Many, many thanks to everyone for the words of encouragement and support in response to yesterday's post. I'm writing on the fly right now, but wanted to post a few links and thoughts in response to the queries about how one should look for work at independent schools.
As for agencies, the best known and probably busiest one is Carney Sandoe. They are who you should work with if you want to find jobs abroad, and they are also extensively networked in the States. I have been working with ERG (Educational Resources Group), which is a smaller, more intimate organization based near Philadelphia. I've been thrilled with ERG. They are very personalized and responsive, and they get results.
Basically, the two organizations work pretty much the same. They screen would-be clients initially, collecting your resume (not your cv) and interviewing you. If they decide to take you on, you deliver to them additional materials--your transcripts from college and grad school; written statements of purpose about why you want to teach in an independent school, how you approach teaching, what extracurriculars you can lead, what you can coach, and so on; letters of recommendation. When all is in hand, your "file" is complete. You will have discussed with them what kind of school you are looking for (Boarding? Day? Quaker? Episcopal? Single-sex? Co-ed? Hardcore college prep? "Alternative"? East coast? New York City? Midwest? and so on), and they will start sending your file on to affiliated schools that are hiring in your field. You are notified every time your file goes out to a new school.
Meanwhile, agencies like Carney Sandoe and ERG hold a couple of interview fairs each winter that streamline the process of bringing candidates and schools together. ERG has one in Philly, about four blocks from my my house. In March, I did about ten interviews in two days there, and got five invitations to visit out of it. It was a great thing. Meanwhile, schools that don't attend the job fairs are screening your file independently, and contacting you on their own about setting up an interview. I lost count of how many schools approached me this way. Like I said, wide open market.
If a school likes their initial discussion with you, they may schedule a campus visit. That means what it means in academe: that they are serious about you, and that you are on their short list. You may be asked to teach a class; you should expect to have a whirlwind of meetings with every school admin under the sun and to meet a lot of students as well. Day schools invite you for the day, which typically means about a four or five hour revolving interview; you'll probably eat lunch on site in the cafeteria. Boarding schools will want you to spend the night, and the larger ones will put you up on campus. Wealthier schools will pay all or some of your travel, but there are a lot of schools out there on shoestring budgets, and unless they say up front that they will cover your travel, assume it's out of your pocket. Everyone, repeat after me: OWWW!! It adds up--but the silver lining of it all is that the reason it adds up is that this really is a buyer's market for strong, dedicated teachers who hold advanced degrees in their field of expertise.
After the visit, you wait, while going on more visits. (If you pursue independent school jobs from inside academe, you will constantly bump up against your "economy of career scarcity" mentality--you know, that thing in your head that hisses endlessly at you, there are no jobs, there never will be jobs, i'd kill for any job anywhere, if i get any offer anywhere i have to take it, i have no choice i have to take whatever i can get please god let them like me pleasepleaseplease. You'll have to lose that mentality if you pursue jobs at independent schools, and that will be a good thing.)
Eventually, if all goes well, an offer, or offers, will be made. My sense is that many schools get down to the offering business around now. Pay varies a lot depending on the endowment of the school (there are some independent schools that are as rich as wealthy colleges; others don't know how they are going to cover payroll from month to month). Expect your experience and your degree level to count for something. And expect salaries at boarding schools to be a lot less than you would make at a day school. But bear in mind, too, that boarding schools house you, feed you, and wire you for free. You can bank just about your whole check.
And then comes the best part: the prospect of doing genuinely meaningful teaching in a learning--and sometimes living--environment that you believe in and feel you can belong to. There is a huge variety of independent schools out there, and there are all kinds of kids from all walks of life going to them. Private schools aren't just for privileged pre-Ivy Leaguers any more (if they ever were), and committed, skilled teachers should be readily able to find schools where their talents and their personalities fit.
I hope this is helpful. Now I have to go pack for my absolute last campus visit.
April 29, 2004
The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad grad school question
Between the Chronicle of Higher Ed's farewell paean to the Invisible Adjunct, the current Crooked Timber thread attempting to theorize the unconcern and even contempt tenured academics display toward the adjunct labor that sustains their comfortable lifestyles, and yesterday's Village Voice piece on how you've got to be a hell of a sucker to go to grad school in the humanities or social sciences nowadays, I've been thinking a great deal not only about the politics of the academy, but about the politics of lamentation about the state of the academy.
There is something a bit, ummm, noisome in the spectacle of established, tenured academics clucking their virtual tongues and beating their virtual breasts about the terrible lot that has befallen the Invisible Adjunct and all those other adjuncts for whom she has so invisibly stood. What besides clucking are these folks doing to reform the abusive system that chewed IA up and spat her out? How many of them know the names--or even faces--of the adjuncts presently at work in their own departments? How many of them have taken a moment to calculate how that labor eases their own professional lives? How many have done something--anything--to ensure that they themselves are not the smug beneficiaries of underemployed academics' professional exploitation? How many of those have, in turn, risked alienating their colleagues by insisting that their department or school acknowledge the ethical problem of adjunct labor and take steps to address it responsibly? How many have taken any personal risks at all in the name of redressing the flagrant wrongs from which they cumulatively profit? Color me cynical, but my guess is "not many."
You can say that this is a fine case of the pot calling the kettle black. After all, what have I been doing on Critical Mass since March 2002 besides lamenting the state of academe, and devoting considerable space to the corruption of the academic humanities? I've clucked about the exploitation of adjunct labor more than once on this blog, and I've done it from a tenured position whose shape is structurally dependent on all the non-tenure-track lecturers, adjuncts, and grad students that my department regularly employs to round out its course offerings. So where do I get off?
I'll know the exact answer to that question next week, when I decide which of several job offers teaching high school English to accept. In the meantime, I'll simply note that what gives me license to point fingers in this moment is that I am leaving academe--in no small part because I cannot see a way to resolve the many interlinked crises facing the academic humanities, and I cannot reconcile my beliefs in institutional fairness, personal and professional integrity, and, much more basically, education, with a life lived from within a university English department. I'm not sure the problems can be resolved at this point. And, frankly, I'm not sure they should be. The self-discrediting behavior of the humanist "haves" during the past several decades of progressive deprofessionalization, combined with their confirmed collective refusal to take their own disciplinarity seriously (whether as scholars or as teachers), doesn't suggest there is a whole lot worth saving.
There is a saying: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. There is another saying: Shit or get off the pot. Such sayings are worth careful contemplation by the cluckers and breastbeaters, and I hope at least some will be moved to find a way to move beyond the clucking assumption that to theorize a problem is to solve it. Such is the stuff of false consciousness.
Some disconnected and partial thoughts about this. It is agreed that there is a massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s, and that departments that are contributing to this massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s are grossly irresponsible toward grad students even as they serve their own needs very well (they get the cheap labor they need to get freshman comp taught, and they get a pool of smart, interesting students to whom faculty can administer narcissistically gratifying graduate courses). Usually, the solutions offered to this problem run along the lines of suggesting that fewer Ph.D.'s should be produced, that those that are produced should be better supported, and that "The Profession," as comprised of hundreds of discrete departments, should renew its commitment to the tenure track by, well, being very committed to it (this commitment in turn is organized around an ideal of hiring as many TT faculty as possible, cutting back on adjunct labor as much as possible, and placing as many newly minted Ph.D.'s as possible in TT jobs). It doesn't work, and it can't.
But one reason is that the problem of what to do with all these Ph.D.'s is too narrowly defined. It's true that a Ph.D. in English or history is not a terribly magnetic job qualification outside academe. Such degrees can, in fact, be positively detrimental to one's extra-academic job hunting, in large part because there exists beyond the academy a not entirely unwarranted belief that humanities Ph.D.-types are the prospective employees from hell--incapable of meeting deadlines, incapable of communicating clearly, contemptuous of taskwork and pragmatic problem-solving, incapable of working well with others. It's a stereotype, and an often unfair one. But it doesn't come out of nowhere, either.
There is one market, though, that is WIDE OPEN for humanities M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s, and that is the independent school market. "Independent" is mostly a contemporary code word for "private," though it can also mean "charter." Your Ph.D.--or, if you are ABD, your M.A.--is a very attractive qualification in this market. In contrast to the public school system, it counts as a teaching qualification (thus preventing you from going back to school to get a highly redundant ed school teaching certificate). Independent schools are eager to add people with advanced degrees to their faculty--in part, this raises the profile of the school and looks good to parents and donors, but far more importantly, these schools recognize that refugees from academe can make marvelous high school teachers. They know this to be true because their faculties are already full of them.
The Village Voice piece linked above tells the story of one such refugee, who is happily earning twice what he would have made as an adjunct teaching at a private high school in New Jersey. I've met a number of such refugees from a number of schools this year. The schools themselves have been as different from one another as people are--but at all of them, the refugees say, entirely independent of one another, that the work they have found in the world of independent school teaching far surpasses the academic life. All say they are able to do the sort of intensive, personalized teaching they dreamed of doing as college teachers, but could not do in a higher ed setting; all say they feel more intellectually alive than they did in academe; and all say, too, that they have a much greater sense of purpose and of professional satisfaction than they did in academe. They are palpably happy, and the differences they are making in kids' lives are real and meaningful. They also have summers off and, having jumped the assembly-line production schedule of the academic track, can follow the far more ethical and constructive course of pursuing their own research and writing projects when and as the spirit moves them. The pay ain't bad, either.
Locating and applying for such jobs could not be easier. There are agencies whose entire mission is to match you with schools that are looking for candidates like you. The agencies are entirely free to the candidates. They are not gimmicks. They work.
Why do you hear absolutely nothing about this career option from within academe? Why do academic departments pretend this entirely dignified and deeply meaningful career path does not exist--even though it could be just what many of their otherwise unemployable Ph.D.'s, not to mention their dissatisfied faculty, are looking for? Why do they treat as beneath their notice a type of work that they ought to be embracing as a seriously significant alternative to the dead-end academic career of the adjunct? Do I really have to ask?
April 28, 2004
Terry Teachout is re-reading W. Jackson Bate's biography of Samuel Johnson again:
Iím currently rereading W. Jackson Bateís Samuel Johnson, something I do every year or two. For me, Johnson is the most sympathetic figure in all of English literature, and the courage with which he climbed out of the abyss of failure and depression has helped nudge me through more than one dark patch of my own life. Not only is Bate better than Boswell when it comes to this particular aspect of Johnsonís psychology, but his biography is a masterly piece of writing for which no stylistic apologies of any kind need be made. Would that all academics wrote so lucidly. A friend of mine who studied under Bate at Harvard assures me that his Johnson class was better than the book, but I wouldnít knowóI didnít go to Harvard, or even Yale! All I can tell you is that Iíve read Samuel Johnson at least ten times since it was published in 1977, and profited from it every time, this one included.
I'm not a great re-reader of books (unless you count the ones I teach regularly, or, in some cases, far too often). But I am a devoted reader of biographies, which I think, in our reality TV-oriented world, often do for us what novels want to do but cannot. I've been so swamped this year that my biography-reading has fallen a bit by the wayside. But I will report that I spent blissful days with Victoria Glendinning's Trollope last summer, and that some of my favorite books of all time include Richard Ellmann's James Joyce and Peter Ackroyd's highly Dickensian feat of bio-logorrhea, Dickens. I'm also a sucker for novels that take up the subject of biography--Virginia Woolf's Flush (which tells the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog), Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (which reworks Great Expectations by way of a fictionalized retelling of the young Dickens' life), A. S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale (which meditates provocatively on how much fictionwriting actually goes into the writing of biography). As summer approaches, Claire Tomalin's recent bio of Pepys calls to me fatly from the shelf. And I just may have to add Bate's bio of Johnson to my list.
I wrote some last week about how interesting, useful, and just plain fun I think a group lit blog might be, and in comments like Terry's the potential for such a blog becomes clear. Terry's description of why and how he reads Bate's Johnson is the sort of thing one would not find in the pages of academic journals. His frank admission that he finds the biography inspiring both as a scholarly work of art and as the "true story" of how one of the greatest figures in English letters overcame tremendous hardship is not the stuff of academic textual analysis. At the same time, it is the stuff of intellectual and personal honesty, of a critical imagination that is not pathologically disconnected from the (choose one: heart, spirit, soul, gut). I read biography for the same reasons Terry does (also on my shelf, fatly waiting to be read, incidentally, is Terry's H. L. Mencken). I find the sheer synthetic power of a good biographer amazing to behold. And I find the artifact that is a well-told life--a life both meticulously documented and scrupulously imagined--remarkably inspiring on a personal level. That may be the George Eliot in me--I tend to accept her idea that the best thing narrative can do for us is extend our sympathies--but so be it.
The phenomenon of endlessly re-reading a particular book, particularly a book that is the story of a life, is something writers themselves like to write about. I am thinking not just of how, say, Robinson Crusoe relied on his Bible when he was stranded on the desert island, but of how Gabriel Betteredge, the butler in Wilkie Collins' Moonstone, relies on Robinson Crusoe:
You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years--generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco--and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady's last birthday, she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.
Collins' joke is that the novel has become our modern Bible. Writing in 1868, that was both a subversive and a sociologically accurate thing to say. Today, perhaps, biography is joining, or even replacing, the novel as our preferred scene of meditation. Worth noting: biography just happens to be the only form of humanist scholarship that actually sells and that people actually read.
April 26, 2004
Those pesky kids
Often, the student press is the biggest thorn in the side of higher ed administrators who espouse a doctrine of repressive tolerance. Friday, I wrote about how admins at Southwest Missouri State University are (illegally) investigating the editor of the student paper and the paper's faculty sponsor for publishing a cartoon Native American students found offensive. FIRE, which is defending the student editor and the faculty advisor, notes that similar events have taken place recently at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and the University of Scranton, where "offensive" April Fool's issues have inspired administrators to crack down on free speech in the name of promoting sensitivity and tolerance:
At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the April Foolís issue of The Tartan led the university to threaten campus journalists with punishment and to establish a ìcontent review boardî for future issues. At the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Chancellor Nancy Belck has said that she would ìnot tolerateî an April Foolís issue of student newspaper The Gateway called ìThe Ghettoway,î and the newspaper staff agreed to sensitivity training. At the University of Scranton, the faculty and student publications board fired the student editor of The Aquinas and confiscated thousands of copies of a satirical April Foolís edition, changed the locks on the newspaperís offices, and suspended the publication.
But even that is not a complete archive of current efforts to chill, regulate, censor, or punish the student press. Tongue Tied reports that at Cornell, students are demanding that funding be withdrawn from two conservative student publications after they published articles critical of racial double standards (one asked why a recent black-on-white assault was not treated as a hate crime, while the other criticized Cornell's affirmative action policies). Tongue Tied also reports that a columnist for Oregon State's student paper was fired after writing a piece criticizing the black community for allowing racial loyalties to trump morality (exhibit A: the prizes and praise singer and accused child porn maven R. Kelly received at the recent Soul Train Music Awards). The punchline in this last case: the student columnist--who is white--was inspired by a similar piece written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Leonard Pitts Jr.--who is black. Fenster Moop has a fascinating post on this one, noting that the real issue here ought to be plagiarism, not racial insensitivity.
Finally, there is the situation at Rutgers, where the student paper's publication of a cartoon that either mocked the Holocaust or mocked Holocaust denial or mocked both (it all depends how you look at it), drew the ire of just about everyone on campus. Faculty and students are calling for the paper's funding--it receives $15,000 a year from discretionary student funds--to be withdrawn, while Rutgers' president has condemned the cartoon as "outrageous in its cruelty" and asked the paper's staff to apologize publicly for running the cartoon. The University Senate also passed a resolution distancing itself from the cartoon. What differentiates this case from the others? Rutgers recognizes that the paper is within its rights to publish offensive material, and has formally issued a Q&A-style press release to clarify the issues for the university community and the general public. It's an exemplary document, one that the addled administrators at the schools cited above might want to take as a model in future.
UPDATE: The student editors of the Rutgers paper are going to issue an apology.
The op-ed that dare not speak its name
Along the lines of "you can't make this stuff up," there comes--via Ralph Luker--this WaPo piece about university professors who have been signing their names to op-eds they did not write but that a PR firm employed by the nuclear energy industry did:
The March 4 op-ed by Sheldon Landsberger, a University of Texas professor of nuclear engineering, argued trenchantly that the government is fleecing electric-power ratepayers, who for more than two decades have been contributing mandatory fees for the development of a proposed national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Landsberger charged that a portion of the fees earmarked for the Nuclear Waste Fund is diverted to the U.S. Treasury. "Denying the Yucca Mountain project an adequate level of funding," he wrote, "is stealing money from taxpayers who were required to support the waste management project."
Strong words. Familiar ones, too. So familiar that I was sure they were entombed in the towering file of articles on nuclear waste that I, ahem, maintain. I knew I could excavate the words eventually. Or I could Google them. I typed in "Yucca Mountain" and "stealing money"; 0.11 seconds later, I had my cite: A Dec. 9, 2003, op-ed column in the State, the Columbia, S.C., daily. It appeared under the byline of Abdel E. Bayoumi, chairman of the department of mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina. Wrote Prof. Bayoumi: "Denying the repository project an adequate amount of funding is essentially stealing money from the taxpayers who were required to support the waste management project."
Other sentences were identical, as was the entire last paragraph, but this was no case of garden-variety plagiarism; Landsberger had not appropriated the words of Bayoumi. Instead, as I was about to learn, Landsberger and other engineering professors at universities great and small had been sent op-eds over the past decade or more and asked to sign, seal and deliver them as their own to their local newspapers. The opinion pieces were written not by the academic experts, but originally by a PR agency in Washington, D.C., working on behalf of the nuclear energy industry.
William Adler, the author of the article, outlines his investigation of how this ugly illicit brokering takes place, devoting particular attention to his discussion with the two academics (who were offended not by their own actions but by discovering that the editorial they signed had also been signed by others) and with the PR firm (which assured him that this sort of thing goes on all the time and cannot be stopped). The piece concludes with some recommendations for editors:
I was upset to learn that the "by" in a scholar's byline may well be a ruse, a duplicitous means of inducing a lobby-authored, lobby-funded piece into print and onto the public agenda. And sure, I recognize that many politicians don't utter a word that a ghost didn't write and a focus group didn't approve, but academic rules require that scholars' research and writing be original. (And isn't that why PR firms recruit scholars to sign the op-eds -- precisely because of their status as independent experts?)
I hereby propose that the nation's editorial page editors ask at least these two questions of outside contributors: 1) Did you write this piece? 2) Are you a consultant, paid or not, to an organization or interest group with a vested interest in your column? I'm not advocating that editors bar from publication those who answer affirmatively, only that their connection and/or interests be disclosed in the author's bio.
That would address the journalistic side of the ethical problem, but leaves the academic side untouched. It goes without saying that in so doing, the piece rather begs the largest questions--about scholarly integrity, professional ethics, and so on--that it raises. If they value their reputations, and if they value the principle of disinterested inquiry that underwrites academic research (however precariously, in this age of corporate grants), colleges and universities should have strict policies forbidding the sort of intellectual prostitution outlined here, and strict penalties for those who prostitute themselves in violation of said policies. It's dishonest, it further cheapens academics' already compromised authority and credibility, and it lends credence to the frequently levelled charge that professors are more likely to be ideological mouthpieces than fair and disinterested scholars and teachers.
Adler notes that profs who sign their names to op-eds authored by others arguably fall afoul of university policies forbidding plagiarism. Treating such behavior as plagiarism would in turn be one way to approach it. But I wonder how good a fit that really is--the act of signing one's name to an op-ed in exchange for payment (whether monetary or reputational) is not the same as stealing someone's ideas or words without their knowledge, and to describe the one as the other is potentially to fail to address what looks to be a distinctly different--though related--category of academic dishonesty. Thoughts are welcome.
UPDATE: Editorial writer Linda Seebach wrote a piece on the "astroturf" problem last year.
April 23, 2004
Games people play
Kitabkhana is playing a new game. In this one, you alter one letter of a title to get a whole new work. Some of the results:
Small man with big feet tries frantically to find someone in Middle Earth who can re-attach his penis.
The Gropes of Wrath
Sexual harrassment in the Depression.
The God of Small Thongs
Arundhati Roy's haunting story of a South Indian lingerie tycoon.
The Fridges of Madison County
The history of refrigeration in Iowa.
The Sound and the Furry
The only really useful guide to healthy animals in the American Deep South
Sometimes truth is stranger than games with fiction: when I was a TA in grad school, a fellow TA received a student essay on Faulkner's unsung classic, The Sound and the Furry. Many more fun results are at Zigzackly. My favorites are Spamela and Animal Fart. To them I humbly add:
Mouse of Mirth:
Edith Wharton meets Stuart Little
The Mellow Wallpaper:
Edward Gorey meets Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Woman in Shite:
Walter Hartright has no clue how to save Laura Fairlie
Lesser-known Wharton novel about unwanted pregnancy
Henderson the Pain King:
Speaks for itself
Girl With a Pear Earring:
Vermeer has a Magritte moment
Too fun. Add your own in the comments.
Censorship at SMSU
Administrators at Southern Missouri State University are trampling the First Amendment in a misguided effort to prove that theirs is a campus that will not tolerate discrimination. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has the details:
Last month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) publicly opposed Southwest Missouri State Universityís (SMSUís) investigation of the student editor and faculty advisor of its student newspaper, The Standard, after it printed an editorial cartoon that some Native American students found ìoffensive.î ÝIn response, SMSU claims that its procedures respect free speech and federal law. In fact, SMSU has refused to end the chilling of protected free expression in its campus paper and has also refused to rule out further punishment of those who merely stood up for First Amendment rights.
ìSMSU is a place where constitutionally protected expression, if it offends anyone, leads not only to long and chilling investigations, but to possible punishment that hangs over your head indefinitely,î said Greg Lukianoff, FIREís director of legal and public advocacy. ÝìSMSUís refusal to end its investigation of its campus press and to rule out the punishment of a faculty member for defending basic rights of free speech is arrogant, absurd, and a betrayal of both the Constitution and the spirit of a free society.îÝ
The innocuous cartoon depicts two Native Americans presenting a female Pilgrim with a gift of canned corn at ìThe 2nd Thanksgiving.î ÝThe Pilgrim responds, ìGladys, the Indians are here and it looks like they brought cornÖAgainÖîÝThis prompted a campus Native American group to file a discrimination complaint with the campus Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) against the newspaper, its editor-in-chief, Mandy Phillips, and its faculty advisor, Professor Wanda Brandon. ÝFIRE wrote to SMSU on March 16, asking that it end immediately its investigation and halt its assault on the First Amendment.
SMSUís response to FIRE implied that it reserved the right to punish Brandon as a faculty member for her defense of the student newspaperís rights. FIRE then twice asked SMSU for assurance that it would live up to its constitutional obligations by ending the OEOís intervention and ruling out any possibility of punishment for this incident. SMSU General Counsel John Black wrote that it was ìimpossibleî to rule out punishment of Professor Brandon for this incident and ìimpossibleî to rule out further campus judicial hearings against the campus newspaper and its editor.Ý
FIREís Lukianoff noted, ìIt is outrageous that SMSU will not rule out punishment of Brandon for refusing to participate in an investigation of protected speech. It is still more outrageous because even the newspaperís agreement with the university rules out faculty interference with the paperís content. FIRE expects SMSU to honor its obligations under the Bill of Rights and to end the persecution of Brandon and the campus press.î
SMSU sent a form email response, signed by General Counsel Black, to its many critics, claiming that federal law requires investigation of any charge of ìdiscrimination,î but the publication of unquestionably protected speech is neither discrimination nor a legitimate basis for ignoring the First Amendment. ìIf someone charged a person with ëdiscriminationí for going to church,î Lukianoff observed, ìthere is no investigation, because the behavior is clearly constitutionally protected freedom of religion. In this case, publication of a cartoon is fully constitutionally protected freedom of the press. There is nothing to investigate. Indeed, SMSUís real obligation is to protect such freedom.îÝÝ
SMSU claims that no one, including Professor Brandon, has been investigated or threatened with punishment. That is false. Evidence in FIREís possession shows that Brandon was summoned by the OEO, that she was instructed to bring various materials with her, and that according to SMSU policies, such a step is taken only after a complaint is being formally addressed. Further, according to Standard editor Phillips, the OEO contacted the paper and warned it not to write a story on the complaint, citing OEO confidentiality provisions. ìA newspaper,î Lukianoff noted, ìcould not even report of its own muzzling.îÝ
Personally, I think the cartoon is just dumb. But you don't have to find the cartoon funny or inoffensive to see what's wrong with this picture. More disturbing even that SMSU's initially misguided decision to honor a flagrantly illegitimate charge of discrimination is its refusal to acknowledge its mistake. Ignorance of the law combined with moral zeal created the original problem. Now SMSU admins are adding sheer arrogant hubris to the lengthening list of the ways in which they are failing students, faculty, the First Amendment, and the principle of a free press. Short of legal action, the best way to pressure SMSU to shape up is to publicize the school's actions far and wide. Here's to the blogosphere and the major media working together to embarrass the living daylights out of SMSU's self-appointed thought police.
April 22, 2004
A. S. Byatt--one of my favorite novelists--did an online chat with The Washington Post earlier today. Here are some choice excerpts.
On writing moral or issue-oriented fiction:
Most writers are better at treating big moral issues obliquely, unless they are completely possessed by something they must say. I am suspicious of writers who go looking for issues to address. Writers are neither preachers nor journalists. Jounralists know much more than most writers about what's going on in the world. And if you want to change things you do journalism. Books I have read that were written at a moment of social-political crisis tend to be incomprehensible 20 years later. Books that are written about some problem of 20 or 50 or 100 years ago are written with understanding and somehow also illuminate the present and the future.
On aging and novel-writing:
I like the kind of independence of this brief period of my life when you don't feel physically "really" old, and I know that my work is better than it ever has been. So I feel kind of gleeful. But I also know it won't last very long. So I think I should look at aging while I'm still physically fit enough to look at it objectively. So far it's been fun, but any moment now it will cease to be fun.
I spend a lot of my time watching tennis. Tennis players are old when they're Agassi's age. Whereas writers, particularly writers who write long novels, they are only starting at Agassi's age. I knew that as a little girl. I knew I had chosen a profession for old people. I hated being a novelist when I was 20--I had nothing to write about. So my life now is a kind of small window of having the knowledge and not dying.
On writing fiction about painting:
I like to write about painting because I think visually. I see my writing as blocks of color before it forms itself. I think I also care about painting because I'm not musical. Painting to me is not a metaphor for writing, but something people do that can never be reduced to words. And I love the difference in time between looking at a painting and reading a book. Looking at a painting is a timeless contemplation. There is no reason why you should stop looking. And this can become difficult. A book must be read from beginning to end, however you divide your attention after that.
The quartet is easy to describe. Virgin and the Garden was red white and green, and the red was blood and the white was stone and the green was grass. Still Life started out very dark purple, and then I felt there ought to be yellow, it was the complementary color to the purple, and because I felt there ought to be yellow, I thought of van Gogh's chair, and in fact van Gogh became an important symbolic figure in that book. He got in because of the color yellow. Babel Tower is black and red, because of blood and destruction. And A Whistling Woman is quite difficult, because it tries to tie them all together. And in fact it combines the colors of all the others. At the end there are two scenes of fire, one is a real fire when the students burn down the university, and the second is a metaphorical fire when Frederica is looking over the moors and it's all the gorse is in bloom, and it looks as far as you can see the land is on fire, but it's only flowers. And the colors of The Whistling Woman are the Babel Tower colors, which are the real fire, and the Still Life yellow, which is the harmless fire.
On the lost but possibly reviving art of storytelling:
certainly the English novel went through a long period of just describing personal feelings or being symbolic. But I think recently there has been a huge surge of interest in non-realistic storytelling, such as fairy tale or adventures. I admire the work of two young British writers, Lawrence Norfolk and David Mitchell, both of whom are flamboyant master storytellers. It is also true that Freudian psychoanalysis is a form of storytelling. People tell the story of their own lives, including the dreams, in order to understand them. But I am increasingly interested in stories that move beyond one person's experience. I think we had lost those and are getting them back. In England, there is an increasing art of storytelling for children out loud, both old traditional stories and new ones.
On readers, especially American ones:
Before I wrote Possession, I was often criticized for being erudite or complicated, and I used to say, I write for myself or for Henry James. I had a very clear idea of the ghost of Henry James as moral support. However, when Possession became a bestseller, I got so many letters from so many kinds of readers that I decided there are readers who can be interested in almost anything--including erudition--as long as you also tell a story. I enjoy meeting readers because writing is very lonely--and I enjoy being alone--but I am constantly amazed to meet people who have read and liked my books.
American editors speak of some imaginary person, The American Reader, who will not understand things. I have formed the view that they are speaking of somebody who would never buy books anyway. America is full of readers of all different sorts who love books in many different ways, and I keep meeting them. And I think editors should look after them, and make less effort to please people who don't actually like books.
Byatt's work is some of the smartest, least trendoid literary work out there. She is a critic as well as a novelist, which accounts in part for her extraordinary thoughtfulness. She is also a lifelong student of literature--at university, she attended Leavis' lectures, and she went on to become a lecturer herself before leaving academe to become a fulltime novelist (if memory serves, this coincided with the writing and publication of the Booker Prize-winning Possession). My own attraction to Byatt is layered--I have always adored the fiction, which continues to shift and grow and change as time passes, but I also admire the arc of her life. Byatt is a scholar through and through--but she chose to devote herself to writing intelligent accessible fiction rather than to producing endless unreadable and arcane academic monographs. That choice, in turn, was not a rejection of critical thinking, or of literary study, but a way of embracing these things more fully and meaningfully than Criticism Proper generally allows (at times, as in The Biographer's Tale, Byatt's fiction actually is criticism--or even criticism of the institution of criticism).
In making the decision to leave academe for fiction, and in inhabiting fictionwriting as intelligently (at times ponderously intelligently) as she has, Byatt has more in common with the also occasionally ponderous but also often marvelous Victorian novelist George Eliot--who at her lover's advice chose fictionwriting over philosophy in order to ensure that her explorations of ideas never became bloodless and sterile--than with most contemporary authors and critics. She is very much a writer of the modern moment, and yet she is also an artist animated by the ideals of another time. If you have never read any Byatt, do: you can warm up with The Matisse Stories, or plunge straight into Possession. If you do read Byatt, you'll be glad to know she's just brought out a new book, Little Black Book of Stories.
April 21, 2004
Spinning into sensitivity training
From Rebecca Gilman's 2000 play, Spinning into Butter:
Dean 1: There's a problem.
Dean 2: What?
Dean 1: Someone's been leaving threatening ...well, racist notes on the door of one of our African American students.
Dean 2: Please tell me you're kidding.
Prof who used to sleep with Dean 1: Oh my God.
Dean 1: Maybe you should look at them. (She holds out two notes. They gather around and read, passing them among themselves. As they read) He said he was willing to ignore the first one, but then he found this one this afternoon and it was so ... graphic.
(Pause. They read, silenced. Then)
Dean 2: And you say somebody just left this on his door?
Dean 1: Yes. When he got the second one, he took them over to security and they called me.
They briefly discuss where the student lives, whether he is frightened, who should speak with him. Then they turn to the twin administrative problems of ferreting out the resident racist and publicly denouncing racism:
Dean 3: ... we have to decide what to do. ... We have a dangerous racist in our midst.
Dean 2: I suppose someone from security could watch his dorm, or if he wants to--
Dean 3: (Interrupting, overlapping) No no no. The question is: How do we punish this racist?
Dean 1: Won't we expel him?
Prof: Or her?
Dean 3: (Overlapping) That's a defensive action. We have to be pro-active on this. We must make it known, loud and clear, that this sentiment, this trash, is not Belmont. That Belmont cannot be reduced to this outrageous action. We should issue some sort of statement right away, condemning this--
Dean 1: (Interrupting) I think we should try to find out who did it first, before we go around issuing statements.
Dean 2: Technically we should call President Garvey and ask him what to do.
Prof: Garvey won't know what to do. He's so out of touch. Burton's right. I think we should make a public gesture of some sort. We should call a campus-wide meeting so we can discuss what's going on.
Dean 3: Yes.
Dean 1: Don't you think we should talk to Simon [the student who received the notes] first?
Prof: Look, we pride ourselves on our inclusiveness. We claim to embrace cultural diversity. And yet some racist is running loose on campus, and I would wager that this idiot is very much like all our other students in appearance and manner and class, and that's what we need to reveal. That racism isn't somebody else's problem. It's our problem. If we handle this right, it could be a real learning experience for the students.
Dean 2: All right, then. Good. This seems like the sort of response we should have, doesn't it? If it leaks out to any of the parents and some irate mother calls me, I can say, 'We've already organized a campus meeting in order to reduce any stress or obviate any adverse reactions....' Something like that.
Dean 3: Obviate? Will that translate?
Dean 2: Whatever. I'll write it out so it sounds right. I always get fifteen or twenty calls on these sorts of things and it's better just to write down what you plan to say.
Dean 1: I thought you'd never seen anything like this before.
Dean 2: Not like this, no. So, shall I propose this campus forum thingee to President Garvey? I'll tell him everyone at the committee meeting thinks it's a good idea. He doesn't have to know that we're missing half the people.
Prof: I strongly recommend it. You can tell him that.
Dean 3: As do I.
Dean 2: Sarah?
Dean 1: I just ... I feel like we're moving too fast. We should talk to Simon first. What if he doesn't want us to talk about him this way?
Dean 3: Why wouldn't he?
The whole play is like this. Very very smart about administrative cant, particularly the self-congratulatory posing that makes up so much of campus efforts to promote tolerance and denounce racism, while at the same time turning out to be extraordinarily smart about race. Turns out the deans wind up alienating just about every student on campus with their opportunistic forum on sensitivity. Also turns out that Simon faked the hate crimes against himself.
Gilman's play would make a fabulous text for the freshman reading projects that so many colleges and universities build into new student orientation. There is a widespread tendency to turn these introductory reading assignments, which are often about race and racism, into occasions for "educating" new students in the ways of campus sensitivity. I don't love the proselytizing flavor of that intent, and I particularly object to the way targeted reading assignments and the carefully crafted, ideologically leading discussion guidelines that come with them exploit and cheapen what should be an enriching and inspiring collective intellectual experience. That said, I can imagine quite an excellent discussion emerging out of a collective reading of Gilman's play--not least because of the way the play connects its exploration of racial attitudes to its analysis of what happens when administrators try to dictate matters of conscience to students, faculty, and even one another.
I nominate Claremont McKenna College for Spinning into Butter's debut as a preferred text for incoming freshmen. I think that's one campus that is particularly well primed to think hard and well about the issues Gilman raises. After all, the administration there recently responded just as hamhandedly and prematurely to a faked hate crime as the make believe admins above did.
April 20, 2004
Bookchat: the blog
In response to yesterday's post about whether and how blogging could revitalize and/or reshape literary studies, Amardeep Singh offers some observations and some possible names.
I might venture a more detailed opinion on this later in the week, but for now I simply want to register how interesting the debate has been. Several of the people who have weighed in on the issue have pointed out that a) most of the most vibrant literature-oriented blogs out there are written by people who are not academics, and b) most of the people who are passionately involved in this discussion are either non-academics or not literary scholars! Sociologically, it's a little puzzling. Why are so many non English-lit people preoccupied with the fate of literary studies? I've encountered similar sentiments from many of my non-academic friends: 'why are you guys so debilitated by jargon?' Perhaps it's because literary studies has traditionally been a kind of core to humanist study. So maybe all the worry about the decline of the field is a form of backhanded legitimation.
(since the term seems to have taken on a life of its own. Downside: sounds a little like 'Bookslut')
(A reference to Wallace Stevens; suggests an openness to multiple perspectives)
(from Marianne Moore's "Critics and Connoisseurs": "Happening to stand / by an ant-hill, I have / seen a fastidious ant carrying a stick north, south, / east, west, till it turned on / itself, struck out from the flower bed into the lawn, / and returned to the point." )
"All That Is Solid"
(...melts into air. Can mark the resistance to jargon [air], or it can be self-deprecating acceptance of airiness)
(suggests that the bloggers are 'over' MLA, its conventions, and its journal, in the fashion of postmodernism, etc.; also alludes to the structure of a blog, where one 'posts')
"Surprised by Sincerity"
(ok, I just like the title... probably not a realistic suggestion)
The commentary at Crooked Timber continues apace, as do related postings elsewhere in the blogosphere, with interesting emerging subdebates about whether it would be desirable to attempt to popularize serious, scholarly discussion about literature: Would such an attempt further erode the job crisis in the academic humanities by destroying the discipline's claim to expertise? Isn't it a sad joke to contemplate popularizing serious scholarly discussion about literature when existing academic hierarchies will necessarily shape who has authority in such discussions? What other disciplines could benefit from scholars blogging accessibly about their fields?
My own feelings tend toward the populist.
I have no interest whatsoever in a lit blog that devotes itself to chronicling for the masses the professional culture of working academic humanists. The purpose of such a blog would, in my mind, not be to justify the job of literature professor by allowing the public to experience--vicariously, voyeuristically--the trials and tribulations of the academic life. It's true that what literature professors actually do, and whether they do anything at all, is frequently questioned by a general public that loves to fix on the misleading "six hours per week" non-fact. But I would hate to see a blog that is supposed to be devoted to literary discussion hijacked by an agenda of this sort.
What I do have an interest in: People coming together from all walks of life because they share an abiding and serious interest in studying literature, and creating a blog together to do it. Ideally the writers would come from a variety of backgrounds, and this would in turn attract a varied community of readers and commenters. Some would be academics, some would be students, some would be academics and students from non-literary fields. Some would be journalists and critics, some would be teachers, some would be poets and novelists and playwrights. Some would be voracious teenagers who have just discovered the immense joys of reading grown-up books with a newly adult mind. Some would be older people who are rediscovering literature now that retirement gives them the time to do so. Some would be hobbyists and audodidacts, some would be working professionals. And so on. What they would talk about: Not the politics of academic life, not who got what grant and when the next big conference is, but literature, aesthetics, and the philosophical, historical, and political issues that arise from them.
If academic literary study can't survive such an endeavor--if it loses its credibility in the moment of seeking to become genuinely accessible and broadly relevant--then so be it. Any discipline whose authority is predicated on an elitism that cannot and will not explain itself deserves to wither and die. My own personal belief is not that engaging with the public will kill the academic humanities, but that continued failure to do so will.
The question of who would have what kinds of authority on such a blog is a pressing one. There are people without literature degrees who can wipe the floor intellectually with those who do. There are professors of literature who do not deserve the title, and there are those who abuse their authority even when they do deserve it. There are students and adjuncts and junior faculty members for whom disagreeing with or displeasing someone senior to them costs them their grade or even their career. It shouldn't be so, but it is. Again, though, I think this is an argument for, and not against, the sort of cross-disciplinary, extra-academic "book chat" John Holbo envisions.
One thing that has been forgotten by too many people in too many English departments: One's loyalty should always be first and foremost to the material, not to ideological or methodological factions or to the particular ficklenesses of those with the power to do professional harm to others. And one thing a blog of the sort envisioned here could conceivably do: Create a space where what motivates participants is not professional advancement or self-protection, but the sincere and free pursuit of ideas. People would not participate because they are professor so and so, and people would not be granted authority just because they have a certain degree or a certain job. Academic participants would be conversing with people from around the world. They would not have power over the vast majority of them. They would have to earn the respect of the blog's community from scratch--that is just how the blogosphere works. This could be profoundly, positively transformative for those academics who take part. And it could be enormously beneficial to both the credibility of academic literary study and to a public eager to think harder and better about what they read.
This is the optimist's view, anyhow.
April 19, 2004
Blogging as disciplinary CPR
John Holbo has begun a fascinating thread at Crooked Timber about how and whether blogs can help to revive the moribund field of academic literary study. Along the way, he makes a number of astute observations: that the best literary commentary to be found on blogs is written by non-academics; that as pedagogical and scholarly tools, blogs are underused in the academic humanities; that academic literary blogging could help jumpstart the discipline out of its "shame-spiral of doubt and anxiety"; that blogging could also allow literary studies to sidestep the rate-limiting problem of its present publishing crisis by enabling people to publish their work independent of university presses, with their shrinking lit lists, their protracted publication timetables, and their strangulating gatekeeping powers.
Holbo gets flamed a lot in the comments for his troubles, but that's just symptomatic of the problems he outlines. Academic literary study has got to be one of the most defensive (and defensively self-destructive) fields out there. As a philosopher, Holbo is an outsider who, in daring to comment on the state of the field, opens himself to the sort of regulatory condescension and wagon-circling hostility that is endemic within it. I for one am glad he is undeterred; he has much to say, and it seems highly significant to me that someone without an immediate stake in whether lit departments live or die is the one who is saying it. A particularly nice observation from Holbo, in response to some less-than-friendly comments:
Literary studies is a leviathan with poor circulation, if you will. You need to rub the giant limbs vigorously to get any worthwhile, large-scale activity out of the thing. And that sort of rubbing is: bookchat, frankly. There needs to be some constant buzz of low-level literary energy entering the system and zapping about. That is totally lacking at present, for a variety of institutional and cultural reasons. The journals, as they exist, are poor at it. (Well, this is a big one. Iíll talk about it later.) Now Iím not inclined to make apologies for bookchat, or grant the point that academic literary studies is in any way shape or form more sophisticated than good literary journalism. I fail to see the reasonable benchmark according to which it turns out that academics know things that smart journalists and other serious, devoted bookhounds donít. But it seems to me that even if you thought this was low-grade stuff to be academically disdained, you would still admit that it is an indispensable catalyzing precondition for anything much happening higher up. If you donít rub the giant limbs, getting the fannish blood flowing, the big guy wonít get up and run around the block. So if you think only mighty activities are worthy of us it ought to come to the same in the end, prescription-wise.
It's nice to see a spade (or a leviathan) called a spade (or a leviathan). Like Holbo, I regularly read the nonacademic lit and arts blogs like Maud Newton, Cup of Chicha, and especially About Last Night. I also regularly note, as I read them, that their sharpness, their energy, their voraciously incisive relation to books, not only mark them out as different from the blogs of most Professional Literary Scholars, but also seem to be contingent on the fact that their authors are not working academic humanists. The quality of intelligence and the vitality of critical imagination in these blogs--where, for example, it is possible to express appreciation for or even love of a work of art without losing one's virtual intellectual street cred--strike me as something that is expressly militated against in academic spheres, and that can only emerge safely elsewhere, in opposition and contradistinction to it.
Which brings me to my reservations about whether the blog-induced revival Holbo envisions is possible, given academic literary studies' attitudes toward technology and transparency.
One phenomenon Holbo does not note: the hostility many academic humanists have toward technology (it's the thing that is going to destroy the Book, after all), the technophobia that goes hand in hand with that, and the manner in which that essentially irresponsible and ostrichlike fear of the unknown gets elevated to a moral good, a form of counterhegemonic resistance that grows more and more necessary every day. The number of established academic humanists who refuse to use email, or who think it is some kind of political statement not to be able to send or open an attachment, or who regard the web (when they are not shopping on it) as an inferior form of distraction rather than as a revolutionary research and communication tool is surprisingly high. This would not matter so much if it weren't for the fact that these people are the ones setting standards (and, equally important in a discipline with no clear quantitative measures of competence, fashions). They pass their stylish resistances along to their students, sending the clear message that a cultivated ignorance of computers is not only acceptable among "artsy" humanist types, but a badge of belonging. Those of us who have attempted to impose even the most basic technological requirements on students have seen this particular professional pathology in all its glorious colors: undergrads do better than grad students do better than junior faculty do better than senior, but at all levels there are those who proudly declare their studied ludditism as a professional qualification, a sign of their uniquely refined critical sensibilities. As long as technological illiteracy is widely licensed by the rhetoric of intellectual exceptionalism, blogging will not come readily into literary studies.
Even more to the point: literary scholars' collective hostility toward technology, especially as it expresses membership in a self-described cultural elite and a discipline-specific condescension to those outside it with pretenses to know or understand literature and culture, is closely connected to a deep suspicion of accessibility. Holbo is right that literary studies is one discipline that should be aiming at a wide audience and whose health may be measured in terms of its ability to connect with a public that is larger than its overspecialized self. He is right, too, that one sign of the systemic disorder of literature departments today is that their members are positively hostile to the idea that their relevance may and should be assessed by--horror of horrors--uncredentialled laypersons, the great nonacademic unwashed.
You don't have to be a superprogrammer to use blogger or Movable Type. But you do have to accept the premise that the web is a wonderful means of disseminating information and of spurring truly inclusive discussion, and you do have to accept that such discussion is, or ought to be, a goal of professional literary study. I don't think too many academic humanists buy these premises (not enough to practice them, anyhow). Blogging also requires you to put your intellect on the line--which in practice means putting the cheap metonymic authority of your Institutional Affiliation in the trash where it belongs, and earning whatever new authority you can by subjecting your thoughts to the brutal natural selection processes of the virtual marketplace of ideas. You can count the number of literary scholars who are willing to do that on Crooked Timber's blogroll. You can also count the number who are willing to do that while signing their names to what they are doing.
But I agree with Holbo that one really cracking group blog could do a huge amount to change things. My own feeling is that such a blog would ideally draw its writers from within and without academe, that part of its mission would be to form a working conversational bridge across zones that tend to be too separate from one another. I also feel that like Crooked Timber and Cliopatria, and unlike the highly controlled Volokh Conspiracy, such a blog should absolutely have comments enabled. The point, after all, of such an endeavor would not be to display critical brilliance (or cheap imitations thereof, as the case may be) before a muted readership, but to facilitate a genuinely thoughtful exchange that is open to all comers.
So who would launch such a blog? And who would write for it? And what would it be called? All thoughts welcome.
April 16, 2004
Well versed in academic seduction
From the opening pages of J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, a novel about a South African literature professor whose career is ruined after he has an affair with a student:
Wine, music: a ritual that men and women play out with each other. Nothing wrong with rituals, they were invented to ease the awkward passages. But the girl he has brought home is not just thirty years his junior: she is a student, his student, under his tutelage. No matter what passes between them now, they will have to meet again as teacher and pupil. Is he prepared for that?
'Are you enjoying the course?' he asks.
'I liked Blake. The Wonderhorn stuff.'
'I'm not so crazy about Wordsworth.'
'You shouldn't be saying that to me. Wordsworth has been one of my masters.'
It is true. For as long as he can remember, the harmonies of The Prelude have echoed within him.
'Maybe by the end of the course I'll appreciate him more. Maybe he'll grow on me.'
'Maybe. But in my experience poetry speaks to you either at first sight or not at all. A flash of revelation and a flash of response. Like lightning. Like falling in love.'
Like falling in love. Do the young still fall in love,or is that mechanism obsolete by now, unnecessary, quaint, like steam locomotion? He is out of touch, out of date. Falling in love could have fallen out of fashion and come back again half a dozen times, for all he knows.
'Do you write poetry yourself?' he asks.
'I did when I was at school. I wasn't very good. I haven't got the time now.'
'And passions? Do you have any literary passions?'
She frowns at the strange word. 'We did Adrienne Rich and Toni Morrison in my second year. And Alice Walker. I got pretty involved. But I wouldn't call it a passion, exactly.'
So: not a creature of passion. In the most roundabout of ways, is she warning him off?
He convinces her to stay for dinner, and for coffee after dinner. He plies her with wine, keeps the Scarlatti playing. They talk about Byron's love life, his own divorces. He urges her to spend the night.
Across the rim of the cup she regards him steadily. 'Why?'
'Because you ought to.'
'Why ought I to?'
'Why? Because a woman's beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.'
His hand still rests against her cheek. She does not withdraw, but does not yield either.
'And what if I already share it?' In her voice there is a hint of breathlessness. Exciting, always, to be courted: exciting, pleasurable.
'Then you should share it more widely.'
Smooth words, as old as seduction itself. Yet at this moment he believes in them. She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself.
'From fairest creatures we desire increase,' he says, 'that therefore beauty's rose might never die.'
Not a good move. Her smile loses its playful, mobile quality. The pentameter, whose cadence once served so well to oil the serpent's words, now only estranges. He has become a teacher again, man of the book, guardian of the culture-hoard. She puts down her cup. 'I must leave, I'm expected.'
The clouds have cleared, the stars are shining. 'A lovely night,' he says, unlocking the garden gate. She does not look up. 'Shall I walk you home?'
'Very well. Good night.' He reaches out, enfolds her. For a moment he can feel her little breasts against him. The she slips his embrace and is gone.
Disgrace is as weak as Francine Prose's Blue Angel when it comes to explaining why an intelligent and canny middle-aged professor would chuck his livelihood, his reputation, and his self-respect for the sake of a roll in the hay with a coarse post-nymphet with whom he has nothing in common. But this is a remarkable passage nonetheless--the free indirect style shows so skilfully how the professor is projecting his own hackneyed concepts of romance and feminine responsiveness onto the student; the failure of the line from Shakespeare to do its seductive work not only dramatizes how profoundly the sexual rhythms of the professor's generation differ from those of his student, but suggests, too, how closely tied sexual desire is to literary expectation: the professor assumes that if he feeds his student a line from a love sonnet, she will be his; the line repels the student because it deviates from her own idea--her own stock narrative--of how her professor ought to seduce her.
Even more remarkable is the manner in which this scene from Coetzee's 1999 novel anticipates the story with which feminist at large Naomi Wolf recently regaled the world about an encounter she had with Yale literature professor Harold Bloom some twenty years ago. Wolf was doing an independent study with Bloom; she invited him to her home for a candlelit, wine-soaked meal that was to be a prelude to discussing her poetry. But instead of discussing her work, Bloom made a pass at Wolf, a traumatic event from which, apparently, she has yet to recover. The student in Disgrace does eventually sleep with the professor, and also eventually files harassment charges against him. Wolf turned Bloom down, but is belatedly using the media to accuse him of being a serial harasser. One wonders whether Wolf is a reader of Coetzee (the professor in the novel is roundly punished for his sins), whether the student in the novel would have spent the night if instead of quoting Shakespeare the professor had said "You have the aura of election about you," whether Wolf would not have vomited in the sink if Bloom had tried to seduced her by whispering sweet pentameter, preferably her own, in her eager, willing ear.
April 15, 2004
Double jeopardy at Cumberland College
Academistics has an update on the case of Robert Day, the Cumberland College professor who was summarily fired (or "offered the opportunity to resign") after he posted a website last fall calling for fiscal and procedural accountability at the school. Day remains fired, though the AAUP has written several letters to Cumberland's president defending the principle of academic freedom (which Day was arguably exercising when he posted his site) and arguing, too, that the school should have honored Day's attempt to retract the resignation he gave in the heat of the moment when he was confronted about his site. The news now is that Cumberland is punishing Day's former department chair, James Bailey, for standing up for Day. Bailey has been put on a special contract next year, one that stipulates the college's right to fire him at will; the reason for the special contract is "three instances of poor performance," each of which involved efforts Bailey made on Day's behalf. Cumberland College is on course to be censured by the AAUP. Too bad the administrators there don't seem to care, since censure is the only sanction the AAUP can dole out.
April 13, 2004
The amazing adventures of collegiate censorship
You may have read about the student who was expelled from San Francisco's Academy of Art University after he wrote a violent story about a serial killer for a class assignment. You may recall, too, that the student's teacher was fired for the apparently reprehensible acts of assigning a racy story to her class (David Foster Wallace's "Girl With Curious Hair") and for bringing the student's disturbing story to the attention of school administrators. Writers from all walks of literature (Salmon Rushdie, Stephen King, Dave Eggers, and even the great Lemony Snicket himself) spoke out against the school's obviously misplaced desire to maintain a "safe" environment by expelling students for edgy work, pointing out the obvious--that a story about violence is not itself an act of violence--and the equally obvious, that art necessarily takes risks, that artists in training must learn to handle difficult and even offensive material, and that it is the particular responsibility of a university dedicated to the arts to ensure that student artistic expression is not chilled. The articles linked above are extremely rich in their detailed portrayal of a college administration run punitively and protectively amok, and are well worth a quick perusal.
In today's New York Times, Michael Chabon (author of Wonder Boys, which is perhaps better known in its Michael Douglas movie incarnation, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), takes up the San Francisco case in order to offer some trenchant reflections on the philosophical kinship between the Bill of Rights and the teenaged imagination. Noting that in this case, no criminal charges were brought against the unfortunate author of the story, Chabon observes that
In this regard, the San Francisco case differs from other incidents in California, and around the country, in which students, unlucky enough to have as literary precursor the Columbine mass-murderer Dylan Klebold, have found themselves expelled, even prosecuted and convicted on criminal charges, because of the violence depicted in their stories and poems. The threat posed by these prosecutions to civil liberties, to the First Amendment rights of our young people, is grave enough. But as a writer, a parent and a former teenager, I see the workings of something more iniquitous: not merely the denial of teenagers' rights in the name of their own protection, but the denial of their humanity in the name of preserving their innocence.
It is in the nature of a teenager to want to destroy. The destructive impulse is universal among children of all ages, rises to a peak of vividness, ingenuity and fascination in adolescence, and thereafter never entirely goes away. Violence and hatred, and the fear of our own inability to control them in ourselves, are a fundamental part of our birthright, along with altruism, creativity, tenderness, pity and love. It therefore requires an immense act of hypocrisy to stigmatize our young adults and teenagers as agents of deviance and disorder. It requires a policy of dishonesty about and blindness to our own histories, as a species, as a nation, and as individuals who were troubled as teenagers, and who will always be troubled, by the same dark impulses. It also requires that favorite tool of the hypocritical, dishonest and fearful: the suppression of constitutional rights.
We justly celebrate the ideals enshrined in the Bill of Rights, but it is also a profoundly disillusioned document, in the best sense of that adjective. It stipulates all the worst impulses of humanity: toward repression, brutality, intolerance and fear. It couples an unbridled faith in the individual human being, redeemed time and again by his or her singular capacity for tenderness, pity and all the rest, with a profound disenchantment about groups of human beings acting as governments, court systems, armies, state religions and bureaucracies, unchecked by the sting of individual conscience and only belatedly if ever capable of anything resembling redemption.
In this light the Bill of Rights can be read as a classic expression of the teenage spirit: a powerful imagination reacting to a history of overwhelming institutional repression, hypocrisy, chicanery and weakness. It is a document written by men who, like teenagers, knew their enemy intimately, and saw in themselves all the potential they possessed to one day become him. We tend to view idealism and cynicism as opposites, when in fact neither possesses any merit or power unless tempered by, fused with, the other. The Bill of Rights is the fruit of that kind of fusion; so is the teenage imagination.
Chabon may not quite realize it, but he's just made a truly eloquent argument against campus speech codes. May his words be heard in the administrative groves of academe.
April 12, 2004
Mamet's PC dress rehearsal
Writing for The Guardian on the occasion of Oleanna's upcoming premier at London's Garrick Theatre, David Mamet recalls the reception his play received when it was first staged--as a dress rehearsal at Brown University:
When it opened in 1992, my play Oleanna was a succËs de scandal, a handy French phrase meaning everyone was so enraged by it that everyone had to see it. What was it about this play, a rather straightforward classical tragedy, that drove people berserk? It asserted that a person could make an accusation, the truth or supportability of which was open to debate. One would not think this enraging - but the accusation was made by a young female student against a male professor, and the accusation was of rape.
The play's first audience was a group of undergraduates from Brown University. They came to a dress rehearsal. The play ended and I asked the folks what they thought. "Don't you think it's politically questionable," one said, "to have the girl make a false accusation of rape?"
I, in my ignorance, was stunned. I didn't realise it was my job to be politically acceptable. I'd always thought society employed me to be dramatic; further, I wondered what force had so perverted the young that they would think that increasing political enfranchisement of a group rendered a member of that group incapable of error - in effect, rendered her other-than-human. For if the subject of art is not our maculate, fragile and often pathetic humanity, what is the point of the exercise? And if the writer is capable, why enquire, let alone obsess about his sex? No one ever said of a comedy, "I laughed myself sick until I discovered the sex of the writer."
What Mamet wasn't around to see: Brown's own real life staging of an Oleanna-esque tragedy-cum-farce just four years later. If the name Adam Lack means nothing to you, read this column from the Brown Daily Herald carefully (and if you want still more on Lack's case, search the BDH archives for same). In 1992, Brown students accused David Mamet of political incorrectness for broaching the possibility that accusations of rape may sometimes be false, and for framing his play in such a way as to suggest that the modern campus is an atmosphere ripe for such accusations to do serious and lasting damage to the accused. By 1996, the Brown campus was busily doing just that to Adam Lack, whose consensual encounter with Sarah Klein became rape--or, in the mincing words of the administration, "sexual misconduct"--the moment she decided, weeks after the event, that this is what it was. Mamet's play may not have been PC--but in telling the truth as he saw it, and in concentrating on producing powerful drama rather than on driving home a political message, Mamet managed to be quite prescient indeed about what kinds of procedural and personal horror lie latent in the seemingly innocuous question, "Don't you think it's politically questionable ... to have the girl make a false accusation of rape?"
I have not read Gilman's play (it's in the To Read stack, along with some Eudora Welty, some Louis Menand, and some John Knowles). But Mamet's play is creepy in the extreme for the way it captures the moment of profound misunderstanding between (preoccupied, condescending, narcissistic) male professor and (confused, ill-prepared, hyper-literalist, shoulder-chipped, paradigm-seeking) female student. Read it, if you haven't. And then rent the movie. William H. Macy is terrifying. And if you are in London, get thee to the Garrick.
April 11, 2004
Attention deficit and the modern intellect
Camille Paglia offers some new reflections on familiar objections to the manner in which the new electronic media have altered the intellects, the imaginations, and the attention spans of the young:
Interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S. It is difficult to imagine American students today, even at elite universities, gathering impromptu at midnight for a passionate discussion of big, challenging literary works like Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazovóa scene I witnessed in a recreation room strewn with rock albums at my college dormitory in upstate New York in 1965. As a classroom teacher for over thirty years, I have become increasingly concerned about evidence of, if not cultural decline, then cultural dissipation since the 1960s, a decade that seemed to hold such heady promise of artistic and intellectual innovation. Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them. I am reminded of an unnerving scene in Stanley Kubrick's epic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where an astronaut, his air hose cut by the master computer gone amok, spins helplessly off into space. The new generation, raised on TV and the personal computer but deprived of a solid primary education, has become unmoored from the mother ship of culture. Technology, like Kubrick's rogue computer, HAL, is the companionable servant turned ruthless master. The ironically self-referential or overtly politicized and jargon-ridden paradigms of higher education, far from helping the young to cope or develop, have worsened their vertigo and free fall. Today's students require not subversion of rationalist assumptionsóthe childhood legacy of intellectuals born in Europe between the two World Warsóbut the most basic introduction to structure and chronology. Without that, they are riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images.
The extraordinary technological aptitude of the young comes partly from their now-instinctive ability to absorb information from the flickering TV screen, which evolved into the glassy monitor of the omnipresent personal computer. Television is reality for them: nothing exists unless it can be filmed or until it is rehashed onscreen by talking heads. The computer, with its multiplying forums for spontaneous free expression from e-mail to listservs and blogs, has increased facility and fluency of language but degraded sensitivity to the individual word and reduced respect for organized argument, the process of deductive reasoning. The jump and jitter of U.S. commercial television have demonstrably reduced attention span in the young. The Web too, with its addictive unfurling of hypertext, encourages restless acceleration.
Say what you will about the historicity of consciousness, the new forms of synthesis and skill enabled by facility with new media, the sheer kinesis--not to mention thrill--of a world where thought shapes itself by and through the speeding shift of images and discursive frames. Paglia is right.
English teachers know her claims about our collective degraded relationship to language to be true. They see it in their students, who object to reading long things, who object to reading hard things, who never think to look up words or ideas they don't know, who struggle not only to perceive linguistic nuance but also to keep track of plot twists and character names, who cannot independently picture character and scene inside their heads, who cannot grasp the rhyme or reason of verse that is not free verse. English teachers also--if they are honest--see the decaying of attention in themselves. The compulsive scanning and clicking rhythms of reading on the web become their norm for reading generally; they find themselves becoming impatient skimmers where once they would have carefully read and absorbed each word. Likewise, the use of the "quick email check" to kill time and fill gaps in concentration both expresses and causes their own altered relationship to concentrated reading and dedicated study.
I don't watch TV anymore, and haven't done so regularly for years. During that time, I've become a heavy user of the internet. During that time, too, I've watched my own relationship to the disciplined work of attentive study change. There have been great benefits--writing Critical Mass, for example, has helped me find my way out of the torturous, excruciatingly labored writing process that I used to believe was an inevitable part of putting together readable prose. But there have also been bad habits--the scanning sort of nonlinear reading one does online, where the ease of linking allows one to cover a great deal of ground without going much into depth, can too readily become one's default readerly setting. What works fine for Crooked Timber or Instapundit just doesn't cut it with George Eliot or James Joyce.
Though Paglia makes some interesting passing comments about reading proper, her principal concern is with how young people today read images. Her point is startlingly elegant: while students today are masters at decoding images that move and change, they are utterly befuddled by images that don't behave this way. In other words, while students instinctively comprehend TV, film, the web, and a range of related contemporary forms, they are at an utter loss when it comes to things like paintings, images that are designed to be static, arrested, unchanging and forever still. This confusion, in turn, Paglia argues, augers poorly for the cognitive development of entire generations of people:
The relationship of eye movements to cognitive development has been studied since the 1890s, the groundwork for which was laid by investigation into physiological optics by Hermann von Helmholtz and Ernst Mach in the 1860s. Visual tracking and stability of gaze are major milestones in early infancy. The eyes are neurologically tied to the entire vestibular system: the conch-like inner ear facilitates hand-eye coordination and gives us direction and balance in the physical world. By processing depth cues, our eyes orient us in space and create and confirm our sense of individual agency. Those in whom eye movements and vestibular equilibrium are disrupted, I contend, cannot sense context and thus become passive to the world, which they do not see as an arena for action. Hence this perceptual problem may well have unwelcome political consequences.
Education must strengthen and discipline the process of visual attention. Today's young have a modest, flexible, chameleonlike ability to handle or deflect the overwhelming pressure of sensory stimuli, but perhaps at a cost to their sense of personal identity.
Paglia goes on to offer a protocol for teaching humanities constructively, so as to encourage contemplation, prolonged attention, and the capacity to engage consistently and cogently with an idea or a work over time. It's a fascinating experiment in nonpartisan pedagogical progressivism. What Paglia is doing is recognizing that how people think shapes their politics and their identities just as much as what they think about. And what she is advocating is not that a particular content should be taught, or that a certain viewpoint should be taught, but that what should be taught is the ability to cope, creatively and responsibly, with all kinds of content and all manner of forms. Well worth a read.
April 9, 2004
No more military history at Yale?
Yale has denied tenure to Mary Habeck, a promising military historian who also happened to be the only military historian on Yale's faculty. Habeck is an enormously popular teacher, known for her ability to fill large lecture halls to capacity. She is also said to be one of the most promising young scholars in her field. So far, nothing's out of place: Yale, like Harvard, is rather well known for not tenuring from within, no matter how excellent the candidate. Say what you will about the wisdom of such practice, as long as it's uniformly applied, it's fair.
The unusual thing about Habeck's case, though, is her specialty. Military history has been on the outs for some time; history departments are increasingly interested in scholars who study social and cultural patterns that have not typically been considered part of the more traditional "master narratives" centered around major political and military events, and they tend to make less and less room for those who study such unfashionable subjects as war and weaponry. The Yale Daily News strongly suggests that the decision not to tenure Habeck may be part of a larger decision on the part of Yale's history department to phase out military history as a professional specialization and, by extension, as a subject in which courses are offered:
Habeck's departure will leave the department without a military and weapons specialist, said Marcus Jones GRD '00, a long-time Habeck teaching assistant.
This will not be the first time in recent years that a Yale military historian has left for another position. In the spring of 2000, political science professor Allan Stam, who taught a popular lecture course called "Society and War," left Yale for a promised tenured position at Dartmouth University after teaching at the University for four years.
"I think every indication has been that Yale is trying to move out of the business of military history altogether, no matter how big an appeal it has for undergraduates," Jones said. "I think it's a mistake myself. This institution used to have a major face in military history. We don't really have one outside of Mary Habeck."
Habeck's undergraduate courses on military strategy, weaponry and war have been wildly popular. Her lectures have nearly filled the Law School Auditorium and SSS 114, two of the University's largest lecture halls, some of her students said.
Jeremy Ershow '06, a history major who took Habeck's "U.S. Military, War and Society" last year and is one of Habeck's sophomore advisees, called Habeck "the most compelling lecturer that I've had at Yale."
"I've heard a lot of history lecture classes, and what does it say when you allow your best lecturer to walk?" Ershow said. "There's a tremendous interest and a tremendous appetite on this campus for the courses that she teaches -- there's clearly a great demand for Mary Habeck and her courses."
History Director of Undergraduate Studies Frank Snowden said the department has not decided whether it will hire a military historian to replace Habeck in the junior ranks.
When job openings are announced next fall, it will be worth looking to see if Yale is advertising for a military historian. Somehow I suspect it won't be.
Thanks to Fred Ray for the link.
You are what you read
Terry Teachout is typically compelling this morning on the subject of readings lists as found objects:
James Tata recently posted a list of "the last twenty books of fiction or literary essays I have read." I enjoy reading this kind of list, in much the same way that I like looking at other peopleís bookshelves. When the listkeepers in question also happen to be famous, of course, the results are interesting for a different reason. Justice Holmes, for example, kept a written record of every book he read as an adult, and I find it both amusing and illuminating to know that he read (among many other things) both Swann's Way and Rex Stout. Yet I take equal pleasure in knowing what my fellow bloggers are reading, looking at, or listening to, not only because Iím interested in them as personalities but also because such knowledge can lift me out of my own preoccupations and preconceptions. Though I own a wide variety of books and CDs, I have a tendency to run the plow through the same old furrows when left to my own devices. Sometimes a passing mention by a fellow blogger reminds me of a book I love but havenít reread for years, or makes me want to click through to amazon.com and buy one I have yet to read.
I also like the fugitive nature of reading lists, which I find wholly compatible with the fugitive nature of blogging itself.
I agree. In a much earlier incarnation of this blog, I used to maintain a running list of my own reading. I was always surprised by how much traffic my reading list page attracted. I liked contemplating the list just as I like contemplating my own (vastly overcrowded) bookshelves--there's a sort of mnemonic quality to both activities that is at once soothing and inspiring--but I was quite intrigued to see how many other people were also interested in the list. As Terry says, such lists are approximations of people's shelves, and as such they offer both insight into the lister's mind and suggest new directions the reader of the list might take in his or her own reading.
Tata's list is of the last twenty books he has read, in reverse chronological order. Terry didn't post his, though I wish he would. Here's mine, with asterisks by the ones I've reread for classes I'm teaching:
Nuala O'Faolain, My Dream of You*
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend*
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Brian Friel, Translations*
Willa Cather, O Pioneers
Joan Acocella, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest*
Sheridan LeFanu, Uncle Silas*
Charles Dickens, Hard Times*
James Joyce, Dubliners
Charles Dickens, Bleak House*
William Thackeray, Barry Lyndon*
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop*
David Mamet, Oleanna
Sydney Owenson, The Wild Irish Girl*
Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers*
Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent*
Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence
Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair
I usually read a lot more non-fiction, a lot more non-work-related fiction, and a lot more stuff that was not written during the nineteenth century--but as you can see from the many fat tomes with asterisks beside them, it's been an unusually busy semester. My eyestrain and I are looking forward to summer, when the reading can range more freely, and when I won't always have to be thinking to myself as I read, "Make sure you talk about this quote in class. ... Be sure to discuss this symbol. ... Walk them through this pattern. ... Create short historical lecture to illuminate this theme ..." and so on.
Readers are invited to post their own lists in the comments below.
April 8, 2004
A good teacher is hard to find
One problem that consistently comes up when I talk with faculty who broadly agree is the difficulty in defining some easy metric to assess quality teaching.
Plenty of metrics exist for research (at least in the physical sciences where I spend most of my time) - things like number of publications, citation impact (somehow normalized for subdiscipline) while perhaps not including all good research clearly represent some subset.
I'd be curious to hear any suggestions as to effective ways to represent teaching quality those in university administration.
I think I won't be alone when I assert that the ubiquitous anonymous scantron teaching evaluation forms that students routinely fill out at the end of the semester are not a reliable, or even a particularly responsible, metric. I also think I won't be alone when I assert that teaching quality suffers if teaching assessment becomes too bureaucratic and/or intrusive. Finally, I think I will not be alone when I say that one of the great boons of college teaching--the near total freedom one has at many schools to design and run a course as one sees fit--is also one of the great problems.
Every college teacher can point to other teachers who abuse the fact that no one sees them teaching but their own students, who abdicate their responsibility to shape their courses around the needs of students by using the classroom as a political soapbox or an intellectual hobbyhorse or a group therapy session, or similar. But college teachers know, too, that their development as teachers depends heavily on that much maligned and paradoxical phenomenon, "academic freedom." Great teachers are independent thinkers and creative actors; they have devised their own ways of inhabiting the classroom, of imparting information, of facilitating discussion and of provoking thought, and they were able to do so because they had the space in which to do so. How to balance the pressing imperative of assessment with the equally pressing imperative of giving teachers the room they need to develop and hone their craft? Thoughts are welcome.
April 7, 2004
Double standards at Bucknell
This press release from the Bucknell Conservatives Club speaks for itself:
LEWISBURG, PA ñ Bucknell University general counsel Wayne Bromfield has refused to allow Congressman Pat Toomey to give a speech on campus because he is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. However, left-wing activist Ralph Nader is still being permitted to give the Universityís commencement address, despite the fact that he is running for president. Nader will be paid $13,000 for his commencement speech, which happens to be $13,000 more than the BUCC planned to pay Toomey.
The Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) invited Toomey to campus to give a speech on April 8 on the topic of ìcivic engagement,î under the condition that he would ìnot solicit contributions or workers for his campaign or attack campaign opponents while at the University.î According to an account in The Bucknellian, the same speech topic and conditions were imposed on Nader due to a University policy stipulating that no single political candidate can appear on campus during an election year.
ìThis decision is blatant hypocrisy,î BUCC president Charles Mitchell stated. ìIf the Bucknell administration is willing to break its own rules to have Ralph Nader come talk about ëcivic engagement,í then it should be willing to do the same for Pat Toomey.î
Mitchell continued, ìThis policy is just one more ridiculous Bucknell restriction on free speech, and not surprisingly, itís only enforced against certain speech. Selective repression such as this has no place in a free society, much less at a university. Apparently Bucknellís official version of ëdiversityí doesnít include conservative congressmen.î
In an email sent to BUCC vice president for special events Dominic Rupprecht, Bromfield defended his decision on the basis that when Nader was invited to speak on campus he was not yet a candidate, whereas Toomey was. But this is a straw man, according to Rupprecht: ìRalph Nader's candidacy for the presidency of the United States certainly could have been anticipated by any reasonable observer of American politics. He had run in 1996 and 2000, and gave every indication that he would do so again.î
Bromfield also told Rupprecht, ìThere is no reason for Pat Toomey to come to Bucknell in the month he is seeking to win a primary nomination other than to promote his candidacy. Whatever the text of his speech, that is transparently the intent.î This is an interesting argument, given that the BUCC as an organization cannot and does not endorse candidates. (Several BUCC officers have endorsed Rep. Toomey as individuals, but that is another matter.)
As Rupprecht put it in an email to Bromfield, ìCongressman Toomeyís speech is not, I repeat, is not intended to promote his candidacy. Nowhere in his speech will the Congressman ask for votes,Ýadvocate his election, or urge the defeat of his opponent. We invited Congressman Toomey, a hero of the conservative movement, to discuss the crucial issues of the day and the fact that Bucknell students ought to do something about them, i.e. be civically engaged.î
BUCC vice president for finance Dawn Meling added, ìI must say I find it interesting that Mr. Bromfield apparently could not reasonably conclude that Mr. Nader would run for the presidency, but does have magical foreknowledge regarding what Rep. Toomey would speak about.î
Given Bromfieldís decision, Toomey is instead giving a campaign speech in downtown Lewisburg, less than 500 feet from campus. The speech will take place at the Brynwood Room, at the corner of Sixth and Market Streets in downtown Lewisburg, from 4:00 to 5:00 PM on April 8. That event will not be sponsored by the BUCC, but rather by Toomeyís supporters in Union County. The BUCC will be encouraging members of the Bucknell community to attend solely because of Toomeyís ability to intelligently articulate a principled conservative viewpoint.
ìItís a shame this conservative hero has been banned from campus,î Rupprecht said, ìbut even as a New Jersey resident who couldnít vote for him for anything, Iím really excited to meet him. Also, Rep. Toomeyís visit will hopefully make a very important point: that Bucknellís policy on political candidates is simply unreasonable and should be repealed, and until that date arrives, equitably enforced by the administration.î
The Bucknell University Conservatives Club was founded in September 2001 to combat the systematic exclusion of conservative, libertarian, and classical liberal ideas from the University. It publishes a well-known magazine, The Counterweight, and has hosted many speakers, most recently Ben Stein. One of the most successful student political organizations in the country, it was featured on the cover of the May 25, 2003 New York Times Magazine and has also received coverage from other broadcast and print media including MTV, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the Washington Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and NPR.
I've written about the Bucknell Conservatives before; they have been working hard this year to expose the double standards Bucknell uses to decide who does and does not get to speak on campus, with the goal of getting the school to remove its speech code from the books. What I like about them is how clear they are about their goals, how non-partisan they are in their principles, and how evenhanded they are when they set out to expose both absurdities (such as the patent manner in which Bucknell's annual production of The Vagina Monologues amounts to a staged and subsidized annual mockery of the speech code) and outrages (such as the one detailed above).
April 5, 2004
The current issue of Academe is running a piece by philosophy professor and former CUNY Graduate Center president Stephen Cahn on what it would mean for colleges and universities to take teaching seriously. Cahn opens with the open secret of higher education: that while there is plenty of lip service paid to the importance of teaching, in practice, teaching is systematically devalued many times over:
Which candidate for a faculty position is usually viewed as more attractive, the promising researcher or the promising teacher? Who typically secures the larger salary increase, the successful researcher or the successful teacher? When a faculty member receives an offer from another institution, is more effort made to retain an outstanding researcher or an outstanding teacher? And who usually receives such offers, the famed researcher or the famed teacher? Granted, the scholar-teacher is the ideal, but who is more likely to gain tenure, a top-notch researcher who is dull in the classroom or a top-notch teacher whose scholarship is thin?
Last time I checked, it was a running joke in my department that winning a teaching award actually harms your chances of getting tenure. I don't think Penn's unusual in that respect, and as shrinks and theorists will both tell you, jokes often express some pretty unpleasant truths.
Cahn's concise essay lists a number of policy changes schools would need to make in order to institutionalize a commitment to teaching that at present tends not to run deeper than the verbiage so many colleges and universities lavish--unconvincingly, in the grand cliched manner--on the subject. They include the radical concepts of having job candidates actually demonstrate their teaching skills, giving merit raises for excellence in teaching, tracking and evaluating individual teachers' teaching, developing a precise vocabulary for talking about teaching and differentiating among kinds and qualities of teaching, taking graduate student teacher training seriously, adopting open classroom policies, and making it possible for excellent teachers with middling research records to get tenure on the strength of their teaching--just as strong scholars who are weak teachers routinely get tenure on the strength of their research records.
It's a fascinating thought experiment, not least for the way it highlights how little colleges and universities would have to do--procedurally anyway--in order to restructure their priorities in ways they desperately need to be restructured. The real barriers here are economic and psychological (or, more precisely, snobological). The cynic in me says that at many schools--those with pretensions to be elite, anyhow--teaching must and will remain a lesser form of work than scholarship. The internal pecking order that is so essential to such schools' sense of themselves as nationally important must be maintained. Even more cynically, and more broadly, the new disfunctional norm, in which teaching labor is increasingly fobbed off on undertrained grad students and underpaid, uninsured adjuncts must be maintained.
Just for frisson of it, I'll note that the same issue of Academe is running two pieces on the adjunct labor system. They might be read, to borrow a phrase, as the political unconscious of Cahn's piece.
Via Milt Rosenberg.
UPDATE: Stephen Karlson puts it all into perspective.
April 4, 2004
Victim of resemblance
A Sikh student at UNC claims he and his friend were beaten by a trio of teenagers on Franklin Street after one of them called him Osama bin Laden.
Chapel Hill police charged each of the teens with assault inflicting serious injury and simple assault after the student identified them shortly after the assault Sunday morning. Although police categorized the assault as a hate crime, they did not charge the teens with ethnic intimidation -- the state statute that covers hate crimes. Chapel Hill Police Chief Gregg Jarvies said the charge of ethnic intimidation was not filed because it was not clear whether the assault occurred because of the victim's race, clothing or religion. The charge of ethnic intimidation would have to be provable, Jarvies said. "You may believe one thing, but we can't prove it," he said.
Gagandeep Bindra, who has a short beard, brown skin and wears a Patka, a scarf wrapped around his hair, said that it is not uncommon for people to call him and others with brown skin Osama bin Laden or a terrorist.
"This is like a normal occurrence after 9/11," Bindra said Friday. "Every night when I go out to Franklin Street, someone shouts out bin Laden." Bindra's parents emigrated from India, and Bindra attended middle school and high school in Raleigh. He is a senior economics major at UNC.
People who have brown skin get harassed all the time, he said. "They don't know I'm from India and I'm a Sikh. They think anybody brown is Middle Eastern. Anybody brown is a terrorist."
The incident began shortly after midnight Sunday as Bindra, 24, and a couple of friends were walking from East Franklin Street to a restaurant on West Franklin Street, the student recounted.
As the group of friends walked along West Franklin Street near the intersection of Church Street, they crossed paths with three young men, he said.
"Basically, they shouted bin Laden to me," he said. "I wasn't too happy."
Bindra said he replied, "Your mother."
One of the young men began asking him, "What did you say? What did you say?" Bindra said, but he and his friends kept walking west on Franklin Street. At the intersection of Mallette Street on the north side of Franklin Street, the teens caught up to them and one of them, who was about six feet tall, pushed his face one inch from his face, Bindra said.
"He was trying to look at me to see if there was some sort of fear," he said. "I didn't really care that he was so close to my face, so he just threw a punch." The blow landed on Bindra's jaw, he said.
One of Bindra's friends, Sean Michnowicz, told the other two teens not to join the fight, and they began to hit him, Bindra said. "They started beating him, and they all started beating me. It was gang mentality at that point. After they got done with me, I saw Sean. He was down, and there was blood pouring from his face," Bindra said. "He has hemophilia, and blood was gushing out from a laceration."
The attack was unprovoked, Bindra said. "I didn't hit them. Sean didn't hit them," he said.
Read the whole thing.
I report a lot on fake hate crimes on this site. One reason I find them so repulsive is that they detract from the credibility of people like Bindra, who really are targeted by bigots, and who really do suffer the absurd and terrifying violence born of ethnic intolerance.
Singh knows the victim personally.
Polish conference on PC
Here's the most interesting call for papers I've seen in a long time:
Call for papers: Political Correctness - Mouth Wide Shut?
Ustro=F1 (PL), September 17-20 2004
See evil, hear evil and therefore speak no evil. The spectre of the Dead White Heterosexual Male is hanging over the world: biased, prejudiced, discriminative ways of perceiving and representing reality resulted in widening the gap between the dominant "traditionalists" and a multiplicity of undesirable others. But enough is enough. The underdog has now invented a weapon to secure his/her/its/their rightful place in culture and the long-silenced voices have a chance to be heard. Thus, Political Correctness or PC seems to have the function of safeguarding the principle of equality, which is a cornerstone of democracy. The many tongues of multicultural discourse speak all the more loudly since the potential opponents, having been successfully bound and gagged, dare not express any contradictory opinion. As democracy's policeman, however, PC raises concerns about the possible limitations of radical pluralism. While ensuring (enforcing) compliance with basic human rights, does it not breach some of them, such as the right to free speech? While upholding the legacy of the Enlightenment with its ideals of rationality and progress, does it not undermine the role and position of prejudice, so powerfully vindicated in the 20th century? Is PC a utopian goal, or is it merely a historically necessitated but short-lived inconvenience? The unceasing dispute over PC hardly ever does justice to the theoretical concerns it raises, and not the least of them is its self-reflexive twist: if to interrogate PC is to interrogate the western idea of democracy, let us not flee from our own gaze in a mirror and take up the challenge before the academe becomes declared a reservation for realistically challenged.
Please, send proposals of papers with brief abstracts (up to 200 words) to the organizers by May 31, 2004 to:
Katarzyna Ancuta firstname.lastname@example.org
Jacek Mydla email@example.com
Or by post (diskette, Word 6.0/7.0 + hard copy) to:
Katarzyna Ancuta / Jacek Mydla
Institute of British and American Culture and Literature
ul. =AFytnia 10
41-205 Sosnowiec, Poland
fax +48 (32)2917417
tel. +48(32)2917322; +48(32)2691892
Thanks to Warren Moore for sending this on.
April 3, 2004
What's in a name?
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Lady: Stephen Dedalus creates the uncreated conscience of his race by dressing up as Henry James in drag
Goodnight, Moonstone: bedtime stories of theft, deception, and detection
My Mother, My Antonia: self-help guide for Cather addicts
Our Bodies, Our Town: touching drama about communal erotic awakening; ideal for school productions
Uncle Silas Marner: he kills Eppie and then weaves her hair into golden cloth
One Flew Over the Mockingbird's Nest: Scout loses her mind after Harper Lee's book gets banned for being racist
House of Mirthful Spirits: upbeat magical realism about turn-of-the-century social climbing
Atlas Ate My Gymsuit: libertarian teen fiction
The Wizard of Ozymandias: sonnets of the "there's no place like home" variety
Corelli's Kool-Aid Acid Test: sex, drugs, olive oil
Remembrance of Things Fall Apart: eating cookies sparks meditation on African colonialism
Their Eyes Were Waiting for Godot: after running away to Florida to escape the advances of Lucia Joyce, Beckett seduces Janie by plying her with tea and cake
Paradise Lost in Translation: Satan falls into a karaoke bar in Tokyo, is forever damned to croon temptingly in iambic pentameter
Charlotte's Weblog: spider discovers Moveable Type
That's a start. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
While schools such as UNC-Wilmington, Bucknell, and UNC-Chapel Hill tie themselves in knots trying--ever unsuccessfully--to reconcile their stated commitments to free inquiry (and, in the cases of all but Bucknell, their obligations to uphold the First Amendment) with their well-meant but ultimately misguided desire to ensure that no one on campus is ever exposed to views that might offend them or make them uncomfortable, others recognize that it is the obligation of a vibrant intellectual community to embrace the friction that arises when ideas are freely explored, tested, and debated.
Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren--whose name will be familiar to those who followed the Michael Bellesiles Debacle--sends an exemplary excerpt from the University of Chicago's Faculty Handbook:
The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society.Ý A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.
Lindgren's opinion is that instead of adopting speech codes and other policies that suggest students have the right not to be offended, universities should formally declare that no one has the right not to be offended:
Universities should adopt explicit policies rejecting the right not to be offended. As a current graduate student in Sociology at the University of Chicago, I was offended by the way that some of Marx's ideas on economics were taught, particularly the labor theory of value--as if Marx's critique was sound economics, as if we hadn't had fifty million people killed by the collectivism of agriculture alone (a modest estimate not including the tens of millions dying in collectivist wars).Ý
The idea that I had a right not to be offended in class never even occurred to me, and would be one that I would find offensive to be offered.
I love this idea--not just for itself, but for what it implies. For a school to adopt such a policy, that policy would have to be consistent with existing policies elsewhere on the school's books. Speech codes, overbroad harassment policies that define "offensive" expression as harassment, and other such directives would have to go if a school were to credibly reject the notion that it is acceptable to seek to punish and silence students who express unpopular views. Speechcodes.org designates the University of Chicago as a rare "green light" institution--one whose stated commitment to free expression is not undermined by policies restricting constitutionally protected speech.
UPDATE: A law student at Chicago writes:
As a regular reader of your blog, I often find myself reflecting on how fortunate I am to be a student here at the law school at the University of Chicago. The institution's commitment to free and open debate has been refreshing these three years. I was happy to see the school mentioned in your most recent post, and it reminded me of an email that we received in February and that I meant to send along to you at the time as evidence that not all was hopeless in academia. Although it's unfortunate to think that intelligent college students would have to be reminded of the importance of respecting the expressive rights of others, it's heartening to see the administration taking a pro-active stand in this way.
----- Forwarded message from Steve Klass
Date: Wed, 18 Feb 2004 20:28:47 -0600 (CST)
From: Steve Klass
Subject: Interference with Freedom of Expression
To: All Students
Below follows a statement from the Provost, Richard Saller, and me regarding a long-standing University policy prohibiting the interference with freedom of expression at the University.
If you have questions or concerns related to this policy, please contact your dean of students or the Office of the Dean of Students in the University.
and Dean of Students in the University
With the upcoming elections and increasing interest in local, national and international affairs on the part of many in the community, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves of the special privileges and responsibilities that come with membership in a great university that is committed to the free pursuit, testing, and dissemination of knowledge.
Each of us here enjoys a freedom to study, think, write, advocate, and associate. Yet within our community that freedom also obligates each of us not merely to tolerate but to welcome and promote these freedoms for all. In the public or commercial world, it may be legitimate to seek to vanquish or weaken one's adversaries. In great universities such as ours, however, serious opposition is not only welcome; it is essential to what we are about.
These principles are enshrined in University Statute 21, which prohibits "conduct disruptive of the operations of the University, including interference with instruction, research, administrative operations, freedom of association, and meetings." The prohibition includes heckling speakers, and defacing, removing or obscuring announcements, fliers, posters, or other publications to prevent them from reaching their intended audiences. Interference with freedom of inquiry, teaching, and debate are viewed as particularly destructive to the University.
The University achieves its mission not by the subtractive process of silencing opponents, but by the additive process of contestation.
UPDATE UPDATE: Ralph Luker observes, "Perhaps Chicago can be free precisely because no one has ever doubted that it was serious about higher education. Not many of our institutions are undoubtedly serious. Many of them, therefore, feel the need to restrict speech."