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May 31, 2005 [feather]
The content of the form

Noting the lamentable truth that this is the time of year when millions of high school and even college students accept their diplomas despite being unable reliably to write a correct sentence, Stanley Fish offers up his own unique recipe for teaching freshman composition:

Students can't write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are.

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions - between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like - that English enables us to make.

You can imagine the reaction of students who think that "syntax" is something cigarette smokers pay, guess that "lexicon" is the name of a rebel tribe inhabiting a galaxy far away, and haven't the slightest idea of what words like "tense," "manner" and "mood" mean. They think I'm crazy. Yet 14 weeks later - and this happens every time - each group has produced a language of incredible sophistication and precision.

Fish deliberately overlooks the obvious truth that understanding syntax is quite a different thing from being able to arrange sentences in such a way that they raise and develop ideas. But that dramatic omission is part of the rhetorical strategy of his piece. The more essential hitch in Fish's recommended method is that in order to teach a writing course entirely centered on form, a teacher must already understand the formal lessons about language that he or she intends to teach. It's getting harder and harder to find such teachers today (Fish himself is retiring). More and more composition courses are taught by people who were themselves taught a content-centered approach to writing that all but ignored the study of grammar and syntax. Add to that the fact that most university composition courses are taught by graduate students who are a) not necessarily good writers themselves, and b) often more interested in using the composition classroom to practice teaching the content they hope to teach as non-composition teaching English professors, and you've got a situation in which the Fish vision, regardless of its merits, is pure pipedream.

Erin O'Connor, 8:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

May 30, 2005 [feather]
Silver linings

Former SMU adjunct Elaine Liner--better known as the "Phantom Professor"--may have lost her job because of her tell-all campus blog. But now she could be looking at a movie deal.

Erin O'Connor, 8:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

May 29, 2005 [feather]
Writing for points

The "new SAT," with its essay and grammar sections and its absent analogies section, will be administered for the third time on Saturday, and speculation about what the new format really tests continues. Shortly before the second administration of the test earlier this month, an M.I.T. writing instructor announced that he had discovered a direct correlation between essay length and score; more important than correct grammar, clarity of argument, accuracy of fact, or lucidity of expression, it seemed, was the sheer volume of prose a test-taker could produce during the allotted 25 minutes.

Today, a week before the third administration of the exam, Ann Hulbert argues in the New York Times Magazine that the essay section of the new SAT tells us more about our "take-no-prisoners culture of argument" than it does about students' capacities for critical thinking or clear expression. Citing two sample questions--"Is it more important to follow the rules exactly or to base your actions on how other people may be affected?'' and ''Are people motivated to achieve by personal satisfaction rather than by money or fame?"--Hulbert parses the values inherent in an exercise that seems to privilege one-sided argumentation over balanced analysis and that requires students to make snap judgements rather than to conduct reasoned examinations of issues:

The real problem with the SAT persuasive essay assignment isn't what it conveys about spontaneity or style but what it suggests about how to argue. Students are asked to ponder (quickly) a short excerpt of conventional wisdom about, say, the advisability of following rules, and they are then instructed to ''develop your point of view on this issue.'' But if the goal of ''better writing'' is ''improved thinking,'' as the College Board's National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges has pronounced, perhaps it's worth asking whether practice in reflexively taking a position on any potentially polarizing issue is what aspiring college students -- or the rest of us -- need most.

As those sample essay questions at the start reveal, and as any test-prep book will confirm, at the homiletic heart of the SAT writing assignment is the false dichotomy. The best strategy for a successful essay is to buy into one of the facile premises that inform the question, and then try to sell it as if it were really yours. Essayists won't be penalized for including false information, either, according to the official guide for graders. ''You are scoring the writing,'' it instructs, ''and not the correctness of facts.''

False analogies, of course, were an old SAT staple, but at least test takers got credit for picking only the true one. By contrast, the test-prep industry bluntly says that a blinkered perspective pays off on the essay -- and nobody knows better than the professional SAT obsessives. ''It is very important that you take a firm stance in your essay and stick to it,'' insists Kaplan's ''New SAT.'' Practicing what it preaches, the prep book doesn't let go. ''You are not fair and balanced! (Well, you should be fair, but definitely not balanced.)'' Kaplan drives home the point yet again, just in case. ''What's important is that you take a position and state how you feel. It is not important what other people might think, just what you think.''

This doesn't bear much resemblance to an exercise in critical reasoning, which usually involves clarifying the logic of a position by taking counterarguments seriously or considering alternative assumptions. The English teachers may worry that in the rush to prepare for the SAT expository essay, personal writing will get short shrift in schools. In fact, self-centered opinion is exactly what the questions solicit. ''Don't panic and write from the opposing point of view'' is Kaplan's calming advice.

Kaplan's advice, at least as Hulbert reports it, is at odds with that in some of the SAT prep books I've looked at recently. The College Board's official SAT study guide, for example, offers sample responses to sample questions, showing what sorts of essays get which kinds of scores. Longer essays did indeed score higher, but so did balanced essays that examined multiple sides of an issue; more polemical essays that neglected to acknowledge counterarguments, shorter essays, and essays that drew on personal experience rather than more "scholarly" sources--historical events, works of literature, scientific knowledge, and so on--scored less well. This is not to say that I'm right and Hulbert is wrong, but rather to note that different test prep centers appear to be giving different advice, and that this itself tells us something significant about the sheer uncertainty of exactly what the new SAT really tests.

Erin O'Connor, 12:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 27, 2005 [feather]
Confused branding

In 1994, Marquette University joined the ranks of schools that were performing their political sensitivity by abandoning their mascots. Fearing that if it continued to call its athletes "warriors," Marquette would offend (or continue to offend) Native Americans, Marquette shelved the name and began a search for an acceptable nickname that, more than a decade later, is still going on today. At first, Marquette replaced "warriors" with "golden eagles." All was quiet--if also uninspired--until last spring, when two trustees offered the university $2 million to bring back the "warriors" moniker. Marquette declined the offer, stating that "we had to be guided by conscience, not emotion." But the university did poll alumni and fans, who agreed that "golden eagles" was "boring," "weak," and "common." Earlier this month, Marquette announced that henceforth, its nickname would be "gold," thus reflecting "our desire to be champions." But that name has met with hostility, too--students who were angry at not having a say in the decision protested, facetiously suggesting that the new mascot be a golden piece of toilet paper or a golden whoopee cushion. And so Marquette is caught, wedged tightly between the competing requirements of political correctness and anti-autocratic inclusiveness. The next phase: a vote that will include students, professors, alumni, and staff. The results of Marquette's attempt to arrive democratically at a name that is something other than dully inoffensive will be revealed on July 1.

Erin O'Connor, 8:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (21)

May 26, 2005 [feather]
Celebrating diversity at St. Olaf

A student at St. Olaf College in Minnesota observes that the college's push to diversify its overwhelmingly white student body seems to be producing a racially segregated campus where there is great pressure to conform to certain orthodoxies about race and oppression:

The question I would like to raise is, with the influx of minority students, is our campus actually becoming more diverse?

Not long ago, I would have replied with a quick, indubitable yes. Now, my experiences in the course of Modern Latin America cause me to speculate. My expectations were completely blown apart early on.

With six multiracial students in class, we heard about a personal example or experience relating to our topic nearly every day. For a while, everyone appreciated having these real-life examples of oppression in Latin American countries and of issues we discussed.

Soon, however, a division grew in our little classroom. I, and others, began to notice how quickly minority students criticized white students for daring to rationalize the actions of historical Europeans and Americans. This criticism happened only a few times, but the threat of attack was enough to instill a fear of speaking one's mind.

In contrast, white students regularly left inflammatory comments by these same multicultural students unanswered for fear that as a nonminority contradicting a minority they might sound racist. At one point, a student of Latin American heritage even went so far to say that minorities deal better with power because they have more sensitivity toward the rights of others.

When did one's ability to lead become based on what happened to their ancestors hundreds of years ago versus their intelligence and leadership skills today?

At that point, our professor stepped in to clarify that the actions of those in power are human nature, not due to their ethnicity.

This separation of multicultural and white students doesn't end at the door of the classroom, either. Since taking this course, the segregation has become more visible to me. In the cafeteria, everyone recognizes the tables where the multicultural population sits. Of course, there are some minority students who branch out and sit with others, but on the whole, a distinct schism exists. It would be highly unorthodox for any nonminority student to sit at the multiracial table without an invitation.

I've also heard stories of harassment from the multiracial crowd toward other minority students because they were too like white students. Last year, one minority student continuously bullied a first-year Asian student who had been adopted by white parents at a young age because "[she] couldn't even speak Korean ... [she's] not really Asian." This tormented student transferred at the end of last year to escape persecution. I've also heard of another student who has an on-going feud with some of the multicultural students because they believe he is "white-washed" and not adequately connected with his roots.

For this writer, St. Olaf's effort to promote "diversity" demographically, by recruiting ethnic and racial minorities, has become an education in how complicated--perhaps impossible--it is to engineer the kinds of tolerance and exchange that "diversity" promises to deliver. It has also become an education in how the project of diversity is in many ways the pursuit of orthodoxy by other means; the author is an apt chronicler of how, when a campus adopts the tenets of multiculturalism, it can actually narrow the range of acceptable ideas, beliefs, and even identities. In this sense, the apparent failures of St. Olaf's multicultural efforts are themselves enormously educational, though not, perhaps, in quite the manner that the college would like.

Erin O'Connor, 12:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

May 25, 2005 [feather]
Evaluating the Ph.D.

Should there be national boards for newly minted Ph.D.s? John Bruce says yes.

Erin O'Connor, 9:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

May 23, 2005 [feather]
Kicked out before kindergarten

Every year more than 5000 children are expelled from preschool, reports the Yale Child Study Center. Preschool students are three times more likely than their primary school counterparts to get kicked out. The study did not offer explanations for why this is, but the New York Times did ask some experts to speculate on that question. Their thoughts are intriguing--while all acknowledge that the usual factors (poverty, poor parenting, various clinical disorders) are probably at play--they also finger the increasing hyper-academicism of a preschool curriculum in which socializing young children has become less important than teaching them to perform well on standardized tests. In more and more preschools, repetitive drills, rote memorization, and desk work are replacing more active, playful modes of learning. The result of all this introverted activity, according to the article, is that children aren't learning the interactive things they really need at that age to know: how to share, how to play nicely with others, how to accept contingency without throwing tantrums.

The article is an interesting one, part sociological critique of a trend in preschool education, part jab at NCLB, which gets the blame for pushing schools to stress skill acquisition at the expense of the far more basic behavioral lessons that young children urgently need to learn. Prematurely emphasizing academic achievement while neglecting age-appropriate instruction in social skills is a recipe for disaster, the quoted experts point out: Children who are bored, or restless, or frustrated, or lost, are far more likely to act out in unacceptable ways.

I'm neither the parent of a small child nor an expert on preschool education, so I can't comment authoritatively on this critique. But it does strike me that it ought to be possible to teach both basic academic skills and social skills (even to teach the one by way of the other, through group activities and so on), and that the either/or quality of the argument the article makes is thus not only a bit too easy, but also a bit too telegraphic in its political bent. I'd welcome readers' thoughts on both the article and on what they see happening in contemporary preschools.

Erin O'Connor, 8:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

May 18, 2005 [feather]
Some questionable personnel decisions

De Paul University has suspended a professor for engaging in a heated debate with some students outside of class. Last September, Thomas Klocek got into an argument with some pro-Palestinian students at a student activities fair. When they complained to administrators, he was suspended without ever seeing copies of the complaints or having an opportunity to face his accusers; in other words, he was suspended while being denied the due process rights that Du Paul claims to guarantee to professors. De Paul was at first astonishingly open about the fact that it is engaging in viewpoint discrimination; administrators there initially said that Klocek is being punished because he criticized the students' viewpoint and thereby offended them, though they are now more cagily arguing that Klocek is being disciplined for unprofessional behavior. FIRE is defending Klocek.

Meanwhile, Yale University appears to have fired a popular but untenured anthropology professor for having unpopular views--David Graeber is both an anarchist and an outspoken advocate of graduate student unionization. InsideHigherEd has the story.

Erin O'Connor, 5:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

May 17, 2005 [feather]
Therapeutic boarding schools

The Dallas Morning News recently ran an informational piece on the rising phenomenon known as the "therapeutic boarding school." Therapeutic boarding schools are highly structured settings that combine private education and intensive psychiatric help; often understood as an institutional last resort, they offer hope to parents who can't control or communicate with their kids and who have as a result reached their wits' end. The price tags reflect the highly specialized services (and promises) such schools aim to provide; at $4,500 to $9,000 a month, they exist to assure (almost always wealthy) parents that they are doing everything in their power to save their troubled children from themselves. Suggesting that therapeutic boarding schools owe their budding economic success to the Columbine shootings--or, more precisely, to a growing national hysteria about the perils of adolescence that Columbine and similar events have fed--the article notes that ten years ago, there were only about forty schools in the country devoted to "troubled teens." One year after Columbine, the number rose to 250; today, there are over 500 such schools.

The author paints a deliberately vague rosy picture of the therapeutic boarding school, framing the body of the article with an anecdote about an anonymous family that sent its pseudonymous daughter to an unnamed school, and had a positive experience with it. He followed it up with a piece devoted to the Academy at Swift River, a therapeutic boarding school in western Massachusetts, and the paper paired it with a how-to guide for parents who want to locate a school for their child.

I'd love to learn more specifics, both about what these schools do well and what they don't. You don't have to look very far to discover that the picture does not seem to be as rosy as the Dallas Morning News paints it. At present, for example, Majestic Ranch, a therapeutic boarding school in Utah, is being sued by a parent who alleges that her son was physically and emotionally abused while he was enrolled there; this is not the first time the school has faced abuse allegations, and the individual named in the parent's suit has a prior conviction for assault. Last night, upstate New York's Academy at Ivy Ridge was the scene of a riot when a group of students tried to escape from the school. Ten students were arrested and now face charges ranging from disorderly conduct to assault. Twelve were injured. Thirty fled. The twelve who planned the escape have all been expelled. Last week, the Dallas Morning News ran a piece by a mother whose son escaped from a therapeutic boarding school in Georgia. As such schools grow in popularity, they are coming in for increased scrutiny. For example, the state of Utah is presently implementing new legislation that requires therapeutic boarding schools to submit to state regulation--something private schools that don't claim to serve specifically troubled teens do not have to do. Not surprisingly, the state is encountering a great deal of resistance from a number of the therapeutic boarding schools located there.

I'm interested in readers' thoughts--about the value of therapeutic boarding schools; about the relationship of such schools to parenting on the one hand and state intervention on the other; and about the historical moment that has given rise to these schools. I'd also love to hear from people who have experience with therapeutic boarding schools, whether as teachers, parents, or students.

Erin O'Connor, 3:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (12)

May 16, 2005 [feather]
On the origins of academic navel-gazing

Writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Illinois English professor Lennard Davis reflects on the streak of anti-intellectual solipsism that has shown itself in the academic humanities in recent years. Davis opens with an anecdote about a student's unwillingness to explore ideas and authors that she does not already know about:

Recently, in a graduate course on theory, I decided to end the semester with a reading of Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, a compelling critique of biopolitics by the trendy Italian philosopher Georgio Agamben. When I reread it for the final class, I was struck by the work's powerful and applicable insights. Indeed, one of the graduate students told me how engaged and excited he was about the material, and he even dragged himself to class with stomach flu to participate in the discussion.

By contrast, one of the brightest and most voluble students in the class--let's call her Pandora--came in having obviously not read the book. She hadn't even bought or borrowed it. During the discussion she looked bored, and at the end of the class she said to me, "I don't think much of Agamben, judging from what I heard today. Who is this guy? And if he's so great, how come I've never heard of him?"

He goes on to explain the intellectual (or anti-intellectual) history behind an arrogance and close-mindedness that is ultimately less about one student's egoism than it is about an institutionally egoistic style that the student has learned, all too well, to mime. According to Davis, his scholarly generation is responsible for producing an atmosphere of clannish incuriousness in the contemporary academy. Specifically, he blames the popularization of the notion that "the personal is political," which encourages a blinkered and narcissistic attitude toward what matters and what does not; identity politics, which have been used to turn intellectual inquiry into a demographic turf war; and the rise of a curriculum that privileges choice over requirements, thereby transforming education into a consumerist exercise in disjointed dilettantism.

Davis is careful to differentiate his argument from "right-wing academics who defend the literary canon and warn of the dangers of political correctness." But at the same time, in detailing the inauspicious results of his generation's reformist zeal, Davis' concerns dovetail with those of the Roger Kimballs and the Dinesh D'Souzas. Much as he would like to be keeping different company, Davis is, perhaps, in better company than he knows. After all, the academy can't begin to reform itself meaningfully until people on either side of the political divide can agree that there is a problem.

Erin O'Connor, 9:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

May 11, 2005 [feather]
Perils of academic blogging

At SMU, a popular adjunct professor has been fired--or, more precisely, "not renewed"--and the word is that her firing had a lot to do with her blog. Elaine Liner has taught writing as an adjunct at SMU for several years; she is also a local theater critic and, until recently, she led an active anonymous life online as the Phantom Professor, an outspoken critic of the academy whose tales of campus life ultimately hit a little too close to home for her colleagues. Though Liner never told anyone at SMU that she was the Phantom Professor, and while she never named names or identified her place of work, her descriptions of SMU's campus culture and her portraits of students and colleagues were accurate enough that people at SMU began to recognize their school, their friends, their teachers, and even themselves, in Liner's words.

Liner may not have named names, but she did write about specific people, often quite critically, and she did so in a way that raised concerns among SMU administrators about whether she was violating the privacy of students. In a February entry, for example, Liner describes a student she dubs "Kortney":

I'd dub her one of the Ashleys -- those plastic girls tottering on $500 sandals, clutching their $1500 handbags -- but try as she might, she'll never quite fit the mold. Her weight for one thing. Girls on this particular campus hover at near-skeletal levels. Kortney is on the chunky side. My generation's parents called it "baby fat." She's not really fat, not in the real world that doesn't measure by Paris Hilton standards, just fleshier than most of her classmates. Rubenesque, you might say. I think she's pretty and will only get prettier as the years add up and her baby fat melts away.

I meet Kortney for nonfat lattes. She's worried about her grade, not in my class but in the class of one of my now-former colleagues. "She hates me!" says Kortney. "Everything I do is wrong in there!" She pulls out a sheaf of papers that the teacher has marked up during the semester. The mistakes are little ones -- odd spacings, misplaced modifiers -- but for each one, the other teacher has deducted 10 points. Every paper is topped with a big red "F."

I don't know what to tell Kortney. What I'd love to say is that it's not all her fault, that this other professor has had a shitty life lately. She's freshly divorced, bitter that her kid has sided with the ex. She's also packed on about 40 pounds over the past two semesters. My amateur psychology says the teacher sees herself in the student and is punishing herself by proxy by failing the girl.

What I say instead is, go talk to Professor X. See what you can do to salvage your grade. Be calm. Don't tune up to cry.

And take her a box of Godivas.

Couldn't hurt.

Liner's is a pointed and revealing and interesting portrait of both the student and the colleague; it's also the sort of thing bound to make administrators squirm. In other, more recent entries, Liner promises to tell the stories of "the rape victim denied morning-after pills 'for religious reasons' by the pharmacist at the campus health center," "the cute male professor known as 'Hot Pockets' and the undergrad girls who swarm his office hoping to earn 'extra credit,'" and "Ladies' room stall No. 6, aka Purge-atory." Liner is clearly playing the edge with her blog, which relies heavily on the transgressive quality of posts devoted to the sorts of things professional decorum dictates teachers avoid discussing in public--the private lives of their students and colleagues, the private opinions a teacher may harbor about either students or colleagues, the unsubstantiated stuff of the local rumor mill. That SMU decided her blog crossed the line is not particularly surprising.

SMU both does and does not admit to firing Liner for writing such a revealing--and inevitably damning--blog: Though administrators deny that the decision to renew Liner had anything to do with the blog, even going so far as to deny having ascertained that Liner was really the author of the blog, they also admit that they were deeply disturbed by the blog, that they had received complaints about it, and that they had gone so far as to consult lawyers about it. As an adjunct, Liner has no job security, and effectively does not enjoy even the semblance of academic freedom; SMU is free to choose not to continue to employ her, and it is free, too, not to offer her any explanation. As it happens, SMU administrators are offering an explanation that is patently unbelievable--they say they discontinued Liner because they want to begin replacing adjunct professors with full-time tenure-track professors, but they have no plans to assign Liner's course to someone on the tenure-track.

Meanwhile, Liner is continuing to write, though less phantasmatically, in her guise as the Phantom Professor. She is also planning a book about her experiences at SMU.

Erin O'Connor, 8:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

May 9, 2005 [feather]
Here comes the sun

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has convinced Dartmouth administrators to eliminate the college's speech code. In a press release issued by FIRE, FIRE president David French observes that "Dartmouth's speech policies, along with those of the University of Pennsylvania, now lead the Ivy League in respecting individual liberty and free expression. ... FIRE looks forward to the day when the entire Ivy League joins this trend and recognizes that administrators may advocate for decency without mandating that students censor, under threat of punishment, their own speech for fear of transgressing someone else's notion of the good society."

UPDATE: There's more at InsideHigherEd.com.

Erin O'Connor, 4:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

May 7, 2005 [feather]
The $20 million mistake

In February, Scott McConnell, a master's student in education at Le Moyne College, was expelled for writing an essay in which he criticized multicultural education and expressed the opinion that corporal punishment has a place in the classroom. McConnell received an A- for the paper--but he also received a letter from the chair of Le Moyne's education department telling him he would not be allowed to continue in the program because there were "grave concerns regarding the mismatch between (McConnell's) personal beliefs regarding teaching and learning and the LeMoyne College program goals." In other words, McConnell was expelled because his personal beliefs did not mesh with the school's ideological agenda. FIRE defended McConnell, and after unsuccessful attempts to remonstrate privately with Le Moyne administrators, FIRE went public with McConnell's story. The case drew national attention, but Le Moyne still did not mend its ways, claiming not only that McConnell was enrolled on a "conditional" basis when he wrote the problem paper, but also that McConnell's views effectively guaranteed that he would be uncertifiable as a teacher in New York State, where teachers are required to cultivate a multicultural classroom and where corporal punishment by teachers is disallowed. But there is a long way between the expression of views--which may themselves be provisional or experimental--in a written assignment for a course and carrying out those views in an actual classroom in knowing violation of the law. Le Moyne preemptively collapsed that distance when it expelled McConnell--and as a result the college now has a $20 million lawsuit on its hands; McConnell is suing the school for violating his civil rights and for causing him emotional distress.

Erin O'Connor, 8:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

May 5, 2005 [feather]
The eyes have it

At the University of New Hampshire, junior journalism major Ken Gagnon has been banished from his English class for writing a blog entry describing how he'd like to thrust his penis through his English teacher's eye socket. The website has been taken off line, but the Concord Monitor offers this bowdlerized excerpt from Gagnon's post: "One of the first things you learn when you come to college is that sometimes, when an idiot is in charge of your English class, there's nothing that can be done about that besides a penis to her (expletive) brain. ... And rest assured, if I (could) impale people's brains with my (expletive) for a living, I would (expletive) drop everything right now and do it."

Gagnon's website contained multiple entries about raping women and shooting students. A few weeks ago, Gagnon was fired from his job at the student newspaper for posting a blog entry in which he detailed a fantasy about sexually assaulting fellow student and controversial campus feminist, Whitney Williams.

The university has advised Gagnon to seek counseling, and is consulting with lawyers to determine where Gagnon's rights end and where criminal activity begins. In the meantime, student columnist James Paine is defending Gagnon's First Amendment rights, arguing that Gagnon's posts were far from serious, and that they were, in fact, obviously and explicitly over the top: "In multiple journal entries, he indicated that the sole point was to be offensive and crass. ... As politically incorrect as it may sound, it was written with such obvious humor that I can't believe it was taken seriously." Paine also makes the important point that Gagnon was never approached about how the material on his website was coming across to readers; he was not given an opportunity to learn that his site was being widely read, and that some readers regarded what he wrote as threatening. "Ken Gagnon said something stupid and rather than correct him to proper social etiquette ('It is inappropriate to talk about face raping'); the University enacted their patented 'Utilize an Atomic Bomb to Demolish Target Anthill' strategy. That strategy is surely better then those tired old-fogey ways of dealing with problems, such as rational discussion and mediation."

I'm no fan of writing--or fantasizing--like Gagnon's, but Paine does have a point. As anyone with a website knows, it's far too easy to assume that no one is really reading it, that you can post your private thoughts on line without the people you'd least like to know about those thoughts uncovering them. It's the grand illusion of the internet, that what you publish on the world wide web is somehow supremely private. We mistake the means of posting--which is secure, solitary, and password-protected--with the terms of access, and assume, irrationally but absolutely, that somehow the only eyes that see our sites are those we would have see them. If this is the mistake Gagnon made, his crime was not that of making threats, but of assuming that a Live Journal site was essentially a paperless diary where he could record his thoughts freely, without fear of judgement or interference. That's the sort of mistake one only makes once, though, and Gagnon has made the same essential error of judgement more than once by now.

With Gagnon being treated like a predator and Paine declaring that the website openly announced itself as nonserious, it's hard to tell what's really going on here--and that's ultimately the point. Now that Gagnon's website has been taken down, it's not possible for us to judge for ourselves what its tone was, or to assess whether what he wrote could reasonably be considered threatening or off balance in some seriously disturbing way. My hunch, though, is that while the content of the site was offensive, it nevertheless consisted of constitutionally protected speech. And I'm hoping that if that is indeed the case, an organization such as FIRE or the ACLU will help Gagnon defend his rights.

Erin O'Connor, 8:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

May 4, 2005 [feather]
Anti-penis action at Roger Williams University

Valentine's Day on campus has become, in recent years, an aggressive celebration of the vagina. "V-Day," as it has come to be known, features a staging of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues as well as a series of alternately silly and confrontational satellite events designed to raise awareness--or hackles, depending on your point of view. Writing for The National Review, Christina Hoff Sommers reports that at Roger Williams this year, V-Day took on an interesting twist. As student feminist groups papered the campus with flyers declaring such sentiments as "My Vagina is Flirty" and "My Vagina is Huggable," sold vagina-shaped lollipops, and organized an "orgasm workshop," the College Republicans staged a competing celebration of the penis. Penis Day, or "P-Day," featured a performance of The Penis Monologues; flyers declaring that "My penis is majestic," "My penis is hilarious," and "My penis is studious"; and a costumed phallic-shaped mascot named Testaclese. P-Day did not go over well at Roger Williams--two students involved in staging The Penis Monologues have been places on probation, and the Testaclese costume was confiscated after Testaclese approached a provost in the student union and congratulated him for being a "Penis Warrior." A Free Testaclese Fund is now in the works.

All this is, of course, good news. The Roger Williams administration has willingly acted out its assigned role in the script created for it by the College Republicans, who are far less interested in promoting penile awareness than they are in forcing the administration to reveal the politicized double standards that govern who has free expression on campus and who does not. In protecting the graphic speech of campus vagina enthusiasts while suppressing and punishing that of the parodic penis enthusiasts, the Roger Williams administration has--to use a phrase that acquires a distinctly sordid connotation in this context--played right into the College Republicans' hands.

Thanks to Fred Ray for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 8:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

May 2, 2005 [feather]

I'm alternating time these days between Gerald Clarke's biography of Truman Capote and Jonathan Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, which tells the story of how two fundamentalist Mormon brothers came to murder their sister-in-law and her baby daughter one fine July day in 1984. This is not as disconnected as it may sound--Krakauer's book is one of the latest and most successful examples of a journalistic genre that Capote himself invented with his 1959 bestseller about the murder of a wealthy Kansas farming family, In Cold Blood.

Capote is remembered today as the founder of the "true crime" genre; In Cold Blood is considered to be the inspiration for countless narrative recreations of real wrongdoing, the most famous of which is Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Executioner's Song (1979). Ironically, though, Capote approached the Clutter family's story not because he was interested in writing about crime, but because he was interested in creating a genre; he believed that by writing a book about the Clutter murder, he could resolve aesthetic issues that had plagued him for some time: "This book was an important event for me," he wrote. "While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."

Capote elaborated his theory of the "non-fiction novel" in a 1966 interview with George Plimpton for the New York Review of Books, observing that crime was not what interested him, so much as the potential narrative force of certain kinds of human events: "after reading the story [of the Clutter murder] it suddenly struck me that a crime, the study of one such, might provide the broad scope I needed to write the kind of book I wanted to write. Moreover, the human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time." Despite Capote's reputation as the inventor of "true crime" writing, then, crime was actually incidental to his project. "The motivating factor in my choice of material--that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case--was altogether literary," he told Plimpton.

The decision was based on a theory I've harbored since I first began to write professionally, which is well over 20 years ago. It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the 'nonfiction novel,' as I thought of it. .... When I first formed my theories concerning the nonfiction novel, many people with whom I discussed the matter were unsympathetic. They felt that what I proposed, a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual, was little more than a literary solution for fatigued novelists suffering from 'failure of imagination.' Personally, I felt that this attitude represented a 'failure of imagination' on their part.

Like Capote, Krakauer has ulterior motives for writing an extended account of a murder in Mormon country. It's not genre that interests Krakauer, though, so much as the complex interplay of history, philosophy, faith, and psychology. Under the Banner of Heaven is a non-fiction novel in the classic Capote style--but not for aesthetic reasons. Krakauer is exploiting the power of the non-fiction novel to ground abstract explorations of ideas in compelling stories about real people. The non-fiction novel form enables Krakauer to examine the nature of faith in an age of alleged reason, to chart the historical place of fundamentalist belief in American culture, and to outline the special problems presently faced by a Mormon Church that owes its enormous and growing popularity to the forcible abandonment of one of its central tenets: that plural marriage, or polygamy, is the one, true, sanctified relationship between the sexes. Under the Banner of Heaven is not poetry in the way that Capote's book is poetic; it does not make art out of ugly events gorgeously rendered. It is, rather, an utterly compelling narrative about what the murderous revelations of two violently visionary men reveal about the spiritual fault lines of the world we all inhabit. All three books--Clarke's Capote, Capote's In Cold Blood, and Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven--are well worth a read.

Erin O'Connor, 8:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)