Friday, April 29, 2011

The Only Good Professor Is A Dead Professor: Or, Is The Decline Of Academic Labor A Health Risk?

When was the last time you stopped grading, writing, reading or writing up committee reports and went to the gym?  In "Performance Pressure," published this week in the Canadian academic journal Academic Matters, Megan A. Kirk and Ryan E. Rhodes are betting you didn't do it lately.  In "Performance Pressure" they argue that assistant professors are particularly at risk. "Being a professor is a profession that has been shown to have the longest work hours, heaviest work demands, highest psychological stress, and lowest occupational energy expenditure compared to other professional occupations," they write. Hence, among all professional workers, new faculty are most likely to become mentally run-down and unhealthy for lack of exercise:

For many, the allure of becoming a professor is the promise of a career that involves freedom of choice, national funding, opportunities for promotion, secured tenure-track advancement, and a flexible work schedule. It is no secret, however, that the path to becoming an established professor requires years of grueling, all-consuming service to prove oneself as worthy.

Assistant professors, those who have recently entered the academic profession, aim to reach tenure by spending countless hours teaching, marking, grant writing, publishing, reading, analyzing, recruiting, and presenting. Most of these “rookies” are also juggling relationships, families, and other personal goals. The reward is that once tenure status is granted, life as a professor can be absolutely wonderful. Or so we think. What if the pressure, expectations, and stress endured while trying to obtain a tenure-track position had devastating consequences on your long-term physical and emotional health?

In a sample of 267 assistant professors who had been hired in the last five years, Kirk and Rhodes found that only 30.7% were meeting a minimum level of physical activity necessary to maintain good adult health.  This compares to 50% of young Canadian professionals who are meeting this basic standard.  "The declining trend in physical activity was not independent of certain socio-demographic profiles," they note.  "Those who indicated they were married, and worked 70-plus hours of work per week reported sharper decreases in physical activity across the transition compared to those who were single and working fewer than 70 hours." Having children was also a co-factor, which will not surprise those of you out there who are parents.

One recent preoccupation of this blog and a great many other publications has been the great difficulties of life as an adjunct or contract faculty member.  But here's a question:  although there are tremendous differences in salary, security and work conditions between ladder track faculty and others, are labor conditions that have marginalized some also putting increasing pressure on those who seem to be succeeding in this narrowing labor market?  One of the things we all know implicitly is that the tremendous pressure to achieve tenure occurs in part because to not get tenure has a great likelihood of being a career-ending moment.  That is a psychological stressor, including an inducement to work harder -- even at things that will never be noticed in a review.  One thing I have suspected for a while is that there is simply more work to do than there was twenty years ago, even putting aside raised expectations for scholarly production in the social sciences and the humanities.  Colleges and universities are accepting more students; many of the students we accept are more difficult to teach for a variety of reasons; the increased demand for measurable outcomes; and the drop in full-time teaching staff who can be expected to undertake and be responsible for these tasks makes them more time-consuming.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Love, Literature, and The Art Of Making A Life In Priscilla Gilman's "The Anti-Romantic Child"

Priscilla Gilman's new memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child:  A Story of Unexpected Joy (New York:  HarperCollins, 2011), is this week's recommended reading.  It is mostly about Gilman's struggle to help her son Benjamin overcome a set of developmental disabilities that make him sound quite charming and interesting -- as well as a challenging child who gives intricate meaning to that imprecise phrase "special needs."  While she gestures at specific diagnoses, she resists the comprehensive and categorical workup with which so many of my students arrive at college.  She also refuses medication, which seems to be the go-to solution for the vast majority of kids who see a neurologist nowadays, as it seems to affect Benj’s brain chemistry in dramatic and unhelpful ways.  Intensive therapy, however, helps, and that story is going to be very instructive and encouraging for parents who are finding their way with similarly challenging children.  As the book argues implicitly, it matters less what is "wrong" with Benj than it matters to cultivate his talents and strengths as an individual, give him access and connection to a world of feeling, and give him a way to live in the world as a creative and unique person.

Benj is high end (fill in the blank -- any neurological diagnosis is a menu nowadays) which means that, with a lot of hard work on the part of his parents and therapists, a child who is clearly brilliant by any standard but lacks the capacity to interact empathetically, receive affection in recognizable ways, or function in a standard social or learning environment learns to do so by the end of the book.  The larger, and very compelling, theme of The Anti-Romantic Child, however, surpasses the particularities of Benj and his upbringing:  it is about the romance that everyone needs to have to imagine a life.  It is about what it takes to hold onto that romance and also grapple with the realities that clash with it.  Gilman positions herself as a particularly romantic person (she becomes a Wordsworth scholar), but also creates a compelling perspective on that for the reader.  The romances we develop about childhood, she proposes, are a healthy mechanism for choosing the parts of our upbringing that we want to honor and reproduce, while vowing not to pass on our own parents' shortcomings.  And while the family romance in particular sets the stage for disappointment -- since, after all, people are dealt children quite randomly, and fully able children are bound to simply be themselves rather than made-to-order progeny -- Gilman learns that romance is also really about joy.  As she watches Benj learn to live for himself, overcome simple difficulties that can be paralyzing for him, and actualize his humanity, she discovers in herself a whole new capacity for experiencing joy.

Perhaps it is no accident that Gilman has to recalibrate her romance about herself at the same time:  her marriage ends, tested by circumstance and the deepening knowledge that two adults can acquire about the nature of intimacy.  A second theme in the book is her path into, and out of, academia.  For a variety of reasons, Gilman's career as a literary scholar had seemed pre-ordained.  She gives birth to Benj while still in graduate school and, incredibly, is able to leverage a tenure-track job at Vassar as well as a part-time job for her husband.  Particularly because they have a special needs child, being near family and friends, as well as avoiding a commuter marriage, seems to be the miracle they need.  Increasingly, however, as she struggles with launching Benj, she also grapples with the knowledge that she has taken a wrong turn even as she has lived out a cherished romance about herself:

Vassar was a wonderful college, but my doubts, my dissatisfactions with academia remained.  I would find myself warning my students against my path; I couldn't in all good conscience encourage them to go to graduate school when they said they wanted to read great books all the time and teach great students like I did.  They were so idealistic; they had starry eyes and great hopes.  I wished one of my professors had been more honest and blunt with me early on; I wish I'd known what I was getting into, that being an English major bore little or no relation to being an English professor.  I was reading much less literature, especially world literature, now that I was a professor.  I had to read endless scholarly articles, book reviews, and student papers.  I had to immerse myself in the minor writers of my period.  And, of course, there were virtually no jobs; my career was an aberration, not a model that could be easily replicated.

Love for literature did not necessarily a career as a teacher-scholar make.  While having a developmentally disabled child was a huge challenge to that career, and to ordinary life, it may have also allowed her to speak the things to herself that many people feel but do not act on.

I would sit in interminable department or all-college faculty meetings where minutiae would be debated for hours, people got up in arms about the smallest matters, and both the bickering and the venom bore no relation to what was really at stake....Once I got to Vassar, I no longer had the anxiety about the unknown, but a new problem emerged; I realized that I had been so fixated on the elusive brass ring of a tenure-track job that I hadn't faced the fact that I wasn't truly suited to scholarship.....I knew what I had to do to get tenure, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

So she chucks it, moving to New York to have another literary life: felt good to write to the head of the Vassar English Department and tell him I'd decided to leave academia after the coming year's teaching responsibilities were over; the father of a special needs child himself, he accepted my decision with great graciousness and understanding.  Stepping off that tenure track felt like an enormous liberation, and I looked forward to beginning at the literary agency the following summer.

Gilman's book is a must-read for anyone interested in disability studies, and a thoughtful, third wave feminist meditation on mothering, work, and the work of mothering.  But it is also worthwhile for those who have made academic careers, and are beginning to wake up in the middle of the night and wonder how they got there; those on the path to a scholarly career who may or may not have come to grips with the realities of why they want it; and those who cherish the reality of scholarly life in all its parts but have found the path to a tenure-track job frustratingly foreclosed by the poor job market.  Under what circumstances is it OK to change your mind?  Under what circumstances is it possible to live out your dream in another way?  While a special needs child might force those choices, or clarify such decisions, for any one individual, they are good questions for all of us to ask ourselves as we do the ongoing work of making a life.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

From Bathrooms To Board Rooms: Is Being Transgender A Promotion Problem?

Faculty at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, a public university in Durant, OK, think it has been, and in an act of solidarity are helping a trans colleague grieve her tenure case.

Rachel Tudor, who teaches American and Native American Literature, Modernity and Theory, Humanities, Composition, and Philosophy in the English, Humanities and Languages Department has, according to our informant, "been denied tenure at our university and informed that her employment will be terminated effective May 31, 2011."  Tudor is said to have had overwhelming support from faculty colleagues at every stage of the process because of her outstanding record as a scholar, teacher and colleague.  The tenure case has been turned back by the dean and the Vice President for academic affairs.  To support the appeal sign the petition here.

Professor Tudor's supporters say that they

have compelling evidence that this denial and dismissal are due to discrimination against her for being transgender. In a mess that has gone on for nearly two years, the administration at our university has repeatedly and egregiously violated established policies and procedures. The Faculty Appeals Committee has found in favor of Rachel twice, and the Faculty Senate has passed a resolution in support of her. Meanwhile, the VP for Academic Affairs and the President arbitrarily re-wrote the Academic Policies and Procedures manual in the midst of the process, in order to allow the VP for Business Affairs (!) to overrule the decision of the Faculty Appeals Committee. 

A press release sent by Tudor's supporters tells the following story, with assertions of trans discrimination highlighted in blue:

After transitioning, Dr. Tudor was instructed by SOSU’s human resource department to only use a single-stall handicap bathroom on a different floor than where her office is located. She presumes the direction came from Dr. Douglas McMillan, the vice president of academic affairs, who reportedly had also inquired whether Dr. Tudor could be terminated because her lifestyle “offends his Baptist beliefs.” Human resources denied his request to terminate her but did direct Dr. Tudor to use the separate bathroom facility.

Assistant professors at SOSU are given seven years in which to obtain tenure, with the initial probationary period ending after five years. It is not uncommon at SOSU for applicants to pursue more than one application before being granted tenure. Dr. Tudor knows of two examples of active professors at SOSU who pursued multiple applications before obtaining tenure including the current chair of the Faculty Senate’s Personnel Policy Committee.

Applications for tenure are considered and voted on by a faculty committee. When Dr. Tudor applied for tenure in 2009 she was recommended by the Tenure Review Committee by a vote of 4-1, subsequently her department chair also recommended her for tenure and promotion. However, the dean and the vice president of academic affairs disregarded the committee’s recommendation and denied tenure, but refused to provide any explanation for the denial. The dean regularly refers to Dr. Tudor by the incorrect pronoun (i.e. “him”) although the dean is well aware that Dr. Tudor is female. Dr. Tudor filed an appeal with the Faculty Appellate Committee claiming that the dean’s and Dr. McMillan’s office did not provide her due process in explaining why tenure was denied. The Faculty Appellate Committee found in favor of Dr. Tudor, and directed the administration to provide Dr. Tudor with the reason(s) for its denial of tenure. SOSU’s administration determined that the appellate committee’s ruling was merely a recommendation and was not required to comply.

Dr. Tudor planned to re-apply for tenure in the 2010. However, before the application period began she received a memo from Dr. Doug McMillan stating that she would not be permitted to apply for tenure, alleging that Dr. Tudor’s application would “inflame the relationship between the administration and the faculty.” However, the timing of the memo immediately after SOSU was informed that Dr. Tudor had filed a discrimination complaint with the US Dept of Education suggests retaliation was the true cause of the administration’s action. Dr. Tudor is not aware of any other case in which an otherwise eligible professor has been forbidden to reapply for tenure. Dr. Tudor filed another grievance with the Faculty Appellate Committee, which again found in her favor. The decision was presented to the president’s designee, Mr. Ross Walkup. The president’s designee did not concur with the Faculty Appellate Committee’s decision, and Dr. Tudor appealed to the president of the university, Dr. Larry Minks. At the time of the filing of Dr. Tudor’s grievance the policy of SOSU provided that the Faculty Appellate Committee’s recommendation be given to the president’s designee who would in turn relay the recommendation directly to the president. However, the president’s designee, Ross Walkup, an employee in the university’s business office, refused to affirm the recommendation of the Faculty Appellate Committee. The administration amended the grievance policies to permit the president’s designee to issue his own separate recommendation to the president. Meanwhile, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution, without a single opposing vote, calling on the president to allow Dr. Tudor to apply for tenure. Eventually, the president issued a letter to Dr. Tudor denying her appeal citing, inter alia, a supposed lack of precedence for professors reapplying for tenure after denial (a fact readily regarded as untrue).

Dr. Tudor has exhausted her remedies at the university level. There is no other appellate process or avenue to pursue her grievance. Complaints are pending with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission.

Tudor's own account of her path to termination can be found here.   She is currently appealing her case to the State Board of Regents

While no outsider can speak with authority on a tenure process occurring elsewhere, such dissonance between faculty support for a colleague and administrative disdain for that same colleague is pretty compelling.  Furthermore, transphobia aside, if this account is accurate, the university has violated its own policies to rid itself of a single professor, which is clearly illegal.  As in many cases, administrators are probably betting on it that she will run out of resources before they do. 

What can you do to help Professor Tudor? Meg Cotter-Lynch, Associate Professor of English asks you to:

1) Write a letter to the Oklahoma State Board of Regents asking them to direct President Minks to respect the decision of the Faculty Appellate Committee and the resolution of the Faculty Senate, renewing Rachel's contract and allowing her tenure case a fair, unbiased hearing. Their contact information is on Rachel's blog, linked above.

2) Spread word about this to interested colleagues and contacts, and ask them to write, as well. We are hopeful that public outcry may influence the Regents to reconsider President Minks' decision.

3) We would be particularly grateful for any contacts in the media and/or legal profession who might be willing to help.

Supporters take note:  Professor Tudor's tenure case is surely not unconnected to other retractions, and standing limitations, of civil rights in Oklahoma.  Is it any accident that Oklahoma is also way out front on eliminating a woman's right choose by banning all abortions after 20 weeks, and making it illegal for private insurers to cover "elective" abortion? That the Oklahoma House just voted to put an affirmative action ban on the 2012 ballot?  That Oklahoma is one of four states to still list homosexuality as a criminal offense?  I think not.  So if you don't think trans issues are your issues, think again.
A final note:  I and a great many of my friends who are trans-identified are very political people, and are very dedicated to social justice issues.  But the vast majority of transpeople have many fewer resources than professional people do, may not have radical commitments and may simply want to live unremarkable lives.  The kinds of humiliations, harassment and prejudice visited on one college professor are reproduced over and over again in places where human rights violations get significantly less attention than they will in any university, no matter how conservative it is.  Trans kids spend whole days in pain because trips to the bathroom at school are so traumatic, and trans people are routinely discriminated against when trying to access housing, employment and the right to govern their own lives.  So the next time you think it is "enough" progress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) without full protections for transpeople, think about this:

The path to Professor Tudor's dismissal began by barring her from the women's bathroom.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I'm OK, You're (Really Not) OK: Memories of "An American Family"

Tonight HBO rolls out "Cinema Vérité,"a movie, starring Tim Robbins and Diane Lane, about the making of the TV series "An American Family" (go here for a trailer.)  My students can't imagine a world without reality TV, endless channels where you can test the authenticity of your own life and emotions against the appalling things that other people say and do.  However, they probably also can't imagine being fifteen in the winter of 1973, as the Vietnam war was coming to its grisly end, and having the Loud family combust live, every Sunday night, on PBS.  This is how one archive describes the series:

In 1971 filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond spent seven months documenting the day-to-day lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, CA, including parents William C. “Bill” and Pat Loud and their children Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele. The resulting 12-hour documentary, "An American Family," debuted on PBS-TV in early 1973. The show captivated millions of viewers worldwide with its then-unconventional depiction of middle class American family life that encompassed the "real-life drama" of marital tensions and subsequent divorce, a son's openly gay life, and the effects of the changing concepts of the American family structure. Breaking apart from the traditional American family model of harmony and ideality portrayed in fictional television sitcoms of the early 1970s like "The Brady Bunch," the novelty and innovation of "An American Family" not only pioneered reality television, but also set the tone for the more complex family models exhibited in later shows such as "Roseanne" and "The Simpsons."

There was really nothing like it, I swear.

Nowadays, few people would ask, "Why would they do such a thing?  Allow a film crew to follow them around for months?"  Back then, that was part of the fascination.  In the suburbs of Philadelphia the answer was arrived at quickly:  the Louds lived in Santa Barbara, and people in southern California do all kinds of crazy $hit.  Everyone knew that.  But part of what was amazing about it to a teenager was the intimate glimpse of adult lives spinning out of control in exactly the way you knew they were spinning out of control down the street, or upstairs, but that no one was ever allowed to talk about.  This was a moment in history where feminism was changing everything, but suburban women did not actually quite dig feminism.  The sexual revolution and its attendant changes showed up a different way.  Instead of doing consciousness raising, or succumbing to quiet despair, women had extra-marital sex with the tennis pro (male or female), drank a lot, and maybe left their marriages when their husband's drinking and screwing around finally got to them.

In the 1970s, women sometimes just left without telling anyone.  I knew the parents of one friend were getting divorced, but one day, around the swimming pool I heard one mother whisper to another about the event that tipped the scales:  "I've never heard of anything like it.  She took off her shoes, walked down the beach with the lifeguard, and never came back."  The image has stayed with me forever.  Similarly, a college friend described her mother's departure from the family home:  "Mom said she was going out to mail a letter," my friend said, after a few beers.  "When we located her a month later, she was living with my social studies teacher."

On "An American Family" we got to watch things that were not unheard of, but were talked about in whispers if at all.  They were things like: a son coming out as gay to his parents, heading off to live at the Chelsea Hotel and hang with Andy Warhol (wow! dude!); Pat Loud talking to her friends and to the camera crew about finding evidence of her husband Bill's affairs, since she was the book keeper for his business and paid credit card bills for trips he went on with, ahem,  "Mrs. Loud;" the kids getting stoned; and Pat telling Bill, in front of a national audience, that she knew about his affairs, she was filing for divorce, and she was kicking him out of the house right now.  

So needless to say, what surprised me about "An American Family" was not that these things happened, but that my parents let my sister and I watch them happen.  Here is an important factoid about the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which culture was in terrible flux, and parents could say they didn't "approve" of The Rolling Stones and more or less enforce it:  if it was on public television, it was OK.  Seriously.  Anything on public television was inherently safe to watch, whatever it was, even in Republican houses (which, by the way, ours was.)

But there was nothing safe about the Louds:  nothing.  That was why it was so cool, and I hope that  "Cinema Vérité"captures that.  For any number of uptight suburban kids it was our weird little Stonewall, the moment when we realized that not conforming, shucking the school uniform, was an option.

Friday, April 22, 2011

It Takes Dos Testiculos To Rule The Known World: A Brief Comment On "The Borgias"

Jeremy Irons as il papa:  Don't touch his junk, hear?
Q:  What do you do when you discover that your Benedictine confessor is actually a Vatican spy, and you have just confessed your plan to have the King of France invade the Italian Peninsula to topple the papacy?

A:  Take advantage of the screen in the confessional and stab him in the eye with a stiletto.

History fans will be pleased to know that the producers of The Tudors have debuted a series on late fifteenth century Italian politics, religion and family governance issues that make your problems look ridiculous.  The Borgias stars Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, or Pope Alexander VI, father of Cesare (pronounced CHAY-za-ray) and Lucrezia, reputed to have been incestuous lovers.  Certainly the series has strongly hinted at incest:  how many grown-up brothers stroke and kiss a sister on her wedding night?  I ask you.

So far, it is 1492 or so, and we have met Niccolo Machiavelli, who is working for the King of Florence; an anonymous Native American snatched by Christopher Columbus; the serial killer son of the dotty and deaf King of Naples (this happy princeling displays corpses in his own little rotting Last Supper tableau); too many scheming cardinals to name; and Savanarola, a Dominican friar who looks like Uncle Fester.  You don't even have to look it up on Wikipedia to know that this latter fellow is heading for a heresy trial and worse.  However, if you do click on that link you will find that Savanarola was not only excommunicated and tried, but racked mercilessly and then burned into bits too tiny to be used as relics, which served him right because he may also have been responsible for the first act of institutional homophobia.  In true Foucauldian fashion, prior to burning him, "the torturers spar[ed] only Savonarola’s right arm in order that he might be able to sign his confession."  Brilliant.  I wish I had thought of it myself.  They knew how to keep order in the fifteenth century.

The success of such shows is part of an interesting phenomenon:  the rise of religion on TV.  In a recent post about Friday Night Lights, another one of my favorite shows, Flavia writes about unusual it is to watch a television show about modern life that takes Christianity for granted.  "All of the characters appear to be nondenominational Protestants and some of their churches are clearly megachurches," she notes; "but nothing about their religiosity is depicted snidely or ironically or played for laughs. At the same time, the church-goers aren't romanticized or presented as unusually good people. They're just people: flawed, complicated people, trying to live up to their professed pieties. And as realistic as all that sounds, I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything like it on t.v."

That might be right, and may say something about the ways in which subcultural Christian media are going mainstream. Army Wives certainly has its moments where it is clear that God is lurking in the background; and Big Love has introduced a popular audience to the intricacies of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  But shows like The Tudors and The Borgias go one step further and teach a lesson about what religion, and the political struggles that revolved around the evolution of Catholicism and Protestant dissent actually have to do with how world history unfolded.  A keen watcher of The Tudors, for example, would think about how one lived from day to day in a culture that was framed by the mandatory celebration of key moments in the life of Christ.  No sooner was Christmas over than one began prepping for Lent; following Easter, the various days of obligation and days of ascension never stopped until a good Christian was getting ready for Advent and gearing up for Christmas again.  As the series progressed, moreover, a non-specialist understood that casting doubt on the deference of Kings to the Pope pretty much put every other fixed principle in play, particularly the "natural order" of gender that would ultimately result in England getting her first Queens and the eventual rule of commoners over both church and crown.

So far the most interesting thing I have learned from The Borgias, other than how to kill people with whatever tools the fifteenth century made available, was that back then the Pope had to be examined after the election to make sure he was actually a man.  This had to be one of the worst jobs in Rome:  crouching under a cleric's icky business to make sure he had, as the examiner announced,"Dos testiculos" (this was how they put it on Episode One) or "two balls, and they are well-hung," as I have found it described on several web sites. There is some disagreement as to whether this ritual actually happened or not:  apparently this had to do with Pope John VIII, a superb intellect elected in 855, who turned out to be Pope Joan. Rumour has it she was discovered after she gave birth in the street during a papal procession and was executed, with her lover, on the spot.  (I know:  scholars who really know this field are going to ask me why I would go to a website called Papal Trivia:  Fun Facts About the Popes for my information.)

Like The Tudors, The Borgias is also about how political structures and organized crime are more or less interchangeable forms of domination. The latter show is particularly striking in this regard, as the actors keep dropping family names that we are actually familiar with from The Sopranos. In other ways, The Borgias is just another juiced up soap opera that makes it clear how difficult it is to run a family when you are responsible for the spiritual and political fate of the known world.  This responsibility requires dropping several bodies in every episode.  In episode four, we see a garroting ("you use a cheese cutter," the assassin explains to Cesare, who has never seen someone dispatched this way), a stabbing, a snapped neck, and a poisoning gone wrong that has to be finished off with an inexpert smothering.  These things must be done, there is no question, lest the Church fall into the grip of folks like, say, the Medecis, who in 1492 were still running a bank in Florence and biding their sweet time.

One of the show's signature moments, used in all the ads, has Rodrigo staring into the camera (this is early in the first episode, right after Cardinal Borgia has given Cesare his marching orders for how to buy the papacy) and murmuring intensely:  "I will not forgive failure!"  This sums it up:  what responsible father of successful children would forgive failure?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Please Don't Flame The Students: Or, How (Not) To Interact With Young Conservatives

Ellen Lewin, Professor of anthropology and gender studies at the University of Iowa, has become the object of unwelcome attention in the past several days.  After having received numerous emails from the Iowa College Republicans advertising various liberal-needling events, Lewin snapped.  The author and co-editor of numerous valuable books and anthologies in lesbian and gay studies replied:  "F**CK YOU, REPUBLICANS!"

Oh, the emails we wish we could take back.  Read about it in the Des Moines Register, and view the original emails here

What is OK -- and not OK -- to say to students?  Let me speak from experience, having never sent a written message to a student or group of students that was as elegant in its simplicity as Lewin's.  Last fall I did write a much longer email to one of the students responsible for the "affirmative action bake sale" held at Zenith on October 29 2010. This was a cynical event that -- in the name of anti-racism -- articulated all students of color as unworthy of having been admitted to the school under the high standards set by we white folks.

Following an inspiring meeting organized by students of color, I wrote one of the leaders of the group that sponsored the "bake sale" about why I was critical of it.  She passed the email on to numerous conservative websites which reprinted it with accompanying derisive commentary.  One described it as a "rant" despite an accurate reprinting of the original message. (Interestingly, some conservative commenters on the same website disagreed, describing my email as respectful and reasonable.) At National Review Online, my message to the student was characterized as "logically bankrupt" and "obviously an attempt at intimidation."  The name of the student was redacted in this article, presumably to protect her from others like me on the Zenith faculty, although if you Google "Cardinal Conservatives" her name is perfectly available.  The idea, of course, was to portray this student as a helpless victim of my excessive, unregulated power.  The narrative goes this way:  conservative students are brave for confronting liberal faculty on their candya$$ views; liberal faculty are not entitled to disagree with conservative students because it is inherently abusive for faculty to disagree with students about politics.

This is all to say that redacting the young woman's name was strategic on the part of the author, Mytheos Holt, a former Zenith student who specialized in baiting people for publicity when he was an undergrad and now writes for NRO Online and other conservative sites. Holt is, perhaps, best remembered by the Zenith faculty for having used the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" in a campus newspaper article about the Obama victory and having to admit afterward that he hadn't been aware that this was the famous phrase over the gate at Auschwitz (so much for a liberal arts education.)  The original article that contained these words also included an attempt to explain the depth of Mytheos's pain at John McCain's loss with the following simile: "my response to this election is probably quite similar to the response of the death row inmate who finally finds himself obliged to sit in the electric chair: no matter how long you have expected something unpleasant, it still hurts when it happens."

Having a private email, however dignified, reprinted multiple times taught me an important lesson that Professor Lewin has learned as well.  It is a common strategy for conservative student groups to make every possible effort to get in the faces of faculty in order to provoke a response that will "expose" our inherent desire to oppress them and limit the expression of their ideas.  Hence, when faced with such opportunities, however compelling, it is often best not to respond at all.  The kind of emails Professor Lewin got about such things as "The Animal Rights Barbecue" ought to go straight to Trash, and to the Spam file if you are computer-savvy enough organize it.  Looking back on it, I would still publicly support the students of color who organized against the "affirmative action bake sale."  They did a great job, and they deserved to know that faculty had their backs on an important social justice issue.  But if I had it to do over again I would not write an email expressing my views to that conservative student, nor will I ever do so again outside of an exchange related to academics. 

This is not because it caused me any official trouble, or because in retrospect I believe that writing a student about an action I disapproved of was actually abusive. I didn't mind that the email exceeded its audience, although I did think it was dishonorable of the student to distribute it without my permission.  I always like a little extra publicity from the NRO (it spices things up chez Radicale) or any other publication that chooses to link me.  No -- I would not write this email because it was a waste of time to accept an invitation to dialogue with conservative students when, in fact, all these groups want is more ammunition to pursue an endless culture war while the world burns down around all of us and Citibank turns our pockets inside out.

The student was not interested in generating a dialogue that did not privilege her point of view, with me or with anyone else.  Similarly, Professor Lewin's students did not genuinely want her to attend their event or talk to her about their opposition to animal rights.  Of course, "F**K YOU REPUBLICANS" can, by no stretch of the imagination, be viewed as an invitation to dialogue either, but I think what Professor Lewin meant was "Please take me off your mailing list."  Activist conservatives, particularly young ones who are trained by skilled organizers, view themselves as crusaders, not as citizens working to build democratic alliances.  They are only interested in generating publicity, not in working out solutions to common problems.  Part of that crusade is to provoke liberal faculty into what can then be publicized as intolerance and discrimination which, in turn, "reveals" them as hypocrites and liars.  So the next time you get one of these emails, imagine this voice booming over a loudspeaker:  "Sir, move away from the computer.  Now, sir....please.... step away from the computer......"

And if you can't seem to do that, at least pry the "F" key off your keyboard.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Writing Fun With Mary Beth Norton: How To Write A Trilogy

At the newly redesigned History News Network, Cornell Historian Mary Beth Norton gives great advice on "How To Write A Trilogy Without Really Trying."  What's her secret?  Don't tell anyone that you're doing it.  After publishing your prize-winning first book, jump into a new field (in Norton's case, women's history) that's raising a lot of important questions, then publish a second book that turns Early American history on its head.   Realize that you aren't done, and over the course of the next thirty years turn out volumes two and three (in reverse order, no less!), as well as numerous other books, articles and a widely-used textbook.  Easy-peasy!

As usual, Norton has chosen a great title for a great blog past that actually explains how an entire intellectual career has unfolded up to this point.  Why is it a great title, other than the obvious allusion?  Because no one who knows her would ever accuse Mary Beth Norton of "not really trying." Ever.  At anything.  You heard it here first.

Along this journey, Norton enriched her analysis by folding in new intellectual developments that were changing history as a field: she mastered the histories of gender and sexuality, as well as Atlantic Studies.  She brought the trilogy to a crescendo (a?) this month with Separated by Their Sex:  Women In Public And Private In the Colonial Atlantic World (Cornell, 2011).  "And so my unintended trilogy on the theme of gender and political power in early America is complete," she concludes.  "Research for it led me in each iteration in so many unexpected directions that I do not know what to anticipate as I embark on a new project, that long-postponed look at the years immediately prior to the American Revolution. But I do know that the book, informed by the past decades of work on the trilogy and its sidelight volume, will be very different from that I would have researched and written in the 1970s."

Stay tuned:  the end of one thing is often t he beginning of another, and I wouldn't expect the announcement of Norton's next trilogy until at least 2030 or 2040.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun: The Radical Responds To Her Critics

Tenured radical faculty have too much, others have nothing.
This is a follow-up on yesterday's post, which unexpectedly turned into a brawl. Late-night anonymous commenters had issues with my inability to recognize that they are always right and that I am causing their oppression.  How did this happen? 

Let's roll the videotape:

I suggested (I deliberately did not make this a law, because I do not believe in coercion and I use my super powers with restraint and wisdom) that people who take full-time visiting faculty jobs should make themselves available to work full time, as opposed to teaching one or two days a week because they are traveling several hours each way from Big City.  Fulfilling this obligation (something that would be a normal expectation anywhere but in academia and e-trading) could mean moving to or near the place of employ, or making arrangements to spend several nights a week there.  I also suggested that if full time visitors were not going to do this, they should be responsible for actually getting themselves to the work site (a.k.a., skool) without assistance from the super-privileged tenured faculty who committed the crime of hiring them in the first place.

It turned out I was wrong about this, and that these are all not only highly retrograde notions unworthy of a true Radical, but also evidence of my secret affiliations with the radical right.  "About as 'Radical' as Don Chafin, I'd say," sniffs Anonymous 5:40 (I had to look that one up, not being well versed in the history of union-busting coal industry minions.) "TR, you say it's 'just advice,'" Anonymous 12:29 summed up in hir closing argument to the jury.  "Fine. But it's clear enough from your post that YOU are the one negatively judging those adjuncts who dare to hold on to their connections in other places. YOU'RE the one who feels offended by this practice, even though this practice is a totally rational labor response to a short-term, low-wage job contract."  Yes, and it would be a totally rational response on MY part to fire YOUR sorry a$$ for putting in minimal time for the actual job I had hired YOU to do.

Actually, I have had two homes for most of my adult life, which was expensive as all get out, particularly when I was in a visiting gig early in my career. Subsequently, I commuted between Zenith and New York for over fifteen years. I had two homes that I eventually gave up for one home in New Haven, from whence I commute 30 minutes a day, three to five days a week.  My point of view was that this was better than not working at what I wanted to do for a living.  But things have changed, I guess, since I was a young Radical (favorite comment from one of the multiple blog posts elsewhere sending me the hate?  "I want to rename her Tenured Liberal!" Yes, you do that.  Sounds like a devastating criticism anyone would take to heart, even me.)  The commenters above and others like them are clear: moving somewhere for a year, renting a room a couple nights a week, or taking responsibility for your own transportation to fulfill the terms of a full-time salaried, contract without any guarantee this will lead to future success or the lifetime security of tenure is something only ordinary people without PH.D.'s should have to do.

Well God Bless, and good luck. And the next time you decide to police the content of my blog, and reprove me for being condescending, be warned:  act like d00shb@g$, and the condescension veers way out of control.  Sorry.  Like the relentlessly condescending/entertaining Rachel Maddow ShowTenured Radical is not intended for children.  It may include adult themes, hard language, nudity, and all minors should be accompanied by a parent, guardian or dissertation advisor. )

In other news, readers who perceive tenured faculty as responsible for the death of their life prospects are going to be really upset when they see this one.  When we weren't looking, an administrator acquired two administrative jobs, 1,000 miles apart, that gross him $212 large a year.  Talk about a highway flyer! According to Inside Higher Ed:

Donald Green is executive vice president of instruction and student services at Florida State College at Jacksonville, where he has worked since 1998. He is also, concurrently, the acting senior vice president of academic affairs at Essex County College, in New Jersey, where he has been working 15-20 hours a week as a consultant since last October. 

Essex CC is actually paying Green as a consultant, at a rate of $130 an hour, which means he gets his benefits in Florida, Governor Chris Christie will be relieved to know.  This is probably about $127.75 more per hour than the adjunct profs teaching Humanities 101 are making, and $105.10 per hour more than full-time instructional staff.

While it isn't clear that Green has done anything illegal, it does appear that the guy had all kinds of paid sick days, vacation time and what not to fly up to the Garden State for a week or so at a time to be an adjunct administrator of sorts.  Marcella Washington, a political science prof at FSC, says that the faculty is investigating.  Full-time faculty members work "more than 40 hours per week" at FSC and administrators should at least be putting in their full forty.  "If we are truly giving all we have to our students, we don’t have time for another job. For [Green] to have another full-fledged job to put in 20 hours a week is just not giving all the attention and concern to Florida State College. It’s unacceptable behavior. [From an administrator], it just doesn’t set a good example.”

Interestingly, if you scroll down yesterday's comments you will get to "Christopher" who also had two jobs for a year, his regular adjunct gigs (three different jobs, it sounds like) and a one-year visiting slot with benefits that he was able to land in the same town.  

The one year gig was a 3/3 and paid $46k. Except, I'm used to 6/6 and even 7/7, so 3/3 was a snap. I kept 3 of my adjunct gigs, and pocketed the $46k plus another $18k, give or take. Nice. Plus, the FT gig provided health insurance, and so I made sure during that year to have every test known to medical science done. I'm good. For now.

The more salient fact, though, is that when the FT gig was done, I still had employment. Yes, it was back to the adjunct pool, but that's certainly better than nothing.

I suppose folks could call me out for gaming the system. Right. Go for it. Sue me, or something.

Dude! I think people are not calling you out because they are in awe of you, as well they should be.  Consider yourself invited for a guest post.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Are You Getting Your Adjunct On? A Few Do's And Don'ts For New Members Of The Adjunct Army

Course by course, we build the nation!
Nick Parker's article about "The Adjunct Economy" in is a must-read for anyone in a tenured or a tenure-track job, mainly because our lives are structured so as to obscure the way the majority of our fellow scholars live and work.  As Parker, who teaches at Babson College, notes, adjuncts dominate the academic labor force and have become the new normal.  In Massachusetts, there are over 19,000 adjuncts at work, "nearly 60 percent of the 32,000 or so faculty members in the state," Parker writes.  "When you factor in graduate-student teachers, who often lead the discussion sections in math and science courses, the figure tops 70 percent."

This isn't just a community college, or public university, issue.  For example, did you send your kid to Harvard to be taught by Nobel Prize winners? Think again. "At Harvard, adjuncts accounted for 57 percent of the faculty in 2005," Parker writes; "At Boston University that year, they made up 70 percent. And over the last three decades, the number of adjuncts employed across the country skyrocketed by 210 percent while tenure-track faculty hirings rose merely 7 percent."  Yes, things have gotten worse.  But even before the financial crisis, at Zenith we were approving faculty privileges for two and half pages of adjuncts (single spaced) at the beginning of every academic year.

If you are a newly minted (or not-quite hatched) PH.D. in the social sciences or humanities, you are most likely to be teaching as an adjunct in the fall (guess what?  post-doc is now frequently just a fancy name for "full-time adjunct.") You are also hoping to leverage this into what used to be known in the profession as "a real job."

Here are a few hints for you:

Do finish your dissertation/get your book proposal out/get an article circulating.  I know that you love, love, love teaching.  But guess what?  Everyone does, or claims they do, and it's still the people who finish things and publish them in prestigious locations who have a shot at a career in teaching, not the people who love teaching more than anyone else does, hold a quazillion office hours and over-enroll their courses.  Those of you who immerse yourselves in teaching during that first year out as an adjunct as if you were in a tenure-track job are doing something wonderful for your students, but are cheating yourselves.  The quickest way to remain an adjunct is to devote yourself to what adjuncts do:  teaching core courses competently and creatively to full, or over-full, houses.

Don't listen to senior colleagues who tell you that there will soon be a line in your field and that you are ideally positioned for it.  Gah! Every time I hear this -- and I have been hearing it for my entire career -- I wish I had a photograph of the Road to Hell, which is, I am convinced, paved with adjunct faculty who were fed this line.    The idea that you actually have some control over your fate is attractive, I know, but the fact is, in a two decade career I know exactly three people who were hired by a school they were teaching for as adjuncts.  I have, however, known dozens of people who have felt angry and betrayed because they were assured that this adjunct job was a stepping-stone to a bright future at that very same institution. Then, either no job was established in the field, or worse, someone shiny and new waltzed into the search and made them seem so Last Year in the eyes of the department. Strangely, this seems to happen to people in women's studies, ethnic studies, queer studies....there's a theme here, but I can't quite grasp what it is......

Never mind.  An adjunct job is an adjunct job.  It is temporary.  Don't forget that.  And if you have been hired as an adjunct at a very prestigious school it has the highest likelihood of being temporary, although it may be a nice wedge into a good job elsewhere.

Do move, or at least rent a room, if you must commute to a full-time adjunct position.  There is nothing more annoying than hiring someone to do full-time visiting work and then have them work essentially part-time because it isn't a tenure-track job.  Full time means 3-4 days a week, depending on the teaching schedule you are assigned; it means meeting with your students in office hours; and it means meeting with your students outside of office hours if they can't make it in the two hours you have decided you are willing to contribute outside of class.  It means not pestering people you barely know for rides to and from the train station because you got a visiting slot in Bumpuddle, RI, but you don't want to give up your apartment in Cambridge because you heard there will be a great job at MIT next year.

However, the other reason to establish a presence is that this is an opportunity for you to actually do your work in a community of scholars, and to wean yourself from your primary identification with your graduate school.  While it is foolish to commit yourself to them in ways that detract from your scholarship, a year in a department is potentially a year of new readers, new discussions, and new people to support your career.  How can they do that if you aren't there?

Don't get involved in student politics.  Particularly at small liberal arts colleges, particularly if you are faculty of color, or queer, or working class, students will be enraptured by you.  They will bring little projects to you like cats dropping off mouse carcasses at the foot of the bed at 3 A.M.  Don't get involved in their "fight" for ethnic/queer/disability studies, most especially if that was what you were hired to teach.  Why?  Because lurking behind your efforts is always the fantasy that you are creating a job for yourself and it's not true.  Also, you will make yourself noxious to your colleagues, many of whom may support the agenda at hand, but will have a better sense than you do of what the institution will and will not support.  Yes, there should be a permanent line in Martian Studies rather than a revolving door of adjuncts, and yes, it does say something about how Martians are marginalized in the university that there is not.  But it ain't your problem.

Do expand your view of what you are willing to do to work in higher education, keep your scholarship going and build a rewarding career.  Most institutions are subtracting full-time faculty and adding administrators:  it's the cold, hard truth.  Many administrators also teach, and it is not beyond reason that a person with a high scholarly profile who has stepped off the tenure-track might end up with a terrific and interesting job.  Instead of obsessing about all that time you "wasted" in graduate school preparing for the tenure track job that doesn't exist, have lunch with archivists, people from the grants office, university press editors, deans, media and oral history project directors, and the people who do co-curricular planning.  You don't need tenure to have a secure or rewarding life in academia.  What tenure does is make a lot of decisions for you, and leave you free-ish to do your writing.  But although the tenure-track job holds out the potential for security,  it also places constraints and burdens on you that other jobs do not.  It is worth thinking about whether the advantages of such work are really worth what you are putting into the project of finding a job as a scholar-teacher.

Don't get angry about being an adjunct.  The real problem right now is that education is in chaos.  It seems pretty clear that there is no commitment among private or public institutions to return to full-time labor, and this situation is unlikely to get better in the time frame you need to establish a life and a pension plan.  Be clear about why you have decided to teach adjunct and what it has to do with moving forward in your life project. Rethink this continually, and be entirely selfish in the decisions you make. Anger at others -- your undergraduate mentors for "lying" to you about graduate school (they may well have, but what did you want from it?); your graduate mentors for not having enough influence; your current employer for exploiting you (because people aren't exploited in other professional occupations, I guess) -- is unproductive and pointless.  Anger, IMHO, is often a symptom of a deep-seated shame about not having succeeded in a tangible way, and a strategy for deflecting that shame onto others because it is too darn painful.  You need to address this if it is so, because you have nothing to be ashamed of.

Anger in itself is not a terrible thing, and appropriately directed, it can lead to constructive action.  But inappropriately directed, it can cause you to start acting like a crazy person over time, which diminishes the possibility that you will acquire allies to help you move your career forward in any way at all.

Do join the union if there is one.  You think you aren't "like" those other people?  Oh yes.  You are.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Should They Stay Or Should They Go? A Few Thoughts On Who Is "Supposed" To Be In College

I have been reading a variety of books and articles in the past year that question the utility of going to college at all, much less whether it matters in the course of a life whether a young person decides to go to a selective,  private college. If you are a famous actress, for example, it might not.  Yesterday, "Kaiser," who blogs at CeleBitchy, mused about Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) and her decision to drop out of Brown, at least temporarily, because she holds herself to such high standards. According to the AP story Kaiser quotes:

Watson has always been studious. She enrolled to study liberal arts at Rhode Island’s Brown University in 2009. But being a movie star and an Ivy League student took its toll, and she says commuting back and forth to the U.S. left her stressed out. Ever the perfectionist, Watson couldn’t stand delivering a below-average performance, so she took some time off. How very Hermione.

“I just knew I was going to be beating myself up because I wasn’t going to be able to be doing the best that I knew that I could at school or in my job,” she said. “If I’d been getting B’s or C’s I would’ve been really upset.”

We all would have been really upset.  What a thoughtful person.  Exactly the kind of rational individual who is ideally positioned to take advantage of a liberal arts education.

And now let's hear from the other kids, the ones who don't have film and modeling careers to distract them.

Currently, I am reading In the Basement of the Ivory Tower:  Confessions of an Accidental Academic by the mysterious Professor X whose initial thoughts on this matter were published in The Atlantic in June 2008.  A teacher of expository writing, who ended up in this position in the first place because he bought too much house and needed a second job, Professor X's argument is that the vast majority of people who end up in our community college system don't belong in college at all -- and wouldn't be in college if the United States didn't have a collective fantasy that higher education is a prerequisite for even the lowest paid work.

Needless to say, one powerful message In The Basement of the Ivory Tower delivers is how profoundly different the lives of academics are, not just because our students are sorted and tracked at an early age by testing, poverty and race, but because many of the students in most need of close attention and the time to reflect, read and learn to express themselves are the least likely to have that opportunity.  Furthermore, a community college campus may be running two entirely different schools in the same space.  By day, tenured faculty and long-term adjuncts teach students who may indeed go on to a B.A.:  you might be interested to know that a number of these students end up at places like Zenith.  They  transfer in during sophomore or junior year, and do very well despite the fact that they haven't had access to the kind of curricula that elite liberal arts colleges see as a crucial foundation to upper level work.  Other than intelligence, one reason for this in my view is a higher degree of maturity and commitment to their courses than many students (who have taken this opportunity for granted) have.

By night, however, Professor X describes classrooms given over to the generation of tuition revenues, paid by working people who don't give a rat's a$$ about literature, can't write or put together a coherent thought, and are taking an Associate's degree because they can't advance in their ill-paid jobs without it.  Why, Professor X asks us, do we force dental technicians to read Wallace Stevens?  And why do we cycle students through the same course that they have failed before because we think that writing a coherent essay has something to do with putting in a Foley catheter or making sure all the right boxes on the income tax forms are filled out properly?

It's not a dumb question, except that it misses what is for me a crucial point:  if we are educating large numbers of people inappropriately, and at great expense to them, what would it mean to educate people well?  While Professor X displays a high level of devotion to his students, the "realism" that he insists we adopt towards community college students, as taxpayers and as citizens, verges so closely on contempt for them that the book can be a difficult read.  Granted, many students come to community college (or Zenith, for that matter) needing to be brought up to speed on things they never learned in high school.  The gap in some cases is far greater than it is in others.  But is that a reason to throw in the towel on college?

A redeeming feature of this book is that Professor X sees faculty and students as having ended up in the same canoe, up the same $hit creek, and without a paddle between them. "Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up," he writes.

I’m working a second job; they’re trying desperately to get to a place where they don’t have to. All any of us wants is a free evening. Many of my students are in the vicinity of my own age. Whatever our chronological ages, we are all adults, by which I mean thoroughly saddled with children and mortgages and sputtering careers. We all show up for class exhausted from working our full-time jobs. We carry knapsacks and briefcases overspilling with the contents of our hectic lives. We smell of the food we have eaten that day, and of the food we carry with us for the evening. We reek of coffee and tuna oil. The rooms in which we study have been used all day, and are filthy. Candy wrappers litter the aisles. We pile our trash daintily atop filled garbage cans.

You've got the message (the guy does have an MFA after all):  garbage in, garbage out.

That Professor X is an "accidental academic" speaks volumes, in the sense of how much public policymakers now prize the voices of "outsiders" to the profession of education, as well as the opinions of successful businesspeople and politicians (for whom having gone to school is qualification enough to play a decisive role in shaping public education.)  We who have made careers in higher ed, the reasoning goes, are far too immersed in our tenure systems, our unions, and our persnickety claptrap about committee work to understand "the big picture."  We are myopic.  We are perpetual adolescents who have fled from the challenges of the "real world" and pursued graduate educations that suit us for nothing better than to return to school for the rest of our natural lives ("Those who can't do, teach/Those who can't teach, teach gym," they are snickering in the New Jersey and Wisconsin governor's mansions.)

It's a surprise we are able to pull ourselves together to pay our taxes every year.

It's also not an accident that Professor X's day job is in government:  a self-confessed bureaucrat of some kind, he is no stranger to waste, mismanagement, and the outdated social theories that throw money at problems, as if money solved anything.  Indeed, that only a fraction of X's students are able to move successfully through the courses he teaches, and that a dramatically large number fail the same course repeatedly without apparently ever having had a clue what their own failure to do the work had to do with the outcome, is a compelling argument for cutting education budgets and excluding people from college altogether.

And yet:  what does it really mean about us as a society that we are able to tolerate, simultaneously, such vast gaps in educational opportunity, and such profound contempt for those people to whom we literally give almost nothing for their hard-earned tuition dollars:  not a clean classroom, not a professional teacher, not access to writing centers, not a class that meets before 10 P.M., not child care? 

When I taught community college as an adjunct over twenty years ago, we received repeated memoranda reminding us to drop students from the roster if they missed two classes.  Early on, I learned to throw these away without a thought, particularly since there were no administrators around between 7 and 10 in the evening when my two classes met.  But it seemed obvious that these policies were intended to weed as many students out of the system as possible -- after, of course, having snarfed up their nonrefundable tuition dollars.  For most students, missing two classes by midterm was routine:  babysitters not showing up, a spouse having to pull an extra shift unexpectedly, a relative falling into the hands of the law, housing court -- you name it, they were derailed by it.  Compare these to the equally good reasons I get from my current students for not coming to class ("I'm really stressed;" "My father's travel agent bought me the wrong plane ticket;" "my best friend is getting married in France;" "my roommate has been really upset lately") and ask yourself:  why are these working people not due the same care and consideration that we assume those who pay far higher tuition deserve?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Give Me A T For Texas: Tuesday Tenure Report

Another take on the path towards tenure
Where, oh where, has the Radical been?  Well, many places, but the most recent impediment to posting has been the end of honors thesis season, which requires time-consuming, line-by-line scrutiny of all outgoing chapters.  But by today, the little birds will have flown the coop once and for all and I am once again left to my feckless ways.  A good scrounge through my Google reader shows that others have been busy out there, however, so with out further ado:

Just in Case You Were Curious:  According to the campus newspaper, the Trinitonian, Trinity University of San Antonio Texas is making the institutional case for tenure.  In an article that does a good job of explaining to students what tenure is and how faculty achieve it, Michael Fischer, vice president of Academic Affairs, “There are very good historical reasons for tenure and particularly in this political environment, there is even a greater reason for tenure, because tenure allows academics to say things that are unpopular,” Ahlburg said. “Without the protection of tenure, it would most likely lead to their removal, and that could be at a state institution by shutting off funds.”  John Huston, chair of the economics department, argues in the same piece that tenure has other advantages for a teaching institution. “There are great advantages of having your faculty tied to your institution," he says; "So that their interests are aligned more with the institution’s interests.  I know that I am going to be at Trinity for a large chunk of my career, so I have Trinity’s interests at heart and I think that’s a real plus of the tenure system.”

Other college administrators might want to take a page out of Trinity's book.  My faith in the electorate's ability to reason is currently at an all-time low.  But perhaps if colleges, universities and public school systems went on the offense and explained what tenure actually does, and why the ideal, mobile workforce that neoliberal and conservative policy makers imagine is not good for education it might make blowhards pols like Chris Christie and Scott Walker look like the anti-labor, anti-education governors that they are?

Update on DePaul University Tenure Bias Case:  Back in February, I reported on the personnel troubles at DePaul University in Chicago, where 22 white faculty were awarded tenure last year and all six scholars of color were denied tenure.  Those denied tenure, and a large number of their supporters on the faculty (who I'm guessing are white, if these numbers represent a trend) say there is a pattern of discrimination, and lawsuits have been filed.  Philosophy prof Namita Goswami got the AAUP involved (excellent move, in my experience) and a summary of their summary of the case follows:

Goswami, who has a PhD from Emory University, was hired by the DePaul philosophy department in 2003 to teach "critical race and feminist theory." Between then and now she's published numerous journal articles, written a book that's under contract with SUNY Press, and won DePaul's highest teaching honor, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award, along with two competitive research fellowships. In spite of all that, somewhere along the way, the philosophy department decided she wasn't such a good fit.

Two years ago an ad hoc committee of the department made an attempt to get her terminated before her probationary appointment was even over. Among their complaints, according to the AAUP report: she didn't attend enough department events during a one academic year, "has interests other than continental philosophy"—notably, women's studies, which is integral to what she was hired to teach—and isn't fluent in German, though she speaks five other languages.

According to the AAUP report, written by Saint Xavier University history professor Peter N. Kirstein, this ad hoc committee essentially sought to "cashier Dr. Goswami for engaging in research that a majority find objectionable: Mainly doing her job as a scholar in postcolonial theory, critical race and feminist theory, and linking them to the discipline of philosophy." The AAUP concluded that Goswami was "excelling," and that her academic freedom had been violated by her department, in which "there appears to be a club-like atmosphere and a narrow perception of the discipline."

I've seen this story over and over again.  It is the fundamental flaw of top-down diversity polices by administrations who refuse to also reform the tenure process.  Departments that have historically failed to see the value in new scholarship are given all kinds of enlightenment points for hiring candidates that meet university criteria for diversity, but are then given a free hand to harass and dump them according to internal "standards" that have been left undisturbed.  Someone could do the profession a great service by providing the comparative tenure data on this across institutions.

It's Only Good If You Can Get It:  In Discover magazine, science blogger "Julianne" recently posted  "How To Get Tenure At Almost Every Other Research University," a response to her colleague "Sean"'s  "How To Get Tenure At A Major University."  Sean's piece includes helpful hints under subheadings like "Be a productive genius" ($hit!  That's where I went wrong!)  As Julianne writes,

Personally, I found Sean’s advice really really dispiriting, and it probably would have freaked me out to read it as a postdoc. And yet, I find myself with “tenure at a major research university” without ever having lost sleep to fears about achieving seemingly impossible standards. I worked steadily, but not insanely. I had a couple of kids. I “dabbled” in other research areas, some of which turned into major research areas down the road. And it worked out (although, it likely wouldn’t have “worked out” if I was at Chicago or Caltech).

Julianne's advice follows more along the lines of demonstrating that you have "traction," as she calls it, which is imprecise but I think some of the best advice I have heard in any field.  What she means by this is:  have a research program, do it well, demonstrate that you are moving forward in a substantive way.  Every once in a while, she suggests, it isn't such a bad idea to take a risk. While establishing a whole parallel track that isn't likely to pay off in any discernible way, a risk could amplify the direction you are already taking. "A colleague and I have had many discussions about the fact that, because we were more than willing to leave academia, we were more willing to take risks," Julianne writes. " These risks paid off in more interesting research than the path we were headed down as young postdocs."

You Might Not Want To Try This At Home:  Techdirt reports that Michel Aaij of the Department of English and Philosophy at Auburn University Montgomery added his Wikipedia entries to his tenure dossier and they were a hit.  Aaij has apparently been doing some on the ground work to persuade his colleagues that on-line media represents important scholarly contributions, and voila, they became believers.  "It certainly would be nice if the overly broad anti-Wikipedia bias in academia was starting to fade," Techdirt notes. "Of course, it's important to point out that it wasn't just Wikipedia edits on his application [for tenure], but either way, it appears that his colleagues are gaining increasing respect for work done on Wikipedia in addition to traditional journals."

One caveat:  I love Wikipedia, but it isn't a journal.  Adjust your vita accordingly.

And now, to start your day on a happy note, in honor of Trinity College, here is 1976 concert footage of Lynyrd Skynyrd doing an old Jimmie Rodgers standard ("woman made a fool out of me.")

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Tremble Administrative Swine: Reports From The Field On Sexual Assault

How about we go to court on our first date?
Tenured Radical is out of town and a little slow on the flip-flop lately, but here's news:  following an incident in which  fraternity pledges chanted sexist slurs on the Old Campus last fall, sixteen Yale students have filed charges with the federal government that Yale University has a sexually hostile environment.  As CBS News reported in its online edition,

“What we’re saying is that Yale, in its failure to respond to both public and private instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault, has said to the campus ‘this is OK’,” said plaintiff Alexandra Brodsky.

That belief pushed Brodsky, Hannah Zeavin, and 14 other men and women at Yale to file a complaint, charging the university has repeatedly failed to take action on harassment and sex crimes, including rape.

The students, who include men and women, are alleging a Title IX violation, and the Department of Education has launched an investigation

This follows on the occupation of an administrative building at Dickinson College earlier this semester by students demanding that anti-rape efforts be jacked up at that school.  Here's a hint, ladies:  if you've asked for action at your school and they don't hire anyone, if your school offers "consent training" rather than anti-rape workshops, they don't open a women's center, faculty are not receiving mandatory sexual harassment training, and the bulk of the website on rape is still devoted to all the things you, as a woman, can do to "avoid" being raped -- your school might benefit from a Title IX investigation too.