Still think reparations sound like
Still think reparations sound like a good idea? Still think those who oppose them are racist, or selfish, or both? Read this. In 2000, California passed two bills: the first required the Department of Insurance to collect information about insurers' past slave policies. The second required a University of California panel to put a dollar amount on "the economic benefits of slavery." The amount the panel came up with? $1.4 trillion. The Department of Insurance report will be released tomorrow, and it seems clear enough that the information it contains can--and will--be used toward filing reparations lawsuits along the lines of those already filed earlier this year. So excited by these prospects is Jesse Jackson that he has announced his belief that this information will lead to reparations not only for African Americans, but for Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans as well. The California state legislature has been effectively doing the reparations lawyers' homework on the taxpayers' dime. Academics have been engaging in spurious economics to suit the reparations cause. And businesses are being ordered to indict themselves, or at least to supply the information that makes it possible for others to indict them--not for crimes they have committed, but for being the lineal descendants of companies that engaged in racist business practices many decades ago.
If that isn't disturbing enough, consider this. Jackson and his fellow reparations supporters do not envision reparations going to individuals to use as they need and please (though within the logic of reparations, dispensing money in such a way as to enable individual self-determination would seem to be of the utmost importance). No, Jackson sees reparations money going straight into non-profits with the victims' predetermined "best interests" at heart--organizations such as Jackson's Rainbow Coalition stand to win mightily from reparations settlements, while individual Americans most likely won't see a penny. Do you smell a conflict of interest yet? Do you smell extortion? Do you smell graft? More broadly, do you smell a huge problem for the American economy if paying slave reparations becomes a condition of doing business in California, and if other states follow suit? Do you smell the problem getting deeper and worse over time as more and more minority groups make reparations claims of their own? American morality does not need this "corrective"--which is itself hardly proceeding along moral lines. And the American economy may well not be able to handle it.
April 29, 2002
George Washington University has established
George Washington University has established a "compliance hotline." Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you can call in and leave anonymous tips about the misdeeds, real or imagined, of students, faculty and staff. It's a win-win situation all around. The University can keep tabs on campus conduct, whistleblowers don't have to fear retaliation, and anyone who likes can have a ball smearing reputations, spreading lies, and making the kinds of false charges that can ruin careers. Personally, I'm very impressed. What could be better for campus harmony--not to mention personal entertainment--than a no-strings-attached compliance hotline?
But for some reason, the GWU faculty don't see it that way. They are up in arms about the hotline, charging that it infringes on academic freedom and denies due process to the accused, who will not only never know the identity of their accuser, but who will not even be informed if they are the targets of anonymous "tips." These people clearly do not appreciate the extent of wrongdoing on their campus, nor do they recognize the climate of threat and fear that requires students and faculty to assume the mantle of anonymity when reporting the traumas, harassments, marginalizations, and criminal acts that make GWU such an unsafe space for those who work and study there. They are also humorless, incapable of appreciating the carnivalesque potential of their hotline to become an agent of massive non-compliance. It should be obvious that the compliance hotline was created in the true spirit of postmodern play, that far from controlling behavior and chilling expression, it is an instrument of resistance, an electronic deconstruction of the concept of the "prison-house of language" guaranteed to produce torrents of the very subversive, transgressive behavior it presumes to prevent. It should also be obvious that this engine of resistance is radically egalitarian in the best, most multicultural sense: since complaints are registered by disembodied, unnamed sources, the compliance hotline models a colorblind utopian community where all are heard, none are silenced, and where everyone has found his or her voice. What's not to love?
Nonetheless, the faculty outrage is being taken seriously. FIRE has gotten involved in the case. You can read FIRE's letter to the University president, along with articles from the student paper, The Washington Times, and GWU law professor John Banzhaf on FIRE's website. Banzhof has launched a hilarious Web site to protest GWU's patently Orwellian behavior at gwlaw.info/e-rat.html. Check it out--you can make anonymous complaints there about GWU's compliance hotline.
April 27, 2002
Some things to read and
Some things to read and ponder for the weekend, all dealing with matters pertaining to expertise, accessibility, and public accountability.
Wired's article on the Long Bets Foundation, an organization set up "to raise the quality of our collective foresight by incorporating money and accountability into the process of debate." Plenty of people are willing to play prophet and make predictions about our future. But as Richard Posner and others have complained of late, few are ever held accountable for how they use the limelight. Long Bets is looking to change that by creating a space where grandiose claims can be challenged the good old-fashioned way--via wager--and then publicly tracked over time. Winner takes all, and we all learn over the time which predictions, and what styles of predicting, don't come true.
Jay Tolson's Wilson Quarterly article, "Wittgenstein's Curse". Don't let the metaphysical-sounding title throw you. This is a great piece on academic obscurantism. It's especially good on how the structure of academic professionalization contributes mightily to the proliferation of awful writing.
If you like the Tolson, check out the rest of the online essays from The Wilson Quarterly's special issue on "The Making of the Public Mind." Louis Menand's "Unidisciplined" is particularly fine on the disappearance of academic disciplines that is happening under the (false) rubric of interdisciplinarity.
April 26, 2002
From a reader: graduate students
From a reader: graduate students who want to unionize "seem to be seduced by the 'nobility' of labor. Few of these people have probably really done any sweat 'labor,' but love the image. Work in a factory for a year before grad school and then see what you think. Unions aren't noble and grad students don't really qualify as laborers. Since when is part time work (how many hours a week are we talking here?) for 1-3 years considered a career of 'laboring'? This is an apprenticeship, kids. Isn't the university entitled to withdraw tuition waivers, health insurance, in addition to the mentoring, etc., if they are hiring 'union' help? If I were a dean, I would farm the teaching out to lecturers and make the graduate students pay their way. Couldn't this union game backfire bigtime? Would the university DO this?"
The perceived "nobility" of oppression--in this case oppressed labor--is indeed a large factor in graduate students' desire to unionize. They identify with labor, they feel for labor, and in defining themselves as labor, they feel for themselves. This in turn allows them to become absolutely ruthless in their campaigning against university administrations (which they simplistically see as "corporate management"). In Tenured Radicals, Roger Kimball argues that the phenomenon of "academics intoxicated by the coercive possibilities of untethered virtue" is a principle feature of the new, politicized academy. Grad student unions are a classic example of the mind-altering power of organized self-righteousness.
As for the question, "Couldn't this union game backfire bigtime?", that's what inquiring minds are dying to know. How far are university administrations willing to go to appease an angry, demanding group whose cause and claims they find illegitimate? As grad unions at private universities are beginning to win the support of the National Labor Relations Board, so the administrations at these schools are appealing the NLRB decisions, arguing that graduate students are not "workers" and do not perform "labor." This has happened at Columbia and Brown this year, and looks like it will happen at Penn, too, once the NLRB rules on GET-UP's request for union recognition. One of the foggier claims of grad student unions is that they will somehow benefit the truly exploited labor pool in academe--the legions of Ph.D.'s who are not employed in tenure-track or even full-time positions, but are instead forced to scrape together a miserable existence as adjuncts. They are paid by the class (often only a couple of thousand dollars apiece); as part-timers, they do not have health care; and they often have to teach an inordinate number of classes at several institutions just to get by. What are the odds that this labor pool will get screwed both ways by grad student unions: either closed out entirely, or, as the reader above suggests, exploited all the more by admins who find combative and short-sighted grad students just too costly and tiresome to deal with?
For one administrator's take on how time-consuming, frustrating, and endlessly off-base grad student unions can be, there is a fine, honest article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education by Marcellette Williams, acting chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The article is only available to paying subscribers, alas, but the gist is that on a heavily unionized campus, the one union that routinely causes problems and makes impossible demands is the graduate student union. Faculty, staff, and campus police are all unionized at UMass, and relations with these unions have been peaceable and productive all around, Williams notes. But things are different indeed when it comes to dealing with the United Auto Workers, which represents UMass graduate students and has filed a petition to represent undergraduate RAs as well. "Our interactions have been fraught with significant difficulties that we have not experienced with other unions," Williams writes. "Those difficulties have included contentious negotiations; the union's insistence on bargaining over nonemployment and social issues, such as regulations governing graduate-student behavior in dormitories, that are not proper subjects for bargaining; and a disproportionate number of grievances, particularly about issues clearly not encompassed within the collective-bargaining agreement." Noting that the pattern has been one of a small group of politicized grad students driving their agenda while the majority of grad students sit silently by, Williams observes that "we devote overwhelmingly more administrative time to dealing with this union -- much of it responding to confrontation -- than with any of our other bargaining units." Williams' essay is restrained and as tactful as it is possible for her to be. She never says as much, but it is clear that the graduate student union at UMass has been more trouble than it is worth (UMass voluntarily recognized the union in 1990).
April 25, 2002
As promised, here's more on
As promised, here's more on Yale's would-be graduate student union's role in the reparations scam.
Last August, three Yale doctoral candidates published "Yale, Slavery, and Abolition," a report aimed at exposing Yale's historic ties to slavery and institutionalized racism. That report, which received international attention (including coverage in The New York Times and London's Independent), was published by the Amistad Committee, a Connecticut-based group that was organized during the mid-nineteenth century to free the Africans who had mutinied aboard the Amistad.
Thinkcurrent.com did a good job of covering the various reactions the report triggered. The New Haven community demanded money. Students at Yale agitated to change the names of buildings bearing the names of former slaveowners. Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who is leading the reparations charge, called for Yale to announce its intention to "affirmatively address the practices and policies that have resulted from this." DiversityInc.com quoted Molefi Kete Asanti, a professor of African-American studies at Temple, calling for Yale "to finally ante up and provide scholarships for African-American students who qualify to get into Yale."
Last December, The Yale Daily News broke a story exposing glaring inaccuracies in the report and questioning the motives of its authors. It seems that "Yale, Slavery, and Abolition" was sponsored (financed, promoted, distributed) by the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, which represents Yale's unions. It was written by leading members of GESO (Yale's Graduate Employees and Student Organization), Antony Dugdale (philosophy), J.J. Fueser (American Studies), and J. Celso de Castro Alves (history); Dugdale's work on the project was paid for as part of his full-time job for the union Local 34. The web site www.yaleslavery.org was also designed by a union employee and paid for with union money. The errors in the report are legion, the report's release was timed to coincide with GESO's push for recognition, and the conclusion that the report was part of a calculated attempt to shore up support for questionable causes by smearing Yale is inescapable.
Such was the substance of the Daily's editorial: "At best, 'Yale, Slavery and Abolition' is a well-intentioned work marred by unnecessary antagonism and the appearance of impropriety. At worst, it represents the co-opting of the darkest chapters of American history for present-day political gain. We hope that the report, both in spite of its failings and because of them, provokes an incisive, morally rigorous debate over Yale's relationship to slavery. We also hope that it produces a campuswide examination of the use and abuse of scholarship, especially in a year when Yale and its unions will often be at odds." Amen. You can read more about the errors in the report in the April 2002 edition of The Yale Standard.
The specific absurdities of GESO's actions aside, the episode speaks loudly to the more general ethical and institutional problems posed by the push for grad student unions (at private universities, and at some of the better-heeled public ones). It's not just that grad students repeatedly discredit themselves with their union activity, but that grad student union activity is a symptom of a more general, and more disturbing, impoverishment within graduate student culture.
That impoverishment comes in part from the misery of pursuing advanced study in fields where there are no academic jobs (this is the plight of the humanities doctoral candidate, whose chances of landing a decent tenure track job are miniscule, and whose degree will be all but worthless outside of academe). It's hard to concentrate on your studies when you know there is a very good chance you are spending your twenties barrelling down a blind professional alley. Union activity ministers to this discontent by providing an outlet for it and a measure of momentary material gain--but it does so without addressing its cause, which is not the oppression of grad students in the present moment, but the anticipatory betrayal they feel at the likelihood that they will not be able to find a decent job. In this sense, grad student unions are an extremely conservative approach to a problem that has less to do with the working conditions of TAs than with the imminent disappearance of certain fields of academic study.
The impoverishment of graduate student culture is intellectual, too, and grows out of academe's pretensions to radicalism (pretensions that scholars such as Russell Jacoby have shown are very safely and effectively frozen within the bureaucratic structure of academic life). Among other things, what we have in GESO's slave report is a prime example of what happens when a political agenda becomes the driving force behind research and scholarship. In the academic humanities today, the scholarship that is considered most necessary and valuable is that which is motivated by political goals. But it is a real and pressing question whether genuine scholarship is even possible within a system that is increasingly coming to require intellectuals to take an activist stance, and that arguably spends more time training its students to see the world through radical, protesting eyes than to master their discipline and think for themselves.
April 24, 2002
Yale's Graduate Employees and Students
Yale's Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) is calling for the university to recognize a graduate student union once and for all. GESO claims that finally--after ten years of organizing--it has the support of a majority of grad students. A rally is planned for tomorrow, and opinions are flying. On The Yale Daily News web site, you can read the reactions of an unusually vocal community of students--grad and undergrad--who oppose unionization. See the growing thread at the bottom of today's article, and look too at the threads beneath yesterday's coverage of GESO's push for recognition and this recent article on how GESO has polarized relations between grad students and the administration, between grad students and faculty, and among grad students themselves.
Finally, there is an outstanding editorial by J. Kenneth Wickiser, a third-year Yale doctoral student in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry: "If I were a member, I'd be the poster boy for GESO. I'm married, we have two kids with a third on the way, and my son requires special education. ... But I'm not a GESO member now and I will resist becoming assimilated. You see, I'm happy, my wife is happy, and my children are happy little kids. I get paid to do cutting-edge research, learn amazing science, and most importantly work when I want and study what I want. ... While I'm pretty sure that I will be offered some sort of academic job, the ones who need to worry are the folks who spend vastly more time recruiting for GESO than they do in either their lab or library. It is amazing to me that they cry oppression when they're getting paid by Yale to hang out, drink coffee and recruit." Wickiser is a former Army pilot, and he doesn't have a lot of sympathy for students who choose to embark on graduate study at an elite university and then spend their time there whining about how oppressed they are instead of getting everything they can out of the opportunity of a lifetime. Read this piece, and enjoy the fresh, clean air of reason. Don't miss the responses, either.
As grad students at private universities scramble to unionize, they should keep GESO in mind as an example of the long term divisiveness that grad student unions can--and do--create. In the articles and threads cited above, GESO's ethics and its honesty come into question repeatedly. Whether pressuring students to sign union cards, ostracizing students who don't, filing grievances against faculty who question GESO's tactics, or demanding that the Yale administration recognize a union without first having a secret ballot election, GESO reeks of manipulative tactics and a blatant disregard for the opinions and dignity of those who disagree with them. What GESO is organizing is not grad student labor but grad student disgruntlement. It gives it a name and a cause and a community. It cultivates the alienation of its members, and it perpetuates that alienation, giving it good reason to grow, through activity that amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy: GESO really is reviled and loathed at Yale, but not because the people there are a bunch of reactionary snobs who can't grasp the plight of grad student workers. GESO is reviled at Yale because it has worked hard to lose the respect, understanding, and potential support of an entire community.
Case in point: GESO's role in the reparations scam. I will comment more on this tomorrow. For now, read Sarah Maserati's National Review piece on how some GESO members have worked to advance the reparations case against Yale by issuing a false report on the racial attitudes of some of Yale's earliest leaders.
April 23, 2002
Wendy McElroy's "The Bill of
Wendy McElroy's "The Bill of Intellectual Rights" is a smoking indictment of gender feminism's role in producing the disrespectful, anti-intellectual climate of modern America. According to a recent study by Public Agenda Online, 80% of Americans believe that "lack of respect" is a serious social problem (Cornel, you are not alone!). McElroy's column argues that the baseline hostility of gender feminism--which assumes men to be oppressors and assumes women to be oppressed--has done a great deal of damage to both the relations between the sexes and our collective understanding of what civil behavior is and why it matters. Citing anti-woman backlash such as the Men's Rights Movement and books by alienated feminist insiders Phyllis Chesler and Tammy Bruce (former president of L.A. NOW), McElroy writes that the "fractiousness [within and about feminism] might be written off as distracting gossip were it not for the fact that slander has become standard methodology for many discussions that affect social policy: domestic violence, rape, abortion, sexual harassment. The methodology of malice has become a barrier to progress that must be addressed." The rest of her column consists of a guide to individual etiquette in the age of PC groupthink. Read it, and read the links she provides, too. Among other things, you will learn about her own experience of being libelled by malcontents at NOW.
But then think a bit harder about McElroy's "Bill of Intellectual Rights," and ask yourself just when they will and will not work. As rules for respectful engagement, honest inquiry, and dignified refusal, McElroy's Bill of Intellectual Rights will work well in certain contexts: open, public debate among equals; private discussion among friends or acquaintances; minor imbroglia among office mates. But it won't work worth a damn in school--the very place where so much of this "methodology of malice" is taught, nurtured, sustained, and enforced through the power imbalances between teachers and students. These imbalances work both ways--if professors hold their students' grades in a moral vise, students can, and do, ruin entire careers with a few well-chosen accusations.
To get down to specifics: What about when the person practicing fractious, malicious feminism is your teacher? What if your grade depends, say, on your willingness to parrot your professor's ideological beliefs and even misinformation? What if disagreeing, however respectfully, with your professor makes you wrong? And what if the content of the course, not just its slant, is the problem? What if, for example, a course in women's studies, or feminist theory, or women's literature, is more concerned with imposing on students a certain way of looking at women's issues, than with exposing students to a range of ways women may be understood and then letting the students themselves choose the form of reasoning that works best for them? This happens all the time. I'd go so far as to say it is the norm. You won't find Christina Hoff Sommers on a gender studies syllabus. But you'll find a lot of Judith Butler and Catherine MacKinnon. You won't hear women are doing well these days. But you will hear that the situation is bad, very bad, that it has always been bad, and that with men around it isn't likely to get better anytime soon. I exaggerate--but not much.
It's fashionable now for humanist professors to make their politics, and even personal information such as their sexual preferences, very visible to their students. It's the rare teacher who can prevent that kind of self-disclosure from shutting down student thought by putting enormous pressure on students to conform to the teacher's positions. Those who flatter themselves that they produce openness in their classrooms by disclosing their histories of abuse or by coming out or by endlessly rattling off pat putdowns of men, or Republicans, or Christians flatter themselves indeed. A more likely scenario: they mistake the nervous toadying of students who find they are being graded by an ideologue for a truly progressive classroom dynamic.
Conversely, what if the person practicing fractious, malicious feminism is a student? Daphne Patai's Heterophobia is a chilling account of the way sexual harassment charges can be wielded by disgruntled students (usually women, but not always) against professors (usually men, but not always, as the cases of Jane Gallop and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese show all too clearly). But Patai only covers the extreme cases in what is a deeply entrenched culture of punitive expectation among students, one that tells them it is not only okay--but *good*--to go after teachers who upset or discomfit them. Students have an enormous policing power over their professors these days; it isn't widely acknowledged or discussed, but it should be. Only then will we begin to register the extent to which fear of reprisal inhibits teachers from teaching, and only then will we also be able to register the ways teachers have been punished, formally and informally, by sanction and through slander, for doing their jobs the best way they know how to do them.
All of which is to say that we need a lot more than an Intellectual Bill of Rights to put us right as a culture. We could start by making a serious, dedicated study of the place of thought control in academe. We could identify its manifestations in everything from mandatory sensitivity workshops to the professor who grades a student down for not using "gender-neutral language." And we could begin an open, honest, national dialogue about the role of the university in civic life, one that seeks to "problematize" the "politicization" of the classroom--something so many teachers are so very proud of--by helping students, teachers, parents, and the public see how closely tied that "politicization" is to a profoundly anti-intellectual, frequently hostile stance toward certain groups, certain beliefs, and ultimately to education itself.
April 22, 2002
Open letter to Cornel West:
Open letter to Cornel West:
Dear Professor West,
I write in the hope that you can answer some questions that have been weighing on my mind of late. I know you are busy with your public speaking schedule, and your protesting, and your work with the reparations law team, and your plans to move to Princeton. But I hope you can spare the time to respond. It would mean a lot to me, and, I am sure, to many confused and concerned Americans.
My confusion has to do with an apparent contradiction in your recent actions. On the one hand, you are leaving Harvard for Princeton because of the "disrespect" you allege was shown to you by President Lawrence Summers, who, you have publicly declared, "picked on the wrong Negro." Princeton, your actions and words indicate, is a very different sort of place. You did your graduate work there and you once directed its Afro-American Studies program. You have praised Princeton's leadership as "positive and visionary," and you have expressed your pleasure at returning in the highest possible terms, calling Princeton "the greatest center for humanistic studies in the country." But, on the other hand, you are a member of the reparations legal team, which is planning to file suit against corporations and universities that once had ties to slavery. As The Daily Princetonian itself pointed out last March, Princeton has been named as one of those universities. It seems that way back in 1768, when Princeton was not Princeton yet, but the College of New Jersey, it appointed a president who was a slave owner. At the time of his death thirty years later, he had two slaves in his possession, each listed as worth $100. For having once been led by a smalltime slaveholder, Princeton now faces a financial shakedown (so do Harvard, Yale, Brown, and the University of Virginia).
My questions for you, Professor West, are these: How do you reconcile your high opinion of Princeton with your low opinion of Princeton? How can Princeton be at once the finest center for humanistic study in the nation, and a scene of racist legacy so despicable that it must be singled out, sued, and forced to pay a high and lasting price for its supposed historical misdeeds? How can you be the repeated beneficiary of Princeton's intellectual and financial largesse (as a student, as a young and coming faculty member, and now as returning star), and yet be its victim? Inquiring minds want to know, Professor West. Now is your opportunity to educate us in the fine moral distinctions that allow you to laud what you plan to sue, to profit mightily from an institution that you say is in your debt, to make your intellectual home in what your legal behavior suggests is a hostile environment. Will Princeton quietly drop off the list of reparations defendants, now that you and several other prominent African-American scholars will be going to work there? Or will you expect Princeton to welcome a lawsuit as part of the price of having the famed Cornel West belong to its faculty? I hope you can help me understand your reasoning here, Professor West. I would like very much to be able to believe that you have not sold your soul.
Erin, a member of your public
P.S. I hear that your students say your "class is so deep that most of the time [they] don't even understand what's going on." If you do decide to explain your rationale to your public, please do so in plain, clear language. It's time we all understood what's going on.
April 20, 2002
Back on Monday. In the
Back on Monday. In the meantime, if you find yourself pining for my blog, seek solace in The New Republic's addition to the national Cornel Bash. If you are still pining after that, try Norman Kelley's "Black Cultural Criticism, Inc.", a veritable corker of an article about how black intellectuals have sold out (West is a leading figure in this essay, but don't let that distract you from the part about Professor bell hooks' penetrating interview with rapper Lil Kim, which covers such philosophically deep topics as anal sex and whether "pussy" should be traded for marriage). Odds are this will tide you over, especially if you haven't had breakfast yet. But if not, there is always Business 2.0's take on Blog Nation.
April 19, 2002
Yesterday's blog touched a chord
Yesterday's blog touched a chord with some readers. I post excerpts from their letters below.
On West's attitude:
"Loved blog. I have much nastier feelings about Cornel West and particularly his move to Princeton. First: How can anyone claim black studies is an academic topic when you can't criticize anything related to black culture from inside the 'discipline'? Second: Cornel West had maxed out his salary at Harvard (at least the exponential growth part) and had acquired a long list of perks (number of faculty positions, etc.) that he will no doubt use as a starting position with Princeton. They will have had to improve on his Harvard salary, faculty positions, titles, access to dean, etc. to get him to go there. Then he starts with more power than he had leaving Harvard to squeeze even more out of Princeton. How many full professors at Harvard go through much more serious illness or surgery than Cornel West without so much as a card from their department chairman let alone the university president? This guy wants to be pope. Sounds like he wrote his own music reviews, too."
"Cornel West comes across as a 4-star jerk, a petty prima donna who lusted after being center-stage. I was really disappointed by the capitulation of the Harvard President. Lucky Princeton. Not only do they have Peter Singer in their philosophy department, but they're about to get Cornel as well."
On the idea that there are some people and some points of view you just don't criticize:
"I'm amazed at how people accept this kind of crap without criticizing it. I think a feature of intellectual development that has been lost altogether is the willingness to criticize those with whom you share a common goal ... It's almost like you are a traitor if you are a democrat and criticize Clinton, or a Republican and criticize Bush. How sad that things have become so dichotomized ... it's almost like the people who do the recruiting and hiring are more interested in proving that their minds are open to anything than that they value quality. Seems to me like they see 'not making judgements' as the ultimate positive moral absolute."
Too true, all of it. I am well aware that in blogging about West's questionable motives and credentials, I'll be rewarded with the usual epithets from the usual quarters. But then, what's life if the people you work with--and for--aren't calling you a racist reactionary? I do apologize to them for not giving occasion yet to call me a homophobe, but I'm sure the opportunity will arise, if only in their mind's eye, eventually. Bitter? No, just alive to the way slander operates these days to silence and discredit dissent. Think I'm exaggerating? Look again at how West responded to leadership tactics that included holding him accountable: throwing public tantrums about the insensitivity and racism of Harvard's president while at the same time viciously slandering him in the press. West's behavior is not unique--which is one reason why more academics aren't expressing shock or outrage about it. It's become the way of a whiney academy, or at least a whiney humanities. And the nasty little two-step West has been dancing for the past six months gets danced by far lesser folk, for far smaller stakes, every day. Feel threatened? Don't like something? Find a way to describe yourself as a victim of some kind of insensitivity--some kind of abuse of power--and use the leverage that gives you to trash the person who is coming between you and your ego. The rewards for acting this way are tremendous. Just look at West. For a victim, he seems to be doing pretty well.
Some fine and provocative columns on West, from past and present:
Norah Vincent in yesterday's L. A. Times discusses the place of image, and star power, in academe: "Summers showed that he misunderstood the neat calculus of modern higher education. West has image. Image is money, and money is all that matters."
John McWhorter, a black Berkeley linguist and author of the recent Power of Babel, writes an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal decrying West for playing into racial stereotypes when he used the accusation of racism to deflect attention from his own responsibilities as a scholar. West, McWhorter writes, seems to be saying "that serious academic work is optional for black intellectuals, and that to require it of a black scholar beyond a certain point is a racist insult. But can Prof. West not see that this only reinforces the stereotype of black mental dimness that feeds the very racism he is so quick to sniff out? Visionary or not, rap is not scholarship. Nor is putting one's arm around a hustler like the Rev. Sharpton 'speaking truth to power.' ... Top black scholars smugly support Prof. West's decision, but I can't see them as role models. If in 10 years I had restricted my academic output to pop work, my department head would call me out on the mat, and the only thing that would make her a racist would be not doing so. Is it racist to hold black scholars to mainstream standards of evaluation? Prof. West's muse, W.E.B. Du Bois, is turning in his grave."
Rod Dreher of The National Review calculates in dollars what West's non-academic activities are worth to him. West's speaking fee is $15,000. He lectures on average 120 times a year. Do the math, and then ask yourself: Is it any wonder West would fight tooth and nail to protect his lucrative extra-curricular schedule? And is it any wonder Lawrence Summers might suspect that such a schedule would impair West's ability to attend to his primary responsibilities of teaching and research? (Note to self: charge more for public appearances! My usual fee, of whatever they offer plus bus fare, or failing that, of a thank you and a sandwich, is too low!)
Finally, for those who just have to see what Cornel West looks like through the lens of David Horowitz's finely tuned racial shit detector, here's the classic he wrote for Salon.com in 1999: Cornel West: No Light in His Attic.
West continues his self-aggrandizing smear campaign in the May issue of Vanity Fair.
April 18, 2002
Is Cornel West a martyr
Is Cornel West a martyr to institutionalized racism? Or is he an insatiable egomaniac with a morally suspect readiness to play the race card whenever and wherever he can? You make the call.
Here's an archive of his recent antics.
Exhibit A: The CD. You can download chunks of West's hiphop debut at www.cornelwest.com. MC West received a caustic--but entirely fair--review from Rod Dreher at National Review Online. Don't let the conservative bent of NRO throw you--the poor quality of the music and West's grammatically-challenged lyrics ("They and us will never forget you") are just as offensive to liberal ears.
Exhibit B: The website for the CD, www.cornelwest.com. It's arrogant: "In all modesty, this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history. The combination of the oratorical passion and unmatched eloquence of Dr. Cornel West with the particular musical genius of Derek D.O.A. Allen has produced an auditory theatrical experience. ... It is through the marriage of the talents and passion of these two geniuses as well as the writing talents of Mike Dailey and Clifton West that this masterpiece is born." And it's illiterate: "Dr. West's passionate oratory and deep grasp of a multitude of subject matter (from hiphop culture to a treatment on Nihilism and Nietzsche) has rendered him one of the most sought after lecturers in the country. ¬İHis presence is a mainstay in the American media. So much so that he has virtually become a household word. His dedication to enhancing the lives of ordinary people and people of color is in the tradition of the freedom fighters of the past."
Exhibit C: West's tangle with Harvard President Lawrence Summers. There is a lot on the web about this, but you can get a sense of both West's position and that of outspoken West critics from CNSNews.com's recent piece. There are also several detailed articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education (search the current volume for "Cornel West"). And The Harvard Crimson has been keeping close track of West's very public outrage and subsequent deliberations about whether to defect to Princeton (this week he announced that he will).
Exhibit D: The Crimson's staff editorial for today, which withdraws support for West and declares him a "spoiled child."
Exhibit E: Cornel West himself. Read these articles and ask yourself what is really motivating West. Notice how quick he was to turn the conversation with Summers into a racial incident. Notice how emphatic he is that the single greatest issue in all this is his honor and his pride--not academic freedom for Harvard professors, not the difficult balance between being a scholar and a public intellectual, not the complex problems of accountability posed by the tenure system. Notice, too, how Harvard's public, abject apology did not appease West, and how the signatures of over a thousand Harvard students begging him to stay did not even warrant his acknowledgement. Notice how West cites as an example of Harvard's disrespect the fact that Summers only sent him a single note when he was recovering from prostate surgery last winter. Princeton, by contrast, called him weekly. Notice how West meets Harvard's statement of regret at his decision to leave with public statements comparing Harvard's president to Ariel Sharon. Notice how West--who prides himself on being a role model for the black community--has not once shown any concern for how his actions might play to black students, black faculty, or black citizens watching the affair from afar. West is among those black intellectuals who have expressed strong support for slave reparations. But his actions over the past year suggest that in his heart of hearts there can be no such thing as reparation. Instead, he sends the powerfully disempowering message that no insult, however slight, however unintentional, can be transcended. That no apology--however public, however sincere--can ever compensate for wounded pride. That no retaliation--however libelous--is out of bounds. That petulance is political. And--perhaps worst of all--that personal dignity and unrelenting arrogance are the same thing.
April 17, 2002
The Independent Women's Forum has
The Independent Women's Forum has issued its First Annual Report Card on the Status of Women. Here is the rundown: A for education (more women are going to college than men, more are earning Master's degrees, and within a generation women will earn more doctoral degrees; women also get better grades than men). A for wages (the wage gap is closed when you allow for age, education level, experience, and similar factors; single women living alone with full-time jobs are actually earning more than men). B- for workplace flexibility (the outmoded Fair Labor Standards Act forbids hourly wage earners from seeking comp and flex time). B for women and the law (half of law students are women, but laws mandating special treatment for female employees, students, and contractors entrench the idea that women can't make it on their own). C- for retirement and social security (women are shortchanged in numerous ways by the current social security system).
The report card creates a good picture of what the present moment looks like through the eyes of equity feminism, with its focus on equal opportunity under the law and its distrust of ideologically-oriented feminisms that take as their founding premise the historic--and ongoing--oppression of women. So I give it an A for offering an alternative way of looking at the place of women in the U.S. today--one that is not angry, or separatist, or predicated on either a touchyfeely celebration of women's "difference" or a painful conjuring of women's victimization. I give it an A, too, for its emphasis on hard criteria--numbers, laws--and for the courageous way it suggests that laws mandating special consideration for women are themselves discriminatory.
But I grade the report card down on two counts. I give it a B- for failing to back up its claims adequately. Equity feminism depends for its credibility on its conscientious and responsible use of data to back up its arguments--arguments that almost invariably dispute the less reponsible and less conscientious claims of gender feminists (a case in point: Christina Hoff Sommers' systematic dismantling of gender feminism's favorite stat, that one in four women is raped during her lifetime). The IWF report card should have supplied links that would allow interested readers to see the IWF's reasoning on various points, look at the numbers themselves, read debates about how to interpret those numbers, and so on. This kind of careful assessment of data is what equity feminism does well, and the IWF should make it possible for readers to take part in that process and learn from it. Otherwise, the people at IWF are guilty of playing just as fast and loose with information as those they oppose.
I also grade the report card down for an inherent structural flaw. In focussing on women's status, it fails to take into account the emergence of a new kind of gender gap in our culture at the same time that it makes that gap visible to the discerning eye. I refer to the A the IWF gave women in education. That A speaks to the increasingly high quality of women's education in the U.S. But it also exposes the increasingly low quality of men's education. To give women an A for essentially beating the guys is to encourage a peculiarly dismissive and contemptuous attitude toward men--an attitude that has far more in common with some of the nastier veins of gender feminism than with the sort of fairminded fair play advocated by the IWF and organizations like it. It would have been nice if the blurb about the A in education had acknowledged that the disproportionate achievements of women in school suggest the need for greater attention to the education of boys and young men.
April 16, 2002
Last month, the first in
Last month, the first in what promises to be a series of reparations lawsuits was filed against FleetBoston, Aetna, and CSX. And last week, UC-Berkeley held a two-day symposium entitled "Reparations for Slavery and Its Legacy." The tenor of the symposium reflected the disproportionate support reparations has on U.S. campuses. As of last year, only 11% of U.S. citizens supported slave reparations while 40% of Ivy League professors did. Berkeley's reparations symposium--held at Boalt Hall School of Law--did not debate whether reparations is a right, or even a viable, thing. Instead, it assumed that it was, and focussed all its attention on how reparations might best be made. Some argued for direct payments. Some argued for improved health care for blacks. Others argued that our history books ought to give abolitionists a larger role than they now do. A major goal of the symposium was to discover how best to present the argument for reparations to an American public that is not convinced of the need for them. "To think that we can enslave a people for centuries and after they have been freed have a century of discrimination, and then say a few years of 'sort of affirmative action' is enough, is not rational," argues Mary Louise Frampton, who directs the Center for Social Justice at Boalt. "And yet, that is what a majority of this country has concluded." Boalt Hall has become notorious for its one-sidedness on race issues, especially in the wake of Proposition 209, which made it illegal for California's public schools to use racial preferences in admissions (see the The Diversity Hoax in the blog sidebar if you want to read more about that). So we should not be surprised that Boalt would bypass debate on an issue that is still extraordinarily controversial, and move straight to the ideological project of figuring out how to make America swallow a dubious political agenda.
Polls show that the reparations movement is gaining momentum. A year ago, only 11% of Americans thought it was a good idea. Now 25% do (although only 10% of white Americans do). So, on the off chance that America may lose its mind, I've been trying to figure out what I might owe. I think of my cogitations on this subject as consummately patriotic. And I urge all Americans to perform similar cogitations. Together, we will create what might be called a Reparations Calculus, a fully integrated mathematics of our relative rights and wrongs that will supply the government with the data it needs to bill us all according to who we are and what our forebears have done to one another.
Baseline data: I am a white female of European extraction. Very, very bad. I should totally owe money.
Gender: I am female. That's good for me, since women are totally oppressed. Women shouldn't have to pay as much reparation as men. After all, how could women have been responsible for slavery when they couldn't even own property, and when the law defined them as property? I have never been so psyched to be a woman.
Class: I am from an upper middle-class background, the eldest child of educated parents. I grew up in the suburbs of the midwest, went to college, then to grad school, and now teach English literature at an elite Ivy League institution. But I think I should get some credit for my parents' struggle. My father and his sister were the first in their family to go to college. My mother was the first in hers to go beyond college, and managed to make it through medical school during an era when women were routinely denied admission because their proper role was to stay home with the kids. So mine was not your typical snotty rich white kid childhood by a long stretch. I witnessed my parents' pain. I saw them tightening their belts and pulling up their bootstraps and being all they could be. My parents triumphed over class and gender oppression. That should count for something.
Race: While I have some English blood, I also have a good bit of Irish blood. English blood is bad: the English were imperialists after all. But Irish blood is good! The Irish totally got crapped on by the English for hundreds of years (longer by far, by the way, than Americans held slaves). So that cancels out my English-imperialist blood (sorry, Great-Grandfather Reginald), and makes me Irish. I have the name to prove it, too. So I am not only of Irish extraction, but marked as Irish. This is not an insignificant point. Africans weren't the only people regarded by Victorian science as sub-human. The Irish--or the "white chimpanzees" as we were affectionately called--were, too. Everyone from anthropologists to political cartoonists drew comparisons between apes, Africans, and the Irish. So, really, my skin is darker than it appears. I may look white, but I'm actually black. Or I was, at one time.
History: If you trace back through my mother's side, my roots go all the way back to America's roots. We were here during the Revolution, and we fought in it, too. That's bad, because it makes me totally American and complicit with the lame racism of our founding fathers, who did not think their highminded belief that "all men are created equal" applied to their slaves. But some of my ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch, which is good. Pennsylvania Dutch did not believe in slavery, refused to live off its profits, and formed the first anti-slavery society in the US in Philadelphia in 1774. So that should count in my favor. I also think I should get a few points for the anti-technological bent of this branch of my family. Everyone knows how bad technology is, because it leads to industry which leads to capitalism which leads to the exploitation of workers and the imperialist appropriation of distant land and non-white people. My rustic forebears were therefore more pure than the industrialists of early America, and there is no doubt that some of that counter-hegemonic anti-technological moral superiority has been passed down to me. I don't even know how to program my VCR.
True, some members of my family fought for the South during the Civil War. But other members of my family fought for the North. So they cancel each other out.
And true, a distant, very distant relative of mine would be one General George Armstrong Custer. But his main thing was killing Native Americans, so it doesn't count in the logic of Reparations Calculus. Plus, we're all kind of embarrassed to be related to the guy, which makes us good.
Meanwhile, the Irish part of the family was still in Ireland, having somehow survived the famine, and had more pressing issues to think of than U.S. race relations--staying alive, for instance. When Michael O'Connor did make his way over to the U.S. sometime around 1900, ties to the family in Ireland were broken and lost. This was really common among Irish who felt forced to abandon their homeland and ashamed, in the environment of rabidly anti-Irish America, to maintain a strong connection to their past. So I can't trace my family back to my country of origin (the name "Michael O'Connor" is to Ireland what "John Smith" is here). I am dispossessed, homeless, without history. Maybe I should be getting reparations, too.
April 15, 2002
Lots of commentary on the
Lots of commentary on the Stephanie Winters debacle in today's Daily Pennsylvanian: Dan Fishback's editorial argues that it's good to have "crazies" like Winters around because they remind us that there are always crazies in our midst. Fishback is also thankful to Winters for outing herself as a "nut," because now it's easier to keep an eye on her. Oliver Benn writes that hate speech is not worthy of First Amendment protection. "Genuine political protest should always be protected as it is the safeguard of this country's freedom," Benn writes. "But racist speech -- advocating a group's subordination or extinction based on race, ethnicity, religion or any other arbitrary determination -- is the expression of only ignorance. It is an ignorance, though, with such horrific potency that it should be proscribed." Jonathan Margulies expresses his disappointment at how many of those who weighed in online--at the DP or on newsgroups--did so without using their real names. There are two letters to the editor. One suggests that for $35,000 a year, Penn students should be guaranteed the right not to have to deal with people like Winters, and urges the University to "exercise its rights and remove her from contact with undergraduate students." The other issues a series of questions to Winters, the Penn administration, the DP editors, the Penn student body, and the Linguistics department. The authors want to know what the administration is going to do to "educate teachers who are in positions of power of their ignorance and the impact of their words," why the DP jumped "to the defense of free speech instead of choosing to defend the community that was attacked," and "what kind of sensitivity training and/or screening [the Linguistics department does] with teaching assistants to insure that each one can teach effectively in a widely diverse community." Brad Olson argues that since free speech does not necessarily extend to the private sector, Penn has a right and responsibility to fire Winters. A number of readers have also written in to respond to these pieces; their posts are below the articles.
These responses are worth reading not only for what they reveal about the general campus feeling regarding Winters' anti-Palestinian rant, but also for what they reveal about the widespread lack of understanding within the Penn community about such essential issues as why free speech matters, what academic freedom is, and how a university differs from a corporation. Some seem to think that it is an easy business to define "hate speech" and then to proscribe it--as if those definitions are not eminently abusable, and as if they were not absolutely subjective and contingent on context (one man's hate speech is another man's truth). Some seem to think they--or their parents--have bought the right not to be offended; that tuition guarantees personal comfort. Some seem not to have heard of academic freedom, or to understand why universities must be bound by it if they are to do the difficult, fractious work of educating.
Many seem to think that branding is a good way to manage people who express unwelcome or distasteful thoughts--they do not quite seem to grasp that calling Winters a nut or a crazy or a bigot or a racist or a terrorist or, as one creative libelist suggested, a transsexual, simply replicates the logic of dismissive, damaging labelling that they dislike about her own expression. They seem to believe that it is okay to think this way as long as one has the moral high ground; they do not seem to realize that the moral high ground shifts over time, that who is on it has everything to do with who is in power and what ideas are popular in a given moment, and that the moral high ground is frequently no more stable than quicksand. They also don't seem to see how profoundly anti-intellectual it is to respond to what we don't like by demanding that it be squashed, silenced, removed from our purview; how deeply narcissistic it is to imagine that the world around us should conform to our own ideas about what is acceptable and possible and appropriate, and that, when it inevitably fails to do so, it should be forced to conform to our own, invariably narrow and self-serving, expectations.
Few see how very, very cynical the calls for punishment and proscription are. The argument that there is no harm and only good in prohibiting and punishing hate speech is one that rests on a number of very diminished and diminishing ideas about what people are, and what they are capable of. The argument assumes people can't decide for themselves what speech is hateful and what is not, that they are too dumb to know bad ideas when they hear them and too gullible to resist outrageous or hateful exhortation to act. It is also an argument that believes people are too weak, fragile, and vulnerable to cope with anything that challenges their worldview; that they are more likely to be destroyed by abhorrent words than to be galvanized by them into social awareness and a sense of their own responsibility as citizens. It is an argument that assumes people cannot think on their own or learn from adversity or develop and maintain their own moral consciences. Arguments attempting to regulate or forbid or punish speech such as Winters' are ultimately arguments that rest on assumptions about human nature that are every bit as hateful as those expressed in her newsgroup post.
Taken as a whole, the responses to the Winters situation show a campus community that does not have the tools to think responsibly or well about what a university is, why a university matters, what the role of dissent and debate are in education, what academic freedom is and why it matters, and how universities can best train their students to meet the challenges, and the day-to-day offenses and slights, of the world beyond it. Instead of demanding that Winters be fired and that Linguistics subject its grad students to sensitivity training, perhaps the Penn community should be humbly asking the administration to help it become knowledgeable about what it means to champion free speech, and what it means to suggest that there are some instances when we can all agree that speech should be punished. Lucky for Penn, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is right here in Philadelphia, and its President and co-founder, Alan Kors, is a Penn professor. FIRE is the national authority, and the national watchdog, for individual rights on campus. I'm sure the people at FIRE would be delighted to come to campus and do a workshop or two if they were asked.
One last point: I think that there is every possibility that Winters was not engaging in hate speech, but in a parody of hate speech. She knows very well what buttons she is pushing, and she has made it clear in her subsequent newsgroup postings and DP responses that she is having a lot of fun pushing those buttons. She has herself said that in real life, she is nice, smart, and very liberal, and that the post that has gotten such a reaction from the Penn community does not embody her so much as her "wacky online personality." Whether Winters believes what she posted or not, my hunch is that her main agenda was not to drum up support for genocide but to see how many knees would jerk in how many ways if she said she thought Palestinians should die. That alone should be enough to make us stop for a moment to examine what we are really doing when we respond as lengthily and seriously to her as we have done. Are we interested in banning parody as a form of hate? And in reacting as we have--whether we are for free speech or for speech codes--are we finally just parodying ourselves? Only Winters knows for sure, and she ain't telling.
April 13, 2002
I thought I'd wrap up
I thought I'd wrap up my ongoing blog about junk English today by looking at some course descriptions from top-ranked English departments across the country. This will be a quick look, and it won't cover all there is to be said about the role of English departments in junking English, but it will be a start. I'll return to the issue in future blogs, and over time I trust a colorful picture will emerge of just what English departments are up to, and what the costs of their activities might be, for the future of the language, the future of literature, and the future of English departments themselves.
A couple of caveats before I begin. I take for granted, and expect you will soon see why, that all these issues are connected. And I take for granted, too, that it is an act of good faith to try to lay them out as honestly as I can in the public forum of this blog. There is a clubby sort of insularity in English--one that owes as much to its quarter century of beleaguered ineffectual leftism as to its longer tradition of tweedy politesse--that says it is a consummate betrayal of the field to discuss or even acknowledge its troubles and failures beyond the confines of the field itself. Such behavior is usually reviled as "airing one's dirty laundry" or "giving ammunition to the (reactionary and ignorant) enemy." I disagree. English professors are--or ought to be--public servants. They are--or ought to be--the custodians of the language and the literary tradition that arises from skilled, artistic use of that language. And as such they are--or ought to be--accountable to the public.
This means that English professors betray themselves, their students, and their field when they refuse to respond to legitimate, if painful, criticism from outside. It also means that they have an obligation to explain themselves--in clear, comprehensible language--to parents, students, and the educated reading public. It also means that they have an obligation to think a little harder about the social, and even civic, goals of their work, and to consider very seriously the proposition that the decline in English majors, and the growing economic difficulties of the field, may have as much, if not more, to do with how English comports itself than with "the corporatization of the university," the "commodification of education," and the shallow materialism of American culture. There is a lot of blame to be passed around, and a number of prominent English professors are actively engaged in pointing their postmodern fingers at the whipping boys I listed above. But, true to the reflexive victimhood of identity politics, few have been willing to suggest that English may be playing some sort of role in its own decline.
But as I have intimated at numerous points in this blog, and will continue to intimate in future blogs, English has a lot to answer for, and is often its own worst press.
Exhibit A: the illiterate course description. There are so very many of these on the web that I cannot do justice to them. So for today, I'll just cover two.
Next fall, Princeton will be offering English 212, "Black Bohemia: Racial Authenticity in Post Civil Rights Music and Literature." You may be shocked to see such lackadaisical punctuation coming from a top English department. But the missing en-dash in "Post Civil Rights" is the least of this course description's problems. According to the professor, "This course examines the ways in which class, gender, region, sexuality and various socio-economic shifts in the African-American communities of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s have shaped and informed contemporary black literature and music." Translation: this is a course about how black literature and music have been affected by absolutely everything. How, you ask, can one little course possibly handle such a huge project? The obliging professor offers an answer in the very next sentence: "An emphasis on exploring the cross-pollination of themes and aesthetic forms in contemporary literature and popular music will be stressed." Never mind the non-sequitur between the two sentences (it is not clear how an aesthetic focus on theme and style will answer the essentially sociological concerns of the course). What I want to know is, how do you stress an emphasis? Do you have to warm up first?
Princeton is not alone, though. You can do just as well at UCLA, which offers the intriguingly titled Remagined Archives: Critical Collage/Poetry Writng Seminar. Perhaps the two missing "i"'s in the course title are meant to remind us of the analytical gaze that is necessary for all critical writing and reimagining? Or, perhaps, they symbolize the blind leap of faith that is required to assume a course so advertised could be competently taught. Let's assume the latter and dive in.
The description is as follows: "One of the distinguishing characteristics of certain major works of modernist literature is the use of techniques of context-leaping association and fragmentation, such as collage, for the purposes of both aesthetic renovation and social and ideological critique. These techniques require the discovery and use of often copious amounts of material drawn from both obscure archives and the flux of contemporary culture, whether ancient, esoteric texts or mass media imagery. It should be no surprise, then, that ground-breaking works of Asian American literature from the 1930s onward also experiement with forms of rapid juxtaposition of images and language from diverse sources, as a way both to create a distinctly experienced text and transform their racialized or ethnicized relation to pre-existing social and cultural contexts. In this course, we shall study some of these innovative works and their intertextual sources, and then use various related techniques in our own exploration of archives, whether personal (e.g. family photographs) or institutionalized (e.g. library holdings), and their reanimation in new intermedia, genre/language/history-crossing works that revise extant representations of Asian American life."
It's just possible that this is a performative course description--one that seeks to embody in its syntax the "techniques of context-leaping association and fragmentation" with which the course itself is concerned. But somehow I just know that the convoluted agonies of this prose are not the result of "experiement"--racialized, ethnicized, or otherwise--so much as they are the sad proof of their author's extraordinarily tenuous grasp of English. A major contention of mine is that the ability to think clearly and the ability to write clearly are closely, inextricably tied. So you'll know what I think about this prof's ability to teach a course he can't even describe.
You will say I am picky. Hell yes, I'm picky. There is no excuse for stuff like this. Illiterate course descriptions speak as poorly for the department that puts them on its web site as they do of the teachers who write them. As such, they speak to the profession's widespread lack of interest in the details of language and its sorry failure to value the craft of clear expression. Illiterate course descriptions also display a contempt for students, who are expected not to notice that their professors can't write to save their lives, and they display the peculiar self-loathing--or is it incompetence?--of English departments themselves, which cannot be bothered to proofread the prose in which they present themselves to the world. Is it any wonder that we aren't taken seriously? Not at all. The wonder is that we do nothing to stop embarrassing ourselves in such devastating, predictable, and entirely preventable ways.
Every few months the American
Every few months the American Association of University Women sends me a letter asking me to join. They enclose a letter explaining how America's schools are shortchanging girls, remind me that the battle for equity in education is far from over, impress upon me that sexual harassment is rampant in high schools and that teen-aged girls suffer terribly in the self-esteem department. And then they invite me to become a member. On a separate sheet with the header I want to be Part of the Solution!, I am, if all has gone according to plan, to check the box marked "YES! Enter me as an AAUW member today! It's high time we break the code of silence that perpetuates gender inequality in America! I want to be part of the solution that will help every girl in school today become anything and everything she wants to be. I support AAUW's work to end gender discrimination once and for all! I understand that if I respond by [insert date], I will receive all the benefits of AAUW membership at a special price! Sign me up today!" Then I am supposed to dash off a check and wait for my money to put an end to the terrible oppression of American girls. Presumably, during the interim, I will recover from the embarrassment of having my membership depend on my willingness to ventriloquize cheesy rhetoric.
I never join and I can't imagine that I ever will. It's not just that I recoil from the prospect of becoming "Part" of a "Solution!" that involves "breaking the code of silence"--as if exclamation points were activism, and as if feminism were some kind of cabalistic espionage. And it's not just that I hesitate to support an organization that loudly touts the work it has done to raise gender awareness and then addresses me as "Mr. Oconnor"--as if "Erin" were somehow less clearly a girl's name than Mary or Jane. The reason I do not join the AAUW is that I dislike the way they use skewed statistics to scare us into thinking that the situation of girls and women in American education is much worse than it is (this goes back a decade, to their famous Hostile Hallways study on sexual harassment in schools and finds its most recent incarnation in their 2001 study A License for Bias). The AAUW's argument that girls are at a major educational disadvantage has been thoroughly challenged by Christina Hoff Sommers and others. And in 2000, the U.S. Department of Education came up with some numbers that differed dramatically from the AAUW's. But still the AAUW insists on its ideological spin, and still policymakers and pop psychologists and feminist theorists listen. The results are beginning to be devastating.
While the AAUW has been effectively shaping public opinion and even determining public policy (witness the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act), boys have been falling off the map. The Department of Education's "Trends in Education Equity for Girls and Women" shows that not only are girls closing in on boys in math and science and rapidly outpacing them in reading and writing, but they are also going to college in much higher numbers. 55% of full time college enrollments in 1997 were female. By 2007, the Department of Education predicts, 9.2 million women will enroll in college while only 6.9 million men will. In other words, 57% of college freshmen will be women; 43% will be men. Already, according to the study, women are earning more Bachelor's and Master's degrees than men. The pattern is expected to continue. So, while the AAUW has had us all in a tizzy about girls' self-esteem and the need to break the code of their silence, boys have begun dropping out of school altogether at a rate that promises to have profound and lasting effects on the shape of American culture and--dare I say it?--the self-esteem of boys. Boys are fast becoming second-class citizens even as they are being raised to believe they are de facto oppressors who must be sensitized to the special needs of the fragile, marginal girls around them.
The skewing effects of AAUW-style doublethink are becoming glaringly obvious in some academic spheres, and my own field of English is one of them. Few disciplines besides women's studies embrace the style of feminism espoused by the AAUW as warmly and consistently as English does. And yet few disciplines have so much readily available evidence that there might be a problem with it. Women have been earning the lion's share of Ph.D.'s in English for a while now. One study shows that as far back as the early 1980s, women were earning 53.5% of Ph.D.'s in English, as compared to men's 46.5%. Today, the numbers are far more dramatic. At www.phds.org you can search to find both the percentage of women enrolled in English Ph.D. programs, and the percentage of women who earn Ph.D.'s from those programs. The numbers come from 1994, which is the most recent year for which such data are available, and they are striking. Some examples: At Rice, 77% of English Ph.D. students are women; 84% of the English Ph.D's they grant go to women. At Tufts the numbers are 75% and 74%; at UMass Amherst 70% and 67%; at Ohio State, 61% and 74%; at Brown 67% and 63%; at Berkeley 60% and 62%; at Princeton 57% and 60%.
The better the program, the closer the numbers are to parity: at Harvard, the numbers are 52% and 46%; at Stanford, 46% and 54%; at Yale 56% and 51%. But bear in mind that these are mid-90s numbers, and that new studies may well show a yawning gender gap at even the top programs. At Penn, for example, 60% of English Ph.D.'s awarded over the past eleven years have gone to women. Even more dramatic are the compositions of Penn's entering classes of English Ph.D. students, which have over the past five years regularly included three or four women for every man (this year, for example, of the nineteen students admitted, four were men). Sometimes the imbalance is even more dramatic--in the fall of 2000, for example, there was only one man in a first-year Ph.D. class of ten. Penn's numbers may not be representative, but there is no reason to think they are not. Penn is a top program that takes its pick of the hundreds of applications that come in every year. These are the demographics that come with that pick.
I am not a statistician. But it does look as though English has become a women's profession. For whatever reason, men are not becoming English professors at anything near the rate that women are. Maybe they aren't applying to grad school; maybe they are applying but are not getting in. It doesn't matter all that much, ultimately. What matters is that there is not a discussion within English about the fact that men are disappearing from it. What matters is that the rhetoric of oppression, of the need to achieve gender parity in the face of the field's overwhelmingly white male profile, remains very much in place. Numbers get crunched in order to fuel this rhetoric: there is much discussion of the fact that the upper ranks of English professors are dominated by white men; there is no discussion of what the field will look like once these men retire. No doubt some like the feminization of English just fine. But I find the transformation of the field into something halfway between a women's college and a sorority to be terribly impoverishing (I will count the ways in a future blog). And as AAUW-style rhetoric about women's marginalization and men's special privilege continues to set the tone for English, I question both the procedural ethics and the collective intelligence of my discipline.
So no, AAUW, I won't be sending you a check. It's my way of being Part of the Solution!
Mr. Erin Oconnor
April 12, 2002
Yesterday I wrote in general
Yesterday I wrote in general terms about junk English in academe, and I suggested toward the end of the blog that the junk English of the English professor may be read as a sign of just how bad the problem is. Junk English in an ad or even a political speech doesn't surprise us. We expect to see the language butchered by the E-Z grammar of product slogans and the airy malapropisms of syntactically-challenged politicians; we may even revel in our contempt for the linguistic aridity of American culture. But our expectations and our revelry depend on our largely unexamined belief that English is alive and well somewhere, that while rampant consumerism and soundbite punditry may degrade the language, the language is nonetheless respected, honored, and preserved in our schools.
The English teacher--and especially the English professor--is envisioned as the person who may be relied on to practice and to preach the virtues of good English. I bump up against this belief--this essential trust tinged with awe--whenever I tell someone I am an English teacher (I don't identify myself to strangers as an English professor--I would crumple under the weight of my own pretension if I did). When confronted with the fact that they have just unwittingly asked an English teacher what she does for a living, cab drivers, hairdressers, and repairmen all spontaneously say the same thing: "Oh my (or "Oh, wow," or "Oh, shit") -- I'd better watch my English." They are serious, and self-consciously abashed. Sometimes they ask me questions about grammar and usage. Relatives do the same, even ones who once changed my diapers and who are well acquainted with my tic-like tendency to punctuate my sentences with the word "like." I guess that like doesn't diminish their fear that I'll catch them like dangling a participle or something.
My point is this: the junking of English in mainstream American culture, and the luxurious outrage we feel when we notice junk English in others, both take shape against the backdrop of an educational system that is assumed to be intact. People who junk English, we say, could use the language well if they wanted to. And this is because proper English is being taught in schools. English teachers have got that part of our general cultural degeneration covered. They know how to speak and write, and they pass that knowledge on to their students (or at least to those students who listen). But do English teachers know and respect good English? Can they speak and write clearly? And do they pass that knowledge on to their students? No, no, and no. There are exceptions, of course, but as a rule I must confess that we English teachers don't have much of a clue what we are doing. We'll tell you we do, and we'll mostly get away with it because we can fake it pretty well. But as a group, we are a pretty sorry bunch.
I take as exhibit A the writing of some of the most respected English professors around. Here's a sentence from Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture: "If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to "normalize" formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality." Bhabha was at the University of Chicago when he created this stunning monument to obfuscation; on the strength of it and many, many others like it, he was recently lured away from the Windy City by Harvard, whose English department is now enjoying the fruits of his enunciatory modality. Bhabha actually won a prize for this sentence. But don't let that distract you. Go to the literary criticism section of your local megabookstore and start pulling books randomly off the shelves. You'll see he is not alone. He has many followers, and there are many scholars vying for his position as winner of the annual Bad Writing Contest.
Granted, not all English professors admire Bhabhaesque prose. When Stanford's Marjorie Perloff heard that Harvard had hired him, she told The New York Times that she was "dismayed" by their decision, and added that "he doesn't have anything to say." But the Perloffs of the profession are the exceptions, and they do not set the trends that have so much power over graduate students and junior faculty, whose careers depend on their ability to grapple effectively with prose like Bhabha's and even to imitate it. I once asked a group of graduate students to name critics whose writing style they particularly admired. Most, when pressed, couldn't name any. There were critics whose ideas they admired, but style was another thing. This was telling. But even more telling was one student's reverence for Homi Bhabha's style. She was luminous with awe as she spoke of how beautiful it was, and how much it inspired her. Writing like Bhabha's sets the terms for people entering the profession of English, whose training involves immersing themselves in the jargony, unclear, ungrammatical, and self-impressed prose of those who are the reigning gods of the discipline: Judith Butler (also a Bad Writing winner), Gayatri Spivak, Slavoj Zizek, Lacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and on, and on, and on.
Invariably, the pressure to conform and the desire to measure up crystallizes, in the minds of the profession's youngest and least secure members--its Ph.D. students and its junior faculty--in a painfully awkward, disturbingly opaque imitation of the stars' obscurantist style. The difference is that while the Bhabhas and the Butlers can offer some sort of theoretical rationale for their style, their imitators frequently cannot. Judith Butler writes like hell because to her mind, Adorno tells her to. The Ph.D. student who writes like Butler writes like hell because Butler does. The Ph.D. student is not likely to be able to articulate a clear reason for writing as she does, beyond the fact that the most successful people in her field do it. And she is also unlikely to be able to recast her ideas in clean, clear prose, for two simple, terrible reasons. One, she isn't sure what her ideas are (nor is she really sure what Butler's are). And two, she does not know how to write anything but obscure, awful prose. Her professors have never told her she needed to do anything about her writing. And while she can write a fair thank you letter and a pretty clear diary entry, she is at a complete loss to communicate clearly in her professional capacity for the simple reason that she has never had to.
Exhibit B: this same Ph.D. student earns her stipend teaching freshman writing. Her entire identity as a Ph.D. student is predicated on abandoning an ideal of transparency. She distrusts clear communication, seeing it as a means of naturalizing ideology. She is, as such, a bit at odds with the project of the freshman writing seminar. Between her professional disdain for clarity and her lack of knowledge about what constitutes clear, correct expression, she is peculiarly unfit for the job she is supposed to do. She is also peculiarly contemptuous of the job itself. And so her courses spend more time introducing students to issues she thinks they should be informed about than helping them acquire the tools they need to express themselves clearly on whatever issues they decide matter to them. She spends a great deal of time teaching them how to decide whether a given text is racist, for example, or explaining how one might decode the sexist messages of advertisements, or trying to enlighten her students about the prevalence of ideology and discursive structures of power. They write their papers on these topics, and they do it in the gender-neutral language she demands. They are then graded according to whether, at age eighteen, they adequately mimic the governing gestures and presuppositions of the multiculturalist poststructuralism that is practiced by the critics their teacher admires, and that she avidly and earnestly mimics herself. Meanwhile, her students learn how to parrot a fashionable style of "politicized" thought in lieu of learning how to think and write clearly. They emerge from her class well versed in the twists and turns of identity politics, able to fling about words like "complicit," "deconstruct," and "institutionalization," able to write run-ons whose insights thrill their T.A., capable of thought so deep that it blinds their teacher to the subject-verb agreement disaster that occurs when that thought is written down; blithely unaware that there is a difference between effect and affect, and that that and which are not interchangeable. They emerge, in other words, as expert practitioners of junk English.
In future blogs, I'll deal more directly with the patterns I outline here, and I'll look particularly at the syllabi and course descriptions of some top-ranked English departments. Their content, and their shaky grammar, speak powerfully to my argument here. For now, you will have to content yourself with the imaginary possibilities supplied by two courses that will be taught next fall at an elite Ivy League university: a freshman writing seminar purporting to teach composition by way of a reading of Dr Jekell and Mr. Hyde, and an undergraduate seminar in literary theory that includes, among its scions, one "Homi Babha." With spelling like this, who needs English teachers? I believe in English, and I believe in teaching. But I wonder at moments like this whether the language not might be better off without us.
April 11, 2002
If you care about clear
If you care about clear writing, and if you are concerned about how advertisers, political spin doctors, and the media are degrading the English language, then you might be interested in Ken Smith's new book, Junk English. "Junk English," as Smith defines it, "is more than just sloppy grammar. It is a hash of human frailties and cultural license: spurning the language of the educated yet spawning its own pretentious words and phrases, favoring appearance over substance, broadness over precision, and loudness above all. It is sometimes innocent, sometimes lazy, sometimes well intended, but most often it is a trick we play on ourselves to make the unremarkable seem important." A sort of cranky contemporary tribute to Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," Junk English is an alphabetical catalogue of many--but not all--of the lame usages, inflated phrasings, and hollow terms that currently bloat the language. Some fun ones: fat-ass phrases ("on a daily basis" for "daily," "the thought process" for "thinking," "the political arena" for "politics"), self-help jargon ("validate," "assertiveness," "comfort level," "dysfunctional," "internalize," "challenged"), cheapened words ("revolutionary," "unique," "masterpiece," "crisis"), parasitic intensifiers ("substantial growth," "highly nutritious," "valuable insight," "absolutely true"), -ize verbs ("concretize," "marginalize," "conceptualize," "unionize," "problematize"), lack of will (using "can," "could," "may," "might," or "should" for will). There are more, many, many more, but you get the idea.
I saw Smith talk last night at Borders, and what struck me as I listened to him enumerate styles of junk English drawn from advertisements, corporatese, and political soundbytes, is that he was--perhaps politely, perhaps innocently--exempting from his junk hit list one of the worst scenes of junk English around: academic discourse (the phrase itself announces the pompous bloat that is synonymous with so much contemporary scholarly writing).
Consider the category of cheapened words. Leftist academics have almost singlehandedly destroyed words like "political," "ideology," "subvert," "interrogate," "transgress," and "radical," which appear in their writing so often, in so many guises, and mean so very little so very vaguely, that they might as well not be there at all.
Or consider -ize verbs. If academics couldn't "problematize," "reconceptualize," "materialize," "dematerialize," "legitimize," and "theorize," they would be paralyzed.
Re-verbs, another of Smith's favorite categories, are a source of endless possibility for academics, who "reimagine," "rethink" "renegotiate, " and "reconceptualize" so assiduously that they have actually "reinvented" the language. Did you know you can "re-member the body"? Or that you can "revision" race, class, and gender? Well, you can, as long as you are doing it as part of a re(de)constructive or re-presentational critique that avoids reproducing restrictive rhetorical relations.
And where would academe be without its smears? Words like "racist," "sexist," "patriarchal," "classist," "hegemonic," "homophobic," "corporate," "conservative," "reactionary," "essentialist," "imperialist," "misogynist," and "apolitical" do more than their fair share of labor in writing that claims to be based on reasoned analysis rather than knee-jerk reaction. Labelling is the intellectual's namecalling: it objectifies complex concepts and situations in such a way that the writer can dismiss them instead of engaging with them. Case in point: just last week this very blog was called "reactionary" and "dysfunctional" by a fellow academic who disliked its comments on graduate student unions. Needless to say, the smearer did not bother to explain what exactly it was about those comments that warranted such labels. The labels themselves excused their author from responsibility for explaining himself--that is their beauty. Academics appreciate the power of the smear to ease the difficulties of substantive engagement, and make excellent, extensive use of it when they are resisting, reimagining, reconfiguring, or, as sometimes happens, regurgitating oppressive hegemonic formations, discourses of power, ideological cathexes, and other fat-ass phrases.
During the question session, someone asked Smith whether he thought we would eventually burn out and return to good, solid, standard communicative English. Smith--a hopeful man, and one who is eager to please--said that he thought we would have to do that eventually, that there was only so far junk English could go before it was all junked out. But I wonder if we aren't losing both our ability to use good English and our understanding of why it's important to do so. English professors positively revel in junk English. It is a sign of their intellectual sophistication (only the initiated can understand it--or can pretend to understand it). And it is a sign of their political awareness (clear expression is an ideological ruse; convoluted expression acknowledges the political struggle built into all oppositional acts). Those who do not talk the talk are labelled "unsophisticated," "atheoretical," and even--here it comes again--"reactionary." This is the logic of a group that would rather rationalize its own functional illiteracy than accept responsibility for learning to express itself clearly and--even more to the point--for teaching its students to do the same. Junk English in English is a sign not only of the language's endangerment, but of the failure of those who are entrusted with its future to know that their most important work is the work of communication, and to honor that covenant with the respect and care it deserves.
April 10, 2002
As the Penn community continues
As the Penn community continues to reel over the hostile anti-Palestinian rant posted on a Penn newsgroup last month by Linguistics graduate student Stephanie Winters, some thoughts come to mind. The first is that it's important for anyone who is concerned about either Winters' free speech or the impact of Winters' words on Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim students to go read what she wrote. The DP has been understandably reluctant to reprint Winters' diatribe, choosing instead to give readers a feel for what she wrote by citing some choice inflammatory extracts from the whole. All well and good; papers have to compress when they report. But when the issue is what someone said, and what ought to be done about what someone said, it's not responsible to comment or act unless you are fully informed. Winters made her original post on March 29; you can read it, along with the voluminous response it provoked, on upenn.talk.
The second thought that comes to mind as I watch the folks on upenn.talk and the respondents to the DP article flame one another is that Winters' post may not be the real problem here. As egregious as some of her sentiments may be, the reason they are causing such uproar and confusion is that too many Penn students don't seem to understand either the meaning of free speech or the importance--to personal dignity and to the maintenance of democracy--of countering hateful speech not with censorship or punishment or more hateful speech, but with reasoned, conscientious debate. In the civic vacuum of a campus where students seriously believe that the proper thing to do when they are offended is to run to the administration demanding that the offender be punished, people like Winters ironically have the upper hand. Winters had a fine time baiting the people on upenn.talk yesterday, and has ridden the outrage she has created with something resembling the joyous defiance of a surfer riding a really big wave. She is playing with the paranoia of her colleagues, and they, to their detriment, are letting her.
Judith Rodin isn't about to let Water Buffalo II happen here, and she has responded to student requests to relieve Winters of her TA appointment with a statement that is at once absolutely right and utterly incomprehensible to those who most need to grasp it: "imposing limits on free speech is not an appropriate vehicle to combat racism .... Penn is an inclusive community fiercely committed to free speech and open expression. These principles have been held to encourage open dialogue on very difficult issues. I firmly believe that this remains our best educational response to controversy and conflict." I applaud President Rodin for upholding the principle of open expression at such a tough moment. But I also grieve that student leaders were so unable to hear her. Political science grad student and member of PASS (Penn Arab Student Society) Amel Ahmed responded to Rodin by talking out of both sides of her mouth in the classic manner of the self-righteous censor: "We are not challenging the law," Ahmed said. "We only express our concerns over the presence of a discriminatory, threatening, prejudiced atmosphere." In other words, I don't oppose free speech, but free speech doesn't apply to this situation because I don't want it to. More doublespeak from Ahmed: "We don't want to destroy this person's life, but she does not have the maturity to handle a teaching position at Penn." In other words, I want Stephanie Winters to pay for what she said, but I don't want to look punitive, so I will suggest that she is a danger to undergraduates in the hope that I can get the administration to remove her from the classroom, even though teaching has absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand. Really, I am concerned about the safety of others; I am not at all motivated by my desire for revenge.
When PASS met last night to discuss the Winters situation, security personnel stood guard at the door. Earlier, on upenn.talk, Winters had expressed her contempt for the idea of the meeting by posting the following: "How about we have Osama crash an airliner into Houston Hall at 6:30 tonight? sure would take care of a lot of terrorists who will be in attendance." A respondent lost no time in taking the bait: "Wow. That sounds like direct violence to me. That even sounds like you are threatening our right to assemble with violent speech ... hmm." As if Winters had a direct line to bin Laden, and as if there were no difference between obvious hyperbole and serious threat, guards were stationed at the entrance to the PASS meeting, and PASS members read the fact that they had to call twice to get the guards to come as proof of the administration's apathy toward prejudice. Apparently it did not cross their minds that campus security may have more pressing things to do than to protect Houston Hall from a rhetorical hijacked airliner. Nor did it seem to occur to anyone that if a hijacked airliner were aiming to take out the PASS meeting, a couple of campus cops wouldn't be able to stop it.
I point to the absurdity of yesterday's events not to mock the pain of students who are the targets of hate speech nor to make light of events in the Middle East or September 11, but because I want to emphasize that there are crucial differences between words and acts, between hyperbole and threat, and between real political engagement and the punitive paranoia that passes for political engagement all too often on today's campuses. Winters' outrageous post calls for the death of Palestinians as a solution to the ongoing problems in the Middle East. In its crazy extremism, in its overwrought genocidal excess, it reminded me of Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay, "A Modest Proposal", which recommended that the Irish solve their overpopulation problem by eating their children. Winters is no Swift, but she seems to have a similar sense of humor, or at least a similar sense of how outrageous rhetoric may be used to force people to think harder about serious social problems. She is not an artist, nor is she a skilled social critic. But her inflammatory style is nonetheless a potentially useful stimulus -- or it would be if her interlocutors were more interested in debate than in silencing dissent, more interested in resolving conflict than in trying to repress it, less invested in seeing themselves as victims, less interested in equating the hotheaded sputterings of one local crank with widespread campus bigotry. After all, no one has jumped in to second Winters' sentiments. And everyone, even those who defend her right to say hateful things, acknowledges that what she said was indeed hateful.
I re-read Swift's essay this morning trying to imagine what would happen if he were somehow transported in time to a modern campus. I imagined him publishing "A Modest Proposal" in the student paper. And then I imagined the witch hunts that would follow. Women's groups and pro-life groups and pro-choice groups and Catholic groups and anti-Catholic groups and animal rights groups would storm the administration, demanding that Swift be relieved of his job at the paper, demanding that the paper be punished, demanding that Swift be compelled to go through sensitivity training, and bemoaning their pain, their terrible pain, at the wounding words of their local columnist. They would loudly declare how threatened they felt. Pregnant women students and women students with small children would all require armed escorts when on campus--because you never know when someone might try to eat your baby. Good thing Swift wrote in the comparatively enlightened era of the early eighteenth century, when satire was satire and paranoia was not the academic art form it is today. In his excellent novel Straight Man, Richard Russo puts it best: academics, he writes, "indulge paranoid fantasies for the same reason dogs lick their testicles" (204). In other words, because they can.
April 9, 2002
Last week, campus police at
Last week, campus police at Virginia Tech seized a professor's computer in order to search it for information about a vandalism incident. Someone has been painting anti-rape slogans around campus, and Martha McCaughey, Virginia Tech's Director of Women's Studies, had received an email that police believed could help them track down the vandal. But when campus officials contacted her about the email, she said she had deleted it. And when they approached her about recovering the deleted email from her hard drive, she put them off, saying they could not have her machine until she had backed up her files, which she could not do until after she returned from a trip. Unwilling to wait, campus police waited for her outside her office door last Thursday, and confiscated her machine in her presence. They searched the machine, and returned it the next day.
Now there is uproar about privacy and intellectual property. The police say they had a search warrant; McCaughey says she never saw one. They said they did everything by the book, citing the university's right to copy and examine files on university-owned machines. McCaughey says she was not allowed to back up her files, and that the university was wrong to search her machine without her consent. Others are loudly agreeing. Grad student Piyush Mathur called the university's behavior "whimsical, utterly intrusive, and truly disturbing," adding that "Going by the logic of those cops, the university can confiscate basically any documents stored in our offices (as we use office paper), confidential letters (on official letter pads) and e-mail messages (university software, again), and tap into our phone messages (on the phone machines) as well: without any specific formal legal mandate or explanation or prior notice or warrant." Laura Parisi, an assistant professor of Women's Studies, expressed additional concern that sensitive material on faculty hard drives could be taken out of context: "I do a lot of work on women's human-rights issues, and I look on a lot of Web sites for research on sex tourism," she said. "Someone could possibly interpret that as pornographic. ... I think that is troubling. [What] if I wasn't there to explain why this was important for my professional life?"
These are reasonable objections to raise in an era when privacy rights don't seem always to extend as automatically to the electronic environment as they should. But they are also, in a way, naive about both the climate of potential surveillance on campuses and the power of the individual user to protect her electronic privacy. Universities are often quite clear about the fact that when it comes to the electronic environment, they place their own need to know above the privacy of those who work on university machines and use university-run computing networks. They are quite clear about their right to search the hard drives they own, and even to read the email that zips between its servers. They usually pay lip service to privacy by saying something to the effect that they will only search machines and email records with cause. But they leave the definition of cause wide open (a particularly gruesome instance of dubious "cause" occurred last fall at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, when university officials responded to a student's false allegations of defamation by searching a professor's private email records).
In short, the surprising thing about events at Virginia Tech is not the behavior of the campus police, but the fact that this behavior truly seems to have surprised McCaughey and her colleagues. McCaughey played with fire when she did not cooperate promptly with requests to search her hard drive (I will not speculate on what originally moved her to delete an incriminating email rather than forward it to authorities). The shock expressed by McCaughey and her colleagues is the shock of ignorance bumping up against the cold reality of computing as it is presently handled on most campuses across the country. Its outrage is legitimate--universities don't take electronic privacy as seriously as they should. But as outrage goes, it is also impotent--meeting campus officials' blundering tactics vis a vis electronic privacy with words of helpless anger is far less effective than thwarting those tactics ahead of time.
How? First, know your university's policies on electronic privacy, and know who has access to your university account. You may discover some surprising things. Penn, for instance, promises that electronic privacy will be respected--just as much as office privacy will be respected: "Computer files, e-mail and voice mail created, stored, transmitted or received by faculty will be afforded the same level of privacy as the contents of their offices." Housekeeping and building administrators have master keys to faculty offices. So Penn's policy on electronic privacy is a policy that doesn't extend or guarantee all that much privacy. Likewise, in my home department of English, certain unique circumstances prevail vis a vis electronic privacy. The English department has its own server, and it employs grad students in English to do much of the work of maintaining that server and providing departmental computer support. This means that at any given time, a number of English grad students and affiliated faculty have access to all the information stored on the department's server--including "private" email accounts. No one to my knowledge has ever abused this privilege--but it's nonetheless a clear conflict of interest that compromises electronic privacy on this particular server. And it's worth knowing about if you care about your electronic privacy.
Once you know your university's policies and practices, and once you understand who has access to your hard drive and your account, you can take some very simple precautions to protect your electronic privacy. The best way to do this is to use encryption technology for sending and receiving email--that way no one who isn't supposed to be seeing your mail will see it. Encrypt the documents on your hard drive for the same reason. Encryption technology is strong, reliable stuff. If McCaughey had been using it, her hard drive could not have been searched without her permission. If encryption technology seems too complicated, there are simpler things you can do to protect your communications and your documents. First, if you use a university-owned machine, store nothing on your hard drive. Learn to use FTP and keep your email and your documents stored on a remote commercial server with no university affiliation. If you pay for dial-up service or DSL, you probably already have free storage space available to you. You can also store material for free on services like Yahoo! Briefcase. Second, do your emailing from a commercial account--your campus officials can't commandeer commercial providers. It's that simple.
McCaughey's experience with campus security has led her to question the viability of electronic pedagogy: "If I was a student, I'd be sitting there thinking about whether I should be taking an online course." But these are the concerns of one who knows more about how her institution can monitor her electronic conduct than about how she can keep them from monitoring it, and as such they substitute a blanket paranoia for educated opinion. Such technophobic reactions are all too common in the humanities sectors of American campuses. But as a former technophobe myself, I can sincerely say: when it comes to electronic privacy, the only thing academics have to fear is fear of technology itself.
April 8, 2002
Following the University of Michigan's
Following the University of Michigan's lead, Michigan State will hold its first annual Black Celebratory this spring. Conceived as a celebration of this year's black graduates, the event will be held on the afternoon of May 3, after the university-wide commencement ceremony earlier that day. MSU is encouraging black graduating seniors to attend both events.
Predictably, white students have protested the event as separatist. As one wrote in a letter to the MSU student paper, "What would happen if some students tried to organize an all-white graduation? All hell would break loose. They would be labeled bigots." Just as predictably, MSU is countering such criticisms with thinly veiled accusations of racism: "The response of critics is indicative of white privilege, because they don't really understand why this is a significant accomplishment for black students," said Nikki O'Brien, MSU's coordinator for African-American Affairs.
Predictably, the racial tension created by the idea of racially specific graduation ceremonies means that the issues have been distorted. Black students' triumph over economic adversity is being cited as one of the main reasons for the MSU event -- as if poor whites, Asians, and Latinos do not also attend MSU, and do not also overcome significant social and financial challenges along the way. Likewise, separate graduations for minority students are typically defined as rites of inclusion. As Gloria Aquino Sosa of nearby Oakland University's Office of Equity puts it, "Our whole goal is inclusion, not exclusion .... We are celebrating the inclusion of these students into the workforce."
Predictably, too, paternalistic condescension on the part of the administration goes hand in hand with the separatist agenda of the event's organizers. Hence the chilling statement of support from Lee June, MSU's assistant provost and vice president for student affairs: MSU "is seeking ways to reinforce, congratulate and give special recognition for the accomplishment they've made, given that they are students of color." June means well, and that is what is so sad about the quote: it underscores, painfully and powerfully, the humiliation built into Black Celebratory, which, with university funds, will proudly commend MSU's black class of 2002 for making it to graduation, "given that they are students of color"-- in other words, for doing what no one, not even their own administration, expected them to do because they are black. This attitude is born out by the numbers: at MSU, 46 percent of black students who enrolled in 1994 had graduated within six years, as compared to 58 percent of Hispanic students, 67 percent of Asian and Pacific Islanders, and 70 percent of whites.
Events at MSU are following what is by now a set choreography of rhetorical and institutional moves. Black Celebratory will happen; campus conservatives will mock it as separatist and campus radicals will call the conservatives racist. Meanwhile, the administration gets to have it both ways: in supporting the Black Celebratory, MSU both demonstrates its enlightened understanding of the special needs of minorities while at the same time suggesting that without special programs and special events and special congratulation--without the institutionalized pity exemplified by comments like June's--minorities would never get anywhere at all.
April 5, 2002
Twelve years ago, at just
Twelve years ago, at just about this time of year, I had to make up my mind about where I was going to go to graduate school. I had my rejection letters in hand (a form letter with perforated edges from spare-no-expense Yale, a personalized letter addressed to "Mr. O'Connor" from ethnically-challenged Brown). And I had some acceptances, too. I could go to Michigan on a Regent's Fellowship, have guaranteed funding for five years, have guaranteed teaching, and health care. Or I could go to Berkeley, my adored alma mater, and study at what was then ranked among the top two or three English departments in the country -- with no funding at all, and no guarantee of teaching. So confident was Berkeley that I would jump at this offer that their acceptance form letter only gave me one box to check: "I accept." I was sorely tempted to do just that, more so when I polled my professors. They seemed to think that going to Michigan would be like signing a professional death warrant. "Sit out a year and reapply," one said to me. "Well," said another, looking on the bright side, "I guess Michigan isn't too far out in left field." The decision was very complex, and very fraught with layers of snobbery (I had to study with the Best!), insularity (Berkeley was home), and homesickness (the midwest was home, too, plus it had seasons). The issue was finally settled one day when I was talking with one of the faculty's older, wiser, less starstruck professors. "Never pay for a Ph.D," he said to me, and I knew that at last I was hearing the voice of wisdom. I went to Michigan, had a great time, got a great education and a great job, and graduated with no debt. I am grateful to this day that Michigan decided to pay for my Ph.D. I know I could not have gotten one otherwise.
Ph.D. programs in the humanities have cleaned up their acts a bit since then. Berkeley, for example, has a smaller program, funds its students, and has eliminated its terminal MA program (these came under heavy fire in the 90's, not just at Berkeley, but all across the country, for the way they lured paying students in with the false prospect of heightening their chances for getting into the Ph.D. program). The recognition behind such reforms is the recognition inherent in my professor's statment: that you should never have to pay for a Ph.D. Why? Because unlike medical school, law school, dental school, or business school, doctoral education does not promise terrific financial payback. Students who will go on to be physicians and lawyers and CEOs can afford to incur debt because they will be able to pay it off. Students working toward Ph.D.s in English or art history or comparative literature, on the other hand, might never get out from under the cost of their education if they had to pay for it out of pocket. Their job prospects just aren't good enough, and their earning potential will in most cases never be all that high. So increasingly universities are responding to that reality. They are making it possible for students to get a Ph.D. without paying for it. They are doing so because they recognize that it is important to have Ph.D.s around. The future of the university depends on it. And so does the future of society.
This is an admittedly sketchy, quick and dirty history. But I sketch it here because I think it captures some things that are getting hopelessly garbled--or even lost--in the movement for graduate student unionization. The first is that universities do pay for people to get their Ph.Ds. The second is that they do so because it is in their best interests to do so--they have to, if they want to compete (this is not a cynical statement about corporatization, but a pragmatic statement about the security Ph.D. students have within a corporatized university system). The third is that graduate student unionization--and the attendant push to describe graduate students as employees--poses a serious threat to a very, very good deal. It may look on the surface like a union will solve all a grad student's woes. It may look like a union can coordinate the scattered voices and needs of individual, isolated students into the forceful, focussed power of collective bargaining. It may look like that bargaining can be used to pressure administrations to respond to the economic hardship of grad student life with higher stipends and better health care. I know that for many it may look as easy and simple as that. And in the short term, it may even seem to work.
But ... the longterm cost of unionization is bound to be an erosion of the very financial privilege that many grad students today enjoy -- a privilege they take so for granted that they cannot see it for what it is, a privilege they redescribe as exploitation and abuse. If Aldous Huxley were scripting the grad student union effort, he might imagine a world in the not too distant future where grad students really do enjoy the full, dystopian privileges of employee status. In this world, universities have so thoroughly subdivided student from employee that graduate students live two separate lives. In their student lives, they pay tuition just like all other students. They take out loans to cover those tuition costs, which annually run to more than the student can expect to make in a year's salary once she has graduated. No special waivers and subsidies for grad students under the union regime! All students are created equal. Students may, however, work to cover some of their living expenses. In this work, they are unionized, and enjoy whatever benefits their bargaining unit has been able to accrue for them. But union protection only covers the terms when the student is teaching, and the student has a hard time getting teaching appointments because there are so very many older, more experienced teachers around who are more qualified for the job. Some of these are adjuncts with degrees, some are senior grad students. As a rule, this means that many grad students graduate without having acquired enough teaching experience to make them attractive job candidates (though they may have acquired great skill at making cappucinos and ringing up book sales). This means in turn that these unionized students of the future are even less able than today's grad students to find good, solid academic work. Overall, the situation has become so unattractive and intractable that fewer and fewer people decide to embark on graduate study. So the quality of graduate education plummets as the best and brightest go elsewhere while the anti-intellectualism of American culture grows and grows. Meanwhile, unions themselves thrive. The dues they get from grad students are doing great things for America's workers.
An exaggerated picture, perhaps. But perhaps not. The point is that grad students can't have it both ways, and that how things go for them once they unionize will depend on how indulgent administrations are willing to be in the face of ever greater and more absurd demands. While those who are agitating for unions will fight me on this point, I think administrations have already been very indulgent. I for one won't be surprised to see them draw a hard, firm line somewhere in the not too distant future. Whatever happens, though, it isn't likely to be good for graduate students or for graduate education. Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.
April 4, 2002
In honor of A4, or
In honor of A4, or the nationwide Student-Labor Day of Action, I thought I would reflect on what it means for graduate students--particularly well-funded, lightly-worked graduate students at elite, private universities--to adopt the Union Mentality. By Union Mentality I mean the militant and alienated mindset that comes with unionization -- the mindset that, for example, enables graduate students to demonize their institutions as corporations and their administrators as conniving managers rather than engage them in reasonable, respectful discussion; the mindset that permits them to express themselves through mobilizing slogans rather than reasoned debates; the mindset that leads them to believe they are justified in using undergraduates as pawns in their struggles with administrators by stopping work or even refusing to turn in grades; the mindset that allows them to dismiss dissenting perspectives--whether voiced by administrators, faculty, or even fellow students--as the vile stuff of false and complicit consciousness; the mindset that, in short, turns students into soldiers for a wrongheaded and enormously self-destructive cause.
Strong words, I know, but they are warranted. The mindset I describe above is one that more and more grad students seem interested in adopting. More and more grad students are choosing to experience their years of graduate study as years of desperate resistance to a huge, mean, abusive institutional machine. More and more grad students are interpreting the time they spend in pursuit of their advanced degree as a period of oppression in which they are victimized and exploited by that faceless profiteering giant, the corporate university. I invoke "choice" and "interpretation" here because I want to emphasize that alienation of the sort I describe here is indeed chosen. It is one way graduate students can decide to feel about being graduate students. It is not the only way to feel about being a graduate student, and it is not the best way. But it is a way that is beginning to win out.
Why? This is a question that deserves more space than I can give it here. It is a question that has been eclipsed--quite strategically--by the marxian rhetoric of unionization itself, which holds that certain working conditions are inherently "alienated" and "alienating," and that as a result certain kinds of labor are inherently "alienated." Define your cushy apprenticeship as poorly compensated, underinsured "labor" and presto! You are automatically alienated. But back up a few steps, and remember that the definition of graduate student teaching as employee labor is itself highly controversial, and you have to think a little bit harder about what is motivating grad students to define themselves as labor, to agitate for unions, and to embrace a cruelly embittering mindset as the stuff of personal empowerment.
I have a theory about this, which is that it's much easier to demonize your administration than it is to take issue with the internal workings of your home department. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that administrators are evil. A great deal of cultural energy has gone into establishing this idea as a feature of post-Weberian national lore. It's useful to see admins this way, and it's arguably part of the admin's job to accept being seen this way. They are also most often people you don't know, or at least don't know outside of their capacities as administrators. In short, administrators are easy to beat up on and they are paid to take punches. It's a lot harder to go after your professors or your advisor. But I would argue that a great deal of what is behind grad student union efforts, and the accompanying willingness on the part of grad students to infect themselves with the poisonous Union Mentality, is deep dissatisfaction with the shape of their own program.
Whether a graduate student is happy as a graduate student has everything to do with whether that student is getting a good, solid, marketable education. If that's in place--if the student feels she has enrolled in a graduate program she can trust, one that will train her as a scholar and teacher, one that will counsel her about her progress and her career options in a consistent and cogent way, one that will ensure that she gets the personal attention she needs to refine her analytical abilities and writing skills, and, crucially, one that will let her know when her work is not up to par--then my guess is that the student will have neither the time nor the inclination to get wrapped up in union activity. Graduate work is absorbing, all-consuming, and rewarding--or it should be.
But let's say a graduate student is enrolled in a program where things don't run all that well. The course offerings are consistently crappy, more the product of the faculty's idiosyncratic obsessions than the result of considered, systematic thought about what a rounded graduate curriculum ought to provide. Grades are uniformly high, not because everyone does great work but because faculty can't be bothered to take the time to evaluate each student's work carefully. Feedback, when it arrives at all, is often filled with platitudes rather than personalized comments, and often months late. Graduate teaching is not supervised or adequately mentored. Lip service may be paid to departmental community, and the appearance of collegiality may be rigorously maintained. But underneath it all the student knows in her bones that she is not getting the training she needs, that the department is asking her to collude in its incompetence by participating in its culture of self-congratulation, that the reality behind the smiling mask of departmental community is that she is studying in an environment that will neither enable her to excel nor allow her to fail. Students studying in environments like this--and there are many such environments, and many such students--are ripe for unionization.
Such students are being wronged--but not in the way they say they are. They are being used, but not in the way they say they are. Unionization is in this sense both an outlet for anger that can't safely show itself "at home" and a dangerously seductive mask for the real source of much graduate student "alienation," such as it is. Proof that there is something to what I am saying: the phenomenon of the faculty member who applauds the graduate student effort to unionize as a means of absolving himself of responsibility for the quality of graduate student education. Look around you and you will find him, a tenure-track, yuppified edition of Conrad's flabby devil. He supports unions, but he doesn't have time to read your dissertation chapter. He's all for rising up against the corporate university, but he'll die before he teaches a 3/3 or sets foot in a composition classroom. He's right there behind you all the way--except when you need to hear some hard truths about the quality of your coursework. He's totally against the exploitation of graduate labor--but he'll have you do all the grading for his undergraduate courses instead of splitting it with you, or simply doing the work himself. I could go on, but I think you know the guy I'm talking about. He's everywhere -- except in the administration.
April 3, 2002
A few years ago, when
A few years ago, when I had just started my job at Penn, my father and I had a conversation about the special kind of exhaustion that comes from teaching. Nothing I had ever done before--not competitive sports, not pulling all-nighters, not taking my qualifying exams, not finishing my dissertation--had wiped me out as completely as a typical week of teaching. It was mysterious. After all, teaching a 2/2 load was hardly heavy lifting compared to what other folks do. It was disturbing. Was I getting old? Was I getting sick? And it was overwhelming. After my last class of the week, I would stagger home, collapse on the sofa, and become comatose. It was too much trouble to stagger to the kitchen to make dinner, too much trouble to peel my lenses off my eyes. Thursday nights became semi-conscious monuments to the effort I had somewhere, somehow expended during the week. Drifting in and out of quasi-awareness, I would deliriously relive, and revise, the week's classes while the themes from Friends, Seinfeld, and E.R. played endlessly in the background. I asked my Dad about it, and he said that the reason teaching is so tiring is that it involves suppressing so much anger. I was unsure what he meant by that, but I figured that as a veteran of more than two decades of teaching at Indiana University's medical school he probably knew what he was talking about. God knows he's won enough teaching awards.
So I started watching for signs of anger, and for signs of repression, and I started to see what he meant. Good teaching is by definition an exercise in constructive frustration--you are always trying to take your students just a little bit further than they want, or can, go. You are always aware of the line between where your students are comfortable (which by definition is where even the very best, most motivated students want to stay) and where they begin to squirm (which is where they do not want to be, but where you have to send them, if you are going to do your job). The work of teaching is the work of keeping your students just far enough out of their comfort zone that they learn, but not so far that they get lost, or get angry, or give up. You are always aware of pushing your students, and always aware that many of them don't appreciate being pushed. And so you are always a little on edge, even in the best of times, because doing your best, and doing your job, always involves upsetting at least some of your students all of the time. Add to this that this work never really advances--as soon as you begin to get somewhere with one group, the semester is over, and you have to start all over again, from scratch. Teaching is not just an exercise in constructive frustration--it is also an exercise in tolerating repetition. You generate a lot of excess emotion along the way, if you care about what you are doing. And because there is no place for that emotion to go, you wear yourself out keeping it down and in. In short: teaching is tiring because it involves such tremendous acts of repression (of anger, yes, and also frustration, and hope, and annoyance, and faith, and--it must be said--outrage that none of your own teachers ever bothered to mention it would be this way). The good teachers make it look easy. But it ain't.
I mention the place of anger in teaching, and the incredible emotional toll teaching takes, as a way of prefacing a few remarks on a lawsuit that has recently been filed by a first-year law student at the University of Virginia against Kenneth Abraham, an award-winning, highly respected law professor who made the mistake of tapping her shoulder last fall during a torts class. Abrahams was illustrating the legal principle known as the "eggshell skull rule" as part of a lesson on Vosburg v. Putney, a case in which one child kicked another lightly in the shin, the shin was damaged far beyond what one would expect for a mild kick, and the kicker was held liable for all damages. Abraham teaches torts every year, and every year he teaches Vosburg v. Putney. Every year, as part of the lesson, he taps a randomly chosen student on the shoulder to demonstrate the sort of slight contact that can, in some cases, be actionable. Last fall, he tapped Marta Sanchez on the shoulder. And lo -- that tap has indeed become a cause of action. Last February, Sanchez filed a civil complaint in a circuit court against Abraham alleging that the tap was actually a "caress," that it put her in "reasonable fear of injury," that it brought back memories of being sexually abused while a child in Panama, that it caused her emotional suffering, migraine headaches, and upset stomach, and that Abraham should have to pay for touching off her repressed fear of men with authority. She wants $25,000 in compensatory damages, and $10,000 in punitive damages, and says "It was basically killing me not to do anything [about the touch]. I was feeling worse and worse, because I knew I was wronged. To expect I wouldn't be bothered by this is to expect Holyfield not to be bothered by Tyson biting his ear."
Who is this woman? And why in the world are people listening to her? How far are we going to let the wounded woman act go before we stop allowing professional victims to destroy our working and learning environments? Sanchez has had a hellish life, if what she says about her childhood is true (an awful lot of "repressed memories" aren't after all). But Abraham is hardly responsible for Sanchez's past experiences of victimization, he is not himself a victimizer, and, to use a fun legal term, I don't see how being a rape victim under the Noriega regime is "admissible" here, especially since Sanchez seems far more interested in turning the episode into a moneymaking opportunity than into a chance to confront her apparently extensive emotional problems. If the issue were really one of coping with past pain, Sanchez's focus would not be on Abraham, but on herself. She would not be seeking to punish him by humiliating him publicly and taking him for a financial ride. She would not be trying to cast him as a violent predator by comparing him to the emotionally-challenged Mike Tyson. And she would not be in the business of chilling academic freedom for all teachers--something behavior like hers inevitably does. But then, maybe for Sanchez money really does buy happiness.
Another reason why teaching is so exhausting, one that is implicit in the reasons I rehearsed above, but that ought to be clearly spelled out: in today's more-sensitive-than-thou campus climate, students have their teachers in a moral vise. One false move--as defined by one student's skewed and self-serving perspective--and you are wrecked and ruined, your reputation trashed, your savings drained, your ability to do your job with energy, clarity, creativity, confidence, and commitment permanently compromised. Who can teach under such conditions? Who would want to? More to the point, in an America desperately in need of more and better teachers, who will?
April 2, 2002
Let's say your department hires
Let's say your department hires an assistant professor. You and your colleagues are thrilled with your choice--Professor X promises to be a great addition to your group. She's an up and coming scholar, her research looks to be pathbreaking, and as a teacher she has much to offer students. You and your colleagues also just like her. The interview was such fun, and Professor X promises to show you all a good time, professionally speaking, at faculty meetings, dinner parties, and chance meetings at the photocopier. Let's say, then, that Professor X does not turn out to be all that you had dreamed she would be. Sure, her scholarship is sound and there is plenty of it. Sure, she's a good teacher. But still there is something not quite right about Professor X. Professor X isn't quite who you thought she'd be. Maybe she brags a bit about her grants and publications. Maybe she says "no" sometimes when asked to serve on committees. Maybe she doesn't throw dinner parties, do the coffee circuit, and generally lay herself out socially for you and your colleagues. Maybe she is no fun at all when she is waiting for the copier. In short, you just don't like Professor X after all. Professor X, you decide, is just not a very good colleague. You ask around, and discover that some of your colleagues feel the same way. Others start feeling that way the more the issue is discussed. And so, when Professor X comes up for tenure, you and your colleagues vote her down for not being collegial.
Stupid, crazy, impossible scenario, right? Responsible academics don't behave that way. Even if they are that petty, they can separate personal animus from professional issues, right? After all, the integrity of the tenure system depends on it. Wrong. Denying tenure for lack of collegiality is becoming more and more common these days. And so are the resulting lawsuits. At the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, for example, the biology department was so eager to deny tenure to Marcella McClure that the faculty actually invented collegiality criteria in order to use them against her. McClure is suing for breach of contract, wrongful termination, breach of fair dealing, and emotional distress, claiming that the university violated its own tenure procedures when it selectively redefined the rules in her case. The Faculty Senate agreed with McClure when she appealed and voted 3-2 in her favor. But McClure was not reinstated, and she has taken her case to the courts--which refuse to touch it on the grounds that the University and Community College System of Nevada is immune from lawsuits concerning tenure decisions. Just last Friday the Nevada Supreme Court tossed the case out. The gorey details of the McClure case are covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education's recent article "Do You Have To Be A Nice Person To Win Tenure?.
McClure's case demonstrates the dangerously subjective quality of "collegiality" as well as the curiously obtuse confidence of those who seek to use it as an evaluative criterion. A dean involved in McClure's case actually defended UNLV's decision with these words: "Collegiality is like beauty--you know it when you see it." The argument that "you know it when you see it" doesn't work with porn, and it doesn't work here. But enough people are starting to use such logic that the AAUP has gotten involved.
The AAUP is concerned enough about the use of collegiality as a fourth criterion in tenure cases (after research, teaching, and service) that in 1999 it issued a statement on collegiality as a criterion for faculty evaluation. Arguing that collegiality--or lack thereof--is manifest in the quality of an individual's research, teaching, and service, the AAUP statement goes on to point out the dangers inherent in attempting to isolate the quality of "collegiality" for purposes of evaluation. It's an excellent statement, noting that the ideal of "collegiality" too often masks a misguided desire for political and/or interpersonal homogeneity (i.e., it can be used to discount, silence, or even get rid of people who do not "fit"): "in the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display 'enthusiasm' or 'dedication,' evince 'a constructive attitude' that will 'foster harmony,' or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion." It's an important point: collegiality is not the same thing as congeniality or conformity, but it is nonetheless frequently and disastrously equated with both.
Such pressure to conform and please, the AAUP notes, chills faculty debate and discussion, which in turn damages the department's reputation as well as its overall quality: "Criticism and opposition do not necessarily conflict with collegiality. Gadflies, critics of institutional practices or collegial norms, even the occasional malcontent, have all been known to play an invaluable and constructive role in the life of academic departments and institutions. They have sometimes proved collegial in the deepest and truest sense. Certainly a college or university replete with genial Babbitts is not the place to which society is likely to look for leadership. It is sometimes exceedingly difficult to distinguish the constructive engagement that characterizes true collegiality from an obstructiveness or truculence that inhibits collegiality. Yet the failure to do so may invite the suppression of dissent. The very real potential for a distinct criterion of 'collegiality' to cast a pall of stale uniformity places it in direct tension with the value of faculty diversity in all its contemporary manifestations." Pretty cool, no? Especially the part about genial Babbitts.
But the situation is ultimately not so simple as discouraging the use of collegiality criteria in tenure cases and encouraging those who find themselves on the wrong end of those criteria to sue. This is not just because an unenlightened or self-serving court can fail to see what's at stake in the case (Nevada being a prime example), but also because it is just so damned easy to use collegiality criteria in tenure cases without saying so. All you have to do, if you are thus inclined, is to make your assessment of the candidate's scholarship accord with your assessment of her personality. If you like Professor X, and Professor X has taught her courses and published her research and served her committees, you and your colleagues simply put together a glowing report. You emphasize the unique and groundbreaking qualities of the scholarship, the special touch Professor X has with students, the backbreaking labor Professor X devoted to various committees. Professor X will be your darling, and all that you write will be true. Conversely, if you dislike Professor X, you can destroy her simply by taking an entirely different approach to her file. You might play up the naivete of the work, or you might suggest that it is derivative or lackluster or even misguided and inept. You might point out that Professor X has received a few negative teaching evaluations, that Professor X does not have the range to teach effectively in the department, or that Professor X has an abrasive style that alienates students. And so on. As with the first scenario, all that you write will be true. The point is, tenure cases are all about spin. And how a case spins has a lot to do with whether the individual members of a given department--fallible and malleable all--want to keep Professor X around. The problem is not so much that a department can skew things at will--but that it's practically impossible not to.
April 1, 2002
The Daily Pennsylvanian caught me
The Daily Pennsylvanian caught me unawares and uncaffeinated this morning. I read almost all the way through the lead article about how Penn would be tearing down one of its monstrous high rise residences before I realized that it was April Fool's Day and that I had been duped by a former student (I nearly said that "I had been had by a former student," but such phrases are dangerous in the era of sexual harasssment and I have thus edited accordingly).
Admittedly, I thought some of the quotes from Penn administrators were a bit casual. For example, the article quotes David Brownlee, Penn's dignified and impeccable director of college houses, on how the demolition will make for cramped quarters in Penn's remaining dorms: "I mean frankly, as many people have said, the high rises are just too big for the traditional college house definition. When you have three people sharing a room the size of a 1967 Volkswagon Beetle, they really have to develop that warm, happy, loving, academic and ultra-dorky environment that we're looking for." Wow, I thought. Satire as administrative strategy! In my bleary-eyed state, I admired Brownlee's honesty. After all, it came across a lot better than the usual insincere platitudes administrators tend to offer in moments like this.
My awe at Penn's new policy of preventive self-mockery only grew when I read President Judith Rodin's announcement that she will move into a penthouse atop the replacement high rise that will be built where Hamilton College House now stands: "I want to be above it all .... My office is on the first floor of College Hall. My suburban house is at street level. None of this gives me the commanding position that I need. I'm the president of this university, not some mere peon!" This is it, I thought. A new era is born. Academe will be humorless no more! Maybe now we can lose the speech codes and the moral policing and the therapeutic pedagogy and move forward into a better, funnier future. I caught on to the article when it reported that parts of the new building proposal had been plagiarized from history professor Thomas Childers' book, The Wings of Morning. But by that time it was too late. Tristan Schweiger had tapped into my latent optimism, unleashing the motive force of unreconstructed hope and belief.
Thus was it doubly hard to read over this week's Chronicle of Higher Education. The only funny thing about the current Chron is that it reads like an April Fool's edition even though it is not. There is, for example, news of bidding wars at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Stanley Fish offered the poet Rita Dove $200,000/year plus perks to join the English department there, and Rita Dove has refused. $200,000??? When most junior faculty in English make less than $50,000, and even full professors are lucky to make $80,000? When raises are typically lower than the cost of living increase? When there are only two official opportunities for professional advancement in the entire career--promotion to associate professor and promotion to full? When, if you want a decent raise, you have to prostitute yourself--apply for jobs you don't really want, flirt with the folks at other institutions until they make you an offer, and then either jump ship for money or use that offer to extort more pay from your home institution? Ouch, ouch, ouch!! If it weren't so damned true it would be funny.
Likewise with the column by a history Ph.D. who is throwing in the towel after an unsuccessful, seven-year job search. Chris Cumo candidly confesses that in seven years of searching, he has only landed one campus interview, and that, he acknowledges, came not because he was a top candidate for the job, but because he lived so close to the hiring institution that they could interview him without having to pay for his plane fare and hotel. Chris Cumo has published two books, but is not bitter. He takes responsibility for his situation, acknowledging that he didn't plan for this contingency when he was in grad school, that he could not be bothered to consider non-academic career routes because he was so blinkered by his desire to join what he calls, without a trace of irony, "the club." I don't know what's worse about this column, the rotten experience it describes or the placid, almost lobotomized equanimity with which it recounts that experience. Cumo's article should be a satirical parody of the lemming-like fatalism with which academic departments continue to greet the impossible, intractable job market for newly minted humanities Ph.D.s. It should be a send-up of how Ph.D. programs keep churning out students despite the lack of jobs, of how they routinely do nothing, or next to nothing, to make students aware of the extent of the problem or to prepare them for alternative careers, and of how grad students too often screw themselves by putting starry-eyed dreams ahead of practical preparation. But it is instead a devastatingly matter-of-fact account of one historian's trip through an all-too common professional nightmare. Ouch and ouch again.
Likewise, again, with Maurice C. Taylor's article about being a defendant in a sexual harassment suit. Taylor was falsely accused of harassment when he was a provost at St. Augustine's College in North Carolina, and he writes the column with some helpful tips to all those who find themselves in similar situations. Be aware, he points out, that your institution may not have the same goals you do--you want to prove your innocence, but your institution will want to protect itself against liability. Be aware that between the slowness of legal proceedings and the eagerness of the media, you will most likely be convicted in the court of public opinion long before the facts of the case are assembled. Be aware that even if you are innocent, your reputation will suffer. The list goes on. Like Cumo's piece, this one is haunting for its lack of outrage, for its strangely passive way of reflecting on a devastating chapter in a person's career. Taylor even comes right out and says that his primary emotion during the two years he was being investigated was indifference. If the essay were satire, it would work: it would point out how ridiculously mundane academic sexual harassment cases have become, it would get its humor from the suggestion that being accused of sexual harassment is becoming a rite of passage for academic men, like tenure review or membership in the faculty club, and it would get its power from the self-help format, the list of mentorly tips from one who has been there and done that, to those who still have false accusations to look forward to. But it is the furthest thing you can get from satire: a deadly serious, earnest essay about something that ought to be laughable, but just isn't.
Every day is April Fool's Day in academe, it seems. And it is so not funny.