Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tenured Radical is on Brief Hiatus

If you are looking for us over at the Chronicle, hang in there:  we are still unpacking. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It's Moving Day: Tenured Radical Migrates To The Chronicle Of Higher Education

Yesterday around cocktail hour the sun was slipping over the virtual mountains when we at Tenured Radical heard the sound of galloping pony hooves.  Sitting on our front porch, surrounded by boxes and half-full L.L. Bean sail bags, we squinted into the  glare and saw that it was Historiann.  "Hellzapoppin!" she yelled, in that instantly recognizable voice that is a cross between Dale Evans and Mary Maples Dunn.  She swung handily over the pommel, skirt barely in place as usual, and dropped her reins (we were impressed to see that cow pony come to an immediate halt, like they do in the movies.)  "I'm getting crazy numbers of  pings from your blog!" she said, as we put a bourbon and branch in her hand.  "When in 'tarnation were you going to tell me that you were moving?"

Oops.  There is so much going on at chez Radical we had neglected to announce that we are migrating from the Blogger site where we were born and raised to a Word Press platform hosted and maintained by The Chronicle of Higher EducationTenured Radical:  the 3.0 Edition will debut there shortly.

So, without further ado, I want to anticipate and answer a few questions.

Are you leaving a forwarding address?  Yes.  You should be able to click whatever link you are using and be forwarded directly to the new site.  Over time, you might want to replace that link, but don't worry about it now.

Will you be behind the pay wall?  Nope.

Will you be edited, or censored, in any way by The Chronicle?  Nope.

Will your archive move with you?  Yep:  hence the pinging over at Rancho Historiann.  The computer people have been opening the links in 723 posts to make sure they still work on the new platform.  Any problems should be reported to the management here, and we will forward them to our virtual IT friends over at the Chronicle.

Do you ever edit your posts subsequent to publication?  Yes:  I am a notoriously inaccurate typist, and frequently leave words out in my zeal to get ideas onto the screen and out to the world.  I also occasionally edit something to assuage hurt feelings: I edited a series of posts after I "came out," removing a few made-up stories that were versions of the truth.  Even though the focus of Tenured Radical has changed dramatically since those early days to avoid the personal as much as possible, I still have to edit from time to time when people mistakenly see themselves in a post.  My policy is to be attentive to the feelings of friends, students and colleagues. People I don't know, and who I haven't named, who claim they have suffered harm from one of my blog posts might want to look up "narcissistic personality disorder" in the DSM IV. 

Have you ever taken a post down completely?  There are five posts I have taken down completely.  The first was about something that happened in class, a post which rightly came back to bite me in the butt, because I had no idea that everyone at Zenith knew that I was the Tenured Radical.  I then removed three others that had the potential to do similar damage. However, I have since come to believe that it is simply wrong to write about students, or any other private person, without their permission -- this includes children, spouses, parents, colleagues, neighbors, siblings and (fill in your relationship to me here ________.) But posts about students are the worst:  written as amusing anecdotes that showcase our wit, wisdom and sorely tried patience,  they are all exploitative and mean to some degree or another.  I always make a point of telling my students in the first class that I will not write about them.

The other post I took down was, ironically, the post that originally brought me to the attention of a larger audience: "Where Credit is Due: Rutgers Basketball, Don Imus and Drive Time Shock" (April 2007.) In that post I asked why the national success of a team of African-American female scholar-athletes had caused them to be called sluts and whores by a major media figure. I compared the gender and racial dynamic in play at this moment to the significant support for the white, male members of a prominent lacrosse team, who were fighting felony charges that they had raped and beaten a stripper hired to entertain at the end of an all-day beer fest.  It was a small part of the post, but the blogging equivalent of a hand grenade: referring to the symbolic importance of a college athletic scandal I knew little about made me the object of an ongoing attack organized by an academic blogger who was writing a commercial book about the case because he believed that the charges were false.   The lacrosse players were eventually exonerated due to gross inconsistencies in the evidence, as well as multiple transgressions on the part of the prosecutor.  This public official was subsequently disbarred, and is one of several parties, including the university, who have been punished by civil lawsuits filed by the young men and their families.)

What did Tenured Radical have to do with this case?  Exactly nothing, except that the effort to achieve justice for the athletes dovetailed nicely with said blogger's campaign against so-called liberal scholars.  It was quite the experience to be sucked suddenly, and without warning, into a full-on battle against the forces of political correctness.  Members of this blogger's apparently vast audience threatened to sue me, maim me or get me fired.  They filled my comments sections with crazed invective. They left threatening messages on my voice mail.  They sent me vicious emails about what a terrible person I was, copied to numerous faculty colleagues who I am sure had no idea what a blog was or why they were supposed to care about a southern lacrosse team.  They fired off numerous letters demanding my immediate termination (often with false return addresses and written in block letters) to university officers, colleagues and the Board of Trustees.

It was a strange introduction to the blogosphere.  But it was also like getting an unasked for internship in a culture war I had thought was over, and that had certainly never touched me at good old Zenith.  In retrospect, it was a little glimpse of that libertarian nest of snakes that would emerge a few years later as the Tea Party movement, and of the "gotcha" politics that would snag people far more important than I.  On the plus side, it garnered me a ton of great readers, proving once again that there is no such thing as bad publicity as long as you don't send anyone naked pictures of yourself.

So the question is, if there is so much good news associated with this moment, and it boosted me to academic blogosphere superstardom, why did I take the post down?

Was it because I was afraid of a lawsuit, as said blogger implied in a recent series of attacks at a neoconservative website?  No. I left the Rutgers post up for a long time so that the selective quotations that made me a punching bag could be put in the context of the whole argument by a reasonable reader.  However, the post came down (I still have it, actually) after a reputable source and a blogging colleague told me that the mothers of one of the accused athletes had been inconsolably distressed by it.  Subsequently, a pseudonymous contact claiming to be the wife of a civilian contractor in the Middle East and a friend of this woman contacted me.  She amplified, in a very moving way, on the distress my post had caused in a home already under strain from the son's legal troubles.  In response, I removed the post.  I asked this correspondent to convey my deepest apologies to her friend and to put us in touch if a direct apology would be helpful, something she was unlikely to get from any of the thousands of other journalists who had vilified her son and his friends.

Whether these messages ever got through, I do not know.  Subsequently, I came to wonder whether the story about the mother was real or invented, because I came to wonder who this "friend" actually was (impersonation is quite common in the virtual world, as are "sock puppets," a single person claiming to be many different commenters.)  The pseudonymous correspondent abruptly cut off contact when, as part of my effort to reach out to her "friend," I questioned the motivations and mental health of the activist blogger who had, in my view, amplified any original harm by out of context quotation and endless, public cyber-bullying of anyone who suggested that long-standing problems of violent conduct on this team had made the false charges believable to begin with.  It has happened more than once that someone, operating out of the anonymous email accounts that are so easy to open, has made and cultivated contact with me and then disappeared when I voiced my view that the manic activism of this blogger, and an over the top obsession with women and people of color as chronically unworthy and/or dishonest, might be a symptom of a personality disorder.

So what have you learned, dear?  When in doubt about whether a topic is combustible, stay away from it, and be very, very careful when treating statements made in the media as factual.  Particularly when commenting on a topic that is likely to draw unwelcome political attention, always hedge your bets with those words we history scholars use when making an argument from inferential evidence:  "perhaps," "it seems," and "although we cannot be sure" are all useful phrases that permit the blogger to revisit an analysis later, or make a theoretical argument that stands up to new facts and reinterpretation of old facts.

Know your enemy, and don't reason with people who have an ax to grind.  Easier said than done.  However, unpleasant as it was, this episode was a great turning point for my own critical thinking about why I blogged, what I blogged, and with whom I got into pi$$ing matches.

Even when you don't know them you are writing about real people.  What one academic blogger thinks or says can't really matter, can it?  The answer to that question is that it is hard to know, and every post should be read prior to publishing with an eye to how it might  be misunderstood.  It doesn't mean that you shouldn't write it, but when flame wars start, the intelligent work you are promoting on your blog is obscured. It is a hard, but true, fact that you only get one chance in the blogosphere, and that chance is in the original post:  no amount of explanation or clarification will be adequate for your critics, who are only interested in promoting their own views.  Even if we bloggers were inclined to apologize or retract in the face of unjust criticism, we live in a society that now sees every error, every slip, as evidence of severe and permanent character flaws.

Assume that you are read by everyone in your life.  Half of your acquaintances who take umbrage at a post will never tell you; and half of these people also insist they would never be caught dead reading any blog, much less yours. 

Is this the last post over at 2.0?  Yep.  The final box just went on the virtual truck.  I'll see you all over at the Chronicle in 3.0, and Historiann?  Hope that pony got you home all right last night.  Ponies always know where to go, even when bloggers don't.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In Sisterhood: Support The Strike At London Met's Women's Library

There's a long history of feminist resistance in England
Eighteen months ago found your Radical in London.  On the trail of radical feminist Leah Fritz, I had also decided to check out what archival material was available on the feminist anti-pornography movement in London.  What I found at The Women's Library at London Metropolitan University changed the shape of my research.  I discovered that, just as radical feminists in the United States had become intractably divided over the representation of eroticism, Andrea Dworkin's ideas had roamed across the pond and found both opposition and fertile ground on the British left.  In the UK, where there is no absolute right to free speech, and where skinhead violence had produced legislation against hate speech that would have violated the First Amendment in the United States, the struggle took some similar, but also different forms.

I loved the Women's Library and vowed to return to do more comparative research that pushed the nationalist frame of my project.  Imagine my shock when I received an alert that dramatic cuts at London Met would endanger the work of this valuable collection and eliminate the BA in history.  From the History of Feminism Network:

The Women’s Library is home to world-renowned collections on women’s struggles throughout history and has hosted excellent exhibitions on women workers and female led-strikes. This Wednesday 22nd June 2011 Women’s Library staff will themselves take action to ensure that London Met University continues to be a thriving centre for the study of gender and feminism.

London Met Unison and UCU have voted for a one day strike on 22nd June unless the management resolve their dispute over compulsory redundancies (200 announced so far) and the closure of 70% of courses.

These cuts are of concern to all of us working in the fields of feminism and gender studies, across UK higher education institutions. Judging the value of academic disciplines according to narrow definitions of economic viability will particularly discriminate against already marginal subjects. The History BA is among those London Met courses set to close, despite it having long been such an important focus for the study of women’s history and with the Women’s Library hosting this years Women’s History Network Annual Conference.

This is why we want to express our strong support for the Women’s Library staff and everyone at London Met taking industrial action next week.

Come along to support the picket line! Meet 8am sharp, outside the Women’s Library, 25 Old Castle St, London E1 7NT (5 mins from Aldgate East Tube).

Send messages of support to and
As the friend who sent me this confided, "While I don't know a whole lot about the cuts, I'm heartsick that an archive like The Women's Library is in danger. This is especially troubling for those of us who are pursuing subjects that are not necessarily represented in larger archives - I fondly remember my time at that archive."  So should we all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mr. DeMille, He's Ready For His Close-Up: Vito Russo And Gay Liberation

Michael Schiavi, Celluloid Activist:  The Life and Times Of Vito Russo (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).  361 pp. Index, illustrations.  $29.95 hardback.

It is June, otherwise known by Presidential proclamation as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, a time when major cities and resort towns around the country have parades and sell beer.  What we are celebrating, other than the success of GLBT entrepeneurship, is the Stonewall Riots.  An iconic event, it began on June 28 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York, following a raid on the Stonewall Inn, and continued on for days as roving groups of queers provoked, and resisted, the police.  This, it is said, was the birth of gay liberation, which is technically true.  Activists subsequently formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a group that made a definitive break with homophile politics.  For those of you who don't know this history, homophile groups were accomodationist in their strategies, trying to persuade straights and the state that gays and lesbians, except for their sexuality, were just like everyone else:  unfortunately, in this day and age of gay marriage, gay babies and gay war, this is increasingly the case.

Homophile groups like Mattachine, ONE and Daughters of Bilitis were not, however, conservative, a charge made by the GLF at the time that scholars like Martin Meeker, Marcia Gallo and David Johnson have effectively refuted.  They laid a critical foundation for community building and formal legal action that would produce a gay rights movement of the 1970s that would seek to extend basic civil rights to people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender status.  GLF, on the other hand, adopted the confrontational stance that had become characteristic of the black power, anti-war and radical feminist groups with whom many of their members were, or had been, associated. GLF was to the homophiles as the Black Panthers were to the Urban League. 

We are long overdue for more books that look at this historical moment at the level of the individual life, as Michael Schiavi, associate professor of English at New York Institute of Technology, does in Celluloid Activist.  Vito Russo was one of the gay men who came to Greenwich Village as a young gay man to embed himself in its queer counterculture, and he quickly became involved in radical activism after Stonewall.  But Russo is even more famous for his path-breaking book, The Celluloid Closet:  Homosexuality in the Movies, originally published in 1981 and re-published in a revised edition in 1987.  Born in 1946, this founder of gay cultural criticism should be signing up at the social security office this year, but like many men of his generation he contracted AIDS and died in 1990.

Schiavi's is an authorized biography, which may account for its emphasis on Russo's achievements (which were many) and its less sure touch about the complexities of his personality.  Schiavi has a keen sense of Russo's place in the gay men's culture that flourished in the 1970s, organized around uninhibited sexuality, and known colloquially as "the party." Schiavi's difficult task of situating Russo in his social world, and interpreting him through it is largely successful, and caused me to wonder whether, for certain figures, group biographies are almost necessary.

Russo had a network of deeply devoted friends, who were attracted to his evanescent personality and sharp intelligence, friends whose patience he often tried.  Russo's love life is a particular minefield: he seemed to be both a little bit of (what we used to call back in the day) a star f**cker, and he very much enjoyed being the object of star f**king.  While relationships were not the strong suit of many queer folk in those years, in part because relationships were either not the point or they were wide open, Russo seemed to have a particular penchant for falling in love with beautiful, helpless, unemployed boys; pledging undying devotion to them; moving them into into his apartment; and then getting really, really sick of them and kicking them out.  It didn't make me not like him, but it did make me think that there was some deeper insight that Schiavi was avoiding here, perhaps out of tact and deference to the family.

Russo's work on the Celluloid Closet (which was made into a documentary after his death) came from a public lecture he put together over the years, in which he demonstrated, through film clips and analysis, how unnamed but very obvious "gayness" in films produced, and shored up, the idea of "heterosexuality."  This is such a basic tenet of queer studies now that it is hard to recall what a stunning insight this was in the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly since there were not so many gay or lesbian books.  Russo came to this analysis from his formal academic training in film and a lifetime of fandom.  Like many gay kids, Vito seem to have been born a movie queen and a fan of the great divas:  Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis.  He was one of those guys weeping in the front row as Judy Garland, in her late years, stumbled drunkenly over her lyrics mid-set.  He developed an encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood film making and acquired a rather large collection of movies (Schiavi suggests that some of these may have been stolen) prior to the days when such things were available on VCR, and delighted in showing them to friends.

Vito maintained a rather tenuous economic existence, even though he worked constantly as a journalist and operated on the edge of show business, a world he clearly adored (one of his great thrills after his AIDS diagnosis was an introduction to Elizabeth Taylor.)  He was friends with Bette Midler during the Divine Miss M's Continental Baths days, and then not so much when he insisted that she identify with queer activism after her mainstream success, something she clearly viewed as exploitation and he viewed as her selling out the people who had made her career in the first place.  (I think they were both right, although it isn't clear what Schiavi thinks.) Vito's relationships with other celebrities endured, however, particularly his friendship with Lily Tomlin.  One of the interesting parts of the book which should push another scholar to get going on her, is Tomlin's development of comic characters that were clearly queer, her struggles over coming out, and her regret, voiced at the end of the book, that she did not do so earlier.

Vito Russo was in the first great wave of men to be diagnosed in the portion of the AIDS epidemic that swallowed communities of urban gay men in the 1980s.  One of the triumphs of this book is that it articulates what it felt like to be at Ground Zero in downtown New York, as one's friends died slowly of horrible diseases that could just barely be treated.  I found these chapters enormously difficult to read, as the lists of men who had peopled the early chapters of the book were diagnosed and died.  Schiavi also depicted, quite accurately in my view, how those years felt. I recall sick men taking care of sick men; the halls at NYU hospital where deathly ill people waited for a bed for days; parents unable to comprehend the cataclysmic, sudden death of a child; scattering ashes in favorite vacation spots.  People behaved far better than you might ever have imagined they could, and they behaved indescribably badly.  I recall watching an age peer wander around the room incontinent and unable to find the bathroom, the rest of us not knowing that his brain was being eaten by toxoplasmosis because his lover (who was also infected but didn't want anyone to know) insisted that our friend had been tested (he hadn't) and didn't have AIDS.  All of this is in the book, and Schiavi describes it with a sure narrative touch.

One reason to read, or to teach, this book, is that it links lots of different things in the life of one person:  gay community, activism, the emergence of a gay intellectual sensibility, the party, and the party's end.  Because of this, when it comes out in paper, you could easily use it as a text for a post-1945 GLBT history course.  But honestly?  It's also a good read -- not always an easy one, but a good one -- and you might want to have it on your bedside table when you are done with Gay Pride and ready to return to gay life.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Radical History Review: A Perhaps Unnecessary, But Overdue, Tribute To My Dad

We at Tenured Radical no longer have a father to give presents to, or buy cards for, on Father's Day.  When we did have a father, this is who he was.  He probably had as many flaws as the next 1960s and 1970s Dad, but he was a very nice person, a widely admired physician, and a hard worker.  He went out of his way to make a nice life for his family and to provide the resources that made it possible for both of his daughters to have an excellent education.

Although I don't think he would have described himself this way, he was an organic intellectual who had tremendous curiosity about the natural, social, cultural and political world.  He was the Oliver Saks of internal medicine, collecting and collating information with what I can only describe as pleasure, putting it together like a puzzle until all the pieces fit. In practical terms, this meant he was a very good and thorough doctor, and would bird-dog a peculiar set of symptoms until they could be treated effectively. Once, over four decades ago, before tick-born diseases were well known to all of us, he correctly diagnosed a man who had  Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever -- a disease that was entirely treatable, but had been missed because it almost never appeared in Pennsylvania. 

We held a memorial service for Dad back in September, 1997, two months after he died so that everyone from the hospital could be there.  One of the things that was truly memorable (I do not remember a thing about the eulogy I delivered, although I have a copy of it filed away somewhere) was the number of people who got up to speak about him and revealed things I had not known about Dad.  And yet, each of these anecdotes was completely consistent with the person I did know.  For example, a developmentally disabled man whose job it was to keep the stairwells clean got up to speak in front of about three hundred people.  He explained his job, and said that every day my father made a point of telling him what good work he was doing on the stairs and thanking him for it. 

Dad really liked people, and he was interested in them:  he spent hours in the evening and on weekends talking to his patients on the telephone, often helping them make decisions about painful chronic diseases, terminal cancers or conditions that had suddenly turned scary.  I remember lots of conversations ending with him saying, "Go to the emergency room, and I'll meet you there," and he would get dressed and head back out to the hospital no matter what time it was.

When Dad retired because his own illness had advanced, he was deeply concerned about the increasingly money-driven, and litigious, world of medicine that was separating the interests of doctors from their patients and making personalized care all but impossible for many young doctors who would have liked to provide it.  As chief of medicine, he also understood that lots of different people played important roles to make the mission of a hospital successful, and that all jobs -- even the ones that other people might view as menial -- were important.  He  enjoyed teaching, he enjoyed solving difficult medical problems, he appreciated the professionalism of his nurses and he enjoyed helping young doctors make their careers.

I realized some years ago that, despite the great differences in our professional lives, I have ended up sharing many of my father's values and pleasures, even though I don't recall him ever having conveyed them except by example. One of the many reasons I am sorry he is dead is that I think we would have enjoyed talking about these things together.  So, without further ado:

Happy Father's Day, Phil Potter.  The mission continues.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tell Me How You Really Feel, Dude: Prof Said To Have Peed On Colleagues' Office Doors

We at Tenured Radical have been alerted by our pals in the legit educational press (Inside Higher Ed) that there are many more reasons than we knew to hire more women in the STEM fields. Tihomir Petrov of the Cal State Northridge math department is on the lam after having failed to appear in court to answer two charges of public urination, a misdemeanor.  Where did he pee?  In his department, apparently.

It sounds like revenge urination to us, and a unique way of showing contempt for colleagues that we feel lucky to have never encountered.  Imagine coming to work and finding a big puddle of man-pee in front of your office. According to the Los Angeles Times, "In early December, Petrov was captured on videotape urinating on the door of another professor's office in Santa Susana Hall, according to authorities. School officials had concealed a camera nearby after discovering puddles of what they thought was urine at the professor's door, officials said."  It seems that Petrov might have an ongoing problem with either retention or rage.

Although the evidence seems strong, Petrov has pleaded not guilty, and there is no sign of him anywhere on the department web site.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Question: Why Do Development Offices Raise Money For Sports When Academics Are Being Cut?

I've got an idea:  let's run a fund-raiser for the humanities!
Answer: Because the entertainment value of major sports for fans, alumni/ae and students -- primarily the football and basketball programs that can be packaged and sold to a mass audience --  is viewed as a necessary and normal feature of university life.  But that's not true.  Instead, it is a competitor for funds that ought to be going to teaching and learning, and because of that, part of what threatens the survival of full-time academic labor and the accessibility of higher education to a broad range of students.

Why am I, a sports fan, thinking these crazy thoughts?  Libby Sander's reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning that 22 elite college sports programs made a profit in the last fiscal year.  This is an increase from "from 14 the previous year....The median surplus at those programs was $7.4-million last year, up from $4.4-million in 2009."  However, the median deficit in the Football Bowl Subdivision (this is the category that used to be called Division I-A) was $11.6 million.

Let me put this in the homey, old-timey budget language that conservative politicians prefer.  This news is similar saying that, of the seventy people who live on my street, two of us made more than we did last year, and everyone else went more deeply into debt.  And both of us who made money did so because our parents wrote us a big, tax-deductible check.

Of course, this is old news.  But think of the aggregate deficits in programs below the FBS.  It's a staggering amount of money that could be used to lower tuitions, give financial aid and hire full-time faculty who would be able to devote themselves to educating students at public schools the way  can devote ourselves to teaching and advising at places like Zenith.  That colleges and universities would continue to invest in an enterprise on the unproven theory that it is good for the overall fiscal health of the institution is a business model that would simply be jeered at outside the Church of Latter Day Sportsfans.

If you are waiting for one of those garden-variety attacks on college sports programs more generally, you can stop reading:  I don't think they are any less useful than any of the other budget lines devoted to co-curricular student life.  I continue to believe that organized sports are good for student-athletes:  at their best they create a sense of community and identity, instill discipline, and -- here's something that troubles our intellectual project -- teach students how to cope with failure.  Furthermore, it is only a very few teams who are responsible for the vast majority of a school's athletic budget.  If you take out the big so-called "revenue generating" sports like football, and men's and women's basketball, athletic programs represent a lot of jobs, most of which are not particularly well paid. You can, for example, get a top-flight, national team quality rowing coach who manages 50 - 100 athletes at a D-I school for under $80K, most pay more like $45K, and many entry level coaching positions at Ivy League rowing (and other athletic) programs pay under $10K, if they pay at all.

But you have to ask:  in a period of budget cutting, why are enterprises that justify themselves through their supposed potential to generate revenue to support the university's academic mission -- but actually don't -- not scrutinized?  With another million tossed on top, that $11.6 million that the average school loses on major sports represents an endowment that would add three tenure-track positions.  Don't like tenure?  Well, budget those positions as contract faculty earning good wages and benefits at $200K a year, and we are talking about employing 55 extra faculty.  Instead, these schools are howling about how much the English department costs and flushing all this money away.

Furthermore, when athletic programs are threatened, it seems to be a trigger for unbelievable fundraising that academic cuts don't inspire, despite the fact that a B.A. in history is more likely to send a young person off to law or medical school than four years stomping around on the sidelines as a second string special teams dude.  At UC-Berkeley, a school that has suffered debilitating cuts to its academic programs, three programs that were on the block -- women’s lacrosse, women’s gymnastics and rugby -- were saved only a few months after the cuts were announced by fundraising solicited by "alumni, student-athletes, coaches and fans."  Of course, cutting these teams would not have been necessary if the so-called "revenue generating" sports were not swallowing the athletic budget.

While the pledges that saved these programs sound like an act of spontaneous love, those of us who work for universities know that no one is allowed to raise money without the permission and support of the development office. Furthermore, you don't come up with the kind of money that Berkeley did (between $12 and $13 million in pledges) without having tapped some very, very deep pockets.  We are not talking bake sales and pathetic, dinner time cold calls from student-athletes.  My guess? Somebody pulled the trigger on donors who had already been identified, and the "cuts" had been targeted in such a way as to activate those donors.

What a development officer would tell you is that these major donors aren't willing to give that kind of money to support teaching or learning, and that the university might as well collect it for something they do support -- even if that project creates or solidifies a budget commitment that could otherwise be eliminated.  Giving money to schools for high-profile sports rather than education is an absurd proposition unless you put it in the context that policy makers and major foundations like Gates appear to believe that a teaching career is the professional equivalent of a life spent as a Peace Corps volunteer or a nun.  However, if that is so, whose fault is that?  Who is not making the argument for the importance of these fields?  The very highly paid administrators and fundraisers whose job it is to do so, that's who.  Too often the burden of persuasion is put on the shoulders of those of us who are also laboring 50 - 80 hours a week in the classroom:  this is a little like telling the people who walked out of Merrill Lynch with their personal items packed up in boxes on an hour's notice that they were personally responsible for policies set by the CEO, the Board of Directors, the Fed and Congressional oversight committees.

Big-time sports are a fiscal drag on the educational enterprise, and should not be the object of major fund-raising.  Worse, they are a source of fictional knowledge about what role colleges and universities are supposed to play in our political and social economy.  They promote the notion that higher education is really just entertainment and that college and university campuses are a playground for students and alumni/ae alike.  If we faculty have a role in this, it is to demand answers to these questions, particularly since we are doing the lion's share of the work for a fraction of what these programs cost.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Too Badgered? Biddy Martin Leaves Wisco Chancellorship, Heads To Amherst As President

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that Carolyn A. ("Biddy") Martin will leave her post as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and become President of Amherst College.  However, she has been quite clear that it is not because Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature are trying to flush the state's education system down the toilet. And it isn't because her plan to break the flagship away from the other campuses ran into trouble, in case that had occurred to you.

The news became public the day after Wisconsin's Supreme Court upheld the state's new anti-union legislation.   As Jack Stripling writes,
Ms. Martin was emphatic that the failure of the proposal to break the flagship campus from the university system, a quietly devised plan that drew the consternation of the system's Board of Regents when they learned of it, was not among the reasons for her departure.

"Amherst would have been an attractive possibility to me at any point, because of my own history, what I feel like I owe to liberal-arts education," Ms. Martin said. "What role the actual events of the past year have played, it's hard to say. Maybe a year from now, it will be clear to me what various strands went into the braid of this decision. What I can tell you, honestly, is I'm not leaving because I didn't like the outcome in the Legislature."
Being president of well-endowed Amherst -- and living in that part of the country we New Englanders simply refer to as "The Valley" is a sweet deal, however you cut it, particularly if you are a lesbian.  (Is Martin the first out lesbian college prez?  Enquiring minds want to know.)  Those who follow the progress of top administrators can't help but think that Martin is headed for the presidency of a major research institution after she proves her leadership skills with the Lord Jeffs -- a school which, by the way, has a fantastic faculty, but which Zenith hammers in rowing several times a year.

I think Biddy Martin will do a great job at Amherst, but that won't change any time soon unless she can bring a few Wisco oarsmen and women with her.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Every Graduate A Potential John Dillinger: An Incomplete History Of Student Loan Repayment

Banks seestudent loan defaulters as white collar bandits
Back in 1981, a New York friend of mine went to the bank shortly after payday to find that hir checking account was abso-total-lutely empty.  Zero.  Zed. Nada.  In the course of an inquiry that began with outrage and ended in shame, ze discovered that the federal government had attached hir salary to begin reclaiming a thousand dollars or so of the student loan arrears ze had amassed since graduating three years earlier.

This was back in the day when student loans for an Ivy League education might top out at around $10K for a degree that had cost under $50K in 1970s dollars.  Prior to Ronald Reagan raising the interest rate from 3% to 9% in 1982, and eliminating the deduction for student loans in 1986, my guess is that the payments were a couple hundred dollars a month (go here for Kelly Phillips Erb's excellent history of student loans in a recent issue of Forbes.)

I cannot recall the details of this person's circumstances. However, back in the day, I knew a great many people who didn't pay their students loans, and there were three reasons for it.  The first was that many of us earned very little money. We graduated into a recession job market, we went into artsy, theatrical or literary fields, and people like us could be had for salaries of less than $12K a year.  This translated into a paycheck of around $450 every two weeks, half of which had to be banked for rent.  The second reason people didn't pay was that they could get away with it.  The federal government did a very poor job of monitoring who paid and who didn't pay, and didn't report people to credit agencies for years after they had broken all contact.  This latter action would have had immediate consequences in a city where landlords routinely ran credit reports to screen out potential deadbeat tenants who, under consumer-friendly New York housing laws, were nearly impossible to evict.  Hence, I knew a number of non-payers that -- after missing a couple payments and suffering no consequences -- stopped paying entirely even when they could easily afford to do so.  The third reason people didn't pay was that, because there was no means test for awarding student loans, anyone could walk into the financial aid office and walk out with $5K, minus an exorbitant processing fee of several hundred dollars.  In other words, some people who had taken out student loans had used them to enhance their standard of living.  I am just speculating, but I believe this category of borrowers may have regarded student loans as free money all along.

Back to the empty bank account:  I must say, all of us who met this friend at a bar later and chipped in what we could from our own paychecks to help hir make rent, were seriously impressed by the possibility that an entire bank account could be seized.  By moving against one person, the government made a dramatic impression on a whole friendship network of twenty-something middle-class people.  Several rushed in to various financial institutions on the following day to ask for mercy and make arrangements to pay up.  Although I had no student loans, I made a mental note at the age of 22 that I would never default on a bill.  You might ask, why would you have ever defaulted, Tenured Radical?  The answer is that I was at the beginning of my financial life, had never had a conversation about money with my parents or anyone else, and was just learning to pay bills in the first place. 

One of my Google alerts is "student loans." It will be no surprise to anyone that students -- many of whom are adults -- are taking out more money in educational loans than they ever have, which I believe has a reverberating, depressing effect on the economy as a whole whether the money is repaid or not.  For-profit institutions make borrowing particularly easy in exchange for degrees that may or may not translate into a job at all, much less one with a high enough salary to guarantee repayment.  On-line universities and technical academies can be the worst offenders, siphoning tax dollars in the form of uncapped debt into inflated executive salaries paid out of tuition revenues that are 90% loan driven.  Non-profits have constant institutional discussions about what the caps on student debt ought to be, but despite that, many students graduated this spring from Ivies, state unis and liberal arts colleges that aren't trying to cheat anyone with as much as $50K in loans.  

Students, needless to say, were defaulting on unsustainable education debt at very high rates even before the job market became so tight.   But unlike other debt, as Megan McArdle points out in the June 14 edition of The Atlantic, whether they are government or private, student loans are forever:
There are only two ways to erase the debt: prove you're permanently disabled and will never again earn more than a pittance; or die.  [Note:  I had a friend who chose the latter strategy of dead-beatism.  After hir death, I discovered a shoebox of dunning notices from the federal government -- another branch of which had been paying hir disability and welfare -- that dated from hir diagnosis with a then-fatal disease. But I think there are also some programs in the military that also pay down debt, which has become an incentive to become cannon fodder among people who have no other reason to serve.]

Moreover, student loans are large, which means they're worth suing over. Creditors can correctly assume that most people with a college diploma, or a law degree, are eventually going to have something worth taking: a bank account they can seize, a salary they can garnish. Everything I have ever heard indicates that there is little chance of settling a student loan for less than the principal, and that even that is far from a slam dunk. If the interest has been accruing for a decade or so and is now multiples of the original value of the loan, the lender may waive some of it, but not necessarily all of it. Moreover, most of the amount forgiven counts as taxable income, including a lot of the back interest (any amount in excess of $2500--or all of it if you make more than $75,000 a year.)

And of course getting a principal-only settlement requires you to amass a sum equal to the original principal of your student loan--without the creditor finding and seizing it.
So if you are a college graduate who thinks ze needs another degree to even imagine getting an interesting job, someone who wants to complete a degree, a mother considering a return to the workforce, or someone who simply wants to change directions, you need to have a plan for paying that money back before taking the loan out.  Smart colleges and universities will begin helping students learn to plan this kind of strategy, as well as working ethics courses into the curriculum so that students won't feel so free to step away from an obligation they have contracted when the full impact of that contract becomes clear.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Political Conversation, Or The Lack Thereof: A Provocation To Debate

"Balogna?"  Really?  Photo Credit.
On the op-ed page of today's Grey Lady, liberal Paul Krugman explains why expanding Medicare will save money.  On the other side of the page, Ross Douthat explains why text messaging pictures of your muscle-y male chest and your d*ck to women who don't want them should disqualify you from sitting in Congress.  Want to know why without reading the article?  Not because it is sexual harassment, but because it is evidence of narcissism.  Whoa, male politicians!  No reason to resign en masse!

My point is not that Ross Douthat is a faux intellectual (which he is), or that the importance of Weiner's behavior does not extend beyond the playground sausage jokes of which otherwise sentient adults do not seem to tire.  My point is:  why didn't Ross Douthat write about the conservative argument behind cutting Medicare and explain to us why making Medicare less available is good for the economy and good for the health of the nation's citizens?  And why does the New York Times encourage this "You say po-TAY-to and I say po-TAH-to" form of political journalism?

See, if I were a real journalist (and not just a blogger who was super-popular with people who either agree with me or want to see me on fire in the streets so that they can decide whether to urinate on me or not) I would insist on having a discussion with newspaper folks around the following points:

Anthony Weiner

What we do talk about:  the many slang words that signify the phallus, whether men who do dumb things are also incapable of making political decisions, hypocrisy.

What we ought to talk about:  whether men who are sexual harassers should be fired from whatever job they are doing, including Supreme Court Justice; that Anthony Weiner has consistently supported women's right to choose abortion, ending the war in Iraq, expanding federal health care dollars, and  environmental legislation; and why women politicians are never involved in sex scandals and seem not to send Twitter pics of their vaginas to strangers.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

What we do talk about: How Maria could have not known; how terrible his children must feel; that all those rumors about sexual harassment and groping were true after all (surprise!); and that he supports gay marriage (which is nice, but solves not a single pressing problem except how the party-planning industry will survive the economic crisis.)

What we ought to talk about: How, under the Governator's leadership, a struggling public education system in California that used to be the finest in the country has been reduced to ashes; how he worked to end bilingual education in a state of multilingual tax payers most of whom have legal residency if not citizenship; his continuing support for private prisons, the three strikes law, and expanding incarceration at the same time as he was shrinking education dollars; his support for school prayer; his claim that he is incorruptible because he is wealthy; that, despite his wealth, he apparently owes $80K in back taxes; and why women politicians are almost never involved in sex scandals or have love children stashed away in the guest house.

Newt Gingrich

What we talk about:  That a man who wants to be President, and has repeatedly compared a sane federal budget to a sane household budget owes Tiffany's around half a million dollars; and that in a party of "family values" he seems to change out wives like other men change out cars.

What we ought to talk about: Newt Gingrich called for the expulsion of Gerry Studds from Congress after Studds admitted to being a homosexual; he was involved in the 1992 check kiting scandal in Congress (he used one of those checks to pay the IRS nearly $10K he owed in taxes); he is on record favoring the United States withdrawal from the United Nations; he led the charge against the Clinton national health plan; he designed and successfully passed a welfare "reform" bill that took welfare mothers out of college and put them in sub-minimum wage manual labor; that he has vowed to put God back in public life; AND why women politicians don't seem to be changing out their husbands like cars (sometimes owning two at the same time!) while at the same time claiming to be very religious people who believe that Family is the building block of the Nation.

I offer these remarks as a design for what a real conversation about politics might look like.  But I would also like to suggest that, unless the news media is willing to make the Ross Douthats and the Paul Krugmans have the same conversation, politics will continue to be incoherent, and citizens will continue to cast their votes (or not) on the basis of no information whatsoever.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What's More Fun Than Feminist History? More Berkshire Conference Highlights

Iacovetta presents at an event that makes me want to go to Canada
The 15th Berkshire Conference is finishing up with a business meeting as I write here at my desk in Shoreline, a meeting where outgoing president Kathleen Brown of the University of Pennsylvania will hand the organization over to Franca Iacovetta of the University of Toronto.  Iacovetta will take us to Canada for the very first time, just as Vicki Ruiz took us West for the first time in 2005, and Ruth Mazo Karras took us to the Midwest for the first time in 2008.  Thanks to a great program committee, the University of Massachusetts -- Amherst, and a hard-working local arrangements (who, it is rumored, started shuttling people to the airport at 4:00 a.m.) the meeting appeared to come off without a hitch.

If you heard a rumor that this year's festivities included a burlesque show, I won't say you are wrong -- they also included a spirited exchange between Radicalesbian Artemis March and a young feminist (whose name I never learned) about pornography, which cheered up those of us who are writing books about the sex wars of the 1980s.  Historiann never made it because of a family emergency, which has caused her to confess to having a family (but let's not belabor it, shall we?), but the blogger meetup went off without a hitch even without our favorite cowgirl.  If you want to see the Tweeted conference, go here.  If you want to see an analysis of the program's bias towards US and modern history, go to BlogenspielFeMOMhist has a running commentary here, here, here and here.  Janice Liedl reports in here, and Knitting Clio's day 1 report will probably be followed up soon.

Last night, at the traditional Saturday party, you couldn't help but wonder which of the under-thirty set out there shaking it in a line dance would be the future Berks president who takes us to -- Mexico?  Hawai'i? Oregon?  Who knows -- the sky is the limit, and we can boogie anywhere you take us.

If this was your first Berkshire Conference, the point is:  keep coming.  And consider posting to the page on the website, redesigned under Brown's direction in this conference cycle, called "Think/Learn/Teach/Do," that asks you to reflect on your conference experiences.

One of my favorite additions to the conference this year was the poster sessions, a way of presenting research that is common in other fields but rarely employed at a history conference.  I think it's a keeper:  scholars with research to present can do so in an interactive way with a mobile audience who stops by to talk to them about it.  It doesn't force you to listen to a whole panel, it allows you to connect to a scholar whose work you are interested in and, best of all, doesn't force you to choose between the talk you really ought to be at (because it's a friend, your research field, a famous person) and the talk that piqued your interest but doesn't have any utility for your work.

So without further ado, here is a short film I made of a poster session with a Flip.  Kelly O'Donnell is a second-year graduate student in the History of Science and Medicine program at Yale, and her poster session was on the Menstrual Cup:  take it away, Kelly.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Berks Highlights: There's Got To Be A Morning After (If You Can Make It Through The Night)

Sarah Palin is not at the Berkshire Conference
The sun is finally shining in Amherst, after a day and a night of severe weather that created delays, cancellations, and flights diverted to places like Syracuse.  Power was out for up to four or five hours in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but not at the air-conditioned opening reception last night, where we all treated each other to drinks purchased with the *two* free tickets that were stapled to the conference folder.  As most of us enjoyed ourselves at the opening plenary, dinner at Amherst Chinese (which can seat a large group if you are looking for a dinner reservation tonight) and the dessert reception, our sisters were fighting their way cross-country through a storm system that stretched from Chicago to Philadelphia.  Rumor has it that the heroic local arrangements committee was dispatching transportation to Bradley Airport in Hartford until 3 A.M.  Bleary-eyed latecomers nevertheless hauled themselves out of bed for panels beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Because of a variety of appointments, I didn't make any panels this morning, but the conference has a lively book exhibit and numerous common spaces in the Campus Center where knots of old friends are gathering, and editors chat up potential and signed authors.  Supported by the free WiFi, and surrounded by an invisible Bell of Silence, scholars are finishing up their comments and papers.  The coffee isn't perfect, but it's good.  All is well.

Cliotropic Tweets the Berks
By afternoon, I was ready for scholarship.  I started my Berks experience with "Queering the College Campus," which was a great pick, and was Tweeted by Shane Landrum here.  Two fabulous papers by Susan Freeman and Heather Murray made me believe that lesbian history is moving into a whole, new exciting register. Stephanie Gilmore linked the field to histories of sexual violence and the ongoing state of terror that is endured by contemporary GLBTQ students despite the broad-based "acceptance" of homosexuality among young people of all political and religious beliefs.  Given the Title IX suit at Yale, the activism at Dickinson against that school's ineffective rape policies, and the periodic scandals that erupt about fraternity and athletic team hazing, Gilmore's presentation on her new research about violence against LGBTQ students -- which connects homophobic violence to all three phenomena -- was particularly compelling. Athletic teams and frats are particular nodes for homophobic violence and harassment (pledge rituals include such tasks as "taking a picture of a faggot"), but Gilmore was persuasive that by focusing only on this we neglect the ways in which entire campuses and administration policies are complicit in maintaining sexism and heterosexism.  Gilmore's research argues that GLBTQ students navigate harassment and sexual violence every day, and that college administrations -- who proudly boast that such students are an aspect of campus "diversity" -- know this and do nothing to change it.   Administrators who she has interviewed, while they condemn violence against such students, vigorously resist the notion that they are capable of intervening in it.  One unintended outcome of the demise of in loco parentis policies (many of which were themselves sexist and homophobic) has been an insistence by student life professionals and administrators that such violence is a feature of "student culture" that only students themselves can change.  On the other hand, the same administrators will defend explicitly violent, sexist, racist and heterosexist rituals associated with student organizations because they and powerful alumni/ae insist that eliminating them will be disruptive to college tradition and memory (can you say Chief Illiniwek?)

Other panels that are looking good for a Radical sighting today are:

"Researching and Interpreting Feminist Activism of the 1960s abd 1970s:  An Intergenerational Roundtable," with Judy Wu, Ros Baxandall, Marisela Chavez, Amy Kesselman, Jessica Lee, Barbara Ransby and Sheila Rowbotham.  Cape Cod Lounge; and

"Plenary:  The Sex of Geopolitics," with Anjali Arondekar, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Geeta Patel, Carol Vance and Siobhan Somerville.  Bowker Auditorium.

Thanks to those of you who are introducing yourselves randomly:  keep coming up to say hi -- that's what the Berks is about, but it is particularly nice to see someone who says "Hi, I usually comment on your blog as....."  If you are reading this before 5:30 on Friday June 10, don't forget to show up to meet the bloggers at the Grad Lounge of the Lincoln Campus Center.  Although Historiann won't make it, there are confirmed appearances by Clio Bluestocking, Another Damned Medievalist, Janice Liedl, and Knitting Clio.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Berkshire Conference: What To Do, What To See, What To Wear

In the introduction to her classic volume of essays, Disorderly Conduct:  Visions of Gender in Victorian America (Oxford: 1986), Carroll Smith-Rosenberg wrote:
The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians has proved one of the pivotal influences in my professional and personal life.  Through both formal and informal comments on a succession of papers, Berkshire members have contributed to my development as a woman historian and as a historian of women.
 Second that.

So Sisters, the triennial gathering of the tribe is about to begin.  By tonight, participants in the 15th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women will have begun to assemble for this year's event, “Generations: Exploring Race, Sexuality, and Labor across Time and Space.” The conference begins on Thursday June 9 and ends on Sunday, a day devoted to seminar-style discussions organized around papers submitted in advance.  Undecided? Living nearby and thinking of dropping in for the day?  On site registrations are welcome.  Click here for all the information you need.  Congratulations to president Kathleen Brown, her program chairs, and everyone else who worked hard to put this together.  By this time Thursday, you will all be watching it unfold before you.  As a former program chair, let me say that is a glorious feeling. (And Sue Porter BensonI miss you tonight.)

What follows are some common questions and answers as you pack your suitcases.

Should I network?  Yes and no.  If you are a younger scholar, you should always be networking.  On the other hand, one of the beautiful things about the Berks is a sociability unmarred by icky things like job interviews, editorial board meetings, recruiting, being a dignified senior person blah, blah, blah.   My advice is that you should take this as an opportunity to make friends:  I have made nearly all my best friends in the historical profession through the Berkshire Conference, and let me tell you, being funny is a higher value than being smart.  One of my favorite Berks memories is being in a hotel room with my team and some random graduate students that we had picked up somewhere.   A former undergrad, now a prize-winning professor, showed up with -- well, I guess there's no other way to put it:  weed.  Anyhoo.  We all inhaled, and what followed was a game of charades in which we made the grad students guess who our dissertation advisers were! 

OK, you had to be there.  My point is:  if you have the choice between trying to make an impression on someone by buying them a drink or telling them about your research, you know what to do.

Are men welcome?  Humans of all genders are welcome:  I don't think Tom Dublin has missed a Berkshire Conference since I was a tiny Radical pecking hir way out of the egg.  Tom and his partner, women's history legend Kathryn Kish Sklar will be recruiting for their web-based project, "Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000," so if you see one of them walk by, tell them you're interested, and say that Tenured Radical sent you.  Other male-bodied folk to keep your eyes out for are Shane Landrum of Cliotropic fame (who is on a great state of the field roundtable on transgender history on Saturday at 3:30); Robert Beachy, who has a forthcoming book on gay Berlin (do I see Joan Scott as a comment on that global heteronormativities panel?); political science prof Paisley Currah, who is presenting in a Sunday seminar on his hot project about pregnant men; and many more.  OK, well a dozen more, actually.  So this will be practically the only place where history is practiced that men will find themselves in a distinct minority, which is one reason -- if you are a cool feminist man -- to attend.

What should I wear?  I am the wrong person to ask, as anyone who knows me would testify.  As I write, my black tee shirts are neatly piled across the room next to two pairs of jeans and a pair of black cowboy boots (received just in time, since I mistook the re-heeling shoe bag for the "Please take me to Good Will" shoe bag.)  Coats and ties are not necessary, although I shall bring a tie and a formal shirt just in case it cools down in time for for my own panel (Saturday at 1:15, with Jane Gerhard, Carolyn Bronstein and Vivien Fryd.) The ethic is summer casual:  there's no need to look "professional," in the conventional sense, and don't wear anything that is going to be ruined by sitting in the grass, blowing off the panel you were going to attend, and talking to a new friend.

Also recommended for this weekend?  Sunglasses, sunscreen, a broad-brimmed hat, sandals, and dancing shoes for the Saturday night shindig.  If you are staying in a place that is not air-conditioned, purchase a small fan on your way in from the airport.  There are plenty of places to shop in the vicinity, but be warned:  the UMass campus is a good hike from the town of Amherst itself.

Will I find a girlfriend at the Berks?   I can't guarantee this, but it is true that some nineteenth century Seven Sisters-y thing kicks in at the Berkshire Conference, even (or especially) among the non-Sapphicly inclined.  If you do not have a girlfriend already, it is, in fact, likelier that you will find a girlfriend at the Berks than anywhere else you have been or ever will be.

It is highly unlikely -- although not impossible, I suppose -- that you will find a boyfriend at this conference.

Registration opens at 8:30 AM tomorrow in the campus center, is open until 8:00 PM and the program starts at 3:30.  Yowzah!  I'm partial to round tables, and will be choosing between the following tomorrow:

"What's So Feminist About Food History?"  with Hasia Diner, and Franca Iacovetta, the next president of the Berkshire Conference in its big move to Toronto in 2014.

"New Generations of Feminist Legal History," which features some great new research by Leigh Ann Wheeler on the ACLU's fight for sexual freedom in the 20th century.

"Peyton Place:  Selling Sex and Crafting Readers," with Ardis Cameron who wrote a preface for a brand new edition of the novel that became a synonym for small, petty history departments New England towns.

And of course, you must attend the star-studded opening plenary, with Kathleen Brown, Martha S. Jones and Rebecca Scott, from 7:30 to 9:00.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

As The Department Turns: What Causes Conflict, Drama And Other Energy Sapping Dynamics

Things can explode when you least expect it!
 This week's Chronicle of Higher Education features a blog post by David Perlmutter entitled "It's Not Your Fault."  Aimed mostly at helping assistant professors and graduate students understand how they might have unintentionally become the target of a senior person's anger or jealousy, Perlmutter explores six factors that might cause unwelcome behaviors by senior people.  While it is sometimes the case that a younger person's actions might have provoked the incident or ongoing dynamic, it is also likely that it didn't. The project of figuring out what went wrong can be just as agonizing for a younger person as the reprisals and criticisms themselves. 

As Perlmutter notes wisely, "sometimes the quickest relief comes from merely figuring out that a single tussle or a longstanding feud is not your fault but rather originates in the minds, culture, politics, or economic situation of others. So don't bang your head on the office door trying to uncover what you did to create an enemy. Sometimes the enemy is the problem, not you."  Knowing that you are not at fault does provide quick relief -- but real change can only come when a whole department adopts an ethic of civility and respect, and works hard to maintain it.

What makes the behaviors Perlmutter describes tolerable and normal in an academic setting, whereas in other settings they would be considered aberrant?  For example, a student who repeatedly shouted at other students would be perceived as an asocial bully; a corporate executive who schemed, cheated and manipulated things to serve only personal interests would be seen as a weak link in a well-run business; a politician who tolerates only his own values and enforces them ruthlessly is known as a dictator.

One answer to the question of how academia's maintains its exceptionalism is our rigid seniority system.  The tenure and promotion system gives some people absolute power over the fortunes of others, and it can easily transform nontenured people into bargaining chips, allies, enemies and/or surrogates.  A second, and less frequently discussed, dynamic of tenure is the tendency of faculty to work at one institution over the course of decades, causing them to over-invest in their sense of control and authority within the department rather than be ambitious in a larger world that is less easily controlled.

Perlmutter's theory suggests a kind of deference to the status quo:  be clear about what you are, and are not, responsible for in a department that will not change.  Alter behaviors of your own that are drawing negative attention if you can; accept those dynamics that you cannot change, and work hard to leave, if these dynamics are impossible to evade. This is one good approach, and I would certainly advocate it over participating in draining, time-consuming personal struggles against people who will cheerfully stab you in the back to get you out of their hair.  But how might a department's dynamics actually be altered over time to diminish or eliminate the conditions I have described above?  Here are a few suggestions.

Vote as little as possible.  I would put voting at the top of the list of department practices that create cascading damage.  Department cliques form around common ideological predilections that not only harden over time, but require recruitment to maintain themselves.  This affects hiring and promotion decisions as cliques strive to maintain dominance over department policies by controlling more votes.  It also means that younger and more vulnerable members of a department are always being scrutinized for their loyalties in ways that prevent them from making independent decisions for fear that they will be punished by one clique or another.  If you work in a department where there is a high insistence on secret ballots, you can be sure of three things:  that everyone knows, or will know, who voted which way; that the final vote does not reflect any collective agreement about what should happen; and that there is a system of informal punishment in play, probably run by those people who are insisting on the secret ballot in the name of "protecting" everyone who is not a full professor from retribution (by some other person, over there.)

If you must vote, find ways to reincorporate the minority and make compromises with it.  Department power brokers don't do this, not only because they don't have to, but because every time they win a vote their endorphins go off the scale.  This is what they live for:  to them, each vote won is another brick in the wall of their ideological fortress.

But it doesn't have to be that way.  Did you win a vote about a line going to one field rather than another?  This is the moment to reach out to the other group and find a way to define the line to take account of their interests; or to promise that the next available line will be dedicated to their excellent proposal.  Questions of department policy can be trickier, and for this reason, should never be voted on.  Because of the right to autonomy that disagreeable senior people can claim, a privilege that few administrators will challenge, no senior person has to abide by a policy that s/he did not vote for.  More time has to be taken to establish the grounds for a policy, and to establish a policy that everyone can live with.  Consider having these discussions facilitated by a professional if your department is very fragmented and can't make these decisions on its own.

Be creative in finding ways for younger people to practice contributing their views and running things.  All department committees do not have to be run by a tenured person, or have a tenured person on them.  Conversely, all departmental committees ought to have one untenured person on them, unless there are so few untenured people that this places an undue burden on them.  The transfer of influence to younger generations should be a project so continuous that it is hardly visible.  Instead, what many departments have is a situation where a few aging faculty are grimly holding onto the reins of everything until they retire.  What that conveys to younger generations (we can even be talking about people in their forties and fifties who are themselves fully promoted and well-regarded in their fields) is that they only way to get what you want is to become that same person

Have a department handbook and review it regularly to make sure that it matches desirable department practices.  We don't like to spend our time hashing these things out and writing things down, but a department that makes a practice of saying what it means and meaning what it says is going to be less vulnerable to power plays and the factionalism that is incited by bad guys.  The result of not having an updated handbook can be an unspoken sense of "how things are done" that is not written down anywhere, cannot be conveyed to others precisely, and is tremendously powerful because it represents "rules" that are invisible to all but those who wield enough influence to enforce them.  Often practices are "recalled" at a moment of decision-making, which politicizes the process and allows self-interest to substitute for transparent procedure. One version of this is the notion of "precedent,"which has tremendous force in my institution and in my department, even though it is only appropriate to the legal system.  When someone starts talking about "precedent" you know you are in the danger zone, and that an outcome will be determined by the most powerful people in the room because a) they have the longest memories; and b) even if their memories are not accurate, they have the power to enforce their memory anyway.  Remember:  there are things that are governed by the department handbook, and everything else is up for discussion. Ruling by precedent is another way of saying, "Things ain't gonna change.  Not in my lifetime."

Don't naturalize abuses of power by ignoring them.  One problem with Perlmutter's view about correctly locating responsibility for bad behavior is that it locates abuse of power in the dyad.  Any good executive, manager or shrink would tell you that asocial actions have a corrosive effect on everyone, not just the person at which they are aimed.

When acts of abusiveness and factionalism are perceived as isolated and not contextualized by the department's tolerance for them, something else occurs.  The department divides itself into bullies, the directly bullied, and the people who watch -- who are themselves being indirectly bullied.  Here's a scenario for you:  in the midst of a departmental disagreement, a member of the department starts screaming at another.  Silence falls.   This has happened before.  After a pause, the two actors in this drama drop out of the discussion, a decision is reached, the meeting ends.  The screamer leaves the room, and a number of well-wishers run up to the person who was screamed at and ask sympathetically:  "Are you all right?"

What is wrong with this picture?  First of all, it doesn't actually matter what decision was reached, it was a bad one because it was made under the wrong conditions.  Furthermore, having gotten away with this form of venting in the past, the screamer has done it again, and has corrupted the process of decision making completely without being censured by the group.  While the group has established its capacity to be sympathetic, it hasn't demonstrated its capacity to be ethical.

Don't gossip. Don't make commitments as to what you will support, or have conversations about departmental matters, unless you are actually in a meeting.  If you are doing this, for whatever reasons, you are subverting the group decision-making process.  The other thing you are doing is letting departmental business expand to fill time that would be better spent writing, reading, prepping for class, going to the gym or watching YouTube videos featuring cats doing tricks.

The following activities, conducted outside department meetings, contribute to factionalization that will eventually bite you in the butt:  saying spiteful things about people, regardless of how horrible they are; relating things as fact that are only speculation; representing someone else's thoughts on a matter; allowing another person to persuade you that you are uninformed and should follow the lead of your elders; receiving or seeking tales (that can never be completely true and may be false) about some other colleague's views about you and obsessing about them; becoming persuaded that only your group is right and the other group is not only wrong but that their success will be a disaster; assembling, or participating in, a bloc of committed votes prior to a departmental conversation about the issue at hand; and assuming that because someone has been nasty to you and your allies that you can be nasty to that person and hir allies without accelerating the damage.

I'm sure I could add to this list, and that readers will.  My point is that anything that happens in a department is part of a group dynamic that implicates every person who is a member of the group.  This is why departments acquire reputations for good or bad behavior, and it is why troubled departments cycle through the same scandals and difficulties over and over again.  Acting systematically to prevent that is as important as understanding and addressing any of the individual events and decisions that are the symptoms of dysfunction.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Are Students A Captive Audience? Constructive Disagreement And Classroom Politics

The perfect teacher.
Recently I was reading a discussion of the relationship between campus speech codes, sexual harassment, and free speech doctrine.  Because I am not a legal scholar I won't dwell on the details, but the dilemma for educational institutions is this:  how might one seek to regulate classroom expression that creates a hostile environment for students in a protected class without infringing on freedom of speech? Such utterances by a teacher or another student might include:  "Students of color are only here because of affirmative action;" "Tammy sure is easy on the eyes;"  or "Learning disabled people get extra time for the test, but I don't believe that anyone deserves accommodation."  (I made all these up, but I once knew a male prof who was famous for saying to any female student who had a hyphenated last name:  "Your mother must be one of those feminists.")

The answer to the questions I began with is this.  While individual speech acts in a classroom might be found to violate the right to work or learn in an environment free from harassment, speech codes do violate the right to free speech, as well as academic freedom. Furthermore, speech acts are only taken seriously as discrimination when perpetrated by a faculty member against a student.  In 2008 a member of the Dartmouth faculty sued on the claim that her students had created a hostile environment, and was mocked by the national press as a result.

Faculty are, in fact, perceived as having an almost uniquely destructive power to harm their students intellectually by forcing their views on them.  One way of thinking about this is what is called in labor law "captive audience doctrine," by which employees are forced to listen to political, religious or discriminatory speech.  If said employees resist, or refuse to participate as part of an audience for such speech, and are threatened with reprisal as a result, the captive audience doctrine might be invoked. (Note:  since the National Labor Relations Board is a mere shadow of its former self, actually winning a discrimination case or a grievance under captive audience doctrine is very difficult.)

Sound familiar to you?  This is more or less the principle on which conservative groups like Students for Academic Freedom ("You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story") and Minding the Campus assert that so-called "liberal indoctrination" in the classroom establishes a hostile environment for conservative students.  As the Student Bill of Rights published by SAF states,

Professors are hired to teach all students, not just students who share their political, religious and philosophical beliefs. It is essential therefore, that professors and lecturers not force their opinions about philosophy, politics and other contestable issues on students in the classroom and in all academic environments. This is a cardinal principle of academic freedom laid down by the American Association of University Professors.

In an academic environment professors are in a unique position of authority vis-à-vis their students. The use of academic incentives and disincentives to advance a partisan or sectarian view creates an environment of indoctrination which is unprofessional and contrary to the educational mission. It is a violation of students' academic freedom. The creation of closed, political fiefdoms in colleges, programs or departments, is the opposite of academic freedom, and does not deserve public subsidy or private educational support.
Contained in this statement, which mirrors what might appear to be a worthy standard for professional pedagogy, is language that points to a growing source of resentment among students:  faculty often tell them things that don't support, and even contradict, the world view that they brought to college in the first place.  What many teachers see as factual information, such students perceive as "opinions" that they must pretend to replicate, even if they have another "opinion."  What faculty see as reasoned argument that is well supported in the literature, and requires equally reasoned and well-supported argument to rebut, students can perceive as "indoctrination."

The two paragraphs I quoted above set the stage quite neatly for an application of captive audience doctrine to the classroom.  In the second, the faculty member's "unique position of authority" is emphasized, a position that is buttressed by "academic incentives and disincentives" (grades) that can be used to reward students who accept indoctrination and punish those who don't.

But are students always a captive audience?  Do faculty always hold a position of unique authority?  Does the fact of grading itself mean that the faculty member's unique authority is always already abusive?  And what are the implications of all of this for a liberal arts education -- which ought to be about debate, disagreement and transformation?

These may not be important questions for teachers of math and science (I am sure commenters will inform me on this point), but they are for those of us in the social sciences and humanities.  They are particularly serious questions for teachers of feminism, race, colonialism, post-colonialism and queer studies, who are repeatedly harassed by students and conservative organizations, and risk having the institutional support for their work withdrawn, because their work challenges centrist and conservative (and perhaps even liberal) views about race, sex, gender and empire.  However, a central issue for all social sciences and humanities scholars, regardless of field,  is that our very work and identities are built around the idea of constructive disagreement as a path to knowledge.  Useful disagreement depends on the notion that truth is not always an absolute value, and accepting the possibility that those things that are obvious are not always true.  If students do not believe they are empowered to disagree with us, and if disagreement itself is viewed as destructive in a classroom context, in what context can students be transformed into scholarly thinkers?  Conversely, if all student views -- no matter how factually incorrect of interpretively flawed -- have to be deferred to for fear of being charged with "indoctrination," under what conditions might a class acquire a body of knowledge about a subject, or a set of intellectual tools that constitute a recognized approach to that body of knowledge, at all?

Want some recommended reading?  Try Robert I. Sutton,  The No Asshole Rule:  Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (2007)Reviewed here at Tenured Radical in July 2007.