Friday, March 30, 2012

Why the Morale of My Generation of Academics is Broken

Last week I had the pleasure to visit some old friends down in North Carolina.  One of these friends is the quick wit behind the Will Cooley Fan Club blog, and as we have done in recent years, our conversations turned to our career paths.  Both of us have decided to leave academia in our own ways, but I think it's safe to say we are much happier now than we were a year ago.  One of my favorite posts on the WCFC blog came this week, when my friend wrote a dream letter to a prospective adjunct employer that is well worth reading.

I have other friends who are still in academia, but who have endured more than their share of indignity.  Another close friend just got his book published with a fine university press this month, and had yet another article (I believe his third or fourth) accepted for publication with a good journal.  He did not manage to get a tenure-track job this year, despite the fact that he already has enough credentials to get tenured at a majority of four year universities.  Instead, he works off the tenure-track as a "visitor."  Another friend at my old institution lost her adjunct job last year, but her well-received book now sits on my shelf.  Her firing had everything to do with professional jealousy and incompetent higher-ups feeling threatened, not her scholarly acumen and amazing skills in the classroom.

The dehumanization and exploitation at the lower rungs of academia is well-known to those who've lived it, but hidden to most others, including many tenured faculty in departments that rely on an army of low-paid visitors and adjuncts to function.  They often don't know, don't care, or, in most cases, don't care to know.  In the latter group, they either think of themselves as simply superior to those beneath, or they are so morally unsettled by the implications of their department's faculty slum that they would rather just not think about it.  A precious few are truly sympathetic and helpful, but usually you'll find that they have their own battle scars from the contingent trenches on their bodies, and that they feel a moral obligation to their fellow front veterans.

The indignities of the low-side of academic life bite hard and leave deep wounds.  I was thinking about this today as I was reading a book called The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst.  It's an incredibly funny and harrowing look at his life as a career minor league baseball player.  He writes movingly of a dilemma that I had to face, namely, how far to you go to preserve your dream when the pursuit is destroying your life?  Here he muses on this issue while being so impoverished in the off season that he has to sleep on an air mattress in his kooky grandmother's basement:

"This is my question-my giant, dinosaur-turd-sized question: How much longer do I want to keep living this dream?  Truthfully, not very much.  I know folks would say that walking away from such a great opportunity would be a mistake.  But what if giving up some of the best years of your life for something that may never happen is the mistake?  There comes a moment in life, no matter what your line of work is, when you have to step back and wonder if you're heading in the right direction."  

More and more talented teachers and scholars of my academic generation are kept awake at night by this question, and not just adjuncts and visitors.  Some of my friends are on the tenure-track at rotten institutions in dysfunctional departments, with their scholarly abilities feared rather than supported.  I am at least glad that some of my friends have found permanent positions good enough not to face Hayhurst's dilemma, but the current assault on higher ed, including massive state cutbacks, means that they are vulnerable, too.  On my old blog during the time before I took the leap out of the academy, I wrote the following, and I think it's even more relevant today than it was then.

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This weekend I paid a very enjoyable visit to two old friends in Mississippi. I had a great time, but our many conversations about the current state of academe were full of bitterness, disillusionment, and fatigue. This was much the same case on a recent sojourn to Georgia, where two other friends told hair-curling stories about junior faculty peonage. Since returning home another friend in academe has expressed a fear, which I hold as well, that our entire profession is about to be destroyed. Reading today about a recent move by Texas A&M to rate their professors completely on the bottom line of the amount of money they bring in hardly reassures me.

My friends and I are part of an academic generation that has been sold down the river, double-crossed, stabbed in the back, and left for dead. We started our graduate work at a time when universities expanded graduate programs and started new ones, leaving a glut of scholars going into a ruthless market where tenure-track jobs have been eliminated in favor of adjunct jobs that pay peanuts and lack security. For most scholars of my generation, tenure has already been eliminated by the casualization of academic labor. In effect, the "reformers" calling to eliminate tenure are merely completing a process that has been going on for decades.

Those of us on the tenure track like yours truly have our own reasons to be demoralized. We are facing severe cutbacks (especially in the humanities), a time-wasting "assessment" regime, politicized assaults on academic freedom, and worst of all perhaps, generational oppression. What do I mean by that? By "generational oppression" I am referring to the fact that the young survivors of the cutthroat academic job market find themselves placed in subservient positions despite their often superior qualifications. For example, when I was a "visiting professor" I published more in the two years I was at Frontier University than multiple full professors on the faculty had in their entire careers. Despite that fact, I was the one being paid less, teaching more classes, actually barred in one case from being able to teach a 400 level course, and had to experience their privileged noses literally turned up at the sight of me. (I should add that many other faculty members, both young and old, were very helpful and encouraging. The academy needs more people like them.) While I am sympathetic to older academics whose retirement accounts were hurt by the financial meltdown, a system that allows the less worthy of them to continue to be mediocre teachers and absent themselves from scholarship while thousands of more capable scholars and teachers must work for minimum wage pay without benefits is disgusting.

When the cuts come down, as they are coming fast and furious now, they will spare the children of the Baby Boom, who are safely tenured. Heck, many universities are saving money by offering retirement buy-outs, a nice send off gift for an academic generation used to living off the fat of the land. With enrollments increasing, universities can't just slash their number of faculty, however. Instead, more and more future tenured lines will be eliminated, and more and more contingent positions will be created, to be filled by my generational comrades. And this is where I really get upset. The tenured class has spent the last thirty years responding to the neo-liberal assault on the universities by kicking the can down the road and sacrificing the future. They allowed and even encouraged the growth in contingent and grad student labor and they welcomed more graduate students despite worsening chances for eventual placement. After all, where were the TAs going to come from to actually teach the undergrads? As long as the tenured class was insulated from the harsh winds battering academe, nothing else really mattered. Now, just as the whole edifice is crumbling to the ground, they will get to have the cushy retirements that their scholarly descendents can never dream of when working for $2,000 a class. I hope they're happy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Classic Albums: The Faces, A Nod is as Good as a Wink...to a Blind Horse


If I was given the ability to travel back in time in the early 70s and see one musical performer of my choice in concert, I'd probably choose James Brown.  (The reasons should be obvious).  Following in close second would be The Faces.  "But hey" you'll say, "didn't the Stones embark on a famous tour back in '72."  They sure did, and from what I've heard and seen, The Faces would've blown Jagger and crew right off of the stage. (Just compare this clip of the Stones and this clip of the Faces.)  They were younger, hungrier, and chaotic in ways that created the kind of happy accidents that can make a live show truly wonderful.  Today outside of the rock snob set they are mostly remembered for being Rod Stewart's band, a travesty for a group that was the most exciting rock act around in their heyday.

That said, the Faces' chaotic, ramshackle nature, so suited to the spontaneity of live performance, didn't always transfer well to wax.  They never produced whole albums as transcendent as Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street, the Stones' great milestones of the early 1970s.  However, The Faces came pretty damn close on 1971's A nod is as good as a wink...to a blind horse.  It wasn't perfection, but perhaps something even better.

The first side of this record pretty much distills the multifaceted nature of The Faces into five very different songs.  The opener, "Miss Judy's Farm," is a skanky strutter of a song that settles into a punishingly grinding groove which Stewart sings the shit out of.  This is the kind of thing the Faces could do better than anyone else.  The next song, "You're So Rude," features a vocal by bassist and songwriter Ronnie Lane (underscoring that this was NOT a Stewart backing band), detailing a naughty tryst on a rainy Sunday, and featuring the stellar organ work of keyboard maestro Ian McLagen.  Part of the reason I like this song, beyond Lane's sly delivery, is that it is a much more realistic version of the scenario presented in Free's "All Right Now."  The main character manages to take the girl home, but they have to do it quick before his parents get back.

Whereas the first two songs show off the Faces' well-known party animal reputation, the third track, "Love Lives Here," is a jaw-droppingly beautiful tender ballad whose power is increased after hearing two much rougher-edged tunes.  The fourth, "Last Orders Please," is another Faces speciality, the ramshackle blues number.  This Ronnie Lane tune careens around like an old wreck of a car dragging its tailpipe on the ground.  It's no wonder that the first wave of punk rockers cited the Faces as an influence, since they were equally unafraid of letting a few bum notes and blown leads get in the way of an expression of true rocknroll spirit.

As great as the first four songs on side one are, they are merely prelude to "Stay With Me," an absolute barn burner that shows off the musical talents of the band, from Ron Wood's searing leads to Ian McLagen's keyboard chops to Kenny Jones' powerful drumming.  On this rollicking track, with its stops, starts, and lead changes, the Faces seem to imply that the more chaotic playing on the previous track was all just an act, and that they can pull it together if the right mood strikes them.  The band is so tight and the tempo so rapid by the end that this song usually gives me a little burst of adrenaline.  Thus ends an album side that is among my favorites in my collection.

Side two can't hope to match that perfection, and doesn't, but it does start off with "Debris," a gorgeous Ronnie Lane ballad that ought to have become a standard.  Since this band is the Faces, and not the Beatles, they follow this stirring tune with a so-so cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" that goes on way too long.  It's almost as if they have to shift into bar band mode after such a display of sentimental emotion.  (This live version is better than the one on record.)  The Faces right themselves a bit with "Too Bad," a decent uptempo rave-up.  The album ends with a real treat, Ron Wood's slide guitar on "That's All You Need."  The song's alright, but the seriously bluesy slide guitar is positively awe-inspiring.  If you ever wondered why the Stones chose Woody to replace the departed Mick Taylor on lead, this track pretty much explains why, and also sadly highlights how his talents have not been fully utilized in his current band.

Some albums are greater than the sum of their parts, and though A nod is as good as a wink has plenty of great moments, it succeeds as a total experience.  If you are having people over and want to get the beer flowing and good times started, I can hardly think of a better record.  There's no rock star preening or pretentious showing off, just gut busting rock and roll.  Sometimes that's all you need.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Quick Thoughts on the Current Political Scene

On this blog, as opposed to my old one, I have striven to write long-form, essayistic pieces, and to avoid a running commentary on the political world. There are other people who do this a whole lot better than I can. You will find many of their sites in the blogroll column to the right. However, sometimes I can't resist the urge to throw my comments into the ring, so here it goes.

Joe Biden has a knack for getting down to brass tacks, and he has created a priceless meme to support president Obama's re-election bid: "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."  That just about sums it up, doesn't it?

I would like to amend the meme to say "Bin Laden is dead, GM is alive, and gay Americans can serve openly in the military."  It touches on the president's foreign policy success where the GOP has failed, a domestic policy that is more beneficial than the rapacious pushed by the Republicans, and his commitment to backing up his more free and open social policies.

In a great ironic twist, the Republican surge to power in Congress and on the state level in 2010 will severely harm its prospects this year.  Why?  Because the GOP has let the mask drop and their true intentions come out by attacking collective bargaining rights, birth control, and Medicare.  The public at large likes these things, and did not think that a vote for a Republican candidate meant such extremism.  Conservatives have irreparably harmed their prospects with independents and moderates for this election.

The Republicans have been doubling down on stupid by making themselves, in effect, the White People's Party.  Don't believe me?  In this year's Republican primary in South Carolina, 98% of the voters were white in a state where a third of the population is not white.  That number reflects the villainization of Hispanic immigrants and naked attempts at suppressing the African American vote by conservatives.  Considering America's changing demographics, this is not the smartest strategy to secure the future, and a gift to Democrats.

The conservative psychosis in regards to race could not be more apparent than in the reaction to president Obama's muted and thoughtful comments about the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Republicans now label any effort to discuss racism "racist," as if racism simply means calling attention to the role of race in American society.  Republicans do this for much the same reason they scream "class warfare" whenever anyone dares to address the war on the working and middle classes by America's wealthy: doing so is the easiest way to divert attention from Republican policies that are increasingly inequality, both racial and socio-economic.

Regarding the president's comments, what he said made a lot of sense to me.  I have students who fit Martin's profile: young, black, earning good grades, and vulnerable to angry white men with guns finding them "threatening."  (Let's just say I've heard some interesting things about the NYPD from my students.) The murder itself is horrible, but thinking about what this means regarding the safety of many of my students is especially upsetting.  That the Republican presidential candidates didn't even bother to say anything about the Martin shooting except to pounce on president Obama's comments pretty much tells us all we need to know.

Well, two police cars just ran into each other in front of my apartment just now (no kidding), so I am going to gawk out my window for awhile and hope nobody got hurt.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Resisting the Temptation of the New York Yankees


I have a confession to make. Ever since moving out here to New Jersey, I have been strongly tempted to become a fan of the New York Yankees.   It is only appropriate for me to voice this confession during the Lenten season, when Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert, while the devil offered to turn stones into bread and to give control over the world.  The dreams of a baseball life made easy, and an end to the long fasts of bad seasons and to attain the power of a perennial contender, threaten to turn this fan's soul to the dark side

I have been surprised by these temptations, since I had always considered myself immune to the lures of  "Satan's jeweled crown" as the Louvin Brothers song goes.  For years, I thought of the Yankees as the enemy, a an arrogant franchise able to throw money around and buy the World Series, rather than winning it fair and square. They were run by George Steinbrenner, a vulgar, authoritarian jerk whose teams succeeded in spite of, rather than because of, his decisions.  His obstinacy prevented revenue sharing in major league baseball, greatly increasing the gaps between the haves and have nots.  Yankee fans were the worst kind of front-runners, the type of people who cared more about being on the winning team than about the game itself.

However, as I learned from watching Star Wars films as a child, the Dark Side is easier and more seductive. I still remember my one trip to the old Yankee stadium, and seeing the banner behind home plate proclaiming the Yankees winners of twenty-six World Series titles, about a quarter of all the World Series' ever played! As a White Sox fan, I have typically expected my teach to fuck up, even in 2005 when they won the title. Sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium, I could tell that the fans fully expected their team to win, and that anything else was a terrible failure. That particular game was a blow-out of the Devil Rays (before their name change and improvement), and the Yankee faithful bellowed a kind of bloodthirsty howl that must have been heard at ancient Roman gladiatorial contests. In Yankee Stadium I felt like I was part of a community of winners, perhaps the most seductive thing the Yankees offer their fans who, like the rest of us, live lives of quiet desperation.

How wonderful it must be to know that the owners of your team will pay top dollar to retain rising young players, rather than trade them before they hit free agency. How comforting it must be when your team is willing to make any acquisition necessary down the stretch to win the pennant. Most baseball fans, especially those in small-markets, are used to seeing fire sales of young talent in the late summer months, and must comfort themselves with the mantra "there's always next year."  For these fans, a wild card berth is cause for celebration; for Yankees fans, anything less than a title is a failure.

How could I possibly justify rooting for the bad guys? I'd like to think my main reasons go beyond the delights of being on the winning team. In the first place, I must admit that my attraction to the Yankees has deep roots. My immersion into baseball and baseball history roughly coincided with the decline of the Yankees franchise in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As I learned about the Bronx Bombers' storied past, I felt that baseball was missing something if the Yankees weren't great; it just didn't seem to be right that they were a last place team. Thus in my mind wanting the Yankees to be good meant I wanted baseball to be made whole. It didn't hurt that I had a deep fascination with New York City itself at that time. In high school or college (I can't remember which), I bought a Yankees cap and wore it out. I remember rooting for them in the 1995 playoffs and 1996 World Series, and catching hell for it from other baseball fans.

After moving to Chicago, the White Sox became my team, and thus my only rooting interest in the American League. Despite that fact, I had a great deal of admiration for the Yankee title teams of 1998-2000. In a time of steroid-inflated biceps and over-reliance on the home run, they won by playing team baseball and doing the little things well. It was hard not to like guys like Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Paul O'Neil. It was especially difficult to dislike Joe Torre, a once hard-luck manager who seemed to have tamed Steinbrenner's worst impulses and molded a team based on cohesion rather than ego. Of course, that didn't stop me from being overjoyed at their defeat at the hands of the Red Sox in the 2004 play-offs.

Some of my other major reasons are purely practical. I've committed myself to living in the New York City area for the forseeable future. As a sports fan, it's hard to live somewhere long term and not have a rooting interest in a local team. When I was affiliated with a university, the choice was made for me, but I am no longer in that position. As I get older, baseball is the one professional sport I really, truly care about, partly because the NFL's technocratic violence no longer appeals to me much. That leaves me with the Yankees or the Mets. Over the past few years, I've tried to claim the Mets as my National League team. Truth be told, their new stadium is kinda lame. Beyond that, their ownership is implicated in the Madoff scandal, and is currently completely dysfunctional.  Most importantly, I have many more Yankee fans in my circle here than I do Mets fans.

After all, isn't sports fandom really about community? My continued devotion to Husker football, thirteen years after leaving the state of Nebraska, is a kind of cultural glue that allows me to more easily connect to my father and other members of my family. That fandom I did not choose, like the Roman Catholic Church, it was chosen for me. It is the one sports connection that I will never shake, since it's practically in my blood, and that's not necessarily a good thing. By choosing the Yankees, aren't I just electing to more closely tie myself to the community I already live in? Isn't team loyalty a kind of fetish?

Ah, here are the sweet words of the Father of Lies, taking my weakness, vanity, and lust for power and glory and calling them virtuous.  Satan, be gone with you!  You can keep your crown, encrusted with twenty-seven championship jewels.  I shall continue my time in the baseball desert, spending the next season watching Jake Peavy and Gordon Beckham fail to fulfill their promise, groaning at yet another Adam Dunn strikeout, mourning Mark Buehrle's loss to the Marlins, and observing with dread the great Paul Konerko's slide into old age.  I might even wander over into the Mets' unforgiving wilderness, to take on the role of a baseball St. Anthony.  Blessed are baseball's poor in spirit, for they are the true fans.  Or, as Met Tug McGraw once said, "you gotta believe."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How To Tell if Your Last Job Was Terrible


I am on break right now, which is both good and dangerous.  Going to Nebraska kept me busy, and preparing for the arrival of the twins does as well, but today for the first time in months, my mind had time to stretch out and reflect on where I was at this time last year.  I remember it all too well.  My father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.  My family's cat of twenty years was dying.  I lived 1500 miles from my wife in a wretched podunk town.  My job was making me crazy with despair and paranoia.  A year on, things have improved.  My father is cancer free, my wife and I are living together and about to have twins, and my new employer in New York City treats me really well.  I no longer wake up in the morning in fear of what awful things await me in the coming day.  My happiness today almost seems miraculous, and now I awake each morning feeling as if I must be one of the luckiest people alive.  Despite these positive changes, the painful memories of the past bite hard, especially a year to the month after my life might have reached its most hopeless trough.

On my old blog of several years, which I had to discontinue due to being outed by a false, backstabing  friend at my old job, I wrote the following musings on how to judge whether one's last job was truly terrible.  They are as true now as they were then.
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I know I said before that I wouldn't discuss my former job, but the weeks since I have escaped have highlighted the true nature of its awfulness. There's also the fact that some people I care about are still in the wretched clutches of my former employer, and I feel their pain acutely. So, without further ado, you know your last job was terrible when:

You have nightmares about your old job that are especially scary because the nightmare scenario is not much worse than reality. (This actually happened to me the night I arrived in New Jersey.)

You are filled with a great deal of anxiety about your next job, and worry that all the nice people you interviewed with may in fact be backstabbing hyenas.

Before taking this job you did not care about office politics and generally trusted your co-workers. After leaving this job you have vowed to trust no one in your new workplace.

Before taking this job you abhorred gossip and thought that everyone at work could get along. Now you hang on every rumor and secretly hope that some of your former colleagues are denied tenure or are publicly disgraced.

Your mind is clouded by thoughts of vengeance for the first time in your life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Life Metaphors from Baseball


The sport of baseball has provided many useful metaphors over the years.  Some people have two strikes against them, some throw you a curve ball, others hit a home run in their career, or strike out, if they're unlucky.  Unprofessional behavior is "bush league."  High school boys still grade their sexual encounters by what base they happen to reach, or at least claim to have reached.  (Stand-up doubles very easily get stretched into triples or homers in the retelling.)

I was reminded of this today in an email conversation with a close friend.  Like me, he's been buying old wax boxes of baseball cards from the 1980s (they are surprisingly cheap), and has been noticing the career trajectories of the various players.  He saw a parallel with his academic career, likening himself to Steve Balboni and perceiving a similar career decline.  (I think he is being to hard on himself, and also forgets that Balboni hit clean-up for the 1985 World Series-winning Royals.)

During my brief academic career, I never managed to stick as a big league starter.  I was a solid journeyman who never played for the right team, and am now I out of the game as a player.  Working as a "visitor" for a regional state u was like riding the bench on a fifth place team.  Moving from there to my job as a tenure-track professor, where I was not allowed to teach in my specialty most of the time, was like hitting seventh and being switched from a left fielder to a third baseman.  My current job teaching high school is almost like becoming a minor-league manager.  The best player metaphor for myself that I could come up with was Tom Brookens (he managed the West Michigan Whitecaps, one of Detroit's class A teams, when I was living in the area.  He also wore glasses as a player.)  Then again, maybe I never played in the majors at all.  My old institution was the very definition of bush league.

Baseball stings hard because like life itself it is so dominated by fear of failure.  One line in the movie Moneyball has really stuck with me: "at some point, we all realize that we can no longer play the boy's game."  As I crack open my packs of baseball cards, I see names that I had forgotten about, and players whose accomplishments have all but disappeared into oblivion: Calvin Schiraldi, Ken Phelps, Chet Lemon, Kirk McCaskell, Atlee Hammaker, Sid Bream, Oddibe McDowell, Mark Wasinger, Floyd Youmans, and on and on and on.  Some were pretty damn good for awhile, others only managed a season or two in the majors.  Then again, they did make it to the bigs, their names are in the Baseball Encyclopedia and they've been immortalized on very own bubblegum cards, something that can never be taken away from them.  Baseball greatness, like greatness in any walk of life, is pretty goddamned hard to achieve.  Perhaps its pursuit, rather than its attainment, ought to be emphasized in this cruel, failure-laden world.  After all, we all can't be Robin Yount.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Letting the Academic Dream Die: Another Progress Report

Yesterday a friend and colleague from my Michigan days as a "visiting professor" happened to be in Manhattan, and so we spent the day walking around and enjoying the city.  It was a pleasant day, but today I found myself to be cranky and irritable.  It took me awhile to figure it out, but I realized some time around dinner today that I have a lot of tangled and unresolved feelings about leaving academia.  These feelings are complicated, because I am so happy in so many ways right now.  After years living apart, my wife are together, and what's more, we are expecting some new additions to our family come August.  I really enjoy my job, and I really like going to work in the Big Apple every day.  I am no longer stuck in a horrific nightmare of a dysfunctional department, I no longer teach 165 students a semester without an assistant, and I no longer live in a town that has as many churches as it does registered Democrats.

So why the sour feelings?  Part of me is still mourning the loss of a dream that I spent almost all of my adult life pursuing.  Related to this, I also I feel like there is a large part of my life missing.  The demands of my new job have taken up all of my energy, but at this point in the school year I've had time to take a breather, and that's been dangerous.  The research projects that I put on the shelf have come back to the front of my mind, but I just don't have the time, energy, and resources to really do them justice right now. I miss having my research as part of my job, even if my old job abused me so much that I had little time to focus on my scholarly work.  Without academic credentials, I fear no one will take my scholarship seriously, and not having the time to stay immersed in my field and in primary sources has made it difficult to dive back in.

Perhaps my inability to believe that I can still carry on my scholarly mission outside of the ivory tower is just a mental hurdle I have to overcome, and not a certain death to my work as a historian.  As hard as I try, I have a hard time not thinking that the latter is true.  Back in September, I presented a paper as part of a panel that I had helped organize for a major conference.  The paper and the panel were well-received, as well as my commentary on another panel.  Despite those positive developments, I felt like an imposter the whole time I was at the conference, an oddity in a world where a university affiliation was a necessary credential.

Worst of all, when I try to sit down with an article manuscript I am trying to punch up, or to read a new history book, painful memories come flooding back with a vengeance.  I remember how badly I was used, first as a low-wage grunt laborer in my "visitor" days, and then as a slightly more glorified version of an academic grunt laborer on the tenure track, where I was assigned a majority of American history classes (despite being a Europeanist) and endured three straight semesters of four classes with three preps and with at least 150 students.  I think about the years struggle on the job market, of friends chewed up and spat out by the academic system, and the malicious frauds among my former colleagues who still get to be members of the academic club despite being bereft of intellect and scruples.  I certainly love that my current employer treats me so much better, and that my superiors are always giving me appreciations of my efforts, but I miss being a scholar, despite the pain in my past.

In the end, these longings of mine might just be so much emotional wanking.  When I moved into my wife's apartment, we converted the spare room into an office, the space where the majority of my academic books live.  In the last six months, I must admit I've barely used it.  I know it will soon be getting some heavy use, however, as a nursery.  My scholarly pretensions and bitterness over a failed impossible dream seem pretty stupid now that I must face the prospect of raising children.  That's the one thing that can break me of my fixation on the failed dreams of my past, and thinking about a new adventure much more meaningful than any conference paper, article, or monograph.    

Friday, March 9, 2012

Top Five Academic Satire Novels


Back when I still worked in academia, I would relieve the tension and absurdity of my life by curling up with a good academic novel, preferably a satire.  During the short period of time I spent as a "visiting" and assistant professor, I read quite a few.

Let's face it, academics make easy pickings for satirists.  They often pretend to be smarter, more judicious, and just plain better than the schlubs who must toil outside of the groves of academe, but rarely ever prove  themselves worthy of such boasts. In reality, the ivory tower is a snakepit of petty resentments governed by an intricate hierarchy that runs more on sycophancy than talent.  The profession welcomes and even celebrates men and women too eccentric and socially awkward to make it in any other walk of life, a motley crew of misfits that equals comedy gold.  Here are five novels that helped me laugh at it all when it started to get to make me crazy.

1. James Hynes, The Lecturer's Tale. Anyone who has suffered through the horrors of adjunct and "visiting" professorships MUST read this book. It concerns a lecturer at an elite university who is given magical powers which he uses to save his job and become master of his department before it all goes to his head. I've never read anything that so ably dissects the ugliness of departmental politics, the insanity of job searches, and the arrogance of tenured professors who never consider the grunt classroom laborers who make their caviar and 2/2 teaching load lifestyles possible. A friend recommended this to me after my first year as a "visitor," and this fun novel gave me the courage to endure another year of humiliation.

2. David Lodge, Small World. Lodge's book may soon become a relic, since it concerns a group of scholars who constantly keep running into each other at academic conferences. The jet-setting, ocean-hopping lifestyle depicted by Lodge is fast becoming a thing of the past. In any case, he manages to totally capture the power politics, cruddy scholarship, and yes, romance, always on display when intellectuals get together.

3. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. For obvious reasons, almost every academic satire is set in an English department. Part of the reason I like Amis' 1950s novel so much is that it takes place in a history department. Better yet, the title character, Jim Dixon, feels the resentments of classism that commonly afflict scholars (like yours truly) who were not to the manner born in a world dominated by the children of the bourgeoisie. And even better still, it has perhaps the greatest literary description of a hangover that I've ever read.

4. Richard Russo, Straight Man. I love Russo's stuff in general, but this is by far his funniest book, and perhaps his best. It is set at a fictional school called "West Central Pennsylvania University," and accurately captures the lowered standards and laziness of the mediocre tenured faculty that reign at second-tier public universities in this country. (It's a world I know well and am glad to have escaped from.)

5. Don DeLillo, White Noise. This book isn't a straight academic satire per se, but it's damn good and wickedly funny. The main character is a scholarly opportunist of the worst sort in the field of "Hitler studies" who doesn't even know German. DeLillo makes the general phoniness of consumer culture and American life his primary target, but ivory tower has hardly been immune to these social sicknesses.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Drums of War Beat Again

I will be brief.

America has been embroiled in war in Afghanistan since 2001, and just recently ended its fighting in Iraq after a seven year occupation.  Despite the human cost and lack of substantial success in these conflicts, the usual suspects are beating the drums of war with Iran.  Let's be clear: I have nothing but contempt for the brutal, theocratic Iranian state.  However, my stomach turns when I hear sanctimonious voices declare the potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East that may erupt if Iran develops an atomic weapon, as if there already isn't a country in the Middle East (Israel) with a large stockpile of nukes.  That the United States and international community have failed to get Israel to come clean on this issue represents a massive failure and the worst manner of hypocrisy.  I get further sickened when Bibi Netanyahu is allowed to pass himself off as a democratic leader in a sea of Arab autocracies.  His governing coalition is full of religious and nationalist zealots of the most intolerant and extreme types, and his government is committed to denying the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people.  And yet America's politicians fall over backwards to praise this man and support his country's dangerous foreign policy, to the great detriment of the interests of the United States.

Ordering men and women to kill and die in foreign lands is a heady undertaking, but some politicians seem willing to sacrifice young lives to advance their political ambitions.  One of our major political parties is run by people who would send their own youth to die to support a regime in thrall to religious and nationalist extremists, and most of the public seems not to know or care about it.  The dead from Iraq are still fresh in the ground, but we seem poised to engage on another bloody, misbegotten adventure.  Karl Marx was right all along; history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Explaining Rick Santorum's Success in the Midwest

The older I get, the more I see regionalism as a dominant factor in American politics.  The punditocracy gives it lip service, but rarely outside of the role of the South in the GOP.  America is a nation of distinct regions, and these regions have long had their own unique political styles that remain, even if party affiliation wanders.  The Solid South's conversion to the once hated Party of Lincoln is usually the most noted, but equally as momentous is the current destruction of New England's moderate Republican tradition, as evidenced by the recent retirement of Olympia Snow.  She is leaving politics and Lincoln Chafee and Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party not because of their own ideological shifts, but because of the conservative orthodoxy of the Dixie-fied GOP.

I hail from the region that seems to the a non-region in the eyes of the rest of the nation: the Midwest.  Much ink is spilled each year on the need for Democrats to carve out a niche in the South and West, but the recent success of the Democrats in a region long liable to vote Republican has practically gone without notice.  (Illinois, Lincoln's home state and birthplace of Ronald Reagan has gone Democrat in every presidential election from 1992 onward, this after going Republican in all of the presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.)  The Midwest not only produced Barack Obama, his support in that region put him over the top against McCain.  (Had Ohio voted differently, George W. Bush would have been a one termer.)

In regards to the current presidential primaries, I have heard little to no comment concerning the fact that Rick Santorum appears to have made the Midwest his stronghold.  He almost beat Romney in Michigan - Mitt's home state- in a vote so close that I hardly think that Romney could tout it as a victory.  Santorum has won Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri (in addition to Colorado in the West), three out of four which voted for Obama in 2008.

It might seem strange at first glance that Santorum, supposedly much more conservative than Romney, would win in states that have been voting for Democrats in recent presidential elections.  However, this can be explained by the fact that Midwestern Republicans are different from their counterparts in other regions.  Despite the South's reputation as the Bible Belt, social issues matter more for Midwesterners than Southerners on the right.  Why?  Because the culture of the Midwest accepts public institutions and organized labor as necessary, unlike conservative Southern politicians, who have always advocated for as little government and cheap as labor as possible.  Just compare any Southern city to a Midwestern counterpart of similar size, and the latter will invariable have better financed public schools, larger public libraries, and more and better maintained public park space.  Certainly Scott Walker has used his power to attack unions, but the level of pushback he has received in Wisconsin is indicative of that state's difference from, say, Texas, where public workers are treated like dogs with little public sympathy.

While it is certainly the case that Midwestern Republicans have put their stock in supply-side Reaganism and such, they are much closer to Democrats on economic issues than their counterparts in other regions.  Thus, it is social issues, especially abortion, that define their differences with Democrats.  Santorum appeals to these people tremendously (trust me, I've got some in my family), and his seemingly insane pronouncements as of late seem aimed at arousing their enthusiasm at the polls in Ohio on Super Tuesday.  However, Santorum appears to have little support outside of the Midwest by comparison.  Nobody in the larger news media is saying it, but Santorum is a regional candidate.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

1969-1991: Baseball's Real Golden Age

Awhile back I read a book that I'd highly recommend to all the baseball heads out there: Big Hair and Plastic Grass, by Dan Epstein. It's a fun, breezy look at baseball in the 1970s that persuasively argues that the Polyester Decade brought major changes to the game. Free agency and the DH are just two of the more important ones. Since reading it, I've inevitably been comparing baseball then to now, but especially to the so-called Steroid Era.

I tend to date the start of the Steroid Era to 1992, and reliable sources back me up on this. There's no doubt that players were using steroids prior to 1992, but evidence shows that by 1992 a critical mass of users had developed. Some of this is consistent with the fact that Jose Canseco came to the Texas Rangers that year, and got many prominent teamates, most notably Rafael Palmeiro, onto the juice. The home run numbers in 1992 also start going through the roof.

As a fan of the game, my issue with the Steroid Era goes well beyond accusations of cheating. The preponderance of muscle-bound sluggers slamming long balls made the sport much more one dimensional and less interesting. For example, Barry Bonds had once been an exciting all-around player who could run, hit, and field. When he managed to break the home run records he had been transformed into a slow, lead footed bruiser topped by an anabolically swelled colossal Olmec head. Not only did the new focus on the long ball create one-sided stars, the attendant high scoring meant more pitching changes and longer games.

It didn't used to be like this. In fact, I think the era right before the needle held its sway over the diamond may in fact be the greatest in baseball's history, though we never think of it that way. I for one can't define any period before the integration of baseball to be a "golden age" for obvious reasons. While some wistful oldsters might praise the 1950s as a golden age, it too was an era of boring, station-to-station baseball. Plus, if you weren't a New Yorker, you hardly ever got to see your team in the World Series.

The laggard pace of the game at least began to change in the 1960s. By 1969 other important changes had happened. Both leagues were now truly integrated after years of foot-dragging in the American League. That year also saw expansion and the addition of the playoffs, which have been great for adding excitement in October. By that time the cultural changes of the sixties were finally being felt in the button-down world of the National Pastime. As Epstein argues in his book, during the ensuing years baseball would adapt to fit the times.

Why is the time between 1969 and 1991 the best? Here are my reasons:

Faster Style of Play
I've explained this already above. If home runs become too common, they stop being special. Furthermore, stolen bases, hit and runs, squeeze plays and other small ball tactics make the game that much more exciting.

The Uniforms



It has been fashionable to deride the double-knit unis of the seventies and eighties ever since baseball teams dropped bright colors, stirrups, and elastic for the baggy, belted, and boring duds of today. While some of the concoctions might not have been successful (such as the infamous Bermuda shorts introduced by Bill Veeck's White Sox shown above), they were at least interesting, which is more than what I can say about the uniforms since. Here are some of my favorites:



I think the Astros' "tequila sunrise" shirts made JR Richard and Nolan Ryan that much more intimidating. Or maybe not.



Who can resist the Padres' taco-colored fantasia?


Road blues! They look so much cooler than grey.

Classic World Series Championships
For reasons that can't be fully explained, the time between 1969 and 1991 saw several memorable World Series championships. The bookends themselves are pretty damn good: the 1969 "Miracle Mets" shocking the baseball world, and the 1991 Twins winning in a seven-game war with the Braves that might be the best World Series ever. The 1991 series was only one of several seven game nail-biters: the 1972 tilt between the dynasties in Oakland and Cincy, the "You Gotta Believe" Mets and the As in 1973, the famous 1975 Reds-Red Sox battle (another contender for best ever), the 1979 "We Are Family" Pirates prevailing over Earl Weaver's Orioles, the Cardinals and Brewers in 1982, the Royals and Cardinals, in 1985, the classic Mets-Red Sox tilt in 1986 (including the infamous Buckner game), and the back and forth battle between the Twins and Cards in 1987.

Even in the matchups that fell short of seven games there were plenty of memorable moments: Kirk Gibson's miracle homer in 1988, the earthquake in '89, and Reggie Jackson hitting three homers on three pitches to clinch the title for the Yankees in 1977, just to name a few. The seven gamers have plenty of their own, of course: Buckner's flub in 1986, Carlton Fisk willing a home run in 1975, and Jack Morris' dominating performance in game seven of the 1991 series.

Small Market Dynasties
I also think the game had a lot more competitive balance in the 1969-1991 period. Curt Flood, Marvin Miller, and the players finally killed the hated Reserve Clause and won the right to free agency and salary arbitration, but the smaller market teams could still compete, Hell, they had dynasties of their own. During this time the Oakland As won four championships, including three in a row between 1972 and 1974. The Minnesota Twins won twice, in 1987 and 1989, the Reds in 1975, 1976, and 1990, the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971 and 1979, and the Kansas City Royals in 1985. The Royals also went to the World Series in 1980, and won their division in 1984, 1976, 1977, and 1978. This is a team that today, like the Pirates, is seemingly stuck at a permanent disadvantage due to the current economics of the game.

Great Movies
I don't know why or how, but this period, especially the 1980s, brought us a slew of classic baseball movies: The Bad News Bears, The Natural, Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, and Major League. I watched the latter film so many times in college I just about have the damn thing memorized.

Baseball Cards
The 1980s were indisputably the greatest time ever to collect baseball cards. A fever gripped America for the cardboard fetishes, much like the tulip mania that overtook 17th century Holland. Like tulipomania, it couldn't last forever, and the bottom dropped out in the 1990s. However, it was a lot of fun while it lasted. With Donruss and Fleer competing with Topps after 1981, the number and variety available to young collectors like yours truly seemed limitless. Before Upper Deck ruined everything, they were still relatively inexpensive, meaning that the $2 I got for mowing the lawn could get me at least four packs, depending on the brand. My personal favorite series, for sentimental reasons, is the 1987 Topps, since that was the first that I ever seriously collected. I especially liked looking at John Franco's contorted arm.







Then again, Score's 1988 series was a great leap forward that pushed other card makers to great heights before it all came crashing down. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk indeed

More Outlandish Player Appearances



Is it just me, or have baseball players become a lot more bland and conservative in their dress and style? Where are our Bill "Spaceman" Lees, our daffy Mark Fydrichs, afroed Oscar Gambles, or sartorially mustached Rollie Fingers?

Milestones




Between 1969 and 1991, several great records were broken without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. Henry Aaron beat the greatest record of the all, eclipsing Babe Ruth to hit more home runs that any other player (he also has more RBI and plate appearances, too.) Pete Rose beat Ty Cobb's all-time hit record, and Lou Brock, then Rickey Henderson, topped his career stolen base mark. Reggie Jackson beat Ruth's record for most home runs in a World Series, and Nolan Ryan set a new mark for career no-hitters that will never be broken.

Stadiums


To be fair and objective, I should discuss the things that made the 1969-1991 era less than stellar. As my good friend Brian I. pointed out when we discussed this once, the seventies and eighties were the high point of Astroturf and ashtray-style, brutalist, multipurpose modernist stadiums. No one is really shedding any tears these days over the demise of Veteran's Stadium, the Metrodome, Riverfront Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, or the Kingdome. The renovation of Yankee Stadium in the 1970s made it much more sterile and less human. The new Yankee Stadium lacks the history of the old, but its open concourses make going to the game much more fan-friendly.  Houston's Astrodome may well have been the Eighth Wonder of the World, but Minute Maid Park (which I've attended) is a much more enjoyable place to watch a ballgame. Furthermore, Miller Park, Jacobs Field, Camden Yards, The Ballpark at Arlington, A&T Park and Turner Field are all considerable improvements over their predecessors.

However, let me play devil's advocate for a second. Astroturf is unsightly and presents injury dangers for players, but it did contribute to the speeding up of the game. (I will only take this so far, there really should be a Constitutional amendment against it.) A great number of the new stadiums have been built with public money, despite the big bucks raked in by major league baseball and the fact that they were usually replacing perfectly serviceable facilities. Considering the financial crisis faced by cities and states these days, that money probably could have been better spent.

The DH
The seventies also brought us that bugbear of baseball traditionalists, the designated hitter. For years I was an avowed opponent of the DH because it distorted the game in favor of offense, reduced the need for managers to strategize, and effectively made players incomplete by allowing them to specialize purely on hitting or pitching. However, I have to admit I am today on the verge of the apostasy of accepting the DH. Who really wants to see pitchers take the plate and kill a rally? Isn't it nice that players like Frank Thomas and Jim Thome can have their careers extended by not having to field? I guess I'd say the status quo suits me just fine: the DH in the Al and not in the NL. As a bit of traditionalist, I do like that the leagues are still distinct from each other.

Labor and Free Agency
In terms of baseball's endemic labor issues, free agency allowed players to actually be paid what they're worth (which is why I won't knock it like so purists will), but owners countered with their shameful strategy of collusion during the 1980s. Perhaps that illegal activity had much to do with competitive balance in that decade, the only good thing that I could say about it.  Unlike today, the prospect of strikes hung over baseball during the 1969-1991 era.  Much of the 1981's season was lost to a strike, but at least it didn't mean cancelling a World Series like it did in 1994.  Although owner chicanery and labor strife were common during this period, in the larger scheme of things, these were the birth pangs of a new baseball labor system that no longer treated players like "million dollar slaves," in the words of Curt Flood.

Announcers
Finally, there's something about baseball between 1969 and 1991 that really beats what we've got today: the national broadcast network coverage. I am sooooo tired of having my enjoyment of the World Series ruined by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. McCarver is the worst kind of over-critical ex-jock color announcer, and Buck is a colorless, sanctimonious prig who has his much more talented father to thank for his position. (That's the only explanation I can think of, since I don't know a single sports fan who actually likes listening to him. His lackluster call of the epic David Tyree catch in the Super Bowl should have gotten him fired.)

Back when NBC had all or part of the post-season and its Saturday Game of the Week (which I watched religiously as a child), things were a lot better. For one, so many games were called by Vin Scully, to my mind without a doubt the greatest play-by-play baseball announcer ever. He lets the events on the field speak for themselves and fills the dead time by talking without being a bore. I have to admit that I'm also a big Bob Costas fan (for my money he's the best all-around announcer in the biz, better than Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, Brent Musberger, etc.), especially because he had opinions about things without being a bully or unreasonable. With coverage on Fox these days, his advocacy for reform in baseball has been lost.

Because I have mlb.com's package I can watch most any game I want on the computer; it's taught me that there are a lot of good broadcasting crews out there. Many small market teams have guys I'd much rather listen to than Buck and McCarver. Please, Fox network, put them out to pasture. Vin Scully is still with us, and Steve Stone would make a great partner for him.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Classic Albums: The Rod Stewart Album/An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down


A big part of growing old is realizing that the world is much more complex than we think it is at first glance.  As a lad, I'd always thought of Rod Stewart as the worst purveyor of Top 40 pap, a peddler of the aural equivalent of Velveeta.  There had been a couple of clues that there was more than met the eye however.  I'd hear "Maggie May" on the radio, with its bittersweet story and folky melodies, and wonder how the same man responsible for "Love Touch" could sing such a sublime song.  I also remember hearing the Jeff Beck Group's balls to the wall cover of "I Ain't Superstitious," surprised that the singer belting it out with supreme bluesiness was the same man who crooned "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?, the apotheosis of seventies tastelessness.

The curiosity piqued by "Maggie May" and "I Ain't Supersitious" led my to buy Every Picture Tells a Story and to delve into The Faces (the group he sang for in his early career, for the uninitiated), and I never looked back.  My love of Stewart's output in The Faces, Jeff Beck Group, and solo from 1968 to 1974 became a kind of personal evangelical mission for me, and like the apostles of yore, the unbelievers slammed their doors in my face on more than one occasion.  But lo, my ministry survives, and it is my fervent hope that after reading this post, you will listen to early Rod Stewart with open ears and an open heart.

Stewart's first four solo albums are all well worth buying (The Rod Stewart Album, Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells a Story, and Never a Dull Moment), but I'd like to highlight his first, since it's so easy to overlook.  This might be partly do the bland title, which was a change from the British version, An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down.  Evidently that title reeked too much of Blighty for Yankee ears.  On this record pioneers his mix of folk, blues, and rock and roll, and I especially like how he takes folk song forms and makes them fast and loud.  During the 1960s folk music took on a reverential air, this album returns it to its raucous roots as the people's music, just as it punches up the blues and rescues that genre from the overwrought jamming and guitar pyrotechnics of the era (Beck and Clapton, I'm looking at you.)

A great example on this album is his cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow," a tune many might be more familiar with today due to its use in O Brother, Where Art Thou?  He gives the lament some vocal punch, and Ron Wood's beautiful slide guitar backing takes it to another level unenvisioned in its original form.  On the bluesier side, the record opens with another cover, that of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man," sung with a directness that strips away most of Jagger's cloying affectations.

It's not all roots music, though.  Side one closes out with "Handbags and Gladrags," an affecting pop ballad complete with orchestral backing.  Side two has prog rocker extraordinaire Keith Emerson along for the ride, playing a mean organ on "I Wouldn't Ever Change a Thing."  With its complex and shifting time signatures, this song shows how good progressive rock can be if it is wedded to song structures and feeling, rather than just an episode in muso wanking.  "An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down" is a loose, jolly rocker that previews the sound that would soon be perfected by The Faces.  (Future Face Ian McLagen pumps out some killer piano on this one.)

My absolute favorite song on this album, however, has to be "Dirty Old Town," a cover of folkie Ewan MacColl's tribute to the north of England industrial town of Salford, which closes the album out.  For anyone who has lived in the Rust Belt, whether it be Pittsburgh or Lancashire, this tune evokes the acrid air, utilitarian buildings, and fatalism of the region better than any other.  Right before I moved out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I listened to this song constantly for that reason.  When I hear it today it makes me miss Michigan like nothing else.

One of the great mysteries of music is how the artist capable of creating something as uniformly amazing as his first solo album could go on to be become shorthand for lame-ass cruddy pop music shite.  Even though Rod turned to the dark side for good, please listen to his early music "without prejudice" (as George Michael would say).  You won't be disappointed.