prospects as scholars. Many claimed that they were told that they should go to graduate school, and that the cream always rises to the top in the job market. Such people said they were not told, prior to enrolling in the PH.D. program, that only 4 out of 10 of them would get a tenure track job, much less at a college or university similar to the one they had attended.

One can't help but believe -- even if you think, as I do, that you shouldn't take all your advice about going into the priesthood from a priest -- that there isn't some truth to the experiences they are reporting, so I did a little of my own research. And you know what? I think a lot of them were lied to, albeit by well-meaning people. I was further convinced of this by a conversation with a lovely young person who was given exactly the wrong advice by a university mentor: the best young intellects go straight from college to graduate school; prestigious schools in your field don't care about you taking time to think it over; there will be plenty of jobs in (x) field by the time you get out in seven years. Not one of these things is true, and (x) field is literally crammed with the un- and underemployed. Looking back at the records of the professional association in which (x) field is located, I count 16 jobs in that field advertised in the last 5 years, and 182 if you count the larger fields which might accept an application from someone trained in (x). There were, in the same period 537 PH.D.s produced in the larger fields for which a person trained in (x) might have applied. If you count the other people, in other fields, who might have enlarged the pool for the more general job descriptions, that is less than a 1 in 3 chance of obtaining a tenure-track job over 5 years on the market.

I am estimating, given the job market that existed prior to the crash, and given that state legislatures will continue to slash away at education budgets for several years to come (remember: the commercial real estate market is slumping like a warm ice cream cone as 5-year balloon mortgages start to come due) that out of the dozen or so students who have talked to me about the PH.D. this spring alone, there will be academic jobs for 4 or 5 at best.

Hence, paying some attention to those who claim they were lied to about their prospects, I have responded to this by advising talented undergraduates, right up front, not to go to graduate school. Not yet, at least. And when you are making this decision, take into account the following:

Regardless of whether you like this or not, or whether it seems fair, it is simply a fact that actual graduate school admissions committees at select schools will regard your application more favorably if you take a significant amount of time off. Two to five years, I would say. Want to do labor history? Be an organizer; spend one of those years as a day laborer or a factory worker. An anthropologist? Leave the country and learn a language. Learn two. Cultural studies? Try an advertising agency or tending bar on the Lower East Side of New York. Whatever you do, engage the world of paid labor head on, and try to marry your genuine interests with a determination to get out of your comfort zone. Use this time to read, far more deeply than you have had the opportunity to do as an undergraduate, to discover what field compels you in a deep enough way to make a profoundly scary, uncertain commitment to it.

Your choice to attend graduate school, and their choice to admit you, is not a mutual contract that is designed to benefit all parties equally. Too often young people who have succeeded in school believe that schools actually care about them. They don't. Then why do graduate schools pay people to attend? In part, because it is traditional to do so. But in the overwhelming number of cases graduate students constitute an indispensable pool of cheap labor. You earn your tuition and stipend by doing hours of work for what seems like a good sum of money at the age of 22; by the time you are 29, it doesn't look so good.

If your beloved undergraduate mentor is over age 65, you run the risk of getting really bad advice about graduate school. In fact, I would say that few of us over 35 are reliably in touch, with some exceptions. The first thing you should do is join the professional association in your field of choice. If your income is under 25K, it costs $45 to join the American Historical Association, $35 to join the MLA, $55 to join the American Studies Association. A one year digital subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education is $72.50, and Inside Higher Education is free! Hence, for under $125, a small investment compared to the loans you will be forced to take out in graduate school to eat and keep a roof over your head, you have within your grasp the best possible advice about the current state of the academic profession, the recent history of the job market, and the degree of risk you are running if you have your heart set on being an academic.

Read blogs: start with New Faculty Majority, the mother ship of up-to-date commentary about the high rate of underemployment among academics.

As for asking live people, your most important advice in this matter, particularly at a liberal arts college, is from the youngest members of the faculty, those who have been on the job market quite recently, and whose bright and capable friends are strategizing their lack of tenure-track employment. I pick out the SLAC as a particular font of poor advice in this matter, because it is here that the romance of teaching and scholarship tends to cloud the uglier realities of academic life, and it is here that there are no graduate students to set you straight as Professor Graybeard waxes eloquent about the beauties of a cultivated scholarly intellect. Your second most important advice is from all women, GLBT people and anyone in an interdisciplinary or ethnic studies field: there never has been a "good" market for us, and we tend not to think that our special experience of success characterizes the general condition.

And finally, when you are taking advice, do what sensible people do: consider the source. Check to see how many search committees Professor Graybeard has run, and whether s/he gives papers at professional meetings regularly. Does s/he contribute to the life of the profession by serving on committees of professional associations? Does s/he mentor graduate students of hir own, or sit on committees at nearby research universities? Is s/he on the editorial board of a journal? Does s/he publish? Thanks to Google, all of this information is available to you. If the answers to all, or most, of the above questions are "No" then this person may be well-intentioned, but is not a good source of advice.

Whatever you decide: take responsibility for your own decisions in this matter so that you don't waste a lot of emotional energy trying to figure out who to blame when the breaks, and the tenure-track searches, don't go your way. The damage done is not an education that isn't worth anything -- all education is worth something, particularly to creative and engaged people. It's the damage of low self-esteem and disillusion when you have drunk the academic Kool-Aid and -- through no fault of your own -- it doesn't work out.

Monday update: here's a post on the joint J.D./PH.D. from Karen Tani at Legal History Blog. While I wouldn't advise trying to jive the job market by simply attaining multiple degrees (and Tani notes that pursuing such a program is "not for the faint of heart") it is one direction for those of you with an incurable love for learning who are also sane enough to want flexible career options.