Thursday, September 30, 2010

That's Why I'm Drinkin' Again: A Longer, Taller Look At Collegiate Partying

The Davidson College student newspaper, artfully named The Davidsonian, published a piece yesterday about one of the Radical's favorite topics, college drinkin'.  Davidson is one of 30 schools that is part of a  long-term study measuring substance (ab)use on college campuses. "This assessment, administered by the CORE Institute at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale (SIUC)," writes kid reporter Kelly Wilson, "was developed in the late 1980's by the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges and universities across the country use it to gauge alcohol and other drug usage, attitudes, and perceptions on their campuses."

Davidson, like many other liberal arts colleges (including Zenith) has been trying to decide what to do about binge drinking, and has been using the CORE survey data to strategize interventions.   More stringent policing, student life administrators worry, would drive students off campus where drinking is even less safe.

Interestingly, Davidson Health Educator Georgia Ringle is arguing that there is a wide range of drinking behaviors on campus.  Close to 30% of students don't drink at all, around 25% drink a lot; and all the students in the middle would not drink so much if the ones who drank a lot didn't put so much energy into persuading their peers that you can only have a good time when you are drunk.

One question that comes to mind is whether, as educators, we have become adept at inventing phrases such as "binge drinking" and "pre-partying" to avoid admitting that a significant percentage of our students have become alcoholics at a young age, and perhaps have been destined by genetics or their family environment to become so.  This article certainly points to that conclusion, among others.  The kind of social pressure to make others get drunk too is typical of alcoholics, and many alcoholics function at high levels despite drinking in a way that would ruin, say, me.  It is not inconceivable that drinking by imitation may be causing students in that middle group to underperform academically while some of the binge drinkers  -- who are hard-wired alcoholics --  are going on to Phi Beta Kappa. As Ringle notes,

the campus mentality around alcohol on campus is set by a minority of students who are drinking much more than five drinks per week. They set "the peer standard because they're out there having more fun, playing the music, talking about it, whereas the non-drinkers don't say, ‘Guess what I did Saturday night, it was so cool!' I mean they should, but they're not quite as boisterous.
"So there could be kind of a core group of 200 that are always leading the pack, saying ‘Come on, come on we should go out. Let's pregame in my room; let's go down,'" Ringle continued. "But if you actually study each individual's drinking, most are moderate."

In fact, she has data indicating that 53.5% of Davidson students drink five drinks or less per week. "Now, would I like that 53.5% to be higher? Yes," Ringle said. "But most students imagine everyone's drinking much more than five. I want to give back the actual truth and fact to the students, and this number is a lot lower than what most students imagine. What we have found – and this is not just Davidson – is that if students think everyone's drinking more, they will raise their drinking level to match their perception." She pointed out that 28% of students at Davidson do not drink alcohol on a weekly basis.

That's right:  most students drink because it is cool, and because a minority of the student body has enough influence to set the norm.  In fact, as the article goes on to say, many students who don't like to drink pretend that they are doing it.  They will "go to parties and just hold a red cup even though the red cup didn't have alcohol in it – simply because they felt like they needed to do it[.]"

I wonder what we would have to do to make working really hard at your academics look cool? Are students so hard-wired from high school that good grades + geekiness that even at selective schools such as Davidson and Zenith they have to act as if they don't care about anything but "fun" in order to feel like they have a shot at being popular?  And is anyone studying that 28% who don't drink to figure out how they resist peer pressure to conform?

You can read the whole article -- the second in a two-part series -- here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Do Bees and Don't Bees: The Radical College Tour

For all you know, Tenured Radical has visited your campus recently.  Yes, that's right:  an anonymous member of La famille Radicale has been looking at institutions of Higher Education, and I occasionally facilitate the journey.  This means I get to take a Busman's Holiday and go along on the College Tour.  This little ritual is something I only see glimpses of at Zenith.  In fact, I try to avoid tour groups since the day, years ago, when one of my students got a wicked look on his face when I was innocently returning books to the library and said in a happy voice to his group: "Ooooooh!  Look!  A real college professor!"

I can only boast a little insight into this arcane practice, but here are a few do's and don'ts, aimed at different audiences.

If you are a parent:  There only needs to be one of you on the tour.  I am told by a native informant that it looks "geeky" to be accompanied by two adults.  Don't ask questions, especially when encouraged to do so by representatives of the college!  This is humiliating, not only to your college-bound teen, but to the rest of us who have been schooled by our young companions not to ask questions.  In fact, there is no point in you asking questions:  you won't be going to school there, anything you need to know can be answered with a quick look at the web page, and the person you are talking to is unlikely to be calculating your progeny's financial aid package.  If your point is that you are "modeling" to your son/daughter how to ask a question, please note that s/he is pretending that you are that other kid's parent.  I'm just saying.

If you are a tour guide:  Don't  take us to your very own dormitory room -- or if you must, do clean it first.  My young companion and I agreed later that one of the rooms we saw, occupied by a very earth-conscious pair of students, was in the process of composting.  Furthermore, when you create an opportunity for questions, do wait more than two beats before saying "OK! let's move on then!" Teenagers -- or any other human being -- are unlikely to think up a question in less than three seconds.

Best tour, in my book?  The one where the student learned the names of all five prospective students and made a point of talking to them individually.  Worst tour?  At Big Ivy, where we stood in the sun in 90 degree heat, on the track, in the stadium, for 20 minutes, listening to memories of fun times at football games past.  Don't linger over the possibilities for substance-free living in a house where people are high on life and popping corn while other students are waking and baking -- unless you are trying to forestall a parent asking a question about drugs and alcohol on campus.  In that case, go for it.  Point at any building and gush over the pleasures of sobriety.

If you are a college-bound teen:  Don't do anything irreparably awful to your person prior to interviewing season.  This suggests that you have difficulty anticipating what the future might require. On one of our visits, we were accompanied by a young person who had in the very recent past obviously gotten a Mohawk haircut and then dyed only the Mohawk blond.  Those who tried to address this problem did so with a head shaving -- which made said young person look like s/he had a cranial racing stripe.  Do try to forgive your parents for asking all those questions, and know that it is physically impossible to merge with your chair and become invisible while they are doing it.  Do try to look like someone who might want to attend college after all, and not like someone who has been kidnapped by a paedophilic couple and forced to go on college tours as part of some sick Satanic ritual.

If you are an admissions staff person running the information session:  Do  consider scrapping the information session.  It makes the visit so unbearably long and repetitive that there is no urge to linger and poke around the campus in an unstructured way.  The best tour I took combined the info session and tour, gave us less information, and I remember more about that school than any other.  Don't spend a lot of time explaining what a liberal arts education is without asking everyone if they really want to know, particularly in the fall when your customers are more or less wrapping up the look-see phase and have had the joys of the liberal arts explained to them repeatedly.  And do consider making umbrellas available on a rainy day -- Zenith does.  I know this because I always grab a few whenever I am over there just to make sure I always have one in an emergency.

If you are an adult companion who teaches at a selective school:  Do not reveal this information.  I made this mistake, in response to another adult companion asking me what I did for a living.  The other adults start to glow enviously, and you want to explain that you weren't admitted to that school, you work there.  Do make up something else that will make your teen seem interesting.  Consider answering:  "I'm in 'the business;'" "We're bankrupt!" or flashing a toothy grin and saying, "If I told ya, I'd hafta kill ya."

If you actually are a student at the school:  Don't join the tour, or if you must, chat up the prospective students, not their adult companions.  The longer you stay, the more we adults are thinking, "Doesn't this kid have somewhere to be?  Don't they do any work here?"

By the way, don't visit more than two schools in any given day.  Even one can be exhausting.  This is unless, of course, you are trying to break some kind of zany record.  Go here for a pair who visited nine Chicago-area schools consecutively!  And all on public transportation -- how green!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Where Women Gather, Trouble Follows: Letting Off Steam At The University Of Toledo

When you were flying over Ohio last week, did you see a big cloud over Toledo?  That was a bunch of steamed up faculty!  The Toledo Blade reports a wholesale restructuring of the University of Toledo that has comrades at that school in a state of distress.  According to Blade reporter Christopher Kirkpatrick,"President Lloyd Jacobs plans to break up the century-old College of Arts and Sciences and create three new colleges in its place."  These colleges will be "discipline-driven," and the humanities and social sciences have been promised an equal seat at the table with the professional schools and the sciences. Humanities and social science faculty are skeptical of this, and everything else about their future in the new university.  Jacobs was hired in 2006, promising the board of trustees that he would "create a UT academic experience more relevant to everyday life, and to ultimately remake the university into one of the best in the world."  Indeed, relevant can be a worrisome word.  This is not because being relevant is bad, but because an unspecific use of this word implies very strongly that the liberal arts model that the vast majority of faculty have committed their careers to is irrelevant -- and that they are, therefore, replaceable.  It was after Bennington President Elizabeth Coleman started using the word "relevant" in 1994 that she started firing faculty.  Bennington remains on the AAUP censure list to this day.

The published reports are pretty vague, so it is hard for an outsider to say whether the restructuring at UT, in and of itself, is an innovative idea or a way to turn the humanities and social sciences into service departments staffed by adjuncts.  The subtext of the faculty's discontent does seem to hint at the possibility of becoming vassals to a science-driven university.  This the president, and the committee that prepared the plan, denies.  "The move to break up arts and sciences," Kirkpatrick writes, "is an outgrowth of the near-carte blanche the board of trustees has given the president to increase the academic quality of its programs, students, and ultimately, its reputation. That in turn drives more research dollars and donations to the school."

There is very little real information in any of these news stories, so it remains a he said/they said kind of situation.  An unscientific poll by the UT student newspaper, The Independent Collegian, shows that, as of today, 71% of those voting in the poll do not feel fully informed or consulted by the strategic planning committee (14% do feel fully informed and 14% -- of which I am one, since you can't see the poll unless you vote -- don't know.  This is what I mean by unscientific.)  What is interesting to me is the article lists a series of criticisms of the Jacobs plan that are all too familiar.  These criticisms appear in practically the same language every time a university president anywhere tries to do either something bold and interesting, something evil and destructive, or just something.  The criticisms (areas where you could fill in the blank to reflect criticisms being articulated at your university are marked out in red) are as follows:

That President Jacobs is a surgeon and doesn't know enough about academic institutions to create a good restructuring plan;

That Jacobs is unacceptably autocratic and fails to consult fully with the faculty;

That Jacobs favors the sciences;

That the committee responsible for the plan was mostly made up of administrators and was entirely female (one critic wasn't sure that an all-female committee was necessarily a bad thing, but insisted that it was "strange" and "suspect."  We know faculty don't trust administrators, but are we admitting that male faculty don't trust women too?  This is worth the price of admission, if you ask me.)

That the report was released in the summer when the faculty were not there.

Changing anything at a university, no matter how small, always means kicking some a$$:  take it from someone who knows. I remember when some academics I know were outraged that they were being "forced" to learn to use computers. But kicking a$$ is something that trustees always want presidents to do on principle, just to show who is the boss.  It doesn't necessarily require a bold new plan. However, stay tuned:  the UT faculty may be on to something. Jacobs may indeed want to bust tenure, since he has indicated that a higher reliance on casual labor is an inevitable transformation that will occur in higher ed.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

It Will Be Different Teaching The Liberal Arts In Singapore: No Pizza, and The Occasional Caning

I don't know who else cares about the deal to start a new liberal arts college by 2013 that Yale is cutting with the National University of Singapore , but as a loyal Old Blue and a Shoreline neighbor, Tenured Radical is interested.  What is particularly odd is that the Yale faculty couldn't care less.  According to Nora Caplan-Bricker at the Yale Daily News (otherwise known as the Oldest College Daily), when invited to a special meeting to discuss the new venture, "Of the more than 2,000 professors who received an e-mail invitation, roughly 25 attended the event, which was closed to the press, and several of those were on Yale-NUS planning committees. Eleven of the 17 professors contacted about the proposed college said they had not read much of the University’s literature about it, did not know enough to comment or did not have reservations about the plans."

President Richard Levin is a little concerned about academic freedom, "since the Singaporean government does not guarantee free speech for all its citizens."  Well make that any of its citizens, Rick, and according to the State Department, caning is "a routine punishment for numerous offenses." Preventive detention is also routine. For you DKE bros considering a rampage on your semester abroad? That means being jailed indefinitely without being charged.  Just saying.  If you go to prison for any length of time, expect conditions to be "Spartan," although they will "meet international standards." That said, "a member of an opposition party who served a 5-week prison sentence in 2002 said after his release that he and other sick bay inmates had been chained to their beds at night. The Government responded that the inmates were restrained to minimize the risk of hurting themselves, medical staff, or other inmates."

Any more questions from the faculty on this one?  OK, let's move on then.

Item two on the agenda:  should Yale be doing business in, and sending its employees to,  a country where being gay is illegal?  No one seems to be asking this question, but it does seem relevant unless the university simply plans to use NUS as a cash cow and send no Yale students, administrators or faculty there.  Although rarely prosecuted, homosexual acts, otherwise known as "gross indecency," are punishable by two years in prison, and probably a good caning too (the caning for homosexuality wasn't mentioned on the British High Commission website, undoubtedly because it would cause English travelers to go there in droves.)  In 2007, the government considered voiding that law and didn't, despite good advice from the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, that "homosexuals are creative writers, dancers. If we want creative people, then we have to put up with their idiosyncrasies."  I've never heard anal sex described as an idiosyncrasy, but you know what?  I like it!

Freedom of the press?  Not really, so don't expect a branch of the OCD any time soon. The last State Department report noted that "Government pressure to conform resulted in the practice of self-censorship among journalists. Government leaders continued to utilize court proceedings and defamation suits against political opponents and critics. These suits, which have consistently been decided in favor of government plaintiffs, chilled political speech and action and created a perception that the ruling party used the judicial system for political purposes."

Other than that, Singapore is a lovely country, with the fastest growing economy in the world, where everyone can be expected to pay full tuition -- er, I mean, the Yale spirit is sure to thrive.  And don't get me wrong:  I would go there in a shot.  But does anybody but me think it strange that so many universities are starting branches in wealthy, semi-totalitarian countries and nobody is talking about the lack of civil liberties as a real problem?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's Not The Football, Stupid: It's The Dangerous People Who Misplay The Game Of Life

My partner asked me the other day why I don't really watch football anymore. There is the time factor: how many of us in academia can really set aside whole afternoons or evenings just to watch games that would be 2/3 as long if they weren't packed with ads? Then there is the concussion factor. I also stopped enjoying professional boxing when I realized that I was watching the very tip of an iceberg of men (and now women) who were being slowly battered into disability and early death in the hope of making slightly better than a working class living as an athlete.

Then there are the steroids, and the enforced obesity in certain positions, since super-sizing yourself is required for success at every level of football. There is the "these men-are-a$$holes" factor, which ultimately caused me to stop watching ice hockey, since it suddenly struck me that normal athletes do not see knocking someone out, tripping him, or breaking his nose as a viable response to someone else reaching the puck first. That my own home football team hired a convicted dog torturer as its quarterback only added to my suspicion that football is leaving me behind somehow.

However, this story in today's New York Times about Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, who was charged with a DUI after testing twice the legal limit, takes the cake. Edwards, a talented receiver who pleaded no contest to an assault charge last year, got drunk at a charity fundraiser and drove away in his car. He was arrested on the West Side of Manhattan.

“We are very disappointed in Braylon’s actions this morning,” Jets General Manager Mike Tannenbaum said in a statement later Tuesday morning. “The Player Protect program is in place for our organization to prevent this situation. Braylon is aware of this program and showed poor judgment.

“We are reviewing the information with the league and will impose the appropriate disciplinary measures.”

Edwards’ lawyer, Peter Frankel, would not directly address the charges, but he said of Edwards, “His primary concern is getting back to the Jets and doing what he does best.”

Representatives of the Jets also highlight Edwards' "poor choices" and "bad judgement" in not calling the Player Protect car service, which is fully outfitted with a TV and sound system. Intoxicated players are expected to call this service.

However, there is nothing in the story that suggests that a player getting drunk, and publicly drunk at that, is a problem for the Jets, except that it puts the player himself -- and the team's success -- in danger. Furthermore, I am astonished that no member of the Jets management or any one of Edwards' representatives has mentioned the danger to other citizens that this man posed when he got drunk, got behind the wheel of a car, and turned that car into a weapon.

Why has the New York Times failed to comment on this aspect of the story?

Over and over we see the destructive outcome of athletes drinking to excess in public places, something that releases a kind of privileged arrogance in these overpaid, over-sized men. Read this account of Ben Roethlisberger chasing a woman into the bathroom, his friends holding the door shut until he was finished his half-a$$ed sexual assault, and ask yourself if it would have happened had Big Ben not been drunk out of his mind.

Edwards' arrest, so says this headline, "has cost him the start against Miami," as if the Jets starting a second string receiver is a critical public concern. What if Edwards' drunkenness had cost someone else his health or life? If the negligence of the NFL in the matter of concussions does not persuade you that this sport requires a fundamental rethinking, its lack of concern for the rest of us should.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Please Sir -- Can I Have Some -- More?"

I could not help but link you to this classic University Diaries post that will explain why law professors on your campus turned up at the most recent faculty meeting in sack cloth and ashes.

Have fun.

And by the way? I have discovered that because of the loyalty of you, the readers, I seem to be able to get books that I want to review just by asking for them. How cool is that?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Back to Skool Edition

Is Michelle Rhee Going Down? Kendra Marr at reviews what everyone in education reform, that eclectic field that contains many political positions (most of which revolve around high-stakes testing rather than education or reform) was talking about last week: Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty's primary loss may mean that Michelle Rhee is out of a job. Fenty, courageously in the minds of many, tied his career to the fate of the District's schools -- and lost, in a resounding smack down for Rhee's take-no-prisoners approach. "Fenty’s defeat this week — due in no small part to community and teachers union resistance to his education push," Marr writes, "is emerging as a cautionary tale for education reformers, who fear that it could cause others to back away from aggressive reform programs swept into the mainstream by President Barack Obama’s `Race to the Top.'” Teachers unions in Georgia and New York also played an important role in defeating primary candidates whose position on education reform relies primarily on "teacher accountability and tough standards."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: while there is no industry, particularly a struggling one, where firing people is not critical to renewal, if keeping your job is the only incentive for good teaching your "reform" has nothing to do with re-thinking education. Threatening teachers with being replaced by as-yet unskilled B.A.'s from top colleges has nothing to do with how students learn, and neither does the mind-numbing testing agenda. Asking students to memorize reams of facts, not to mention "firing" them from school when they can't recite on command like little robots, has nothing to do with education. Rhee and Fenty needed buy-in from the teachers union, and their inability to achieve that should have caused them to create grounds for cooperation, not to dig trenches around the notion that "high standards" is the only thing a school needs to succeed.

And by the way? Voting black parents in D.C., the vast majority of whom are not teachers, also don't seem so happy with free market education models that close schools, many of which have anchored communities for decades as white folks floated off to the 'burbs. Funny how busing white kids into the city is a reprehensible idea, but busing black kids around the city for hours is school reform.

Please take note: on principle, I hate to see Obama go down on any policy matter. But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is uncreative and has done absolutely nothing, except to find a way to selectively restore some of the cuts in public education in language that conservatives adore, and repeatedly refusing federal dollars to places like Connecticut where racial segregation and economic inequality between districts has produced a crisis in public education. Obama administration policies do nothing for children in the neediest school districts, and he should have appointed Linda Darling-Hammond in the first place. Can we say "Bye-bye Arne?"

Or You Could Just Fire The Department of Education: Halimah Abdullah of the Miami Herald has an interesting take on the desire of Rand Paul and other fringey Republican candidates to disband this federal agency established by Jimmy Carter. Among other things, he points to the testing mandate under No Child Left Behind which bloated the department to $150 billion budget. Much of this money is funneled into private testing companies, and for-profit education companies that districts are forced to hire to replace schools where children can't pass the tests. The DOE underwent unprecedented expansion under President George W. Bush, revealing three things: how much small government conservative agendas can conflict with conservative privatization ideology; how much the conservative emphasis on localism conflicts with the nationalizing imperatives of the conservative voices in the culture wars who want state intervention against local progressive reform agendas; and how much the Democratic party has embraced conservative agendas -- like testing and the benefits of privatization.

Defenders of the DOE include the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which consistently supports reforms and policies crafted by Secretary Duncan and faults Congress for not giving him more power to restructure the nation's schools.

The Mad Men Approach to College Admissions: Those of us who work in higher ed have watched the selling of our campuses unfold over the last decade. We all have glossy brochures, catch phrases and themes that gin up ginormous pools of applicants -- who then make us oh-so-much-more "selective" when we send most of them away. We can all talk knowingly about "three in a tree" (the images that would suggest that selective schools are at least half, if not two-thirds students of color); millions sunk into football teams to "masculinize" campuses desperate for male applicants; and the Glee-style video produced by Yale admissions last year that united queer and straight alums in mutual horror. Well, Drake University of Des Moines, IA, seems to have hit the wall with a campaign revolving around a big D+ that is intended as a novel attention grabber. According to Eric Gorski of the Associated Press, it is intended to advertise the "Drake Advantage" (or Drake Plus, I guess), but cleverly doubles as -- well, the grade hardly anyone gives any more.

Applications and campus visits are way up, while alumni/ae, faculty and students are embarrassed, and wondering about why the university has hired a marketing firm at all at a moment of scarce resources. Indeed, has the business of "crafting classes" from ever-larger applicant pools gone too far? It certainly isn't about racial diversity, since I doubt that any majority white private college has seen its percentage of minority students expand since the 1970s -- and when it does, it is usually through recruiting foreign students. Are they trying to recruit smarter students? Why not just try to make the students who apply smarter by -- er, educating them? And what do marketing programs, or "branding," actually have to do with the university that students actually enter?

Friday, September 17, 2010

How To Prevent Abortions: Stop Pretending Teenagers Don't Have Sex

Yesterday I was part of a Constitution Day celebration at the University of Connecticut - Storrs, in which three of us from the academic, activist and policy world were asked to focus on the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment ninety years ago. In one way or another, we all took the opportunity to connect women's votes to a discussion of what it means for women to be full citizens, with equal rights to men across lines of class, race and region. One of the speakers, a founder of Shoreline Women's Liberation, made the argument that debates over hot button social issues like abortion have become so polarized that, as feminists, we are left with few options about how to resolve them through rational debate. Inevitably, then, they become the stuff of power politics and embed themselves as wedge issues, allowing legislatures in places where conservatives dominate -- Oklahoma, for example -- to pass laws which effectively make women into second-class citizens by taking control of their bodies.

What this activist suggested was that we feminists must begin to reform political discourse by acknowledging other people's moral and ethical concerns as legitimate even if we disagree profoundly with the factual basis of those concerns or the policy measures that our opponents advocate. I would agree with this. Increasingly, feminists are tacitly acknowledging that abortion is an ethical offense to some people when they argue for increased access to pregnancy prevention as an alternative to abortion. This also dovetails with safer sex agendas originally promoted by GLBTQ activists that are increasingly mainstream and also controversial: the distribution of condoms in public schools, the broader availability of birth control, and instruction on how to use these technologies to control reproduction.

What can hamper the prevention of pregnancy through education, of course, is the belief of many social conservatives that parents should be -- and can be -- in complete control of their children's bodies, and that the public interest is co-terminus with the desire of parents to keep their children ignorant of the facts of human sexuality if they so choose. In recent history, this has led to sex education programs that do not educate the young about sex. Abstinence-only programs (begun in the Reagan years, and supported by the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations) not only emphasize, but are exclusively limited to, instruction about why the young must avoid sex (or at least intercourse) until they are married and in a position to raise children. A study of 2,800 teenage girls recently released by the Centers for Disease Control reveals that, although 97% reported having had sex education in school, only 2/3 had been instructed in how to prevent pregnancy with birth control. As one summary of the CDC report notes, "Lessons about saying no and STDs were more common than instruction on how to use a condom or other birth control....Overall, about two-thirds of teens got birth control instruction by the end of high school — about 62 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls." By the end of high school is, of course, about six years too late: according to the nonprofit Connect With Kids, by the ninth grade 34% of kids have already had intercourse. And if you are loving those numbers, try these: according to Science Daily, "by age 12, 12 percent of students had already engaged in vaginal sex, 7.9 percent in oral sex, 6.5 percent in anal sex and 4 percent in all three types of intercourse."

So here's what I am offering as a compromise position. I won't give up the right to a safe abortion. However, I will honor and respect the belief that "life" begins at conception (even though I don't accept it) if my opposite number honors my belief that sex education ought to tell the full truth about sex and reproductive choice, making those choices real through the availability of birth control and insisting that both boys and girls are equally responsible for safer sex practices and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. In this vein, another panelist on my Constitution Day panel noted that all innovations in birth control, except for condom use and the Big Snip, can only be implemented by women. Decades after the sexual revolution, large numbers of adults continue to assume that girls are responsible for "it," not boys. Think about it: when you imagine your average heterosexual teen couple on the brink of doing the nasty do you imagine: a) her saying no; b) him saying no; c) a chorus of two saying no; d) a group of teens of any gender talking about how much happier and better their lives are without sexual activity?

The logic of abstinence education is, of course, that keeping teens ignorant of sex makes them safer (interestingly, some of the same people would argue that teaching teens how to use and care for guns makes guns safer, a position with which I would agree.) In culture wars logic all sex, whether hetero- or homosex, is "an infectious idea," as one scholar has put it. If you talk to the young about sex it will make them sexual, a patently absurd proposition if I have ever heard one, but a popular one in certain circles all the same. One of the scariest things I ever heard about teen sex was in a student paper in which I asked students to interview someone else about their experience in sex education. A gay man from Oklahoma City interviewed his best friend from high school, a woman who told him she was "still a virgin" and so was her boyfriend. Both were committed Christians, who wanted to remain "pure" until their wedding night. How did this work in practice? As the interview continued, it turned out that they had been having unprotected anal sex for three years, which she found painful and scary, but a good strategy to help them both wait for marriage.

Now you might argue from this example that the problem with abstinence education is that it doesn't go far enough: "Say no to that -- and that -- and that. And, oh yes, there is that." Perhaps that is so, but I doubt it: teenagers are remarkably creative in finding ways to do what they want without formally breaking the rules; hiding it when they do break the rules; and elaborating justifications for doing things you forgot to make a rule about.

And just in case you think telling students something causes them to learn it, ask any college teacher how many times they have announced their regular office hours, how many places they have written them down, and how many students -- every week -- come up after class and say "When can I come see you?"

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Annals of Technology: The Pros And Cons Of Going Audible

Many years ago, when I was commuting between Zenith and New York, I tried what were then called "books on tape." At that point in time, every car had a "tape deck," a now defunct technology that was, from time to time, carved out of the dashboard of one's car by enterprising youths on the Lower East Side. Books on tape would arrive in the mail, much as Netflix do today, but in a large padded envelope. Contained within would be a large plastic folio with multiple cassette tapes in numbered order (usually 8-12.)

Listening to books was, and is, a project about which I am conflicted. For reasons I don't quite understand, I dislike being read to, and prefer to have text be a starting point for inserting myself in another narrative world (is this why the young enjoy video games?) On the other hand, when I first tried listening to books in the 1990s, I had a highly literary and elderly friend who was losing her eyesight and, sadly, her capacity to read. Books were something we shared, part of the glue of our friendship. In addition to spending my commuting time in the car in a more elevated way, listening to these books allowed me to prolong an intellectual relationship that might otherwise have become restricted by her disability.

I am now nearly twenty years older: my elderly friend passed on about a decade ago, I no longer commute such a long distance (although I drive a minimum of 50 minutes a day, four days a week, on the low side for Nutmeg staters), and I am far closer to a time when I might, myself, be unable to see well enough to read. When I discovered that I could download MP3 files directly to my iPhone, I thought, Why not improve the moment and try again? Listening to books might, after all, be an acquired taste; and I never get to read as much during the term as I like.

So I signed up for, purchased a cord to plug my iPhone into the auxiliary jack in the new Toyota, and I was off.

But what to choose? I decided to go with something in which I was interested, but might not otherwise read: Lady Antonia Fraser's Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (reviewed here by Blake Morrison of The Guardian.) As soon as I began listening, I began to worry that -- well, I didn't like her, and that I would have to stop, something I had not expected. To forge on, I came up with reasons for our differences, which I think had principally to do with her hero worship for Pinter. Fraser is, of course, a biographer, which I kept reminding myself at the frequent points where she subsumed her own story to Pinter's, which is what a biographer would do on principle; she is a popular writer, and he is a Nobel laureate; and she makes a point of distancing herself from feminism at various points in the narrative and naturalizing certain kinds of gender hierarchy. A leftist, Fraser's non- (rather than anti-) feminism becomes particularly clear when she happily marches to the polls to cast her vote for Margaret Thatcher in May, 1979, so pleased is she with the idea that Thatcher will become the first woman PM (yes, Antonia, but that woman?)

But instead of reviewing the book (which is, in the end, as Antonia would say "a lark!"), let me just summarize what I think, at this point, is the difference between listening and reading.

Listening takes longer. While the time might have been compressed had I not confined myself to listening only in the car, by reading it I would have finished a book of this nature in about a day. Listening in the car took me about ten days, which was a long time to live with these people. That said, I grew more rather than less involved with them; I was often eager to get back to the "book;" and I was thus happier in my commute than I have been in years. A prolonged exposure to the ins and outs of Pinter at the height of his success and political activism also made me want to read his plays from beginning to end.

The tone of the prose changes when read, and heard, aloud. Perhaps it was the irritatingly lilting accent of the British actress tasked with Fraser's voice, but turns of phrase and choices of language I might not have noticed as I read grated on me, as did the winsome upswing of tone at the end of sentences and paragraphs. It misrepresented Fraser as a lightweight; differently, the male actor who leaped in from time to time to read Pinter's poetry, was firm, decisive and substantive, snapping out his sentences with a snap and a bang. This made the book very highly gendered, in addition to being almost cartoonishly heterosexual. Hyperbole -- something I have never noticed about Fraser's prose -- stands out in a way I'm not sure it would as one's eyes dash over the page. Women are "raven-haired;" plays are "brilliant successes" or "disasters;" men are "dashing" and "heroic." This can be irritating, as can turns of phrase which forecast the loss of Pinter almost as soon as they meet -- the title, "Must you go?" is one of them.

Listening, the first chapters seem positively mawkish at times, interspersed as they are with stuffy, British-y scenes where the Pinters and the Frasers rearrange their households, a process that is utterly civilized but for actress Vivien Merchant, a binge drinker who did not like being usurped as Pinter's wife and muse by a swanky peeress and acted out in a way that would be perfectly normal in the United States. There is one hilarious chapter where the affair is admitted to all around, and Harold calls formally upon Hugh Fraser (as one might have called upon a father decades ago) for drinks to let him know that he is reliable and serious in his intentions towards Antonia. The two men chat -- not about her, but about cricket -- for hours, and Antonia falls asleep on the couch. When she wakes up Hugh has handed her over to Pinter like the agreeable chap he was, and everyone parts friends. Conveniently, Hugh then dies seven years later, and Antonia can remarry and be a good Catholic too!

The diary format is tedious. The memoir is reconstructed from Fraser's journals, which Pinter read from time to time and annotated with his own memories and observations. Strange but true, although it is a glimpse into how very intimate the couple was. This is also a jarring detail. Because the actress reads everything that is printed, she also reads the dates -- something you might not notice when reading. "October 4. Blah, blah October 26. Blah blah. November 14...." There is this sense of being force-marched through someone's life which is hard to shake, and a compulsion to do the math: "Let's see, Pinter dies on Christmas Eve 2008, so they have approximately 24 years, eight months and six days left to go."

It is easy to miss important points if you lack prior knowledge, or are misinformed, about them. For example, Fraser kept referring to someone named "Poole" to whom she was related, who was clearly a Big Deal, but I couldn't figure out why. I was well into the book before I discovered, because of a reference to one of his major works, Dance to the Music of Time, that she was referring to Anthony Powell, which I have never heard pronounced "Poole." As it turns out, that was something I had gotten wrong from reading, but never really discussing Powell's novels -- which is kind of interesting if you think about it.

You can't take notes. There is a function which allows you to mark passages in the Audible file, but doing this in the car strikes me as hazardous, so I didn't try. This means my constant thought -- "I must do a blog post!" was accompanied by the daily realization that I would have to retrain my memory to remember enough about the book to do so. Will I be able to do this? Will it be good for my aging cerebellum? Only time will tell.

A final note is that buying these Audibles, even with the monthly subscription costs as much or more than buying the book-object. On a certain level this is fine: it's a greener process, for sure, and I am getting to a point where I don't want things in my library that are not of some lasting value to me. However, it does make it difficult to share a book, as the files are not easily transferred to a third-party, and you certainly can't read it together.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Very Sad Day

Once again a student has died violently at Zenith, this time by her own hand. She was found yesterday, badly burned, and she passed on today at Bridgeport Hospital.

You never, ever, get used to it. Ever.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them: The Lessons We Learn From Newspaper Delivery

I did something this morning that I rarely do: I complained about a service. At school, I almost never complain when someone in a staff or administrative position drops the ball. I am far more likely to go straight to them, if the thing was important, and say "Hey, what can I do differently next time to make sure this doesn't happen again in this way?" Such an encounter sometimes results in useful information about what I can do differently; other times it results in the person apologizing for whatever didn't get done and taking note of it for the future.

The least productive thing to do is to keep things to myself and fume, doing things I shouldn't have to do to make sure they happen, harboring a grievance, feeling hard done by, and coming to believe that I am ill-served and underprivileged. My experience is that this usually ends with me having a fit about something that might have been easily resolved, an unpleasant encounter to which the person delivering the service I require cannot possibly respond. And yet, minus the unreasonable fit, this is exactly what I have done in relationship to my newspaper delivery, causing myself great misery in the process.

As readers of this blog know, The New York Times is very dear to me. In part that is because local newspapers, with a few exceptions, have been bought up and gutted by national chains. Stripped of reporting staff, managed from afar, and bleeding red ink from the collapse of advertising revenue, newspapers in places like Shoreline and Zenith are so dreadful and understaffed that they don't even report local news anymore, much less connect the local to the national or the international. In fact, since the 1970s, when I went to high school in the Philadelphia suburbs and read The Philadelphia Inquirer every day, I have not had access to a really good local newspaper. Hence, I became a devotee of the Gray Lady, and came to see it as a daily link to a national conversation. When I went to college in Shoreline I acquired my own subscription, delivered to the door by another student; when I lived in New York I picked it up from a newsstand as soon as I left the house because it was my local newspaper; when I got my first academic job in Philadelphia I snubbed the Inquirer because I now considered myself a New Yorker.

When I went to work at Zenith back in 1991, I still considered myself a New Yorker: after all, my partner worked there and we maintained a lovely New York apartment. However I soon realized, to my horror, that you could not have the Times delivered in the town of Zenith. Color me silly, but this flaw -- and the university's unwillingness to push the Times to establish a delivery route around the campus for the 14 years that I lived there -- was a major symbolic force in persuading me that I could no longer live in Zenith. If the New York Times was not delivered there, I felt, much as I liked my house and my short commute to work, the town of Zenith was a backwater where I was sure to become obscure and forgotten, where Life would soon cease to be Worth Living, and I would spend the rest of my days as a character in a Mary McCarthy novel.

Reader, I moved.

So now I live in Shoreline and subscribe to the Times, although as I understand it, publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., has now admitted the dreadful truth: that in order to continue to publish at the level its readers expect, the Times will eventually have to become web-only. I'm not surprised. At a conference I attended early in the summer, a newspaper editor who was part of a panel of journalism scholars, unveiled the astonishing fact that around 80% of a newspaper's operating budget involves generating and transporting the object itself.

This brings me back to my complaint: for the past six months or so, my newspaper has arrived far too late in the day for me to know I will have time to read it, something that I feel seriously impairs my ability to do my job as a teacher-scholar, much less a blogger. Anyone outside my door in the morning might observe the venetian blinds being cracked open every fifteen minutes or so by a hand surrounded in terry cloth, an unblinking eyeball appearing at the hole provided, and the blinds snapping shut with disgust. Some days, I go out and peer under the bushes and the porch, usually to no avail. On mornings that I teach at 9:00, as I leave the house to go to school, I often toss the paper through the door in disgust, knowing it will go unread (at least by me) that day, and that its only destiny is the recycling bin. Today, a Sunday, the paper arrived at 8:15, when I had been up for about 90 minutes and was already fully engaged in other tasks.

So finally I called The New York Times to complain, something I have put off doing because I know that people who deliver newspapers for a living are probably working a second or third job, and I keep hoping that this situation will change without me asserting my class privilege as a person who works one, fairly well-paid, job. And yet, I say to myself, Why am I paying $40.00 a month for a paper I cannot read most of the time -- or cannot read in time to be an informed person which, as a history professor, I should be? Should I not do something about this before I get some terrible auto-immune disease that has been caused by my suppressed anger at not receiving the newspaper? Or come to regard the New York Times as a charity I support rather than a pleasure?

What I learned from the nice man who answered at 1-800-NYTIMES was this: my complaint about late newspapers during the week was justified, as delivery is guaranteed by 6:30; and my complaint about late newspapers on the weekend is not justified, as delivery is only guaranteed by 8:30. I pointed out, calmly, to the man receiving my complaint, that 8:30 was awfully late for those of us who think that a day should begin with the newspaper, and who rise far earlier. He pointed out that this might be so and made a little moue of sympathy, but said with regret that the guarantee was company policy, so there you go. There you go, I agreed. And there we were. He said he would get on it about the weekday newspaper; I agreed, with regret, to suck it up about the weekend newspaper.

In fact, walking the dog around 8:45, I noted numerous bagged newspapers waiting on other people's doorsteps, and one sleepy man in PJ's picking up his. I may, in fact, be almost the only customer in the neighborhood who rarely sleeps past 6:15. If there is anything I have learned through a lifetime of being one of the very few queer people in my workplace it is this: you may want people to take your minority interests into account, but the truth is that they won't, mostly. The majority not only rules, but they rule so completely that you can drive yourself crazy trying to get people to accommodate what seems like a simple request, or even trying to get them to recognize that you have a legitimate point of view. Developing a talent for compromise is not only wise, it is a necessary survival strategy, unless you like being unfairly regarded as a fussy, unreasonable eccentric.

As I saw the untouched newspapers up and down the street, and on the porches that surround our neighborhood green (one porch had four bagged papers, representing at least four sleepyhead intellectuals) I began having that feeling of dread that I used to have in Zenith that signifies impending Social Death. Once again, I thought, I have ended up in a backwater and will have to sell my house, quit my job and move back to New York to have the Life Worth Living. Or I will have to compromise. But how?

Then I was struck by a brighter thought. At a certain point you have to stop running from a problem, and do the sensible thing: throw money at it. So off to the iPad store I go.

One of the threads I will be developing in this blog in the coming weeks is the changing shape of intellectual culture in a publishing and curatorial environment that is becoming less friendly to the printed object. For an urgent call to action about the demise of the book, see Jeffrey Hamburger and Anthony Grafton in this month's New York Review of Books on the threat to the University of London's Warburg Library.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Terry Jones, Fanatacism and the Violence of Bumper-Sticker Politics

It looks like Terry Jones will not burn a Qur'an today, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that occurred in the United States on September 11 2001, although I fully expect that some other fanatic will. The publicity surrounding this proposed violence around a sacred object has been so great that Jones' counterparts elsewhere in the world have already performed a series of retaliatory actions, and I am very glad that I did not schedule my AHA book prize committee to meet in Washington today as we had originally planned to do.

Although not a jihadist, I too have always been offended by needlessly offensive actions, signs and bumper stickers that make sport of things I care about; I even dislike ones that announce other people's political positions or social identities. I dislike Confederate flags for all the reasons you might expect, but I dislike even more those people who have so little sense of self that they fly them to try to acquire an identity. I once saw a group of young men burn an American flag at an anti-war demo and was surprised by the contempt that I felt for this nasty bit of masculine aggression (have you ever seen a woman burn a flag? Think about it.) Bumper sticker politics are a more daily, low-level irritation. I don't want to know that you feel defined by your Great Dane; that you have "A Baby On Board" that I, a complete stranger, am supposed to be concerned about; whether you are gay; who you voted for; that you would feel good about shooting me if you felt you needed to; that you vacation on Nantucket; or your position on abortion.

Bumper stickers have not stopped the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it is true that God loves me (and a very good friend has assured me that this is so), I don't think S/he is going to signify it by sending me a bumper sticker and commanding me to put it on my car. I feel similarly about signs of all kinds that are not selling a service, but rather, are pushing a point of view or something that someone is asking me to feel about a political issue (for example, signs all over the Midwest encouraging me to get all weepy and guilty about 150 embryonic stem cells that didn't get to become a baby or asking me if I "miss" W yet. No, I don't. And I don't think he misses us either.)

Last year Terry Jones' church posted a lawn sign that said "Islam is of the devil," an event that didn't draw enough media attention I guess, and had to be ratcheted up. It occurred to me to wonder last night as I was watching Jones on television whether he actually is the devil. It's just a thought. But it has also occurred to me to wonder why it has taken American extremists like Jones so long to figure out what anti-American demonstrators around the world have known for years. At any given demo, a bunch of journalists may be sitting around going, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Rock throwing, yeah. Tear gas, yeah, so what? Police violence against children, yeah, yeah, yeah." But pull out your Zippo and send up one of those polyester American flags made in China, and all of a sudden you are surrounded with cameras and featured on a dozen nightly newscasts.

Prior to Jones canceling/suspending this event (and apparently telling a lot of lies about why he felt he could), my fantasy was this. The Gainesville police department, led by someone like Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson, would step in and do one of those things that you see on TV: you know, a traffic stop on the pretext of a cracked tail light, and holding Jones for 36 hours while he found the documents that prove he is actually an American citizen. Or that Homeland Security would do what it does to Middle-Eastern and South Asian looking people every day, which is to simply arrest Jones on suspicion of inciting terrorist violence and hold him in an undisclosed location, threatening to disappear him into a series of black sites unless he got his $hit together. As long as we are violating the civil liberties of citizens and legal residents every day, couldn't we just include Terry Jones too?

For once, I would have to say that I have to applaud the private sector for doing something that government can't. Rackspace, a Texas web-hosting service has taken down Jones' web page, which advertises al his noxious views on Islam. According to the Christian Science Monitor, they can do this legally because they are a private company and Jones violated the usage policies set by the company, in which he implicitly agreed to a limitation of his speech:

Dan Goodgame, a spokesman for Rackspace, which is based in Texas, told the AFP today that Dove World had "violated the Offensive Content section of its Acceptable Use policy... As a customer of Rackspace, they agree to adhere to the policy and they didn't," Goodgame added.

According to the AFP, Goodgame pointed specifically to a clause that forbids any content that is "excessively violent, incites violence, threatens violence, or contains harassing content or hate speech; and creates a risk to a person's safety or health, creates a risk to public safety or health, compromises national security, or interferes with a investigation by law enforcement."

What few national news accounts of Jones' proposed Qur'an burning have noted is that his church, the Dove World Outreach Center of Gainesville, FL, is also responsible for acts of aggressive homophobic propaganda that encourage violence against gays and lesbians. This is not just the conversational, Leviticus-quoting "God Didn't Make Adam and Steve" variety of homophobia, but the ginning up of active hostility by making GLBT people out to be uniformly crazed perverts. Such lies are aimed at persuading straight people that, if queer people are given access to full civil rights, hets and their supposedly het children are certain to be sexually assaulted by gays, lesbians and transgendered people. The main target has been the openly gay mayor of Gainesville, Craig Lowe (hat tip.) Last year, Dove had the lawn sign up that said "Islam is of the devil;" this year it was replaced during the campaign with a sign that said "No Homo Mayor." Threatened with losing their tax status, the sign was taken down and replaced with one that said "No Homo." Dove's pastor Wayne Sapp also made a video in which he called Lowe a "fag" who was trying "to convert Gainesville into Homoville." He urged viewers to “Speak out against homosexuality. Speak out against the ones trying to force themselves and their lifestyle on you, on your children.” In reference to a city ordinance that bans discrimination against transgendered people, a leaflet passed out during the campaign warned that women's restrooms would be occupied by gays (thus making all restrooms dangerous, not just for transgendered people, but for all of us who might be perceived as gay or "improperly" gendered.)

In case you think this connection between Islamophobia and homophobia is just a coincidence, Shirley Phelps Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church is ticked at Jones too. Phelps-Roper is the daughter of Fred Phelps, that nice man who organizes the "God Hates Fags" pickets and who referred to Muhammed on the Westboro website as a "pedophilic gigolo." Phelps also pickets military funerals, in an attempt to make the point that American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are being killed because God is angry about America's tolerance for homosexuality. But Phelps-Roper is fuming, not because the Jones event was suspended, but because Westboro Baptist Church has already burned Qur'ans and no one paid any attention to them. Reached Thursday on a Chicago picket line where she was protesting the presence of Jews in America, she commented "that in 2008 she and her father's Topeka flock set fire to a Qur'an in plain view on a Washington, D.C., street and nobody seemed to care. 'We did it a long time before this guy,'" she said.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ask the Radical: A Young Historian Seeks Advice On Overcoming Obstacles

A SLAC graduate in the midst of a prestigious PhD program in history asks us for advice, dear readers:

I write to you today with a very elderly cat sleeping next to me (she's 18, it's kind of ridiculous) and thoughts of the job market and my ability to provide food for the very elderly cat foremost in my mind. What I've been wondering, lately, is what I'm supposed to do with the knowledge BOTH that the job market is very bad AND that, as it happens, a graduate program is probably the best place for me right now.

(Brief aside: I say this not because I'm Special and Being A Historian Is What I Was Meant To Do, but because, in practical terms, it's true. It's sort of weird to tell a stranger this, but the flexibility inherent in graduate school--the ability to disappear for months at a
time and still have money to pay [most] bills has been vital. My parents are both dead and I am solely responsible for the care of a very ill younger sibling. I didn't know any of that would happen when I started, but at this point, bailing is just not logistically reasonable.)

So put another way, what do I do now, exactly? What steps can I take to make myself appear employable, maybe on the market, but maybe not? Like, yeah, I shouldn't have gone to graduate school, but I did and I can't really quit. So . . . now what? It's a question I don't really
see addressed in online conversations or, particularly, in my program.

I've done a lot of things to try to make it work, including cobbling together a bunch of odd jobs--as a museum docent, as a freelance researcher doing copy editing, image identification, and everything else in between, as an advisor to an undergraduate research program. I was invited to give a lecture in an undergraduate course as a pinch-hitter when a prof had a health crisis. I've a paper coming out in Prestigious History Journal and am giving a paper at Prestigious Conference next year. I've JOINED the Berks in the hopes of cultivating some friend/mentorships with Lady Historians. Is that all there is to the circus? That and, as everyone says, "Write a really good dissertation?"

I'm curious what you think about this--about how one might go about making the best of a bad lot, and whether it's specific to every person or there are more general ways to think about this.

My first piece of advice is that you need to go out and acquire a kitten immediately. Despite the fact that s/he would represent an additional expense, you could not only use an extra set of paws in your life, you need someone in the household who is relentlessly optimistic. Someone dashing about the apartment with her tail in the air sounds like just the ticket to me.

So let's get down to your real circumstances and the substance of your question: you went to graduate school in history under one set of assumptions about what your future held, and then your life changed dramatically. Although you have not indicated whether there are other relatives in the picture, you have been orphaned at an unusually early age and now are charged with the well-being of a sibling. You have not indicated whether said sibling has resources or other caregivers, but your point is clear: despite the lousy job market, you cannot afford not to work. You cannot even afford to work at a level that supports one person rather meanly, which is what some young historians can do when they only support themselves and/or can rely on others to bail them out when their cars die on I-95 on the way to a poorly paid adjunct job. Furthermore, even if you were willing to chuck your dream of being a historian, it doesn't seem realistic to quit graduate school now and retrain for something with a guaranteed future like bankruptcy law, refugee relief and disaster management, or the Border Patrol.

I agree. Let's look at the plus side for a moment.

Although you rightly portray your circumstances as mildly Dickensian, you also seem to have what all heroines of nineteenth century fiction require: pluck, ambition, prudence and character. You also have good judgement, and have focused at least some of your efforts on concrete accomplishments that will display your scholarly talents to others. You have done all the right things: gone to a great graduate school in a major city where there are jobs (teaching and non-teaching) a-plenty; you are publishing; and you are giving papers and reaching out to other historians to build a set of contacts that, while they can't necessarily get you a tenure-track job, will help to lift you out of obscurity. You have explored a number of other options for work, options that -- given the right circumstances -- will open paths to working in public history, or working in programs that help link the study of history to fields outside traditional academia.

I am also cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for academic employment over the next few years, barring a double-dip recession. The first issue of AHA Perspectives had a lot of good jobs, several of which were rank open, which suggests that purses are beginning to open up. Even big public universities that have taken a serious beating from their legislatures are advertising jobs -- Rutgers, Cal, CUNY and UI -- and Rutgers is committing to three more searches in the next couple years. My sense of things is that universities responded to the crash by closing their pocketbooks with a snap. That they were a little short of cash was one issue, but the bigger issue was not knowing where the bleeding would stop, so administrators did not want to make commitments that would make them look improvident down the line.

So I am cautiously optimistic that the job market is returning to normal bad, a state of things that will also bring with it the visiting positions, temporary work and post-docs that sustain this state of normal bad -- but were suspended immediately following the crash to cope with the cash crunch.

There is more good news: because you are not a snob, because you had no backup, and because you look forward and not backwards, you have explored other kinds of work. I have one relative who, suddenly left as a single mom with a small child, decided overnight to suck it up and go to law school, despite the fact that she really might have preferred to be an entrepeneur. In a moment of useful hardheadedness, she put the interests of her dependent first, and developed her talents in another way. And yet, I am quite sure that her immediate need -- to have a salary and benefits -- will ultimately dovetail with the creative talents that caused her to explore another kind of life entirely. Similarly, while you might end up making a career in public history, this does not bar you from a satisfying life of scholarship (have I ever told you how much time, in my cushy tenured job, I spend doing work I do not value and that detracts from my own writing and teaching?)

Let me offer another piece of advice following from this thought: Administrators Make More Money. A lot more money. There are more administrative jobs, and administrators have more flexibility in terms of where they work geographically. Some of them even have tenure (ask Lesboprof if you don't believe me.) You really need to keep this path open, and think about doing so by amplifying your work experience in areas of university administration that are interesting to you. Knowing how to run a budget, how to supervise a staff, how to write an institutional grant, how to construct and supervise a curriculum - these are things that they don't teach in graduate school but that, in combination with your PH.D. and your publishing, could take you far, my friend. There are very few good academic jobs nowadays, particularly academic deanships and directorships, that do not require a PH.D. and a record of publication. Not infrequently, these ads ask for a "distinguished" record of publication as well. Hence, regarding administration as a fallback option for failed scholars is not only less true than it ever was, but it also seems that in the near future, having street cred as a scholar will actually be critical to moving up the ladder administratively.

A great many graduate students are instructed that doing such work takes them off the fast-track, making them look unserious, unfocused and lacking in commitment to their scholarship. To this I say: Balls. Since when did the allegedly virtuous path of eking out a living on adjunct pay, moving around the country, and becoming increasingly bitter about what you have sacrificed prove to be a guarantee of tenure-track labor? Furthermore, while some narrow-minded person at Prestigious Ivy U. might look at your vita, overlook all your academic accomplishments and say, "Hmmm. Assistant to the Dean of the College? Yeccch!" someone at Zenith, or State U - Calabash might say happily, "Now here's a person who won't have to be taught how to walk, talk and find the chalk!" It is also true that you can send vitae to different schools that emphasize different things.

So you see? It's all in your perspective, isn't it? You are, in fact, doing the right thing. And while we all wake up in the middle of the night from time to time with disaster on our minds (yes, even Tenured Radicals who are full professors), you, my dear, have your head screwed on just right. Keep up the good work.

Yes, it's job season again. Got a question? Ask the Radical! Submit questions for publication to: tenuredDOTradicalATgmailDOTcom.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Cultural Studies; Or, The Perils Of Mislabeling Campus Problems

One of the things I have noticed, probably because I live with an anthropologist, is that academics tend to use the word "culture" to describe a variety of things that, actually, are not cultural at all. It is true that "culture" has a great many meanings, depending on the context in which it is being used, the historical period or thing that is being described, and the intellectual tradition (if any) that is being referenced: here are a few. For social scientists, most centrally anthropologists, "culture" is far more likely to invoke a set of usefully contentious questions and methodological choices than an answer to any given problem.

In a college or university setting, however, when someone starts talking about "culture" it is too frequently the end of the discussion, an explanation for why things must be as they are and/or a way of distancing from something nettlesome. You will most frequently hear the notion of culture being invoked by administrators and faculty when what is being addressed is a problem, or set of problems, that either no one wants to name or can name -- at least, not without opening a can of worms that general consensus dictates ought not to be opened.

For example, my friend Margaret Soltan over at University Diaries, a dedicated muckraker of university athletic scandals and the lavishing of public dollars on stadiums and celebrity coaches, recently reprinted a letter from the New York Times about "the culture of athletics." It was written by a Berkeley alum who is justifiably angry about a budget cutting climate in which academic staffing is dispensable, but the funding of Cal's semi-professional athletic programs continues to "balloon." He writes:

In my experience as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and as a high school teacher, I have seen how the culture of athletics promotes anti-intellectualism, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and bullying, and competition as opposed to collaboration. The athletic culture, which dismisses and demonizes opponents, most often acts in opposition to our other goals as an academic institution, not in concert with them.

I agree with the larger point about what ought to be the funding priority at universities: education. But I don't think sports are inherently bad for students or for student life, nor are they a waste of time and money when they are prudently budgeted. As a former student-athlete myself, I think athletics, at their best, promote discipline, friendship, a sense of community and self-esteem. Developmentally, they have the potential to help young people learn to accept failure in a nation where failure (particularly in an educational context) is overly stigmatized. Furthermore, while athletic teams with bad-a$$ marquee players get the most ink, such behavior is hardly confined to athletes on any campus, large or small. Young people in groups egg each other on to actions that they would not perpetrate alone. Fearful of being labeled Debbie Downers, individuals fail to intervene when they know the group, or a popular member of the group, is being violent, foolish or destructive. Athletics is only one of many ways that groups of young people cohere and demand conformity on a campus.

Hence, the author's invocation of "culture" to describe a set of malicious or destructive behaviors that vary dramatically in their incidence across gender and athletic specialties, and that are quite similar to behaviors exhibited by non-athletes, strikes me as wrong-headed and unhelpful. It unfairly stigmatizes athletes as bad people, when in fact the vast majority of undergraduate athletes -- like the vast majority of their non-athlete peers -- are good people who are occasionally prone to ill-considered actions. More importantly, the rubric of "culture" blurs questions of agency and responsibility in a way that makes a program of institutional reform, or the sensible re-integration of athletics into a university setting that prioritizes intellectual life, impossible.

If nothing but "culture" is at fault, to whom and to what do you turn for a solution?

Let's not be entirely dim here: while we all know that jock-$niffing faculty, administrators and boosters demand, authorize and pay for the budget excesses in big-time college athletics, the "behaviors" being referenced (with the exception of the occasional high-profile coach being arrested on a DUI or being extorted for an impulsive, public game of hide the salami) are exclusively student behaviors. So when we talk about "culture" on campus we are both talking about students being out of control, and we are being deliberately mysterious as to the role of the adults in promoting and tolerating that. Why the mystery? Because the university is dis-identifying with those activities, whatever it might be doing to facilitate them, and obscuring its own possible moral or legal liability for not dealing with them. That's why. So, to use another example, one great stumbling block to rationalizing tenure procedures across the university is not disciplinary differences, as you might imagine, but the invocation of "departmental cultures" that make each disciplinary entity mysteriously and necessarily unique from the others.

Let me give you another example which is at least as pressing a policy matter, and perhaps a less controversial one, than tenure. At Zenith, as at many schools, we have a big problem with various forms of extreme inebriation, which no one can pretend is related to our national athletic prominence. Students routinely end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning after weekend partying, as they do at other schools. Periodically, our very able Student Life professionals address this problem by revising the restrictions and penalties attached, not only to the possession and consumption of alcohol and drugs, but to the breaking of state and local laws that pertain to underage drinking. You can read them for yourself here. Furthermore, in part because of excessive drinking, we have a sex problem, which I would describe as a spectrum of unwanted intercourse along the lines of a Kinsey scale: 6 = unambiguous felony rape; 1 = being really impaired and having some spurious form of consent winkled out of you because you fear being called a c0cktea$e and/or you once "hooked up" with this same person (under our regulations 1 is still sexual assault.)

But in addition to sexual assault, drinking leads to a big, messy, dangerous and budget-sappingly expensive category of behavior on all campuses which is often mistakenly described as "campus culture." I say expensive because, when I was working at Ben Franklin University twenty years ago, BFU was said to have budgeted $500K a year for what was generically called "frat damage." But this too is a spectrum of behaviors dangerous to self and others that I would not call "culture," but The Doing Of Stupid Things. Teenagers are famous for Doing Stupid Things even when sober and living with one or more competent adults: dip into the field of popular psychological writing about parenting adolescents if you don't believe me. But when they get to college, are living with each other, and drinking, these activities can often include one or more of the following: vandalism, hiring strippers, ending up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning, throwing up on people, theft, contracting STDs from willing sexual partners, driving into trees, breaking arms and legs, sending nude pictures to each other's cell phones, and insisting that first-year students who have very little acquaintance with alcohol learn to drink like idiots too through drinking games and hazing practices.

A problem no one talks about -- because it is more or less invisible damage except when someone flunks out -- is that many students spend the time they could be studying or sleeping drunk, stoned, or recovering from being drunk or stoned. Five will get you ten that the "stress" we hear so much about nowadays is often intensified by the fact that students have less time to do their work because of the expansion of activities designed to "relieve stress."

Now it sounds like I am blaming students, exactly what I warned against, right? Wrong. I blame us, because by grouping these activities under the rubric of "culture" we obscure their actual causes and effects. We also distance ourselves from any responsibility for helping students grow up. As an aside, this is actually something a number of athletic coaches I know do particularly well, and is a logic for having modest and well-run intercollegiate sports programs. This is also the time to note that although Zenith prohibits underage drinking, it promotes a custom called "senior cocktails" in which undergraduates, in their final year, periodically get drunk at events hosted by the university (events that are sometimes prowled by younger male faculty); and it tolerates a well-known arrangement between the downtown bars and the local police department by which no Zenith student is required to show an I.D. to purchase alcohol on Wednesday nights.

I say this not to expose Zenith as particularly hypocritical in this regard, since most colleges probably have similar arrangements, but to underline my point. By invoking "culture" we are tacitly taking the attitude that the best we can do as professional educators is to contain student behavior by policing it in increasingly draconian ways, turning a blind eye to it when we can, paying for any physical damage. What other choice do we have if students are bringing something to the table -- "their culture" -- that is terribly foreign and inferior to "our culture?"

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Best Laid Plans; Or, Waiting for Earl

We were going to go to the beach for Labor Day weekend but have decided not to drive into the hurricane zone after all. Although Shoreline will get the edge of the system, meriting Tropical Storm status unless something changes, our Back To School destination was (is) about twenty five miles to the west of where Earl is destined to pass tomorrow afternoon. Everyone is talking about Bob, a Category 2 hurricane which, 19 years ago, took out power lines and trees from Long Island to Hartford, killed eighteen people and caused almost $3 billion in damage. At last report, although very wide, Earl had been downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane. It's nothing to fool around with, and it will hammer eastern Massachusetts -- but, although we are battening down the lawn furniture, we should have less trouble here.

That same 19 years ago, the Radicals were in the last two weeks of a summer-long rental on the North Fork of Long Island, and I was getting ready to start my job at Zenith. Bob passed pretty much over our house, which thrummed as the winds shrieked around it. We would not have made that choice voluntarily, but were living without TV or radio, so it was not until the semi-finals of the softball league were postponed that we understood that there was a whopper coming in. By then it was too late: the highway was bumper to bumper, and it was doubtful we would get off in time anyway. Except for a brief period right before the hurricane struck, when I was crawling around under the house capturing our fluffy gray cat who believed that you should leave the house in dangerous weather, we spent the storm in bed, wrapped up in blankets, mostly believing that we were safe but half expecting the house to levitate.

The sound of the wind, as the storm accelerated towards us, was unforgettable.

The truth is, however, that I loved it, and I half regret getting the B-version of this one. I have few guilty pleasures that I enjoy more than being battened down in a house in a seriously dangerous storm: ice, hail, wind, snow, thunder, lightening -- bring it on! I discovered this was when I was sixteen, on Tangier Island, off the coast of Virginia, on a family vacation, and I was hooked for life. The trick is, of course, that you have to be "caught" in it for it to count -- you can't drive right into it, because that would be just dumb.

Hence the canceled trip. If all goes as it is supposed to, we will be waiting on the sidelines for this one, working on our syllabi, blogging and greeting the School New Year.