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January 31, 2004 [feather]
How to handle a bake sale

Affirmative action bake sales have become the pet political protest of conservative and libertarian campus groups over the past year. They have also become the pet target of administrators seeking to cleanse their campuses of any expression that offends officially protected demographic groups. Two of the more egregious instances of such misguided censorship have taken place at the University of Washington and at the College of William & Mary.

At UW, the sale was shut down after offended students attacked the sale display and the students running the sale (the attackers were not themselves punished); later, the UW Board of Trustees published a thoroughly out-of-line letter denouncing the UW College Republicans for being hurtful, and effectively dictating to the UW student body what its politics ought to be and what kinds of constitutionally protected expression are not welcome on the Washington campus.

At William & Mary, the Sons of Liberty were threatened with disciplinary action if they did not shut down their sale--despite the fact that no administrator seemed able to cite a policy the group had violated. When concerned members of the public wrote to W&M President Timothy Sullivan to express their dismay at the school's censorious and repressive ways, Sullivan replied by mocking and belittling them.

This week, two more bake sale-related events have been held on college campuses.

The first took place on Tuesday at William & Mary as the Sons of Liberty staged a reprise of their earlier, censored sale. Though W&M administrators have not admitted wrongdoing in shutting down the first sale, the fact that this one did go ahead without incident suggests that they now recognize, however grudgingly, the error of their former ways. But knowing that they were wrong does not mean they grasp why they were wrong, nor does it mean they are any better equipped to handle a student protest they find hateful.

So it was that Sullivan issued a press release on the day of the sale castigating the Sons of Liberty for both their politics and their method of expressing those politics (John Rosenberg takes Sullivan's statement apart here). Sullivan notes in the release that if the Sons of Liberty have free speech rights, so does he; he then uses this truism as an excuse to abuse his position as president of the school. It is not for the president of a college committed to the free exchange of ideas to decide which ideas are and are not acceptable on his campus; it is not for the president of such a school to chill debate and hamper students' exploration of ideas by throwing his own ideological weight around.

Sullivan may believe he is coming down on the side of righteousness when he condemns the Sons of Liberty for staging a political protest that some members of the campus community find offensive. But in fact what he is doing is betraying both his position and the founding principles of the school by asserting that there is only one right way (his way) for the members of the W&M community to think about affirmative action, and by trying to bully them into compliance through public shaming.

Sullivan might benefit from studying the bake sale that was held at Utah State last month. There, the sale proceeded peacefully--no one challenged the rights of the students running it to express their views. There, those who disagreed with the premises of the sale did not respond with violence or with censorship, but with debate. This week, the university hosted a heated follow-up debate that was attended by over 600 students and faculty. All sides of the issue were aired, no one was silenced, and controversy ran a dignified, intellectually substantive course.

Shame on Timothy Sullivan. Kudos to all at Utah State.

Thanks to Maurice Black for the Utah State link.

Erin O'Connor, 8:31 AM | Permalink

January 29, 2004 [feather]
Emory update

Yesterday, the Emory faculty was supposed to vote on whether to repeal the school's speech code. Turns out the vote never took place. Emory sociology professor Frank Lechner kindly wrote to inform me of this fact.

According to Lechner, instead of voting on whether to repeal the code, the faculty voted to table the motion to repeal the code. Lechner reports that the motion to table may have been facilitated by the Emory administration's promise, conveyed by the General Counsel, Kent Alexander, to revisit both the content of the policy and related procedures in collaboration with the University Senate. He also reports that according to Alexander, the policy was not in fact used to sanction Carol Worthman and the Emory anthropology department last semester (elsewhere, Alexander has gone so far as to argue that Worthman and her colleagues were not really sanctioned when they were sentenced to diversity training, because the training was technically "voluntary"). That's a bit hard to believe, considering that the charges against Worthman were made under Emory's Discriminatory Harassment Policy, and that this policy contains the speech code that some Emory faculty are moving to repeal. Lechner notes that after the motion to table was approved, further discussion centered on how the Emory faculty can address the "racial issues" on campus.

Truly a disappointing ending to a most promising prospect, not least because the motion to table the vote appears to have been accompanied by a discussion that sought to deny the facts of the Worthman case and to shift the terms of debate from the question of free speech to the problem of racism. Here's hoping that the next meeting will see both the honest, unfettered, focussed exchange that appears to have been missing at this one, and the vote. There is only so long it can be put off.

UPDATE: The Emory Wheel has coverage of the meeting. Thanks to Maurice Black for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 6:20 PM | Permalink

January 28, 2004 [feather]
Emory Wheel recants

Today, the Emory faculty was slated to vote on whether or not to repeal the school's speech code. I don't have any news yet on how that vote went. But I can report that the Emory Wheel has marked the day of the vote by publishing a staff editorial disavowing the paper's courageous reporting of last fall's campus speech debacle:

In our news and editorial coverage regarding Dobbs Professor of Anthropology Professor Carol Worthmanís infamous racial slip last semester, we made a conscious decision to reprint the n-word in its entirety. Since Nov. 7 of last year, we have asked you to read that word no fewer than 25 times in almost as many separate articles.

As an editorial board, we have now come to regret this decision.

It was wrong of us to dismiss the damage that word can cause and the anger it can bring. We further regret that it took us three months of reporting on this issue to realize that its message directly applied to our own policies and to make the belated decision to censor it and similarly offensive terms.

When the Worthman story broke, our editors considered censoring the word with dashes but decided against it, on the principles of objective reporting. But we overlooked that one of the responsibilities of the paper is to minimize harm. Since there is no loss of factual information in the visual censoring of offensive remarks such as the n-word, we have no journalistic grounds for overriding those who have asked us not to spell it out.

We see no reason to subject those who cannot stand even the sight of the word to those who would prefer, for whatever reason, to have it spelled out.

And on this exceptionally self-lacerating editorial goes. It's as sensitive as can be. And that's the problem. Hard-nosed reporting can't cave in to demands for censorship--not even when that demand centers on a single word. Hard-nosed reporting also can't responsibly adopt a potentially compromising commitment to protect readers' feelings. The Wheel editorial bends over backwards to reconcile the journalistic imperative to tell the truth with a therapeutic fantasy of collective moral healing. It fails. Far from a serious exploration of journalistic ethics, the piece is a saccharine paean to petty accommodation, one that is more interested in rationalizing the emotional objections of readers to reported facts than it is in insisting that honest reporting can neither anticipate nor accommodate the psychic requirements of readers who would have reporters reshape the truth so as to make it more palatable.

What a sorry way for the Emory paper of record to commemorate the day the faculty was slated to determine whether the school should embrace the principle of free, unfettered inquiry.

Thanks as ever to Maurice Black for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 9:42 PM | Permalink

January 27, 2004 [feather]
Free speech at Emory?

Tomorrow, the Emory University faculty will vote on whether to revoke the school's speech code. This is a potentially historic event, one that should make the faculties, administrators, and student bodies at the hundreds of other American colleges and universities that prefer speech codes to free inquiry take notice.

There are two back stories worth noting.

The first and most immediate back story concerns events on Emory's campus this past fall. The short version: at a campus panel, anthropology professor Carol Worthman describes her fellow biological anthropologists as the "niggers in the woodpile" of anthropology proper; Worthman is overheard by assistant professor of anthropology Tracy Rone, who takes offense and files charges against Worthman under Emory's Discriminatory Harassment policy; Worthman apologizes but is sanctioned nonetheless; the entire anthropology department is sentenced to sensitivity training; debates about free speech and racism erupt all over campus; the fact of the speech code becomes a part of that debate--the members of the Emory community become newly aware that there is no free speech at Emory, and newly interested in revisiting the question of whether it is ethically or intellectually proper for a school such as Emory to restrict the free expression of ideas via a punitive and chilling policy. I wrote about the Emory case at length here, here, here, here, and here.

The other back story is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). If you follow FIRE's work at all, you know that a great deal of its energy has been devoted to rolling back speech codes on campuses across the country. FIRE has been fighting campus speech codes systematically since it opened its doors in 1999; it has framed the debate about campus speech codes, and it has presented rock solid arguments for why colleges and universities cannot faithfully or even legally fulfill their obligations to the free exchange of ideas when they have on their books punitive policies that restrict speech. FIRE's most programmatic assault on speech codes can be seen in the exemplary lawsuits FIRE has coordinated against schools whose codes are particularly chilling (Citrus College, Texas Tech, Shippensburg University). FIRE did not engineer the vote at Emory, and it certainly does not have any control over the outcome. But it is the work of FIRE that made that vote imaginable.

Here's to Emory's faculty making the right decision tomorrow, and here's to other faculties, administrators, and student bodies across the country following suit.

Thanks to Maurice Black for the link and for the discussion out of which this post grew.

Erin O'Connor, 9:48 PM | Permalink

January 25, 2004 [feather]
Sexual misconduct at Duke

In October 2002, a woman student was assaulted in a dormitory bathroom at Duke. Over the next several weeks, the Duke student newspaper published numerous personal stories and reflections about sexual assault on Duke's campus. This past fall, a group of Duke students republished those stories and reflections as Saturday Night: Untold Stories of Sexual Assault at Duke, a 29-page magazine they distributed across campus in an effort to shift people's perceptions about the sexual climate at their school. They succeeded. The 2200 copies of Saturday Night flew from campus kiosks, and the students who put the magazine together began to accept invitations to speak about rape in sociology and women's studies classes. Duke also rewrote its policy on sexual misconduct, reasoning that since the school only prosecutes one student per year, and since, according to the false statistics of the feminist establishment, one in four women is sexually assaulted during her lifetime while one in six is assaulted while at college, Duke should devise a policy that allows it to reel in more of the predators populating its campus.

Duke's new sexual misconduct policy is a piece of work well worth studying. It is overbroad, defining as a prosecutable offense everything from "inappropriate touching" (which is not defined, and which is thus whatever an accuser wishes it to be--a peck on the cheek, perhaps, or an arm around a shoulder) to rape (a move that troublingly equates rape and touching).

The policy is also absurdly conceived. Defining sexual misconduct as "any physical act of a sexual nature perpetrated against an individual without consent or when an individual is unable to freely give consent," the policy proceeds to offer the most contorted definition of consent imaginable:

The universityís definition of sexual misconduct mandates that each participant obtains and gives consent in each instance of sexual activity. Consent is an affirmative decision to engage in mutually acceptable sexual activity given by clear actions or words. It is an informed decision made freely and actively by all parties. Relying solely upon non-verbal communication can lead to miscommunication. It is important not to make assumptions; if confusion or ambiguity on the issue of consent arises anytime during the sexual interaction, it is essential that each participant stops and clarifies, verbally, willingness to continue. Students should understand that consent may not be inferred from silence, passivity, or lack of active resistance alone. Furthermore, a current or previous dating or sexual relationship is not sufficient to constitute consent, and consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to other forms of sexual activity. Being intoxicated does not diminish oneís responsibility to obtain consent.

Conduct will be considered ìwithout consentî if no clear consent, verbal or nonverbal, is given. It should be noted that in some situations an individualís ability to freely consent is taken away by another person or circumstance. Examples include, but are not limited to, when an individual is intoxicated, ìhigh,î scared, physically or psychologically pressured or forced, passed out, intimidated, coerced, mentally or physically impaired, beaten, threatened, isolated, or confined.

Picture a consenting encounter as defined by Duke's policy. Within this encounter, there can be no touch, no kiss, no caress, that is not at first explicitly requested and equally explictly okayed; eager reciprocation, or moaning but incoherent enthusiasm is not good enough to convey consent, which, I imagine, can only be "nonverbally" communicated by vigorously nodding yes or giving an affirmative two thumbs up at each point that consent is requested.

Even more nonsensically, a drunken partner is at once incapable of giving consent and required to obtain it: "Being intoxicated does not diminish oneís responsibility to obtain consent," but "alcohol or other drugs can lower inhibitions and create an atmosphere of confusion over whether consent is freely and effectively given. The perspective of a reasonable person will be the basis for determining whether one should have known about the impact of the use of alcohol or drugs on anotherís ability to give consent."

One suspects that Duke's fantasy sexual encounter involves the signing of multiple consent forms, one for each new activity as it is introduced. And one notes that it will be the rare couple indeed who adhere to the letter of this policy. Consensual sex just does not work the way the Duke bureaucrats want it to. The bottom line: this policy will have little or no impact on how sex proceeds at Duke, but it will vastly alter the capacity for consenting sex to be described after the fact as nonconsensual.

This is not to belittle the problem of sexual assault, but it is to belittle the shortsighted hubris of universities that imagine they can improve things by installing policies that do more to create assault than to curtail it. The point of Duke's policy, or so it seems, is to broaden the definition of sexual misconduct while at the same time narrowing the terms upon which a sexual act is permissible; in other words, to produce a much wider pool of potentially prosecutable sexual misconduct. How else, after all, is Duke to increase the number of sexual misconduct cases it pursues each year? How else is it going to produce a volume of predators that is commensurate with the false rape statistics that it publishes as true?

Policies like Duke's are as misguided as they may be well-meant. Though they sound responsible and forward-looking on the surface, they often create the very atmosphere of sexual threat and paranoia that they claim to resolve. They also ruin lives. Just ask Adam Lack and David Schaer.

Erin O'Connor, 4:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

January 22, 2004 [feather]
Support for Gerard

The closed hearings that will decide Penn State Altoona theater professor Nona Gerard's fate begin tomorrow and continue on Saturday. As the hour draws near, letters urging Penn State President Graham Spanier and PSA Dean William Cale to overturn the charges against Gerard and restore her to her job are pouring in. I reprint a selection of them below.

Dear Dean William Cale:

As regards Nona Gerard, I want to say that I have worked with her for the past five years in the pre college program at Carnegie Mellon University. She has always been a hard working, dedicated, professional teacher who is highly thought of in the Pittsburgh Theatrical community, as well as being a supportive colleague. Her teaching skills and passion for her students are second to none. To even consider losing a person with her qualifications seems fatuous at best and sheer madness at worst. I strongly want to add my voice to all those who have spoken out on Nona's behalf and on behalf of the right of free speech. It's a frightening thought that someone may be dismissed from a position they've held for 16 years for merely expressing their opinion. The iron curtain has fallen; let's not re-hang it in the Halls of Academe.

Ronald H. Siebert. M. F. A.
A.E.A., S.A.G., A.F.T.R.A


January 21, 2004

Mr. Graham B. Spanier, President
Penn State University

Mr. William Cale, Dean and Chief Executive Officer
Penn State Altoona


I am writing in support of the wonderful theatre artist Nona Gerard, who currently is in danger of losing her faculty position at Penn State University, Altoona.

As current President of the Unseam'd Shakespeare Company and as a strong supporter of the arts who has had the pleasure of working in the past with Ms. Gerard, I want to express my deep respect for Ms. Gerard's professional abilities. She is a spectacularly gifted actress and director.

Beyond my personal knowledge of her talents, however, I also write in defense of the actions of Ms. Gerard that apparently have embroiled her in the current controversy at the University. My understanding is that she opposed the creation of a new major on campus based on her concerns about the quality of the programming.

I have a son ... currently enrolled at Ithaca College as a very dedicated theatre arts design major. As Andrew and I examined the programs of various colleges and made the choice about where he should attend college, the quality of the courses and professionals in his desired major was our primary focus. In my view, Ms. Gerard's actions were designed to protect her students.

Our educational institutions are one of the foundations upon which we build our ethics. They should foster freedom of expression and the ability of a professor to act in the best interests of the students. The current crises arising from corporate executives who acted in their own best interests and in order to preserve their corporation at all costs should have taught Penn State to commend rather than condemn Ms. Gerard's expressions of her personal viewpoint in that matter.

My understanding is that Ms. Gerard also is under fire for presenting a play, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." I find it incredible that a university, which should be a bastion of free speech and intellectual diversity, would take umbrage with the exhibition of a play by one of America's premier playwrights, David Mamet.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my expressions of support.

Wendy S. Taylor, Esquire


President Spanier,

I'm sure that by now you have received numerous emails and letters in support of Nona Gerard. I myself wrote a letter to Dean Cale months ago when this whole business started, and I testified before the committee on January 5. That being said, I couldn't let this opportunity pass by without appealing directly to you--the man who will make the ultimate determination on whether Nona retains her tenure or not. I know that you will make a fair decision, based upon the recommendation of the committee, and on your own reading of the evidence. What I hope you will consider above all else is what this means to the students. I think that sometimes it is easy for teachers and administrators to get caught up in politics and personal agendas and forget the reason why we all do what we do--for the students. I was fortunate to have spoken with several of Nona's students over the past several months and the one thing they all agree on is what an outstanding teacher Nona is. Indeed, her numerous awards and recognitions support this opinion. Not one of them thought that Nona had anything in mind in speaking out against programs and personnel except what was best for them, the students. She is a generous, selfless person, and while no one will disagree that she is quite outspoken, her voice comes directly from her heart and speaks for those without voices. Please keep this in mind when you make your decision.

Thank you for your time.
Doug Mertz


Dear President Spanier,

I have been a professional theatre director and former university professor of Theatre in the United States and Europe for 30 years. I have known the work of Professor Gerard for my 6 years in Pittsburgh, and have known her personally for two of those years. It has rarely been my good fortune to work with a colleague with such outstanding professionalism and commitment to quality and education.

This past fall, I was invited to Penn State Altoona to guest direct a student production. That is not ordinarily a job I would have accepted. However, based on my knowledge of Professor Gerard, I knew her students would be trained with care, enthusiastic and bring a strong work ethic to the table. Indeed, everything I suspected was true. It was a wonderful experience for us all.

The first rehearsal, I sat in a circle with 13 new faces I'd never met. Wanting to get a little insight into what drew them to theatre, I asked that question. Every single one of those students said, "Nona". As an educator, I am sure you are aware of how rare the odds are for that to occur. When I asked why, they mentioned her discipline, her willingness to work so many hours, the level of professionalism she expected of them and displayed in herself, her sense of fun and knowledgeİand the larger, more diverse world she had shown them. That's a world that must be in theatre professional's minds, or you cannot possibly do theatre, the art of practicing living.İIndeed, I always thought that was the mission of Higher Education.

I join with the professional and academic theatre community in Pittsburgh and many other citiesİof whichİknowledge of Professor Gerard's tenure threat has spread, in expressing my surprise and outrage that this would happen in a major university of quality, such as Penn State University. I would be honored to have Professor Nona Gerard on any artistic team I put together, in any place in the world. She would always step up to bat and hold her own with any single person in this business, be it professional theatre or academic theatre.

I am sure that you will review this case with fairness and wisdom. The university system would face a tremendous loss if Professor Gerard's tenure is revoked. Indeed, higher education all over the United States would take a blow if a dedicated and commited teacher such as Professor Gerard was forcibly removed from her position.

With respect,

Dr. Marci Woodruff
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Dear President Spanier,

As a 1951 Penn State alumnus and frequent contributor to university theater arts departments, including Penn State Altoona and Penn State McKeesport, I would like to recommend the continued tenure of Prof. Gerard.

I have known her and her work for many years and have always admired her dedication to perfection. She is deserving ofİour strong support.


Bill Molloy


Dear Dr. Spanier,

I am a Full Professor of theatre at Pitt and a former teacher of Nona Gerard. I have directed her. I have taught her playwriting and script analysis. I would like to say that I think you have a treasure in her, someone you should work to keep rather than to get rid of. She is strong, strong-minded, and she has high standards (not to mention extremely talented). Were I in your position, I would welcome someone who insists on standards as she does. She may speak bluntly and some people may not like blunt speech, but that is not a reason to revoke her tenure. In fact, tenure allows free speech, blunt or not.

Kathleen George

Good luck, Nona.

I'll post updates as they become available.

Erin O'Connor, 9:06 PM | Permalink

January 21, 2004 [feather]
Update on Nona Gerard

Penn State is holding closed hearings this week to determine the fate of Nona Gerard, a tenured professor of theater who is accused by administrators at the Altoona campus of creating a hostile environment for her colleagues and of failing to do her job. The university's case is summarized thus in the Penn State Collegian:

On Aug. 11, Gerard received an 11-page letter from William Cale, dean and chief executive of Penn State Altoona, charging her with "failure to perform" and "grave misconduct," Gerard said.

Cale's letter explained that "Gerard's destructive behavior has included public attempts to discredit the validity of the IA degree, repeated attempts to sabotage the College's efforts to establish a dance curriculum ... "

He also wrote that Gerard, " ... makes accusatory and derogatory remarks to and about the IA faculty... "

Cale said Penn State policy HR23 allows for Gerard's termination if "adequate cause" is found. HR23 states that a "lack of competence or failure to perform in relation to the functions required by the appointment, excessive absenteeism, moral turpitude, or grave misconduct."

I wrote about Gerard's case here and here, working from what the media had published about her case. I noted how disturbing it is to see a university trying to fire a tenured professor for being a local whistleblower and for insisting on maintaining both the integrity of her work and the quality of education her school offers to students. I suggested that the university's charges against Gerard smelled strongly of double standards and double dealing; I argued that even if Gerard did offend her colleagues by criticizing them publicly, and even if she did recuse herself from participating in a degree program she felt her school could not responsibly sustain, she was within her rights and her responsibilities as a tenured faculty member whose job description entails speaking out honestly when honest speech is required. I took some heat for that; some readers thought I was wasting my time and my credibility defending someone with a professional death wish. That isn't how Gerard's situation strikes me, though, and I have stood by my initial defense of her actions.

As it happens, it turns out there were some distortions and misreportings in the newspapers, and that Gerard's case is even stronger than I had initially made it out to be. The papers made it look like Gerard publicly badmouthed her colleagues--but in fact she did not. In fact, it was an administrator who publicly aired Gerard's private email correspondence--and who is thus arguably the one responsible for creating the so-called hostile environment at PSA. The papers also make it look like Gerard refused to do essential parts of her job, like directing plays--but in fact she did not. She did say she would not direct productions any more after the Dean made the above-mentioned administrator into Gerard's personal supervisor--but Gerard did in fact continue to direct.

Nona Gerard has graciously granted me permission to publish a letter clarifying some of the media misrepresentations of her case. Read what she has to say, and then ask yourself again whether there is a witch hunt going on at Penn State. "The press doesn't have all the facts, so they didn't get it right in some instances," she writes.

-I sent a private email to my coordinator telling him that the choreographer in our dance program was "talentless and cold as a fish" in regard to the fact that I had used her to choreograph on two musicals for me, and just couldn't stand her work. I was explaining to him why I didn't want to be forced to work with her. ... I did not publish the email on a list serve or to anyone else. The coordinator then made it public. Our Dean was forcing me to work with this dance colleague and I was trying to explain why it wouldn't work.

-I did not respond to the Dean that I would no longer direct on campus because of him telling me to stop my disrespectful and unprofessional behavior toward my colleagues. My Dean put the same coordinator mentioned above "in programmatic control of my classes and my productions". That is when I said I would not direct. I told the Dean that if he put an English professor who had no theater background in control of my classes and my artistic productions, I wouldn't do productions anymore. I found the Dean's charge to be disgusting and non-academic. How dare he put another professor who wasn't even in the discipline in control of my classes. I have a BA, an MFA and 17 years of professional Actor's Equity Association experience. I've won awards and acclaim nationally for my work. It is completely academically unsound for the Dean to give that kind of control to a coordinator outside of my discipline.

-Finally, it is most important to know that even though I said I wouldn't direct, I did. I apologized for saying I wouldn't and I have always directed and fulfilled my job duties over and above...always carrying an overload of credits and maintaining annual reviews of above average and excellent in all areas.

One hopes that the hearings feature a full airing of the facts. One hopes that the administrator who published a private email that now forms part of the charges against Gerard has to answer for her actions. One hopes the Dean who appointed this same individual to supervise Gerard also has to answer for his actions. And one hopes that Penn State President Graham Spanier will laugh the thin-skinned and manipulative Altoona admins out of University Park.

Thanks to Maurice Black for the PSC link, and to Nona Gerard for clarifying crucial facts in her case.

Erin O'Connor, 9:14 PM | Permalink

January 20, 2004 [feather]
Pictures from an Institution, VII; by anon.

Get your first six chapters here. Herewith, the seventh installment, "Triumph."


Friday, December 28: Lacey Carsey stomps the streets of the French Quarter, her curls frizzing and bobbing in the wet New Orleans air. Her boots clop like militant hooves. Her jeans squeak as her thighs swipe back and forth. Beneath soft boxy flannel her breasts keep time with her stride. A bag from Alternatives, the Quarter's gay and lesbian bookstore, swings in her left hand. A bandage wraps her right. A crazy weather of scowls and pouts and frowns and grins crosses her scrubbed unplucked face, interspersed with sporadic commentary spontaneously addressed to the air. Lacey Carsey has just come from her interview, and has much to replay and relive.

Lacey Carsey has always talked to herself, and she has always been most given to doing it on the street. Something about walking triggers talking in Lacey Carsey. The even rhythms of locomotion deepen her breathing and lull her mind; they are the closest she ever comes to meditation, to calming her mental storm into a slow, almost still roil. Out of these smoldering depths comes conversation--endless, animated, aimless, directed at no one. When Lacey Carsey walks she speaks to empty open space. Space, Lacey has discovered, is a very good listener.

Lacey Carsey has not felt so empowered since she first laid eyes on Chelsea Lain. She has never felt so centered in her life. She tells the air around her all about it as she clomps down Dumaine Street, past the Biscuit Palace and the Voodoo Museum, describing how she swept into that suite full of bourgeois complacency wearing combat boots, black jeans, and a black tank top; how she took possession of a straight-backed chair, crossed her legs, and proceeded to dominate the room. How it had been twenty minutes before anyone else could get a word in edgewise; how it had been forty more before they stopped asking questions about her research, her activism, her queer positive teaching strategies.

No one asked about the bandage on her hand, she reassures the air, but she could see them staring at it, and could tell they thought it was a wound acquired in the line of protest. She could see, when she spoke of her activities organizing graduate student labor and chairing the new campus chapter of the Coalition to Rescue an Environmentally Endangered Planet, that the bandage consecrated their respect for her.

Lacey Carsey bristles with laughter. Her teeth flash in the light and seem, to the vagrant shambling out of her determined way, to throw sparks.

It was true, she confessed confidentially, that she had had a slight mishap that morning, with the makeup and the clothes. She had let her love for Chelsea Lain get the better of her, and had allowed herself to be led by a girl's advice into a compromising complicity with the heterosexist male gaze that would be evaluating her candidacy. It had been wrong to attempt the standard feminine attire of blazer, skirt, hose and heels; wronger still to let her Chelsea Lain's misguided ideas about professional attire interfere with her sense of herself as an intellectual force to be reckoned with. But she had recollected herself in time, and when she put her hand through the bathroom mirror she had recovered her radical feminist core. The cuts were good. They were the sharpest of sharp reminders. Her days of letting Chelsea Lain lead her around by the nose were over. Chelsea Lain had a lot to learn about feminism, and Lacey Carsey would be the one to teach her.

She had been lax and self-indulgent, she owned, waiting to cross, in allowing her feelings for her protege to get in the way of the work she had to do. Never again, Lacey Carsey vowed. From now on, she would answer solely to her inner compass. She would do righteous work and never forget her purpose. And she would lead Chelsea out of her confused interpellated state and into the politicized light of the cause. "Because for Chelsea," she explained as the light turned green, "it's all still an abstraction, you know what I mean? She is still, like, eccentric to herself. She hasn't moved from theory to practice. But she will. I will see to that. But first," she continued, glancing at her watch, "I have to get back. In half an hour there's a talk on mahogany and slavery in Jane Eyre that I have GOT to hear."

At the foot of Dumaine, Lacey Carsey spies a Cafe du Monde. She stops, frowns, struggles to remember. She feels as though there is something she has forgotten to do. "Coffee!" she exclaims. She has not had breakfast, and is suddenly aware of a painfully empty stomach. There is just time to pop in and grab a cup to go.

to be continued

Erin O'Connor, 4:42 PM | Permalink

January 18, 2004 [feather]
Pictures from an Institution, VI; by anon.

For ease of reference, I record Pictures from an Institution's growing table of contents:

Chapter I: "'Twas the week before MLA"
Chapter II: "The Gaze"
Chapter III: "The Interview Suite"
Chapters IV & V: "Dancing Attendance"

Pictures from an Institution continues tonight, with episode VI, "Enlightenment."


Friday, December 28: Caleb Smith-Smythe's bottom has gone numb. He has been sitting in a gray metal folding chair in the Gallier room of the Sheraton New Orleans since 8:20 that morning, when he arrived ten minutes early for the Disney studies panel entitled "Stalking the Mouse." It is now nearly 4:30 in the afternoon and the present panel on "The Voice in Cinema: Theorizing Speech, Silence, and Sound on Screen" is nearing its close. In the course of the day, he has sat through panels on Asian-American writers and pop culture, cognitive theories of emotion, and David Mamet. He is not particularly hungry, but he is horrified. The day has been a rude awakening for Caleb Smith-Smythe. Rooted to his chair in the Gallier Room, he has thought unthinkable thoughts and experienced unbelievable realizations. He has, in the course of eight grinding hours of relentlessly self-important talks, discovered his inner cynic.

Cynicism is a new sensation for Caleb Smith-Smythe. It has never been a part of his emotional idiom, which has all his life tended toward an idealism so earnest, so incorruptible, and so perfectly naive that his own mother used to worry that her son would grow up to be completely incapable of navigating life. She was frightened by the bright glare of his inexorably sunny outlook, which met the constant bullying of his schoolmates and the endless grueling want of their tarpaper lives with wide eager eyes, well-meant platitudes, and an abiding conviction that all would come right if he just kept studying. The eyes, magnified by thick lenses, were heartbreakingly blue; the platitudes, easy to ignore when uttered by adults, were spooky and unsettling when they came from her innocent child; and the belief that getting good grades was somehow the key to his own and his family's future wellbeing seemed, to Caleb's jaded parent, to be the most deadly myth a child of hers could embrace.

As far as Caleb Smith-Smythe's mother was concerned, her family's chronic poverty came from the blind obedience of its men, whose respect for authority seemed only to grow the more other, more powerful men used them. She had watched fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins defend their right to be kept down, unwilling either to challenge the the coal magnates who exploited them or to prepare their sons for better lives. She would have liked to see her son break a rule or two. But Caleb Smith-Smythe was hellbent on acceptance, though of a substantially different kind, and while his relatives quietly reported for work each day at the mine that was slowly killing them, he quietly reported to school each day, where he became a master at pleasing his teachers and memorizing information. There was no doubt her son was gifted, his mother knew. He would win scholarships, and go to college, and find a job where he could wear starched white shirts and keep his hands clean. But she knew as only a mother could know that her son's fate would not finally differ much from that of the other men in his family for the simple reason that, like them, Caleb Smith-Smythe was a consummate follower, a sweet, essentially simple man whose mission in life was to belong.

But Caleb Smith-Smythe's mother never anticipated the catalytic effect Mickey Mouse would have on her son under conditions of extreme professional duress. The combination of sitting on a hard, mean chair for hours on end; of listening to a parade of pale, presumptuous people reading out their considered opinions on Walt Disney, Asian-American science fiction, Mamet's pedagogical satire, emotive reading, and gay porn; of trying to concentrate on no breakfast and little sleep; while knowing, as one knows the shattering light of the sun, indirectly and askance, that he has just lost his job--these things acted on Caleb Smith-Smythe's tender psyche as no amount of maternal prodding ever had.

Caleb Smith-Smythe had never sat still long enough to contemplate the nature of the culture he was so intent on joining. He had always been in the thick of things, doing his best to contribute and to please; he had spent his entire life in school, straining dutifully after a golden apple that was just out of his reach. Now, for the first time in his life he finds himself watching his world from a distance, allowing it to pass before him. What he sees appalls him.

He sees performance, display, and pretense; he sees pomp and circumstance; he sees people of middling intelligence passing themselves off as intellectuals; he sees jargon covering for incoherence and cliched claptrap casting itself as radical politics; he sees cheap theater pretending to be true. All this he sees in the vacuum of what is painfully nowhere to be found: meaningful dialogue, passionate engagement with ideas, a desire to listen and learn, a common belief in the life of the mind.

As the panels go forward in front of him, each unlike the last and yet all somehow the same, two distinct images gradually arise in his mind. In one he sees the MLA as a continuous cartoon, a neverending reel of silliness unfurling before for an audience determined to take it seriously. In the other he sees himself as the anonymous besuited subject of a Magritte painting, his face permanently obscured by a green ungraspable apple floating mysteriously in front of him. Somewhere in the middle of the Mamet panel his mind melds these images and he begins to feel like a painting watching a movie, like an inanimate portrait of a generic man propped up in front of a flat and predictable two-dimensional show.

As the day advances, Caleb Smith-Smythe tries to remember why he came to the MLA. He has no paper to give, no job to interview for; indeed, he has no job. He thinks of his mother, whiling away the holidays alone in the mountains of West Virginia. He thinks of his cat, sleeping off the week in his dark little apartment, no doubt shedding excessively with the stress of extended solitude. Neither ever reproaches him for abandoning them; each suffers visibly when he does; both always welcome him home. He realizes he is at the MLA not because he wants to be there, or because he must be there, but because it has not occurred to him not to be there.

He thinks about the effort, all the eager, tireless exertion he has given to his profession over the last fifteen years. He thinks about how he left his family for it, had no life but it. He thinks about sincerity and disbelief, about students who can't meet his eye and faculty whose faces freeze into bland cold masks when they see him in the halls. He thinks about his conversation with Chairman Stan, about his tenure vote, about how he will never know who voted him down, or why. He thinks about how he hasn't told anyone about the vote, and about how everyone knows about it anyway. He thinks that there is no one to tell.

He thinks about the new tie he is wearing. It chokes. And with horror he feels his face begin to fall. He fights to keep his chin from trembling and frowns to keep his eyes from filling. He concentrates very hard on the back of the head of the man in front of him. It's a big head, with scanty white hair fringing it and pink skin on top. It has large ears starting out from its sides, like handles, and a liver spot on the crown shaped like an apple.

to be continued

Erin O'Connor, 9:29 PM | Permalink

Tales of Attrition, contd.

I got a lot of responses to my post on grad school attrition. Those that were marked as okay to publish are pasted in as comments to this post.

Thanks to all who wrote in. And thanks, too, as ever, to those who read.

Erin O'Connor, 8:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

January 17, 2004 [feather]
Doing the math on attrition

Critical Mass typically concentrates on the problems plaguing the academic humanities and some of the social sciences--that's mostly a matter of making sure I write about what I know, and it's partly a matter of assuming that there's more there there in the hard sciences. I still think that's true. But in response to my call for readers to send in their thoughts about graduate school attrition, I've gotten quite a bit of mail from people in the sciences and what they have to say dovetails quite neatly with many of the ongoing themes of this website.

I've written a lot about how humanities education today is departing from the idea that there is a more or less stable canon of literary works that should form the basis of study in the field, and how it is replacing that idea with an emphasis on theory and on inclusion. Graduate education today is shaped increasingly around reading secondary and even tertiary works--though most students arrive at grad school without a thorough grounding in, say, English and American literature, their coursework does not center on ensuring that they get this grounding. Instead, it is frequently centered on introducing them, via a series of disconnected, overfocussed seminars on sundry rarified topics of special interest to the professor, to the current theories--of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationhood, power, oppression, desire, performance, and, of course, reading. The training in theory--itself scattershot and unanchored in the history of ideas--becomes a substitute for the thorough grounding in literature that the students, and a growing number of younger professors, never had. It ensures that they will not only never get this training, but also that they are equipped with a strong "theoretical" rationale for why their lack of grounding does not matter ("grounding" is never possible, and what is "grounding" anyway? How can we speak of a literary tradition in which to become grounded without becoming ourselves complicit in the oppressive and exclusionary power structures upon which that tradition is based? And so on). It's enough to make you throw up your hands in despair, watching graduate education in the humanities short-circuit itself.

But it's not just this way in the humanities. It's also, apparently, this way in math. Here's what a woman who is completing her Master's in algebraic geometry says about why she won't be going on to get a Ph.D.:

My story: I'm a third-year masters student in algebraic geometry. The math masters program here is a two-year program, and it's not unusual for students to take three years to finish their programs. Iİexpect I will be finished my masters degree by the middle of the summer. Two and a half years ago, I fully expected to completeİmy Ph.D. here. Now, I am struggling to keep myself motivated enough to complete my masters essay, and it is only in recent weeks that I became confident that I would get even that far. Last semester, I abandoned the research topic on which I'd made almost no progress during the year and a half I'd worked on it, and am now working on a topic that is more interesting, under an advisor who is more helpful.

For a year and a half, I worked - sort of - on a research topic that my advisor chose for me. This is not unusual for math students; in fact, choosing a topic for their students is one of the primary roles of thesis supervisors in math, as students are generally unable to tell the difference between a tractable (and thesis-worthy) problem that they doİnot yet understand, and a very difficult problem that they do not understand. Indeed, most math students do not understand course descriptions for their classes until they've finished taking the course, whereas I, someone with no background in, say, history, can easily understand the description ofİan upper-year history course - so it's not surprising that math grad students are so dependent upon their advisors. Anyway, my research problem (to learn some theory that would allow me to extend some theory he'd developed in a paper of his) was one that I found pretty much impossible at first, but I was told that this is common for math grad students. So I stuck with it.

I held nothing back in asking my supervisor for help and direction. Half my questions were dismissed - I was assured that it was okay that I didn't understand why Theorem A or Proposition X was true; it mattered only that I knew how to apply them. I soon learned that this too is typical in math - the rush is to produce "original work" (highly overrated; in all likelihood adding together the numbers 35143514361361564452561 and 2514905146146095714870 is something no one's done before, but who cares?), which doesn't leave much time to learn the material. If I can just apply other people's results, then I will be able to produce new results that can be written up into a thesis - never mind that I would not have the mathematical certainty that I crave when I work on math problems. Sure, my thesis would be one that I won't understand very well,İbut at least I'd have a thesis, and isn't that the point? (Besides, I soon realized - my *supervisor* would understand my thesis, which would contain extensions of *his*İtheories.)

After talking to some other students and professors in my field, I learned that virtually everywhere in math, the rush to be original andİto publish original results before anyone else publishes them (as well as the rush to finish a thesis) trumps the motivation to understand - or teach - mathematics deeply. Consequently, the body of newly-published mathematical papers is a mess: every paper contains references to dozens theorems in other papers, and as often or not, following the trail of citations fails to yield an actual proof of the theorem or theoremsİin question. Proofs in math papers are often mere notational sleight-of-hand, failing to prove anything at all. One professor at my school estimates that around 20% of math papers published today are "fatally flawed" - that is, their key results rest upon theorems that are incompletely proven, inadequately proven, or just plain false. Refereeing math papers is a thankless task; consequently, it is seldom done.İStories abound of newly-minted Ph.D.'s who land tenure track positions for their groundbreaking theses - which, years later, are shown to be garbage. One subfield of algebraic geometry, according to my former supervisor, is without any textbook; proofs of the most frequently cited theorems in this field appear absolutely nowhere in print. Apparently they're true, but the retired emeritus professor who came up with them never bothered to write up the proofs. Part of what attracted me - and many other grad students - to math, was the assurance that at least in this field, we wouldn't have to defer to authority in assessing what was true. We had rules, and they would guide us. I have heard the phrase "trust me, it's true" so often that I feel like apologizing to my field.

Mathematics as a subject is cumulative, more cumulative than any other academic subject, and I am convinced that this makes it distinctly unsuited to the publish-or-perish ethic that dominates academia. A typical undergraduate math curriculum includes courses such as group theory, real analysis, linear algebra, and abstract algebra. Fifty years ago, a typical math grad student would write a thesis in advanced group theory, or advanced real analysis, or advanced linear algebra, or advanced abstract algebra, building on the background they acquired as an undergraduate. Today, those fields have been more or less exploited, and so graduate students much reach higher. So a typical undergraduate curriculum still includes group theory, real analysis, and so on; but when an undergraduate student enters grad school, they don't have *time* to learn advanced group theory, advanced real analysis, orİwhat have you. They must take the results in those fields as *given* - no time to actually *study* them!İ- and build on them. Though I do not claim to know more math than my professors or even my peers in math graduate school, I find that I have a broader knowledge of the subject than most of them. I am consistenly saddened by how few of my peers are acquainted with the enduring, elementaryİresults of ancient mathematicians - or even hundred-year-dead mathematiciansİ- simply because *those* results are no longer hip, and hence are not as profitable to someone looking to produce a thesis.

So as soon as I get my M.Sc., I will be leaving. I have seen what it takes to be successful in my field - work that is originalİbut uninteresting is valued above lasting results. I fell in love with the math of Martin Gardner, Ian Stewart, and William Dunham, and Underwood Dudleyİ- expository math writers with a respect for their predecessors, mathematicians who unify the whole of the field, dazzling math enthusiasts of all levels. They would not last ten minutes in today's grad schools, with their emphasis on boring, ill-understoodİnew math at the expense of the enduring-but-no-longer-profitable old math. The mathematics being published today will not last longer than it takes another stressed-out professor or grad student to quote it; it will be forgotten before the next generation of students enters university. I would rather learn deep mathematics than crank out shallow mathematics built upon a shaky foundation that I am not supposed to bother myself w ith building.

So that's my story - I've written more than I originally wanted to, and almost certainly more than you wanted to read. But it's why I won't be around here next year. I aspire to write expository math one day - but I'll have to look outside the university system for the training and the resources to do so. (I've asked a number of professors for advice, and their recommendations have been depressing: "Finish your Ph.D., in a field that doesn't interest you. Get a postdoctoral position, then a professorship. When you're 40, you might have tenure, and if you're not yet burned out and jaded - you'll have time to do the math you *really* want to do.")

Theories of theories of theories, without substantive grounding in fact or the history of ideas behind the theories. Bad advising. Careerism taking priority over understanding. The semblance of originality mattering more than substantial, grounded thought. Tradition getting sneered at. Students who don't comprehend and professors who tell them it's okay to parrot uncomprehendingly. Professors who also don't comprehend. What's happening in this woman's math department is structurally analogous to what happens in English departments. Perhaps it's not just the shape of graduate education that is the problem, but the careerification and corporatization of inquiry that has been the main project of American universities in recent decades.

UPDATE: I got some excellent mail from mathematicians in response to this post. It's long, so I've put them up as comments.

Erin O'Connor, 9:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

January 16, 2004 [feather]
Tales of attrition

My post on graduate school attrition brought lots of responses from the attrited. I'll post a number of them over the next day or so; you can also read online responses at Caveat Lector, Michael Williams, Tightly Wound, Industrial Blog, and Mt. Hollywood.

Here's a letter from someone who is glad to have left a top Ph.D. program in history:

Personally, I think better of the students who drop out of Humanities Ph.D. departments than the ones who stay in. When I started my Ph.D. program, I thought it would be difficult to find a job, but my ability would see me through. After a couple of years of watching professors across my small field retire from various universities, and seeing theirİpositions remain unfilled despite excellent recent graduates, I realized that my ability to get a job had very little to do with the quality of my research and everything to do with the relative popularity of my field. As the jobs flowed to faddish areas chock full of po-mo blathering, I decided to grab the condolence M.A. and get out. It worked out nicely - foreign language fluency, a strong statistics background, and communications skills honed by writing and teaching made me very employable.

Many of the comments over at the Invisible Adjunct assume that getting the Ph.D. is somehow difficult, and the weeded-out students lacked ability. This is mostly nonsense; as long as you're willing to work like a packhorse and follow the appropriate trends, you can get your Ph.D. Academic departments are full of people who barely qualify as bright, but know how to put in the long hours and grind out papers on the right topics; the closer you get to and the more you interact with actual Ph.D.s, the more the degree loses its shine. No, most of the students I know who quit could get their Ph.D.s without much difficulty, given sufficient motivation, but left because they had nothing to motivate them - they realized academia was a dead-end, filled with long hours, low pay, absurd politics, and only a miniscule chance of success. My advice to students considering grad school: don't, but if you insist, you should choose a program that offers M.A. degrees on the way, and quit after your M.A. if you're at all dissatisfied or pessimistic about their future. There's no shame in leaving a sucker's game.

It's absolutely true that what gets you through, ultimately, is not brains but a certain dogged, often undignified grit. If you meet your deadlines, keep your interpersonal nose clean, and are persistent, you'll bag that Ph.D. (at least in the humanities, where the standards are subjective and the rubber stamps are always at the ready). That won't change as long as the discussion surrounding attrition assumes that it is every department's job to make sure everyone who enrolls in its Ph.D. program graduates. This is not to say that 50-60% attrition rates are reasonable, but it is to say that a "no doctoral candidate left behind" policy is not the solution. I got the sense, reading yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education online colloquy on grad school attrition, that the emerging administrative discussion might be leaning that way.

More soon. Meanwhile, check out Invisible Adjunct's new thread on graduate school reform, real and imagined, effective and not.

UPDATE: Don't miss John Bruce's analysis of how the graduate education system may be understood as a Ponzi scheme. His outline of how a class action lawsuit for systemic institutional fraud would work is fascinating.

Erin O'Connor, 8:30 AM | Permalink

January 15, 2004 [feather]
Life Imitates Pictures from an Institution

From a reader:

I love the convention pieces. They're brilliant. I knew my academic career was over at the AHA in 1998. As always, I dressed in the traditional male garb -- beige pants, blue oxford, and paisley tie. I knocked on the suite door at the appointed hour, andİI was greeted by a well-known professor who said in hushed tones, "We're running a bit late, could you come back in five minutes?" "No problem," I replied. And resumed my hallway pacing. Returning five minutes later, I was greeted by the smiling department Chair -- as I watched my "rival" amble toward the elevator (dressed exactly like me!).

I was then invited to sit down as my three interlocutors fumbled unsuccessfullly for my C.V. Before they could speak, I offered the following observation (out loud, though diplomatically). "I think its really unprofessional to stage one interview after another. It creates an uncomfortable situation both for the candidate whom you are in the midst of interviewing and the candidate whose appointment precedes his/her interview." Needless to say, the comment elicited icy stares.

To break the ice, one of the junior colleagues on the search committee (who according to my pre-meeting research, had yet to finish her dissertation), asked in a friendly voice, "So, tell us about your dissertation." To which I replied, "Actually, I finished my degree four years ago and have been teaching at theİUniversity of X. But if you're interested, here's a copy of my book, it came out last year." This immediately provoked a kindly rejoinder from the Department Chair: "Of course, of course. In fact, I've just finished your book and really enjoyed it." Could you tell us about your next project.

This insipid banter continued for the next 45 minutes, until we were distracted by a light tapping on the door. The Department Chair kindly excused himself, approached the door and greeted the next candidate in hushed tones: "Sorry, we're running a bit late. Could you come back in five minutes." He then returned to his seat. Apologized. And asked if I had any additional questions. "Not a question," I said, "Just a suggestion. Next year, I really think you should leave a little time between interviews." But as I was uttering my comments, I noticed that all three of my interviewers were busy fumbling through a stack of papers, looking for the C.V of the next candidate. İI thus quietly exited, peeked at my rival, who was dressed just as I was, wished him luck and no my academic career was no more.

Oscar Wilde said that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Something similar may be said about academe's relationship to satire: academe satirizes itself far better than satire satirizes academe. That's to my mind what is interesting about campus fiction in general, and more recent campus fiction in particular: when you can't make this stuff up, how do you write fiction about it? Attempts at realism come off as thin shots at satire; attempts at satire seem like off-color realism. There's no there there anymore, to borrow the stylings of another legendary cynic.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Pictures from an Institution, which uncannily imitates in anticipation the experience of the individual above.

UPDATE: Timothy Burke responds. And John Bruce responds to him.

My own feeling? The academic job market is for many an exercise in the casual cruelty borne of administrative incompetence. Most jobseekers grin and bear it because, frankly, they want a job more than they want dignity in the moment of the interview. Of course it was professionally suicidal for this candidate to speak as he did. But he knew that in the moment (just like he knew he had no shot at the job in question, based on the interviewers' own rudeness and lack of preparedness). And in speaking his mind, I venture to say that he grabbed back some very small part of the dignity that the interviewing process, which he himself acknowledges had reduced him to a nondescript sartorial lemming, had threatened to take away. At the very least, he's probably not looking back on that moment, rehearsing in frustrated retrospect all the things he wishes today that he had said when it became clear that at least some of those who held his fate in their hands did not even know who he was. He spoke his mind. And in doing so, I suspect he spoke for a very great many people who have--quietly, politely--had their chances at jobs derailed by hiring committees' poor scheduling, poor preparation, and poor conduct.

Erin O'Connor, 6:29 PM | Permalink

January 14, 2004 [feather]
Pictures from an Institution, IV & V; by anon.

Tomorrow, I'll post some of the responses I received to this morning's comments on graduate school attrition. They are many, varied, and good; I'm hoping to receive still more. Meantime, I bring you installments four and five of Pictures from an Institution, the anonymous portrait of academic life whose MLA cycle I've been serially publishing.

So far, the finest comment on anon's production comes from the also anon Big Arm Woman at Tightly Wound, who sees it as "sorta Trollopian, but with more pr0n."


Friday, December 28th: William P. Wetmore enters the dusty red velvet gloom of the Fairmount Hotel and heads for the elevators. This is the third hotel he has been to in the past hour. He cannot find Chairman Stan's suite.

William P. Wetmore has the number of the suite written down on a piece of paper. He knows he is looking for suite 1848. The problem is that he has not written down the hotel where the suite is located. There are over fifteen hotels in the immediate area.

William P. Wetmore's wakeup call did not come that morning. He woke with a start twenty minutes before he was supposed to arrive at Chairman Stan's suite. He has not showered, or shaved, or successfully tamed his bedhair. He has not had any coffee, nor has he looked at the dossiers of the candidates to be interviewed. He had been planning to do that over coffee.

It does not occur to William P. Wetmore to use the phone to find out which hotel Chairman Stan is staying in, nor does it occur to him simply to skip the interviews. The problem of finding the suite is not, for William P. Wetmore, a practical problem to be solved by practical means. The problem of finding the suite is, rather, one of substantial spiritual significance. William P. Wetmore's fragile pride is at stake. He does not want anyone to know that he cannot find Chairman Stan's suite. He especially does not want Chairman Stan to know that he cannot find his suite. And so he races on flat feet from one hotel to the next, sweating in the humid bayou air. Change jingles in his pockets, yesterday's tie flaps over his shoulder, and catcalls follow him the length of Canal Street.

Stepping into a dim Fairmount elevator and pressing a button, William P. Wetmore closes his eyes and gulps air, hoping against hope that the third hotel will be the charm. It is some time before he realizes that the elevator has stopped moving. Sweat runs down William P. Wetmore's temples. Steam fogs his glasses. Standing in a bayou of his own making, the Starbucks Professor of Romantic Literature reflects that this is quite possibly going to be the longest morning of his life.


Friday, December 28. L'Aticia L'Amotte strides across the foyer of the Sheraton New Orleans, splendid in a suit of lavender suede. Her braids shimmer with light from the gold thread strung through them, and her hips sway with a broad, measured rhythm Erwin R. Sackville likes to think of as "sass." His eyes follow her approvingly as she moves, taking in the high yellow skin, the chiselled cheekbones, the strong curve of the thighs, the impossible shoes: tall lavender pumps perched on the clearest of clear plastic heels. To Erwin R. Sackville's cultivated eye she looks like a new-age ballerina on point, a funky postmodern dancer whose special grace is to seem to walk heavily on air. She is, he thinks, with uncharacteristic descent into cliche, a sight for sore eyes.

Erwin R. Sackville has just returned to his overstuffed station in the lobby of the Sheraton after a tortuous afternoon in Chairman Stan's suite. Though invited personally by Chairman Stan to attend this year's interviews, Erwin R. Sackville had had no intention of doing so. That morning, he had taken great pleasure in watching the sea of hapless jobseekers course through the foyer toward their uniform fates. In their dark vulnerable mass, they had made a sort of soft, brown impression on his mind, like melted chocolate, or spring mud. But that had been enough: he did not want to disturb the blurry bitter sweetness of their composite stress by bringing any one of them into focus. But he had been waylaid by Michiko Fry in the men's room, and had not had a choice.

"Erwin!" Michiko had cried, bursting out of a stall as water whooshed behind him. "I thought I smelled your cologne. How are you man!" He held out an unwashed hand, which Erwin R. Sackville took gingerly in his own newly rinsed one.

"I'm well, Michiko, and yourself?"

"Very well, thank you, very well indeed." He chattered as he lit a cigarette, ignoring the No Smoking sign. "I've just come from three panels at once: Transatlantic Crossings, Digital Diaspora, and Queer Marxisms, where I saw our lovely colleague L'Aticia L'Amotte." He exhaled and narrowed his eyes conspiratorially. "Should have been at the panel on preparing grad students for teaching--professional duties and all that--but it was in the Marriott so what the hell. I tell you, this is the only way to do the MLA, Erwin. Otherwise you just spend the whole panel wondering what's happening in the panel next door and you don't hear a word. Coming to interview?" he asked, putting out his cigarette in the marble sink. "We're just in time for the afternoon session."

He held the door open for his elder colleague and steered him toward the elevator bank, a hand on Erwin R. Sackville's shoulder, guiding him as a rudder guides a ship.

to be continued

Erin O'Connor, 11:22 PM | Permalink

Attrition is as attrition does

There's quite a thread developing at Invisible Adjunct on the subject of graduate school attrition. The occasion for the thread is Scott Smallwood's Chronicle of Higher Education piece on the subject, "Dr. Dropout," and the comments range from the searching to the bemused. In a nutshell: nationwide, attrition rates for Ph.D. programs hover at about 50%. In some humanities programs, that number is edging toward 70%. The article notes that between the long time-to-degree of Ph.D. programs (usually 6-7 years, often longer) and the slim job prospects in many disciplines, an attrition rate that is higher than that found in medical or law schools is to be expected. But it also raises the perennial questions: Can attrition rates as high as these be responsibly understood as anything other than a scandal? And why are so many people still enrolling in Ph.D. programs when the odds of finishing, not to mention the odds of finding decent employment afterward, are so minuscule?

Research suggests that the natural selection argument so often invoked to justify the status quo is utter hogwash. The snobbish argument that graduate school "separates the wheat from the chaff" (or the men from the boys), that it "allows the cream to rise to the top," that it is a "sink or swim" environment in which only the most talented survive, just doesn't hold. Speaking in terms of populations, there is no demonstrable difference in intellect between those who leave graduate school and those who stay to the (often bitter) end--grades and scores are largely the same for both groups.

Smallwood reports that college administrators are finally talking about doing something about the waste of time, money, and life that the attrition numbers bespeak. Trouble is, what they are talking about doing is talking more about the problem. Study and discussion are of course necessary adjuncts to effective action--but it's disturbing and frustrating, if not at all surprising, to learn that this really is where most administrators are at this point. The problem is old--but as many, many grad school dropouts will tell you, it has just never mattered to anyone but the dropouts themselves. We won't know what the attrition rates mean--about the shape of graduate student life, about the culture of different disciplines, about the environment at individual schools and the atmospheres of particular departments--until study and discussion have taken place.

But one worries that talking about the problem may become a substitute for doing something about the problem. One worries too that the truth about attrition just won't come out. It will be too damning--of particular schools' funding schemes and exploitative actions, of particular departments' pathological microcultures and irresponsible admissions practices. There's a reason most departments and schools don't keep data on attrition--the numbers and the reasons behind the numbers are truths they just don't want to know. My guess is that if and when real information about attrition is gathered, a great many departments will just doublethink their way around them. Their righteous belief in their own prestige and their own entitlement (not to change, not to reassess their comfortable assumptions) is simply too strong. (For a telling account of how casual exploitation is built into English departments, go here).

I'm the last person to claim to have answers. I'm the beneficiary of a system I have ceased to believe in, and because of that I occupy a position I have a hard time seeing as ethical. I do what little I can not to abuse the position I am in--I now steer clear of my school's graduate program, I do not use graduate students as graders or researchers or clerical help (in other words, I do all my own work), I devote myself as fully as I can to teaching undergraduate courses that offer rigorous and thorough training in both literary history and writing. I'm also actively looking for work outside the academy. In the meantime, I write Critical Mass in the hope that I can do my small bit to make somebody somewhere change. Longtime readers will know that I have serious doubts about whether the academic humanities can survive their own efforts at self-immolation.

Not having answers, I'd like to pose more questions. This is a call to readers to write to me about their experiences in graduate school. I'd love to know how current and prospective graduate students regard the attrition problem, and would particularly like to hear from people who left their graduate programs before finishing. I'd like to hear your broad theories as well as your personal anecdotes. What made you leave? What made you stay? What did you and others think of people who left? How do your department and your school treat those who leave? What would you tell someone contemplating going to graduate school? What would you like say to your professors, advisors, and deans about why you left?

I'll post responses as they come in, name withheld on request, unless otherwise specified.

Erin O'Connor, 10:42 AM | Permalink

January 12, 2004 [feather]
Propriety and the professoriate

A few thoughts to tie together my recent postings on the cases of Robert Day at Cumberland College and Nona Gerard at Penn State Altoona. Day lost his job as an assistant professor of social work after posting a website that called for administrative, spiritual, and fiscal reform at his school. Gerard is suing to keep her job as a tenured associate professor of theater after being charged with grave misconduct and failure to perform. Both have been thorns in the sides of their institutions; both have raised entirely reasonable objections to certain questionable practices at their schools. Cumberland College, for instance, has no faculty senate and no system for ensuring financial or administrative accountability. PSA, which recently became a four-year degree-granting institution, has created at least one major that it may not be able to responsibly staff.

Yes, as some readers have pointed out, Day and Gerard have each made potentially fatal mistakes--Day in criticizing his institution from a position of zero job security, Gerard in allowing her criticisms of colleagues to take the occasional form of ad hominem comment and in recusing herself for ethical reasons from professional duties that the school considers to be part of her job description. But it does not follow that Day and Gerard had it coming, as some readers have argued, nor does it follow, as others have argued, that to defend them is to argue that academics should be held to lower standards of civility and professionalism than other working adults.

I'll try to explain my thinking on this, as cases like Day's and Gerard's hit close to home for me. First, consider Day's case. Yes, he erred in thinking he could level reasonable criticism at Cumberland's administration without losing his job. But that does not mean that on a moral or ethical level he is the one in the wrong. He didn't libel anyone, or make any false accusations, or behave in a criminal or indecent manner. He spoke his mind, and he said things that clearly needed to be said. He spoke because no one else was willing to--not even his colleagues with tenure. Critics of academe comment endlessly on the institutionalized spinelessness of the tenure system. They point out that what the tenure system does is select out anyone who can think for himself and has the courage of his convictions, and that it selects for those without convictions, those who conform for a living, who readily bend, in unctuous, Uriah Heep-like manner, in whatever direction the fashionable wind is blowing.

Those who suggest that Day somehow doesn't deserve at least the benefit of public outcry--who sniff at him for wanting to see his school adhere more closely to its Christian mission, or who scoff at him for not grasping the punitive ways of employers--seem to me to have badly missed the point. The Robert Days of the academy are refusing to be the guppies their job insecurity tells them to be. We should applaud them, and defend them--even if it isn't practical, and even if what they stand up for is not what we ourselves believe.

I have similar feelings about Nona Gerard. Yes, it sounds from the paper as though Gerard has made comments about colleagues that went beyond the bounds of strict professionalism; Gerard has hurt feelings and said mean things. And yes, in refusing to participate in the newly implemented Integrative Arts major, Gerard technically declared that there were parts of her job she was not willing to do. But I question seriously those who would argue that the only right way to look at these facts is the way her school administration looks at them.

The fact of the matter is that academic culture is, even on its good days, little better than a sandbox when it comes to interpersonal civility. If every academic who ever made an out-of-order comment about another academic were to be fired for creating a hostile environment, there would be no academe (this in itself might be a good thing--but that's another blog). I have a little experience, unhappily gained but highly instructive, in just what one colleague can say with impunity about another, and I am here to say that at least in this part of Pennsylvania, Nona Gerard's reported comments are mild in the extreme. To my knowledge she has never, for example, tried to sabotage a colleague's course by telling the students enrolled in it that the teacher is a "monster." Nor, to my knowledge, does she advise students against working with particular teachers because they are "crazy" or a "bitch." I know of schools where that sort of thing--where that exact thing--is not only tolerated, but practically condoned. All of this is to say that when I see PSA singling Nona Gerard out as an uncollegial meanie, I get a big red DOUBLE STANDARD sign blinking inside my head (think about it: does any of us imagine that no one at PSA says mean things about Nona Gerard, or that she is not herself having to work in a highly hostile environment?).

As for the part about recusing herself from professional duties, that, too, reads to me like so much fabrication--academic duties are notoriously and deliberately flexible. There are many, many ways for individual faculty members to fulfill their obligations to teaching, scholarship, and service. Moreover, college teachers--particularly those with the protection of tenure-- have a moral responsibility to speak out if they feel that their school is instituting unworkable or unethical curricular reforms. That's what academic freedom--that horribly baggy concept--ostensibly protects, and that's what Gerard did. She was not refusing to do her job, or trying to get away with doing less work. She was refusing to allow her job to be configured so as to compel her to devote herself to work she found wasteful and intellectually dishonest. Instead of trying to fire Gerard, PSA could have found an alternative teaching assignment for her--one she could believe in and devote herself to.

It's all too easy for readers to regard people like Day and Gerard as caricatures of a corrupt and immature professoriate, and to argue that the real answer here is to let them fry while we all get on with more pressing matters. But I hope those readers who are inclined in that direction will give more thought to their position. Yes, academia needs serious reform. Yes, the professoriate needs to be more publicly accountable in its comportment, its pedagogy, and its scholarship. Yes, the tenure system is a disaster. But that does not mean that there are not times when genuine injustices occur (KC Johnson's tenure case is a great example), and when concerned members of the public and the academy should kick and scream and write and reason until those injustices are redressed.

Erin O'Connor, 7:35 PM | Permalink

January 11, 2004 [feather]
Witch hunt at Penn State

Penn State Altoona is trying to fire a tenured professor because her outspoken criticism of the institution has angered and inconvenienced her colleagues and at least one donor. Nona Gerard, a lesbian feminist theater professor who has no difficulty speaking her mind, is as popular among her students--who appreciate her ability to make them work hard while making that work fun--as she is reviled by the administrators and colleagues she has offended over the years. No one contends that Gerard is a poor teacher or scholar. But after years of asking, encouraging, and finally ordering Gerard to tone it down, PSA is seeking to fire her on charges of grave misconduct and failure to perform.

Gerard is accused of creating a hostile working environment for her peers--largely, it seems, because she does not pull her punches. (The article gives as an example her description of a junior colleague as "talentless" and "cold as a fish.") The charges of failure to perform center on Gerard's opposition to PSA's new "Integrative Arts" degree, which she has vociferously opposed for being inadequately supported and poorly conceived--there were not enough course offerings to justify the degree, she said; nor were there adequate faculty or facilities for it. When Gerard received a letter from a dean ordering her to stop her putatively "disrespectful and unprofessional behavior toward her colleagues" and compelling her to "work within the divisional structure on campus" (the paper's wording), she responded by announcing that she would no longer direct campus stage productions. Things seem to have unravelled from there.

The article makes it sound like Gerard was not as tactful as she might have been in criticizing her colleagues and in opposing the program. But tactlessness is not a crime, not even when it hurts a colleague's feelings. Moreover, misplaced tact can be self-defeating when one is advocating an unpopular point of view. How else but passionately should Gerard have made her case against the IA degree? Gerard believed the degree was going to do students a profound disservice. Should she have sat silently by while it was implemented? It rather sounds, from the paper's report, as if PSA administrators think that yes, both Gerard's professional integrity and the integrity of the IA degree would have been best served if Gerard had simply suppressed her objections and quietly played along.

That's a bit of a leap. But the faint sense that PSA admins are more interested in maintaining the appearance of smooth operations than in actually running the best educational system they possibly can grows stronger when one considers that one reason Gerard is in trouble is that her work--not her opinions, but her actual pedagogical work--has offended a PSA donor. In 2002, Gerard staged a student production of David Mamet's play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The donor in question didn't see it, but did take exception to the information that the play contains graphic sexual talk and partial nudity. It is disturbing, to say the least, that this episode has found its way into the list of complaints against Gerard. Mamet is hardly a disreputable playwright; the play in question won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977. It's legitimate artistic work that deserves a place on the college stage. PSA's willingness to allow a donor's aesthetic and ideological preferences to outweigh its commitment to free inquiry for faculty and students tells a terrible story about where the school's priorities lie.

Add it all up and what do you get? A difficult professor who has rubbed too many people the wrong way, and an academic institution that has trumped up reasons to terminate a professor who is seen to be more trouble than she's worth. Never mind Gerard's First Amendment rights as a professor teaching at a state school. Never mind the argument--made by the AAUP itself--that sometimes true collegiality shows itself not through genial, Babbitt-like behavior, but by taking on the difficult and uncomfortable role of institutional contrarian. Gerard is most certainly that. And it may cost her her career.

Read more about Gerard and her situation at Penn State Altoona here.

Many thanks to Maurice Black for bringing this case to my attention and for sending assorted links.

Erin O'Connor, 4:07 PM | Permalink

Tactical regurgitation 101

Mark Allen tells the story of how he fulfilled his history course requirement at Northwestern during the mid-1990s:

Looking over the catalog that particular academic quarter, the class that best fit my schedule was "U.S. History: 1865-Present."

Being the bloody flag waving, jingoistic, baby killing, homeless harrassing right wing Friend of The Man I am, I actually looked forward to this class. Until the first class. Our professor was an unreconstructed, unrepentant Marxist. Everything that happened in the U.S. for the last 150 years was interpreted through a lens of economic hypocrisy and brutal, often violent social repression. I stopped going to class because I could not stop myself from wanting to challenge the professor and her ridiculous assertions every single class.

When it came time to write papers, I was brave on the first one, writing an essay which criticized the programs of the New Deal as "makework, designed more to salve psychological rather than economic needs of the United States." The paper came back with this note in the margin: "Interesting, but poorly supported. Bet those WPA workers thought their paychecks in 1935 were psychological, too? C+"

I learned my lesson. I wanted a better grade, so I toed the ideological line. I wrote papers making conclusions which I did not ever believe, but knew the professor or her ideologically pure TAs would find palatable (the more I could regurgitate the better).

It was a deeply deeply unsatisfying academic experience with a subject I truly love and respect. I am open to alternate interpretations of U.S. history. I am willing to consider perspectives which do not always portray the events in American history in a positive and "rah-rah, go U.S." kind of way. But there was no genuine attempt to present anything positive in 150 years.

Things in 1994 when I took that class weren't as polarized as they are now.

A commenter at Roger Simon's blog tells a similar story:

When I was in college, I had a history teacher that proposed a very, um, "alternative" inerpretation of American history ...he obsessed over destroying ALL of the traditional cultural narratives that your basic history book proposes. The Indians kicked white ass, the founding fathers were craven wannabee-aristocrats, etc.

In the beginning of the semester I got into an argument with him, where he dismissed me in an annoyed/arrogant way. A week later, he gave us our first assignment, a paper that basically had to show how the native-Americans rocked the house, universally noble beings they were and all.

I regurgitated what I knew he wanted, and the guy called my name to call me up in front of the class to make an example of such a fine paper. When he put the face with the name, his eyes almost bugged out of his head.

I didn't believe the majority of what I'd written. But time after time, class after class, it was all an exercise in recycling the rigid predispostions and ideologies of the profs and handing it back to them with your signature. This gave you academic success.

Nearly every time I varied from this formula and stuck my neck out, I got a B instead of an A.

One way or another, it was certainly an "education."

Note the recurring use of the word "regurgitate." The very mildest thing that can be said about the teachers described here--the thing that gives them the benefit of the doubt and assumes that they tried to be fair--is that they absolutely sucked at explaining the rationale behind their grading. If we assume they weren't trying to indoctrinate students, we pretty much have to assume they were incompetent teachers.

Thoughts and caveats: Not all politically strident professors require regurgitation as a condition of good grades, and not all students who regurgitate their teachers' views are doing so because they feel their own views will be penalized. Some don't know what else to do; many don't even realize that there is a difference between parrotting your professor and thinking for yourself. There is a catechism-like quality to formal education that virtually guarantees that a great many students, and even a great many teachers, will categorically confuse the rote recitation of received ideas with a demonstration of genuine learning. Within this sea of confusion, there are plenty of students who try to game their profs no matter what their profs' politics happen to be--they assume, often rightly, that the best way to work professors is to flatter their narcissism by telling them what they want to hear.

That said, the stories above have an almost archetypal quality to them. They exemplify the manner in which, on today's grade-grubbing, grade-inflated campuses, one's marks are all too often marks of conformity to a prevailing intellectual--or anti-intellectual--norm. They also exemplify the unconscionable choice many students face: sell out and survive, or sink with integrity intact. College students should never, ever have to face such a choice. It's soul-killing, and it's a mindfuck. The point of a college education--and here I speak as an idealist and not a pragmatist--is to expand the mind and sustain the soul, not to teach young adults the self-destructive art of lockstep.

Erin O'Connor, 10:09 AM | Permalink

January 10, 2004 [feather]
Pictures from an Institution, III; by anon.

Thus far, reactions to Pictures from an Institution have been interestingly mixed. Some think it's hilarious and smart. Some think it's disturbing and dumb. Some think it's disturbing--and perhaps a sign that I am dumb--that I have posted it at all. Some complain that I have not laid out for Critical Mass readers exactly what I think of it (as if that wouldn't be both patronizing to this blog's audience and sabotaging of the piece itself). Some think they know who Erwin R. Sackville is. Others think that whoever he is, he is most certainly a rapist--or at least a habitual harasser (to these, I heartily recommend not trying to match your potentially libelous verdict to a real man). To all, I offer the following quotation from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, the magisterial reflection on being that the great student of pretense wrote while imprisoned in that other numbing institution, jail: "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation." This seems both to describe a point Pictures of an Institution is making and to be a conscious condition of its writing.

Pictures of an Institution's MLA cycle continues tonight with Part Three: "The Interview Suite."


Friday, December 28, 2001. Interviews are being conducted in Chairman Stan's suite. The faculty of Planckton Hall are hiring in three areas this year: postcolonial performance studies, new media studies, and women's literature. Chairman Stan has extended a warm invitation to the entire Planckton Hall faculty to attend the interviews, and his suite is packed. The four members of the Planckton Hall executive committee are present; the nine combined members of the three separate search committees are present; numerous interested faculty bystanders are present; as are a handful of advanced graduate students who, it is imagined, will imbibe the secret of the job selection process from witnessing the agonies of their peers. These last are easy to identify: they are all young women, they all have short spikey hair of artificial hue, they are all either pierced or tattooed, and they all have the anemic haunted look of people whose moral principles prevent them from eating properly and getting enough sleep.

All the chairs are taken, and people are sitting six to a couch. Some perch on the radiator while others stand along the wall. Carol Mann is the last to arrive. Even the seats on the radiator and the standing room along the wall have been taken. She lowers herself onto the floor as decorously as she can and wishes she had not worn a short skirt.

The room is abuzz with caffeine and talk. Chairman Stan has ordered room service for twenty to fortify his troops. Coffee flows and crumbs fly as the representatives of Planckton Hall prepare to pass judgement on the undifferentiated desperate ranks of their would-be compeers.

"What's new media studies?" Carol feels a tap on her shoulder and warm meaty breath on her ear. She twists and looks up to see the florid face of Horatio Samples, wearer of tweed and eater, apparently, of bacon. Carol has never exchanged more than a passing hallway nod with Professor Samples, a Hemingway specialist who frequently forwards fly-fishing spam to the faculty listserv. He is a large man, even from a distance. He is very large indeed up close. Carol peers at the wide pores on his red nose, the wild white tufted brows, and the clearest blue eyes she has ever seen. He seems somehow to twinkle, and she says, without thinking, "Sir, you beg the question. The real question here, the question with which we must all grapple in our inmost hearts, is, 'What is postcolonial performance studies?'" Horatio Samples hoots and claps Carol on the shoulder like a man. "You've said it, young lady. You've said it. Have some danish," and he passes her his plate.

"Basta! Basta!" A spoon clangs on crockery and the din subsides. All eyes turn to Chairman Stan. "Dearly beloved colleagues! How good of you all to come. We are gathered here today to choose three lucky persons to join our distinguished faculty, to become part of our exceptional scholarly family. We have an honor to confer, and a decision of lasting importance to make. Watch these twelve candidates carefully, my friends. Question them closely. And choose the three who will serve us best. Now, without further adieu, I hereby declare interviewing season to be open! Amor vincit omnia! Let the games begin!"

A muffled knock comes at the door, and the first candidate is shown in.

to be continued

Erin O'Connor, 8:22 PM | Permalink

Sensible Criticism

Winston of Winston's Diary writes,

I've started thinking about trying to develop a comprehensive list of works of literary criticism--even theory--that are "sensible."

Now, if you're reading this blog, you have had one of two reactions to the word "sensible." Either you know instinctively what I'm talking about, and can think of several works that you, too, consider "sensible," or you are going to respond on your own blog by "problematizing" or "interrogating" my use of the word "sensible." I'm interested in the responses of the first group. I could care less what the second group has to say, and could probably write your responses for you, if I were so inclined.

When I say sensible literary criticism, I don't mean works that examine a particular author or work, but broader theories of reading--methodologies, if we want to avoid the term theory--that can help a reader to formulate an ethical practice of reading and also to become a better, closer reader.

Love that second paragraph. Send your suggestions to Winston at 6079_Smith_W@comcast.net.

Erin O'Connor, 1:07 PM | Permalink

January 8, 2004 [feather]
Criticism, retaliation, ruined career

I'm interrupting Pictures of an Institution's MLA programming to bring you one of the more horrifying stories of academic injustice that I've heard in some time.

The setting is Cumberland College, a small Baptist institution in Kentucky. The occasion is a website posted on October 6, 2003, by Robert Day, then an assistant professor of Social Work at the college. The issue is the site's content: when Cumberland College administrators learned about the site on October 13, 2003, the president called Day in and gave him the choice of resigning or being fired. Day chose resignation and reports that the entire discussion took less than two minutes. Immediately thereafter, Day's computer was confiscated and all the files on it were copied--the college claims they are its property. The locks on Day's office were changed, and the college sent the city police to his house to serve him with a private memo from the president warning him that he would be arrested if he came back to campus.

What did Day do to deserve such treatment? Visit wecareforcumberland.com and see for yourself. The website does nothing more heinous or drastic than propose a series of entirely reasonable and unexceptionable reforms at Cumberland College. Day had the audacity to call for financial and administrative accountability at his college--to suggest that there ought to be a faculty senate, for example, and fair contracts, and a collective review of the school's mission statement. He called for financial disclosure of income and expenditures, a review of the pay scale, and clearly defined departmental budgets. Hardly a revolutionary set of objectives--but ones that clearly threatened the daylights out of the college administration. Cumberland College's abrupt and hostile dismissal of a faculty member for behaving in the exemplary manner of the engaged, concerned campus citizen suggests that Day was not only absolutely right to call for administrative reform at his school, but, ironically, that he was nowhere near harsh enough in his indictment.

Wecareforcumberland.com has grown a good deal since the good old days of its first, innocent week on line. There is much material there to ponder, including the college president's dismissive take on Day and his site. Don't miss the timeline documenting a series of disturbing administrative actions as well as the details of Day's case. In December, the AAUP sent a letter to the college president defending Day's academic freedom. Day is suing Cumberland College for constructive dismissal, tort of outrage, and defamation.

I'll post more as more becomes available.

UPDATE: From Belief Seeking Understanding:

there is a section in the website where there are almost 60 comments made by students, former faculty, parents and alumni. Many of these express shock and dismay at the firing of Day, but many of them express grave concerns about the attitude and behavior of Dr. James Taylor, who has been president of Cumberland since 1980. The 5-count indictment seems to be 1) spending money on externals (clock towers, roundabouts, gazebos) at the expense of students (no air conditioning in Archer Hall, one of the student dormitories, no College security service; 2) using university money to subsidize the lifestyle of Dr. Taylor and his wife ($79K expense account in 2001-2002); 3) no accountability regarding revenue and expenses (cancelling faculty family benefits in August of 2003); 4) a willingness to fire faculty members, or make life so miserable for them that they will leave ... and 5) a snide, condescending attitude toward students (dissing faculty members to students, exploiting student employees).

Erin O'Connor, 9:41 PM | Permalink

Pictures from an Institution II, by anon.

Continued from yesterday, the MLA in all its carnivalesque quasi-splendor, as seen through the eyes of an anonymous contributor:

Friday, December 28, 2001: Sitting in the foyer of the Sheraton New Orleans, his stomach pleasantly full of beignets and chicory coffee, Erwin R. Sackville burped discreetly, took from his inside breast pocket a gold Cross pen, opened the fat glossy convention program, and prepared to plan his itinerary for the day.

Scanning the list of morning talks, Erwin R. Sackville slid his jaded eyes past panels entitled "Food," "Sex with Aliens," and "Stalking the Mouse: Doing Disney Studies." Disney Studies? The Franz Kafka Professor of Metamorphosis Studies paused to ruminate.

It was early. Only those who could not afford to rise more slowly were there. Erwin R. Sackville took special pleasure in these MLA mornings. They allowed him to gather his thoughts, and they put on a show that many who attended the MLA never bothered to see. Early mornings at the MLA staged a striking companion piece to the gay pageantry that dominated the convention, a special style of absurdist theater more commonly known as The Job Market. The Job Market was well under way at the Sheraton New Orleans on the morning of December 28.

Around Erwin R. Sackville swarmed the annual sea of clamorous barely contained lemmings, the jobless anonymous masses who came in droves to interview, whose ill-fitting new clothes stuck out at odd angles and whose cheap shoes occasionally creaked, who spilled overpriced cashbar cocktails on themselves as they made excruciating smalltalk in cramped hotel rooms, wearing eagerness like a bright desperate badge. He felt them ebb and flow around him as he reclined in his cushioned chair, felt their hurried breezes caress him as they rushed by, felt their aftershave and perfume and coffee breath and nervous sweat creep up his nose and linger. They were clad in bruise tones, browns and blacks and muddy greens and dismal deep purples. The men's faces looked stark and sore, their skin unused to close shaving. The women's faces looked worse, some garish with the lines and blots of poorly applied makeup, some simply naked and raw. These last always reminded him of dead cut flowers, their anemic limp heads sticking anomalously out of shiny expensive vases. Stalking the lobby and watching the minute hands on their watches, the jobless were like something out of Beckett or Ionesco, racing in hordes toward a career that would never be there.

Erwin R. Sackville shifted in his chair and turned the page. Here was a talk called "Stevenson's Pajamas," and another called "Dryden's Stutter." And here was a panel called "Reading Rape: Relocating Violence, Victimization, and Empowerment in Recent Feminist Literary Criticism." This last made him think of his student, Chelsea Lain. Very few of this year's lemmings, he noticed, had nice breasts.

He watched as pallid jobseekers converged on the elevators. By a fine MLA tradition, interviews were conducted in the hotel suites of department chairs. Each year, a new herd of hopefuls came to them as to assignations, riding marble lifts to maze-like floors of identical halls, knocking surreptitiously on doors, slipping into rooms like so many cheap women, wary and ready, primed to jump at an offer, any offer. Sometimes the bed would be unmade in the interview suite. Sometimes breakfast dishes were strewn about, egg congealing on plates, coffee drying on cups, crumbs carpeting the floor.

Erwin R. Sackville loved the seedy senseless feeling of it, took pleasure in the manifold discomfiture of the young and tender candidates, had once even indulged himself during an interview by adjusting a slender blonde in her chair just so, that the warm yellow light from the window would fall on her hair and flood her face from the side. She made such a fine Vermeer that he heard nothing she said; such a fine Vermeer that he fought to hire her, and won. Privately, he thought of her as Girl in Regulation Black, though he had eventually discovered that her real name was Carol Mann.

Returning to his program, Erwin R. Sackville placed a check by a panel entitled "The (Dis)Abled Subject: Rhetoricity and Identity." It was to be chaired by Michael Berube, whose outfit must not be missed.

to be continued

Erin O'Connor, 9:12 AM | Permalink

Long live Litskunk

Critical Mass has a new blogchild. Here's an excerpt from Litskunk's mission statement:

This blog is here to help me work on my issues in a public forum, which is the one current practice in literary criticism that appeals to me. In no special order, here are the peeves:

Iím flummoxed by the over-the-top politicization of literary studies, despite my profsí protests that the culture--and science, and canon--wars are soooo 1990s. When Terry Eagleton abjures Theory not because itís pointless or internally incoherent or disconnected from literature but because itís failed to destroy capitalism, Iíd say the battles are at least still simmering.

Iím bugged by the dominance of a monomaniacal social constructionism which in other parts of the educated world has been laughed out the door. Steven Pinkerís Blank Slate brought the news to the crossover market, but people in the anthropology and cognitive sciences departments have known about human universals for over a decade (and suspected them for a lot longer).

Iím aggravated by Theoryís overall denial of science, and by its latent lysenkoism, two-chord jingle-ism (the refrain that runs, as Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick says, ìkinda subversive, kinda hegemonicî), recidivistic (post)Freudianism and out-to-lunch Marxism.

Litskunk does great skank, as you can see from above. But her mission is creative and constructive, as she explains further down in her post. I'll be checking back often, and hopefully you will, too.

Erin O'Connor, 8:43 AM | Permalink

January 7, 2004 [feather]
Pictures from an Institution, by anon.

A manuscript has come into my possession. It purports to be a truthful account of the life and times of an English department. It's long, and its author wishes to remain anonymous--so I've resisted publishing any of it on Critical Mass for some time. But as the blogosphere and even the mainstream media ponder the meaning of the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association--the great group grope of the profession of English--I've decided to devote some space over the next several days to publishing just those parts of the larger whole that touch on the MLA. The setting is the 2001 MLA in New Orleans. The panels are real; the principal people don't appear to be--they cannot be googled--but at the same time, I suspect I am not the only person who will find them more than a little familiar. See what you think. Though I'm excerpting from a longer document, I think the selections should stand on their own.


Erwin R. Sackville was looking forward to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association more than usual this year. It was to convene in New Orleans, the city that seemed, to his discerning eyes, to capture perfectly the surreal spirit of his profession.

Held every year during the slack, sated week between Christmas and New Years,' the MLA had about it the feeling of a carnival come too late, a distressed intellectual Mardi Gras where there was little to celebrate but the already grossly imbalanced order of things. There, thousands assembled for the massive act of mutual congratulation that was the MLA, leaving spouses, children, and parents behind in order to dance attendance on the profession that was their god. The MLA was a gloriously crowded, disordered affair, a positively Rabelaisian comedy of unabashed posturing and equally unabashed yearning where the fat feasted on their status and the thin starved publicly, scrambling hungrily for scraps of recognition.

As is the custom with carnivals, people came to the MLA in costume. They dressed as hip intellectuals, sporting silk blazers and Italian shoes, handpainted ties and swinging silver earrings; eschewing fur and clothing made in Asian sweatshops; making statements with leather, rubber, piercings, and, in the case of certain women, the mannish armor of the boxy business suit. Promenading lobbies in packs, they made loud polysyllabic smalltalk while their eyes roved, watching out for stars, watching people watch them. They came to see and be seen, to lay and be laid, to stand glamorously in foyers with their nametags prominently pinned to their breasts, offering their stature to the appreciation of all.

Some were famous for their audacious dress: Erwin R. Sackville cherished fond memories of the canary yellow jacket and suede wedgies worn by Andrew Ross at the 1991 convention and the electric blue polyester leisure suit modelled by Michael Berube in '97. They stood out against the faceless swarms of the predictably attired, preening and cocksure. It gave him no end of pleasure to see the strict sartorial codes of men's dress overturned by his colorful colleagues, to see them strutting about like deep peacocks while stylish admirers of all sexual orientations flocked to them and drab older men in threadbare corduroy looked on obscurely from their posts along the walls, their ill-fitting pants revealing a panoply of mismatched socks.

The sumptuary spread of the MLA was a supreme pleasure for Erwin R. Sackville, who spent no small amount of time or money planning his own self-presentation. Each year he prepared with care. A month before the convention, he travelled to New York, paid a visit to Prada, and then spent the next four weeks working closely with his tailor to ensure his hems and lines were as perfect as the man could make them. A week before the convention, he had his brows waxed and his nails buffed and shaped to an opalesque luster. The night before, he wrapped himself in a garnet silk smoking jacket, poured himself a snifter of brandy, and read Ovid until the sinuous Latin danced before his eyes.

to be continued

Erin O'Connor, 10:33 AM | Permalink

January 6, 2004 [feather]
Shock and awe at the MLA

The annual meeting of the Modern Language Association is, as numerous Invisible Adjunct readers have pointed out recently, an eminently mockable academic festival. Ever since 1989, when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick got mentioned in The New York Times for delivering a paper entitled "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," the race has been on to shock and awe fellow conference-goers with the hipness of one's talk, the transgressive cleverness of one's talk title, and even the cut of one's clothing (feminist critic Jane Gallup once famously delivered her talk in a skirt made entirely of men's ties). Inspired by a tongue-in-cheek Chronicle of Higher Education piece mocking not only the hipper-than-thou-ness of MLA mavens but also the humorless finger-wagging of its critics, the thread on Invisible Adjunct morphed quickly into a highly symptomatic emotional trollfest in which academic literary types came into full, defensive contact with the deeply dismissive and generally contemptuous view of them held by a significant portion of the general public. The thread is worth a read, if you find academic humanists sociologically interesting.

The MLA takes place annually during the week between Christmas and New Years,' a scheduling tradition that signals simultaneously a deep disregard for family (if you want to go, you have to skip out on what may be your only chance during the year to spend time with farflung relatives) and a bold, creepy assertion that the profession of literature is one's life (your fellow literary critics are your family). For this reason and many more, I do not attend the MLA. But I do pay attention to the hype beforehand and the reports afterward.

One particularly interesting report appeared in Sunday's Boston Globe. Written by former Chronicle of Higher Education editor Scott Jaschik, the article notes that amid the usual mishmash of sessions on topics "ranging from Hawthorne, to Asian cinema to 'The Aesthetics of Trash,'" there was "a surprising number of sessions dealing with the war in Iraq, terrorism, patriotism, and American foreign policy:"

Not that there was much actual debate. In more than a dozen sessions on war-related topics, not a single speaker or audience member expressed support for the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan. The sneering air quotes were flying as speaker after speaker talked of "so-called terrorism," "the so-called homeland," "the so-called election of George Bush," and so forth.

The approach to the war was certainly wide-ranging -- from cultural studies to rhetoric to literature to pure political speechifying. In a session on "Shock and Awe," Graham Hammill of Notre Dame traced the ideas behind the initial bombing back to the Roman historian and orator Tacitus's idea of arcana imperii, which translates roughly as "mysteries of state." Like Roman emperors who used rhetoric to sway the populace, Hammill argued, the Shock and Awe campaign was a rhetorical gesture aimed at demonstrating US power as much as flattening Baghdad.

At a different panel, Cynthia Young of the University of Southern California spoke about how the White House uses Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell "to create a distorted multiracial mask on imperialism." "What does it mean," Young asked, "when imperialism comes wrapped in a black bow?"

Instead of Rice's August speech comparing the Iraqi "liberation" with the civil rights struggle, she recommended the writings of the African-American activist and writer Angela Davis, who once described her alienation from white Americans mourning the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963, but not the four young black girls who died in the Birmingham church bombing that same year.

Similar alienation is evident today, Young said, as the United States ignores the problems facing minority citizens while taking over countries where people do not look or worship like white Americans. "The new patriotism looks a lot like the old slash-and-burn imperialism," she declared.

Berkeley's Judith Butler, a superstar of gender and literary studies, drew a packed house with her analysis of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's bad grammar and slippery use of the term "sovereignty."

On a 2002 visit to Eritrea, in response to a question about the detention of dissidents there, Rumsfeld declared: "A country is a sovereign nation and they arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them." Beyond the noun-verb agreement problem with "country" and "they," Butler rapped Rummy's knuckles for redefining sovereignty -- in her analysis -- as "the suspension of legal rights."

When the United States is challenged over the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, American officials assert that US courts have no jurisdiction there because we are not sovereign there, Butler pointed out. "We are using sovereignty to declare war against the law," she said, to nods throughout her talk and loud applause after it.

The MLA's deliberative body, the Delegate Assembly, adopted by a landslide margin of 122-8 a resolution supporting "the right of its members to conduct critical analysis of war talk" despite government efforts to "shape language to legitimate aggression, misrepresent policies, conceal aims, stigmatize dissent, and block critical thought."

There's much more. The academic humanities has long conceived of itself as a political entity, and academic humanists have long imagined that the skills that allow them to unravel the language of poems and novels qualify them to make pronouncements on issues very far removed from their area of expertise. The plug-and-play arrogance of the professional close reader ("I can deconstruct anything, anytime, anywhere!") appears to have been on brilliant display at this year's MLA, where a number of critics seem to have decided that pontificating about foreign policy is not only a legitimate professional activity for English professors, but even that English professors, as self-proclaimed experts in rhetoric and textuality, are uniquely qualified to set up as experts in international relations.

Also on display was the repressive, even anti-intellectual effect of that collective decision:

The closest public challenge to the prevailing geopolitical views at the MLA came when one professor asked a panel that had derided American responses to 9/11 and Iraq what a good response would have looked like. She didn't get much of an answer, left the session, and declined to elaborate on her question.

But a young professor of English who followed her out the door to congratulate her did offer some thoughts on politics at the MLA. Aaron Santesso of the University of Nevada at Reno described himself as being "on the left" and sympathetic with much of the criticism of the war in Iraq. But he said that the tenor of the discussion "drives me nuts." "A lot of people here don't want the rhetoric to just be a shrill echo of the right," he said.

Just a few years ago, he noted, the Taliban was regularly attacked at MLA meetings for their treatment of women and likened to the American religious right. Now, there is only talk of how the United States has taken away the rights of the Afghan people.

Santesso said he gains a good perspective from his students, most of whom he characterized as "libertarian conservatives." Most of the debate at the MLA, he said, "would completely alienate my students."

Plenty of English professors share his views, Santesso said. And some of his colleagues are even conservative. They just avoid coming to the MLA.

The shock and awe talks at this year's MLA should be understood in the same context as Sedgwick's masturbating girl and Gallop's tied-up skirt: they are more fashion statement than legitimate political comment; they perform, in their combined, unchallenged stridency, the public self-congratulation of a professional association that deems itself to have special access to political truth; as such, they set a disciplinary standard, not of debate, or even of truly searching thought, but of ideological allegiance. No, that wasn't planned. But I would argue that it was predictable, and inevitable.

Thanks to Judith Weiss for the link.

UPDATE: Tightly Wound has more. She and I are in agreement about the slow-torture quality of academic conferences, particularly if you have a constitutional objection to schmoozing (ahem, I mean, networking).

Erin O'Connor, 9:43 AM | Permalink

January 4, 2004 [feather]
Culture of sexual accusation

As the blogosphere massages the ethical ins (scroll down) and outs of professor-student sex (a discussion most recently inspired by Laura Kipnis' Slate piece), I thought I'd point to an under-linked Boston Globe piece on an unresolved date rape case at Harvard:

After winter break, when students at Harvard's Graduate School of Education returned to their dormitories, she walked to his floor and said hello. She entered his room, they kissed, and for a brief moment, Giorgi Zedginidze, a 34-year-old visiting student from Eastern Europe, considered himself a lucky man. Four hours later, he felt like his life was unraveling.

That night, Zedginidze was arrested on charges of sexual assault. He was handcuffed, strip-searched, and jailed. Nearly two years later, he was acquitted at trial, yet Harvard refuses to readmit him and has resisted scheduling a tribunal to consider it. In the school's eyes, Zedginidze said, his status is limited to one word: rapist.

"It has been a nightmare," said Zedginidze, from the Republic of Georgia. "They think I am guilty no matter what."

A Middlesex jury acquitted Zedginidze of all six counts of sexual battery, but he cannot finish his degree until the graduate school's Committee on Rights and Responsibilities clears him. The committee, however, has shown no inclination to schedule a hearing on the matter.

Zedginidze has been unable to get a hearing date from Harvard. If a hearing does take place, he has no right to a lawyer, to face his accuser, or to cross-examine witnesses.

Whatever Harvard does, there is little reason to expect Massachusetts schools to change, since the state's Supreme Judicial Court signed off on a similar system at Brandeis University in 2000. Some observers say the lack of due process is part of a nationwide pendulum swing against the rights of students accused of disciplinary violations after failures to protect students from date rape.

There's more. Read it all, and then familiarize yourself with the Brandeis case. And then familiarize yourself with the work FIRE has been doing recently to ensure the due process rights of those accused of sexual misconduct at Columbia and, yes, at Harvard. Harvard has recently made its sexual misconduct policy more responsible--where it used to investigate all charges of sexual misconduct, it now requires that there be "sufficient corroborating evidence" before it will look into an accusation. The idea is to nip the he said/she said situation in the bud. Unfortunately for Zedginidze, he was accused under the old system. Harvard may have a more responsible policy in place for new accusations, but it does not appear to be willing to extend the principle of fairness to those it prosecuted under far more loaded and unreasonable rules.

I raise the issue of date rape and campus sexual misconduct policies because the questions of faculty-student relationships being debated on other blogs cannot be separated from them. The power imbalance between a professor and a student is very real and very abusable, as Kipnis, Invisible Adjunct, and others note. What should also be noted, though, is that the flow of power--and of abuse--in such liaisons does not all run one way. If a professor can easily take advantage of a starry-eyed student who thinks one-sided intellectual adulation is mutual love, a conniving, resentful, or simply confused student can just as easily destroy a career by redescribing consensual sex as rape. Francine Prose plays out the full horror of that scenario in her novel Blue Angel.

On today's hyper-vigilant, due process-challenged campuses, careers and futures can be ruined at will by false and malicious charges of rape and sexual assault. It doesn't make sense to debate whether professors should be punished for "hooking up" (Kipnis' phrase) with students without considering the larger context of a campus culture that makes hooking up with anyone a profoundly fraught and dangerous activity.

Thanks to Fred R. for the link to the Globe article.

UPDATE: I try to keep the blockquotes as short as possible when readers can link to the full article. But in this case, I probably should have quoted even more than I did. From a reader who read the whole thing:

I'm surprised you didn't highlight the real travesty of the Zedgindze article. As the article discussed, the day after his arrest and while he was still sitting in jail, he was visited by a Harvard representative who gave him the "withdraw or be expelled" ultimatum (which from the timeline in the article, it appears that Mr. Zedgindze did so while still in jail).

So, imagine that: you've just been arrested for attempted rape, you don't know if you're going to be able to get bail money (it's not even clear if he had been arraigned yet), you know that you're innocent but you're still sitting there behind bars, and then someone who you think is there to help instead threatens you! It's unconscionable that Harvard's response when there had only been an accusation (and, I would wager there hadn't even been a probable cause hearing by that point) was to not temporarily suspend Mr. Zedgindze from the school until the matter was resolved (and even that would seem distasteful), but to sever him from the university! And, I'm sure the university knew that once Mr. Zedgindze was no longer a student, he would eventually have to leave the country (as he did). So, in effect, Harvard not only expelled him, but guaranteed that he would be deported.

If I were a parent with children at that school right now, I'd be a little worried for them if they got in trouble. And if I had a kid considering going there, I'd encourage them to look elsewhere (even if Yale).

Like I said, read the whole thing. And then, if the spirit of fairness moves you, you might consider writing Nancy Nienhuis, director of student affairs at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, and HGSE's dean, Ellen Lagemann. If you go that route, keep in mind that reasoned, civil letters will help Zedgindze most.

UPDATE UPDATE: Maurice Black writes to note that the Crimson has more.

Erin O'Connor, 9:16 PM | Permalink

January 3, 2004 [feather]
Erotic opinion poll

As colleges and universities increasingly seek to regulate and even demonize the sexuality of students and faculty, and as charges of sexual misconduct grow ever more frequent and definitions of harassment grow accordingly absurd, one cannot but wonder what college students today think and feel and do about sex. So I'm putting out a call for current college students as well as recent grads. If you are one, please respond. If you know one--or many--please refer them to this poll.

What I'd love to know: What has your school taught you about sex? I'm interested in hearing about what information (statistics, facts, truths) your school has conveyed to you as well as in what attitudes it has encouraged or even required you to embrace.

Questions you might consider answering as part of your reply: What facts about rape, assault, and harassment have you learned at your school and where did you learn them? What attitudes and beliefs about sex and sexual misconduct does your school promote, and how does it promote them? Have you ever attended any school-sponsored workshops about sexuality, rape awareness, or sexual harassment? If so, what was the occasion for the workshop? How was it conducted and by whom? Was it mandatory? What did you learn there? Have you ever taken a course centered in some way on sexuality? What did you learn there? Have you ever taken a course that was not officially billed as a course in sexuality (i.e., an English or history class), but where class discussion consistently veered in that direction? Why did discussion veer toward sex? And what did you learn there? Does your school restrict or ban dating between students and faculty? Do you feel that your school encourages certain forms of sexual expression while discouraging others? Has your school affected or changed the way you relate sexually to others? If so, have these changes been positive or negative? Helpful or harmful or both?

Respondents' privacy will be absolutely respected, and all responses will be kept confidential unless and until I have individuals' permission to make their responses public.

Thanks to Maurice Black for sending the articles linked above.

Erin O'Connor, 11:46 AM | Permalink