Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Republican Party Just Gets Scarier

Time to dive back into American electoral politics, not least because we are currently witnessing a first in American history: one of the major political parties has completely devolved into an ideologically-focused extremist political movement. By movement I mean something very different than party, although many other nations have parties like this on their fringes (like the BNP, for instance.) Traditionally the two major parties (whether they be Republicans, Democrats, Whigs, or Federalists) had a broad appeal and were essentially coalitions of different groups, geographic origins, and agendas. They also had a fundamental respect for their opposition's right to exist.

No longer.

The continuous circus sideshow otherwise known as the Republican presidential debates has exposed the GOP's scary twin obsessions with ideological purity and demonizing their opponents. Case in point: Newt Gingrich, who is arguably the godfather of our current adversarial mode of Washington politics, called for Barney Frank and Chris Dodd to be jailed. I don't know about you, but when I hear someone calling for their political rivals to be thrown in prison, my blood runs cold. But it doesn't stop there. Just today Rick Perry claimed he would purge the government of civil servants who did not agree with his philosophy. Back in 2008 Michele Bachmann proposed a committee to root out "anti-American" members of Congress. This language does not sound like the discourse of a democracy, it sounds like plain old-fashioned authoritarian extremism.

This type of rhetoric, which amounts to "if you can't beat 'em, throw 'em in prison," is a reflection of the even bloodier words that circulate on talk radio and the conservative blogosphere. Ann Coulter, that perennial hate-filled banshee who inexplicably continues to get interviews on mainstream television, implicitly called for Occupy protesters to be shot this week. Glenn Beck has repeatedly referred to progressives as a "cancer" in need of being cut out. In any healthy democracy, these voices would be completely sidelined, free to scream their hatred from the safety of a street corner rather than with a giant media megaphone at their command. Down in the muck of talk radio there's plenty of racist resentment of the president being stirred up. Just witness Rush Limbaugh's defense of the NASCAR fans who booed Michelle Obama, whom he had the unmitigated gall to label "uppity." To my knowledge there's never been a First Lady treated like this, and if you think that Mrs. Obama's race doesn't enter into it I've got a bridge to sell you. Instead of running away from the right wing media and its violent words, Republicans have tended to embrace it.

What we have here is not a political party in a traditional sense, but a vehicle for an extremist ideology whose fanatical adherents are more than willing to tolerate violent rhetoric and disqualify anyone to the left of Francisco Franco for their party's nomination. While this state of affairs is disturbing, it looks like these brigands' extremism is making them increasingly unpalatable to those who are not true believers in their creed.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Musical Interlude: Gordon Lightfoot

As I mentioned awhile back when I wrote about Neil Young's Harvest album, 70s folk music is one formerly popular genre that has not experienced a revival. Go to any used record store and they'll practically be giving away countless discs of Dan Fogelberg, Jim Croce, and Nicolette Larson. I have to admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for this genre since my parents listened to it when I was a wee lad. (My earliest memories have a John Denver soundtrack.) Much of this stuff is worth forgetting, but a lot of it still holds up, in my opinion. I didn't really care for him for a long time, but in the past five years or so I've really taken a shine to Gordon Lightfoot.

I picked up a compilation CD of his on a whim soon after I moved to west Michigan after grad school. My first semester was tough, since it brought the end of a long relationship, 70 hour weeks of intense course preparation, and lots of lonely nights before I started to make some friends. I would take lots of long walks around my neighborhood, often listening to "If You Could Read My Mind," which seemed to fit my mood of feeling lost and lonesome quite well.

Of course, living in Michigan I would make sure each November to give "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" a spin. The doomed ship song is a venerable genre in folk music, and ole Gord may have penned the last one to hit the upper reaches of the charts. The Edmund Fitzgerald itself sank in 1975, and I think that its demise and this song have such power in Michigan because the disaster coincided with the economic disaster that is still causing so much misery in that state. When I hear this song I don't just lament the sailors who perished, but a state I learned to love fiercely in my short time there, a state that has suffered much too much.

On a lighter note, Lightfoot could get beyond traditional folk song themes and song structures. One thing I love about a lot of 70s pop music is that it's got groove. "Sundown"'s skanky, funky vibe is the perfect bed for Gord's tale of infidelity. A drummer laying back on the beat, funky bass, and song about a cheating lady in "faded jeans" equals seventies top 40 bliss.

I'm cheating a bit because "Canadian Railway Trilogy" comes from 1967, but I have an unabashed love of this song because I love trains and songs about trains. Taking a train from Newark to New York City each day has convinced me that it's the ideal way to travel. I also must admit that I have long held a great affection for Canada and have enjoyed visiting there on multiple occasions. This song, about the Canada Pacific Railway, was written for Canada's centennial in 1967, and is a good example of why I find Canadian nationalism less odious than its American variety. After all, the middle section of the song is a rumination on the human cost of building the railroad and the negative effects it had on the underpaid workers who made it possible. Americans are always loathe to admit the downside of their triumphs.

And just for fun, one of my favorite SCTV bits ever, which has some fun at the expense of Gord's distinctive voice.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ben Franklin was Right About the Turkey

It is a well-known fact, often trotted out this time of year, that Ben Franklin thought that the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, should have been America's national bird and placed on the national seal. Granted, this idea comes from a letter he wrote his daughter (and thus not intended for public consumption,) and being the cheekiest and most ironic of the founders, I wonder whether Franklin was really serious about his proposal. Franklin thought eagles to be bullying, weak, and parasitic, and the turkey to be brave and intelligent.

His famous comparison of the birds has been the subject of mirth as far as I can remember. We tend to think of turkeys as rather hapless, raised to be centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, not as the symbol of a great nation. Domestic turkeys are indeed dumber than a bag of hammers; my Dad tells me that when his family raised them they would end up drowning themselves if left out in the rain. Wild turkeys, however, are known for their wiliness, smarts, and ability to evade even expert hunters.

At this point in America's history, I think it is more important than ever that Franklin's proposal be followed. Eagles have long been the preferred birds of empires, from the Romans to the Habsburgs to the Romanovs to the Hohenzollerns. Some founders, like Thomas Jefferson, may have welcomed the comparison; he dubbed America "an empire for liberty." After all, the westward expansion he vigorously endorsed was just another form of imperial conquest. Today we face a dire situation, where the American empire has quickly fallen from the "hyperpower" of the immediate aftermath of the Cold War to an imperium in decline, its credit downgraded, standard of living stagnant, and politics hopelessly divided.

As it stands now, I believe the nation is facing a crucial choice, one which it might not be aware that it must make. The United States can no longer be both a global empire and a nation capable of providing a better quality of life and opportunity for its people. We have let our physical and mental infrastructure rot; bridges collapse and are shut down while educational standards and support have fallen through the floor and the social safety net is being shredded. Fighting two costly wars while cutting taxes for the wealthy has led to a dangerous level of debt that must be addressed, no matter how difficult it will be to do so. (This is a reality that many on the left need to admit to.) We can only do one of two things in response: give up imperial ambition while reinvesting in society, or prop up the empire with ever more blood and treasure extracted from a suffering populace on a steady diet of austerity.

Many of the right-wing politicians out there, like Newt Gingrich and Ricky Perry, want to keep funding our metastasized war machine (and even threaten new wars) while engaging in a economic race to the bottom where America becomes a haven for low-wage labor. (That's the real impetus behind Gingrich's endorsement of child labor, by the way.) This approach completely abandons the nation's infrastructure, and replaces it with the kind of cruel laissez-faire calculus that was rightfully abandoned a century ago. To today's mainstream conservatives (not even the radicals), the only thing the government is good for is to drop bombs on brown people. Their vision of America's future, where global supremacy will be attempted to be maintained at the sacrifice of its people, would be a horrific disaster. That is the path of the pompous, predatory eagle. Let us imitate instead the wisdom and practicality of the turkey, and give this "respectable bird" its due as the symbol of a nation wise enough avoid the temptations of empire.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Pepper Spray and the New Protest Movements

The older I get, the crankier I become, especially when I look at the current political scene. I have at least been heartened by the Occupy protests, since the fundamental problem of our nation, social inequality, has finally entered mainstream conversation after over thirty years of class warfare by the wealthy. At the same time, I have also been appalled at the violence used against these protests, and rather frustrated at the protests themselves.

As far as the repression of the Occupy protests goes, it has been a litany of injustice, from Oakland's cops putting a marine in a coma to Mayor Bloomberg (and others) clearing off encampments in the dead of night like the cowards that they are to University of California protesters getting billy clubbings to finally, and perhaps most famously, prone, peaceful protesters at UC Davis being attacked by chemical agents wielded by "campus police" behaving like a goon squad. In many ways, we are seeing a lot of chickens come home to roost. In the aftermath of 9/11, our nation reacted hysterically, building up a fearsome and secretive security apparatus. Now we have police on steroids and an internal espionage network, intended to fight terrorists, now being used to crush dissent. The current proclivity towards trigger happy policing, whether the finger be on a taser, can of mace, or gun, has long been apparent to those lacking the wealth or whiteness necessary to avoid daily contact with the cops.

The attacks on student protesters in California point as well to the misplaced priorities in academia. Higher education is now run by administrative apparatchiks, and faculty and students are expected to shut up and stay in their place. Dissent means tenure denial and a billy club to the ribs. California, a state where academic programs have been cut wholesale and tuition has skyrocketed, is a natural place for students to protest the degradation of their education. The fact that the police forces on campuses like UC Davis had the imperial storm trooper gear to dress themselves in bespeaks to an academic world where majors are slashed but luxury dorms are being built, rec centers feature rock-climbing walls, and football coaches are paid millions of dollars while more and more classes are taught by adjuncts on starvation wages. Universities are businesses, and the bells and whistles are good for business. Like the Gilded Age factory owners of yore, those of own the educational means of production today need an armed force to crush any opposition to their rule. If the complete corruption of public higher education wasn't already blindingly obvious, it should be now.

As much as I find the repressions of the Occupy protests to be odious, I have to say that the Occupy protests are fast in danger of losing the plot completely. Is setting up encampments really the most effective means of protest? I really don't think so. The protests now are devolving into disputes with the authorities over the right to camp out in public spaces overnight, which seems to be distracting from the real issues at hand. What's more, winter is coming, making the encampments difficult if not dangerous. The leaderless nature of these protests, and their reliance on consensus, makes them weak and ineffective.

I think the Occupy protests have been a great wake up call, and have raised issues that have too long been ignored. That being said, now that awareness has been raised, it's time for the more traditional organizations to step in and push for substantive change on the issues. Unions need to start organizing, especially in the service sector. The rank and file of the Democratic Party need to push for and get behind candidates willing to do something about social inequality. Faculty and students at universities need to make clear demands for reforms at their institutions. (And I mean realistic, pragmatic demands, not pie in the sky calls for free university education.) Protesting is all well and good, but unless it leads somewhere, it's merely a kind of therapy with shouting.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Classic Albums: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

As Thanksgiving approaches, winter is slowly creeping in to New Jersey. The dead leaves rustle on windy streets under slate-gray skies turning dark much too early in the day. It is time to hunker down and prepare for months of cold and darkness, something I was spared the last three years while I was living in Texas.

Seasonal changes tend to spark powerful memories associated with similar times in the past, which often brings me to music I associate with certain moments in my life. I first listened to Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight at the start of a typically unrelenting and bleak west Michigan winter a few years back, and since have used this album as a cold weather soundtrack. I originally stumbled across it by accident, checking it out from the Grand Rapids public library's prodigious music holdings almost as an afterthought at a time when I was exploring Richard Thompson's original group, Fairport Covention. I was immediately transfixed by the interplay between Richard's lyrical guitar playing and Linda's haunting voice, and then spent about two months listening to it almost every day. Like the space heater at the foot of my bed in my freezing apartment, it was a nice little emitter of warmth in a cold and forbidding winter.

It really plugged into my state of mind at the time, as a visiting assistant professor just scraping by desperately applying for full time jobs. The title track was a kind of Friday afternoon theme for me, one that I would sing on my way to the bar to escape my day to day worries and slide into oblivion. Another tune, however, deals with the theme of escape via alcohol in a much less celebratory fashion: "Down Where the Drunkards Roll." This song's melancholy mourning is more indicative of the album's mood that the more upbeat title track and "When I Get to the Border," which seem to have been added in to keep the listener from jumping off a bridge in despair.

Case in point on the sad song front is "The End of the Rainbow," where a father tells his newborn child that the world it has just entered into is a wretched and cruel place. According to the lyrics, "there's nothing to grow up for anymore." That pessimism may have reflected the fact that the album was cut in 1973 amidst an energy and economic crisis in Great Britain, a time when the future looked bleak indeed. For me, it should go down as one of the most brutally honest songs about life ever written. Working in a job that parodied my academic aspirations and facing constant rejection on the job front, it really resonated with me at the time, as well as the quite depressing "Withered and Died." On really bad days I would listen to the latter song as I drove into work, singing along with the key lines, "my dreams have withered and died."

I am a lot happier today, in large part because I finally let my old dreams of academe wither and die so that I could go on to live a better life. When I listen to this album it is no longer to wallow in depression but to enjoy the music and reflect on an earlier stage in my life. In this Thanksgiving week, I am certainly thankful my life has taken that turn.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are the Republicans Headed for a McGovern Moment?

A good friend and loyal reader of this blog queried me today about whether I thought that the GOP is on a similar trajectory as the Democratic Party in 1972. For those of you not versed in political history, that was the year that the Democratic Party failed to unseat Richard Nixon, a highly divisive president who had failed to make good on his promise to end the war in Vietnam. During the primaries, establishment candidates like Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey faltered in the face of grass-roots support for George McGovern, perhaps the most liberal major-party nominee for president in America's history.

I certainly admire George McGovern and his politics, but that, of course, was the problem. His positions were too far to the Left, and the ever-shifty Nixon took advantage of this, since his own policies often appeased liberals, as in the case of his signing of landmark environmental legislation and establishing OSHA. Nixon's domestic policies were moderate at the time, they would make him a Democrat today. McGovern also made several major mistakes in his campaign, many that could be blamed on his lack of experience on the national stage. He famously stood "1000%" behind his VP nominee Senator Eagleton after his earlier treatment for mental illness was revealed, and then looked unstable and untrustworthy by dumping him soon after. Activists flooded the 1972 DNC because of rules encouraging the nomination of delegates from outside of the traditional machine, but this also led to fights over the platform and a nomination process so contentious that McGovern had to give his acceptance speech in the middle of the night, when no one was watching. The liberal wing of the party got what it wanted, but it was not what the rest of the nation was after, even if Nixon was hardly a beloved figure. On election night he won in one of the biggest landslides in election history.

In some respects, the GOP is going down the same road. They are facing up against a president with less than stellar popularity, this time due to a stagnant economy and his inability to live up to (admittedly unrealistic) expectations. Despite that advantage, they seem prepared to squander it by nominating a candidate odious to the political mainstream. Romney, the establishment candidate, keeps getting eclipsed in the polls by an impressively loony cast of ideological die-hards. First it was Michele "vaccinations cause mental retardation" Bachmann. After that, it was Rick "oops" Perry. Then Herman "I don't need to know foreign policy" Cain had his rise and fall, with a nice little sex scandal thrown in for good measure. Nowadays Romney trails Newt "my campaign was left for dead months ago because every word that passes my lips is lying, pompous, bullshit" Gingrich. Instead of one McGovern, the Republicans have at least four of them.

This week, in an interview with Univision, Barack Obama said something regarding his strategy for the election that I've been thinking for some time: "we may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim." Every one of the crop of crazy candidates, including Romney, has said something toxic in their eternal game to prove ideological purity. By putting their reality show (the incessant, unprecedented number of primary debates) on TV each week, they are making themselves in the kind of televisual trainwreck that America can't get enough of these days. Think of it as "Real Candidates of Wingnutia."

As much as I'd like the Republicans to shoot themselves in the face with their own 2nd Amendment-protected shotgun load of conservative looniness, I don't think it will happen. Unlike the Democrats, they have a history of rallying behind the most acceptable candidate rather than ripping themselves to pieces. (Goldwater is the exception that proves the rule.) Back in '72 Nixon's infamous dirty tricksters had deliberately undermined the more mainstream Democrats like Muskie, manipulating the primaries to get the opponent they wanted. I doubt president Obama's men are up to something similar. Instead, at some point the Koch Brothers and the other money men who really call the shots will step in Godfather-style and make Gingrich, Bachmann, Cain, and Perry an offer they can't refuse. As I've said before, evil will prevail.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy the AHA: Rough Draft for a Manifesto

I read today about a group planning to do follow in the footsteps of the Occupy movement and occupy the MLA annual conference. Why not the AHA as well? I won't be in Chicago this year, and will most likely never attend an AHA conference ever again in my life (I won't be on the academic job market, flogging a book, or giving a paper there), so the following manifesto is just a thought-exercise that might prove useful (or not) to anyone out there in cyberland who will be attending the theater of cruelty and broken dreams that is the American Historical Association's annual gathering.

The state of the historical profession is dire, and for younger scholars and contingent faculty members, it has become completely unacceptable. Graduate students do more and more teaching labor with fewer and fewer full-time jobs when they are done. Adjuncts are paid sub-poverty wages without health benefits and toil in obscurity as second-class members of their institutions, without voice, power, or job security. Those that speak out are often fired as "trouble makers." We are being told there is a problem with the "overproduction" of PhDs, yet the demand for adjunct labor grows more and more each year. Those lucky enough to get tenure-track jobs face departments that are increasing the number of students in the classroom as well as the publishing requirements for tenure, even at "teaching centered" universities. Young historians struggle to meet these requirements in an environment where university presses are downsizing and abandoning their knowledge-based missions in the pursuit of mass appeal and lucre. In the meantime, little sacrifice is being borne by older generations who get to sit in judgement on tenure cases, many times applying standards that they never could have dreamed of passing themselves.

Although the AHA has done more in the last two years to respond to these issues, it is still an institution centered around the interests of a minority of privileged historians with tenured positions at research universities. It was only when the scions of the profession's elite stopped finding good jobs that the organization bothered to pay attention. It still expects poverty-stricken graduate students and contingent faculty to pay prohibitively high travel expenses to have only one or two twenty minute job interviews at this very event, an event that symbolizes the powerlessness of junior scholars who must beg for book contracts and humiliate themselves for even the least desirable jobs. For far too long we have been pitted against each other in a vicious struggle for survival that for the majority of us is a losing game. Those days are over! Today, instead of desperately competing for jobs and book contracts, we demand that the AHA overcome its moribund inaction and do something to stop the destruction of an entire generation of historians.

Here is an impartial list of our proposals:

1. That the AHA officially repudiate the rhetoric of "overproduction" and acknowledge that the lack of good jobs is the biggest cause of the current crisis in employment for historians.
2. That the AHA create high-level positions in its organizational structure specifically intended to be filled by and to advance the interests of graduate students and contingency faculty members.
3. That the AHA encourage departments that persist in using non-tenured labor to establish permanent positions with decent pay, health benefits, and job security, and to officially censure those departments that fail to meet these standards.
4. That the AHA recognize the current crisis in academic publishing and encourage departments to make their tenure and hiring decisions accordingly.
5. That the AHA put an end to the conference job register and discourage the practice of on-site conference interviews, and encourage their replacement with preliminary interviews over the phone or via video chat.
6. That the AHA stop espousing the rhetoric that "there's little we can do to force universities and departments to change their hiring practices" and concentrate all of its power on doing that which it can do to alleviate the crisis.
7. That the AHA reduce its membership fees for graduate students and contingent faculty members.
8. That the AHA come up with clear guidelines in relation to online publications, so that junior scholars may be better rewarded for their academic accomplishments.
9. That the AHA locate future conferences on the basis of expense for conference attendees over any other factor, or failing that, subsidize attendance by adjuncts and graduate students.
10. That the AHA make alleviating the employment crisis for junior scholars its most important priority for the foreseeable future.

If that AHA refuses to respond to these demands, particularly the last, it will have proven itself to be a morally bankrupt, useless institution in the eyes of junior scholars, who will have no choice but to abandon it en masse. Remember: if we have no future, you won't have one either.

In solidarity and righteousness,
Werner Herzog's Bear

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Classic Albums: Randy Newman's Sail Away

Some albums are just made for a quiet, dark November night, and Randy Newman's Sail Away is one of them. There is a melancholy aspect to its songs, even the darkly comedic numbers like "Burn On" and "Political Science." The former tells the tale of Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching fire, which has Newman describing "Cleveland, city of light, city of magic" in a sardonic twist on descriptions of Paris as the City of Light. In "Political Science," as in many of his classic numbers, he takes on the personae of a hateful bigot in order to expose the stupidity of such people. (And yet so many people refuse to understand Newman's purpose, as when his one hit song "Short People" aroused controversy.) The song's narrator fantasizes about America nuking and colonizing the rest of the world as if such a thing would be a glorious lark.

As if that's not enough, the first side's last song is sung from the perspective of a son reminding his dying father that he taught him not to believe in an afterlife, and the second side ends with a song where God taunts suffering humanity for actually believing that He cares about their fate.

The first song, the title track, with its swelling strings and anthemic hooks might seem more cheerful on the surface, until you listen to the words. They are from the mouth of a slave ship captain on the coast of Africa promising his human cargo that their lives will be wonderful in America. This song, more than any other, assaults the myth of the American Dream and of the notion of America as a land of opportunity. (I won't get into much more detail on this song because Greil Marcus wrote about this much more ably than I could four decades ago.) Newman pretty much sets the tone for the whole album here; he is describing a world governed by cruelty, hatred, and suffering.

Newman provides another ironic twist in the second song, "Lonely at the Top," originally intended for Frank Sinatra. It tells the tale of a big star who seems completely blase about his fame and riches. On the one hand, it mocks the narcissism of celebrity, on the other, however, it points to a unfillable hole in the human soul. Instead of promising his listeners the possibility of God as that thing that can fill the hole, Newman ends the album with God laughing at the naivete of humanity. "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" has people of all faiths pleading to God for help and deliverance, and God tells the world that they're crazy to think that he cares. But he adds: "you really need me/that's why I love mankind." It's Ingmar Bergman set to music, and just as powerful as The Seventh Seal or Through A Glass Darkly.

Randy Newman has always been an acquired taste, and seems to arouse either devotion or revulsion. One of my friends has expressed his absolute distaste for Newman on multiple occasions; my wife pleads with me not to play his records when I throw them on the turntable. That seems awfully strange for a guy who delights the toddler set with soundtrack tunes for Pixar films, and speaks more to Newman's crooked way of singing his songs than anything else. True, on some songs he slurs and moans like a falling-down drunk trying to impersonate Ray Charles, but that's part of the reason why I like him so much.

But that voice is not his only voice, and at times he breaks from it to sing in a higher, more wistful register. My favorite sleeper track on Sail Away is "Dayton, Ohio 1903," where he employs that other voice to great, moving effect. It's quite a simple tune, the narrator asking to "sing a song of long ago/ when things were green/ and moving slow." It's less a lament for a simpler past than a reminder for people in the present that their lives will seem just as distant, remote, and quaint to their ancestors. What other songwriters are able to make that point, and make it so tunefully?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Explaining Higher Ed's Malaise: Too Many People Just Don't Give a Shit

This historical blogosphere is abuzz after Historiann put a call out for responses to a recent Anthony Grafton article in the New York Review of Books concerning the growing number of books diagnosing the malaise in higher ed. Both Grafton's piece and Historiann's commentary are well worth checking out. Since this humble blog is well below the radar of the heavy-hitters, I myself have not been invited to comment, but I figured I'd do it anyway.

Now having left academic life, I feel that I have gained some special perspective of things. When I think back on what I observed in America's universities, I have one overwhelming thought: too many people just don't give a shit. As Grafton himself points out, the diagnoses of the American university system usually blame one group of people for their problems, but the issue is much too complex to pin on one group. In my experience, the inability to give a shit infects students, faculty, administrators, politicians, and ultimately, and perhaps most crucially, the public.

Just to be fair, let's start with the faculty. At every institution where I taught -Big Ten University, Frontier University, and East Texas University- there was an appalling apathy among many faculty members when it came to undergraduate education. This was especially flagrant at East Texas University, because many of the same people who didn't seem to give a shit about educating their students also did the absolute rock-bottom minimum of research to get tenure. (And get tenure they did!) At that supremely awful institution, they considered being a university professor a cushy job, which it is if you mail in your unrevised lectures and never publish. One of these people even openly mocked faculty members who were doing relevant research! My former employer is an outlier on the living hell scale, but nevertheless, most American college students are matriculating at places that much more resemble East Texas University than they do the Ivy League.

At the more august Big Ten University, there were many distinguished scholars who also happened to be wonderful in the classroom. However, there were others (interestingly, not as accomplished in their scholarship) who seemed contemptuous of their undergraduate students, and annoyed that they should ever have to step down from the lofty heights of their research interests to sully their hands in the lecture hall. Other scholars trailed a cloud of suspicion for being too good in the classroom. After all, shouldn't they be using their energy on research, not teaching? The idea that the two are completely separate, or that being good at one precludes being good at the other, is a bullshit fabrication concocted by scholars too lazy or maladroit to teach well. (Like I said, the most renowned scholars also tended to be among the best teachers.)

To be even more fair, I will not exclude contingent faculty from this discussion. At my last job I knew of an adjunct who paid an undergraduate to transcribe her notes from her Western Civ class (taught at the same university) so that he could put together an online version of the course. When I was at Frontier University, where contingent labor taught most of the classes, there were multiple people totally unfit for the job. One read the textbook aloud to the class, another skipped a week of classes for a wedding, and had a student in the class show a film each day that he was gone. This same person also had a sexual relationship with one of this students. Neither one of these men was fired, and I have yet to hear of a contingent faculty member being pushed out for incompetence. However, I do know of a few who lost their jobs for resisting pressure to change grades, or complaining about their own ill treatment. Strangely enough, these adjuncts and visitors tended to be top teachers and passionately devoted. Their unwillingness to submit to having their dignity as educators and human beings stripped from them made them unfit for life as a contingent faculty member in the modern American university. For the most part, contingent faculty are seen merely as the warm bodies necessary to slot into the schedule to keep the gears of the machine running, as long as they accept their position, they will keep their jobs.

That state of affairs, of course, can be laid at the feet of administrators who don't give a shit, of which there are many. So many of them are focused on climbing the ladder to the next job that they drown their current institutions with meaningless initiatives that look good on their resumes. By the time that the new policies have proven themselves to be utter failures, their authors are already at their newest job, applying the same initiatives to their new institution. They also drive the decay of higher education's true mission by funding the rec center arms race, with its rock climbing walls and lazy rivers while starving faculty of development funds and libraries of books.

But let's not forget about the students. I had many great and memorable students in my time in higher ed, but also a gigantic cancerous mass of lazy, apathetic consumerist zombies. So many students don't seem to have a solitary clue as to why they are in college in the first place, something reflected in studies showing that students spend less time studying outside of class than at any other time. Many of them expect answers to be spoon-fed to them in between hours in front of the TV and games of beer pong. Fewer and fewer students seem to have any real desire to learn anything, college is a mere stepping stone to them, never a thing in itself to be cherished and cultivated. As Grafton noted in his piece, universities, through the rec center arms race and largesse spent on the beer and circus of college sports, have basically whored themselves out completely to consumer demand. They do this because, you guessed it, too many of the people running them just don't give a shit.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, the public and their political representatives really and truly don't give a shit about maintaining affordable and quality higher public education. State schools get less and less money from their state governments, but still just enough that the politicians can slap them around if they so choose. Hence the state of Texas forcing schools to make all kinds of information public, like student evaluations and course syllabi. The public and their politicians would rather have the short-term gain of slightly lower taxes than the long term benefit of robust higher education. Instead students shoulder ridiculously high tuition and get buried under mounds of student loan debt. We now have a situation where public universities are starved for cash, and the money they do have gets diverted into building the toy towns that seem to exist in the minds of university presidents everywhere. Without money for instruction, contingent faculty positions proliferate, education quality degenerates, and student achievement stagnates.

I have left academia to teach at a private high school, and one of its great graces is that the community, from students to teachers to parents to administrators, really and truly care. The students come to class prepared and are usually enthusiastic to learn something new. Instead of asking questions to students and hearing nothing but the soul-sucking silence of apathy, I have a difficult time making sure everyone who wants to participate gets their chance. Faculty do not cut corners, but work hard to improve their classes and maintain high standards. They care intensely about the students, and even if they kvetch about certain individuals, they never do so in a superior of mean-spirited fashion. The whole place just exudes a powerful aura of giving a shit, a seemingly simple virtue that is appallingly deficient in the supposedly superior realms of higher education.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Low-Grade Colonial War in Education

From what I've observed in higher ed, and from what people in primary and secondary ed have told me (keep in mind that my wife, mom, and little sister are all teachers), our education system is in the midst of a low-grade war between faculty and administration. I call it a colonial war because administrators at all levels have decided to invade the territory of educators and determine what is taught in the classroom, from colleges that only allow professors to use certain textbooks, to high-stakes standardized tests that force teachers into a narrow curriculum. A friend of mine in a "visitor" position at a state university told me about his school-mandated student evaluations, which consist of only bubble sheets. That's right, there's no room for qualitative, written comments from the students. My buddy calls it "No Instructor Left Behind." Our performance is increasingly judged on the basis of numbers, and numbers alone. (Luckily my current school preaches the opposite of this.)

Like other colonized people, teachers and professors resent their subjugation, and do small things on a day to day level to resist it. On the lowest level, there's hushed conversations over the latest administrative power-grab, which often leads to a reflexive trashing of any and all administrative initiatives. The content of new policies doesn't require consideration, because in the minds of most faculty, administrators are their natural enemies. Any seemingly benevolent proposal must have a sinister agenda lurking beneath it. This might sound hyperbolic, but the last thirty years have seen a systemic disempowering of faculty along with a decrease in funds, salaries, benefits, and job security. Instead of saying, "we will take away your autonomy, but allow you to have a decent standard of living" teachers are being told "you are untrustworthy gold-bricking parasites" and junior scholars are increasingly left with insecure, low-paying adjunct and visitor positions. Their respect and autonomy are being stolen at the same time as their standard of living is under attack. No wonder faculty are paranoid and angry!

Faculty have also learned to wear two faces. They know how to hide their resentment in public, and to be all smiles around their rulers, and then let the mask drop when they are around their own kind. Of course, there are dangers, even among the faculty. There are a certain few, as in any colonized society, who opt for the dishonorable role of collaborator. They figure they can get farther by accommodating and obeying rather than fighting. As I saw at my last job, collaborators have little reservation about tattling on grumblers if it means using them as a stepping stool to get closer to power. These collaborators are easy to spot, since they tend to get a lot of awards, honors, and kudos from the administrators, all on the way to joining the administrative club themselves.

The forms of resistance available are pretty piddly, mostly because the wretched economic situation has left faculty members on all levels with few options to leave their jobs to take another. Beyond the garden-variety kvetching to their compatriots, teachers and profs might blow off assessment reports, turn in half-sketched lesson plans, and commit other acts that don't change much but give the satisfaction kicking back at the system. It's really the only way to fight back, since meetings and faculty organizations increasingly exist to warehouse faculty concerns and give the impression that administrators are listening when they're not. Most university faculty senates are window dressing with about as much power as their Roman namesake under Caligula. Is it any wonder that faculty and teachers' unions have been spoiling for a fight? They are the only organized force with any power that teachers and professors belong to.

I am not sure where this all will lead, other than to increased acrimony between the two sides. Administrators tend to see the faculty as backward, recalcitrant, unenlightened natives in need of discipline until they can understand the wisdom of their colonial superiors. That haughty attitude will only get worse. Faculty at all levels will continue to bristle at their treatment and distrust their bosses. Until administrators stop trying to subjugated their charges to greater control and diminished respect and compensation, this low-grade war will continue on into perpetuity.