Read my book, TEACHING BEAUTY IN DeLILLO, WOOLF, AND MERRILL (Palgrave Macmillan; forthcoming), co-authored with Jennifer Green-Lewis. VISIT MY BRANCH CAMPUS AT INSIDE HIGHER ED





UD is...
"Salty." (Scott McLemee)
"Unvarnished." (Phi Beta Cons)
"Splendidly splenetic." (Culture Industry)
"Except for University Diaries, most academic blogs are tedious."
(Rate Your Students)
"I think of Soltan as the Maureen Dowd of the blogosphere,
except that Maureen Dowd is kind of a wrecking ball of a writer,
and Soltan isn't. For the life of me, I can't figure out her
politics, but she's pretty fabulous, so who gives a damn?"
(Tenured Radical)

Monday, March 29, 2004

SUNDAY MORNING

is the title of one of America's great twentieth century poems, by Wallace Stevens, in which he follows the vague thoughts and sensations of a woman as she awakens on this day traditionally devoted to rest and spiritual meditation. A typical secular American, the woman is stirred occasionally, in an inchoate, rather frightened way, by thoughts of her mortality and by the question of life's ultimate meaning. She dreams a little, and she feels the dark/ Encroachment of that old catastrophe...

No one says you have to spend any time in your life reflecting upon your being-toward-death until you perhaps attain a little more focus and depth and emotional control than this woman; no one forces you - indeed everything in contemporary American cuture encourages you not to - think seriously about the ground of existence and maybe evolve some degree of clarity, nuance, and self-consciousness about it.

Yet even as Jacques Barzun notes that "as to what a college is, there is no agreement; it is not even discussed," we know that when the definition of a college is seriously discussed, the sort of descriptive language produced almost invariably features college as the locus of significant, sustained ontological thought on the part of students and faculty.

For instance, today's New York Times quotes the president emeritus of Dartmouth complaining that "students have been so programmed that they haven't had time to be reflective, which gets in the way of their education. ... [A] liberal education is about grappling with life's most important questions as preparation for the moral dilemmas and disappointments of life beyond the college years. The 'hyper-managed lives of contemporary students' get in the way of these questions, Mr. Freedman said." Nick Bromell, in Harper's Magazine [February 2002], writes that "the most fundamental value of higher education is the perspective a student gains by stepping outside the play of market forces and inhabiting, if only for four short years, what Yale president A.Bartlett Giamatti called 'a free and ordered space.'"

This difficult and often - as the University of Chicago's Faculty Handbook describes it - "upsetting" four-year activity of actual ongoing consideration of being is largely restricted to America's best institutions. Most of our thousands of colleges and universities make no pretense of intellectuality. Here, for instance, is the university webpage description of the English major at Penn State Altoona (a campus that recently fired a professor for being critical of one of its sillier programs):

The English major can provide students with highly marketable skills in critical thinking, writing, verbal communciation, and research. The major offers emphases in literature or writing. Students can incorporate a writing portfolio into their course of study, which will generate written examples of their work for prospective graduate schools or employers. All students complete the capstone seminar, in which they research and write a publishable paper that draws on their particular field of study. Internships allow students to discover whether or not a particular field is right for them and to develop skills and knowledge that many gain only after graduation.

It's all about how "highly marketable" your activity in an English department is, you see. Most American colleges and universities, writes David Harvey, are about "converting knowledge into information and students into consumers, and transforming the ability to think into a capacity for information processing." The serious consideration of human being demands human interaction with human intellectuals -- and the reason on-line learning is so popular in this country is because the words I just used at the beginning of this sentence are gibberish to the majority of university administrators, instructors, and students in this country.

Yet in the New York Times piece this morning, what the writer is noticing is the evaporation of serious intellectuality even at our best schools. Students are hyperbusy preprofessionals interested only in grades and the market from day one; they've come out of a hyper-active careerist milieu and that's really all they've ever known. A high-ranking administrator at Bennington College once described the student body there, writes Gillian Rose, as composed of "the cubs of our most successful predators." While shouting into their cell phones about real estate deals, the overworked parents of these students watched them, when younger, play hyperorganized soccer games.

For the half of these children whose parents got divorced, their lives became even more strictly organized -- they lived in two households, and their lives came to resemble the lives of traveling salesmen: pack for house one on Wednesday; repack to return to house two on Saturday...No time to rest and reflect at ease, and all in the context of emotional turmoil and bargaining...

The serious university should understand that it's admitting these sorts of people and ask itself whether it wants to deepen this desperate sense of hyperactivity (much of the activity an understandable escape from the inner turmoil of a terribly depressing emotional landscape), or whether it wants to be a beacon of calm meditation not upon the self and its traumas but upon a world of thought and experience - embodied in philosophy, music, novels, history - broader than one's own, indeed liberatingly not at all one's own -- some of which might eventually be brought to bear on the question of how to conduct one's life.
SUNDAY MORNING

is the title of one of America's great twentieth century poems, by Wallace Stevens, in which he follows the vague thoughts and sensations of a woman as she awakens on this day traditionally devoted to rest and spiritual meditation. A typical secular American, the woman is stirred occasionally, in an inchoate, rather frightened way, by thoughts of her mortality and by the question of life's ultimate meaning. She dreams a little, and she feels the dark/ Encroachment of that old catastrophe...

No one says you have to spend any time in your life reflecting upon your being-toward-death until you perhaps attain a little more focus and depth and emotional control than this woman; no one forces you - indeed everything in contemporary American cuture encourages you not to - think seriously about the ground of existence and maybe evolve some degree of clarity, nuance, and self-consciousness about it.

Yet even as Jacques Barzun notes that "as to what a college is, there is no agreement; it is not even discussed," we know that when the definition of a college is seriously discussed, the sort of descriptive language produced almost invariably features college as the locus of significant, sustained ontological thought on the part of students and faculty.

For instance, today's New York Times quotes the president emeritus of Dartmouth complaining that "students have been so programmed that they haven't had time to be reflective, which gets in the way of their education. ... [A] liberal education is about grappling with life's most important questions as preparation for the moral dilemmas and disappointments of life beyond the college years. The 'hyper-managed lives of contemporary students' get in the way of these questions, Mr. Freedman said." Nick Bromell, in Harper's Magazine [February 2002], writes that "the most fundamental value of higher education is the perspective a student gains by stepping outside the play of market forces and inhabiting, if only for four short years, what Yale president A.Bartlett Giamatti called 'a free and ordered space.'"

This difficult and often - as the University of Chicago's Faculty Handbook describes it - "upsetting" four-year activity of actual ongoing consideration of being is largely restricted to America's best institutions. Most of our thousands of colleges and universities make no pretense of intellectuality. Here, for instance, is the university webpage description of the English major at Penn State Altoona (a campus that recently fired a professor for being critical of one of its sillier programs):

The English major can provide students with highly marketable skills in critical thinking, writing, verbal communciation, and research. The major offers emphases in literature or writing. Students can incorporate a writing portfolio into their course of study, which will generate written examples of their work for prospective graduate schools or employers. All students complete the capstone seminar, in which they research and write a publishable paper that draws on their particular field of study. Internships allow students to discover whether or not a particular field is right for them and to develop skills and knowledge that many gain only after graduation.

It's all about how "highly marketable" your activity in an English department is, you see. Most American colleges and universities, writes David Harvey, are about "converting knowledge into information and students into consumers, and transforming the ability to think into a capacity for information processing." The serious consideration of human being demands human interaction with human intellectuals -- and the reason on-line learning is so popular in this country is because the words I just used at the beginning of this sentence are gibberish to the majority of university administrators, instructors, and students in this country.

Yet in the New York Times piece this morning, what the writer is noticing is the evaporation of serious intellectuality even at our best schools. Students are hyperbusy preprofessionals interested only in grades and the market from day one; they've come out of a hyper-active careerist milieu and that's really all they've ever known. A high-ranking administrator at Bennington College once described the student body there, writes Gillian Rose, as composed of "the cubs of our most successful predators." While shouting into their cell phones about real estate deals, the overworked parents of these students watched them, when younger, play hyperorganized soccer games.

For the half of these children whose parents got divorced, their lives became even more strictly organized -- they lived in two households, and their lives came to resemble the lives of traveling salesmen: pack for house one on Wednesday; repack to return to house two on Saturday...No time to rest and reflect at ease, and all in the context of emotional turmoil and bargaining...

The serious university should understand that it's admitting these sorts of people and ask itself whether it wants to deepen this desperate sense of hyperactivity (much of the activity an understandable escape from the inner turmoil of a terribly depressing emotional landscape), or whether it wants to be a beacon of calm meditation not upon the self and its traumas but upon a world of thought and experience - embodied in philosophy, music, novels, history - broader than one's own, indeed liberatingly not at all one's own -- some of which might eventually be brought to bear on the question of how to conduct one's life.
GRADE'S CONSTANCY

For years thou hast giv'n me none but A's;
Next quarter when thou changest, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made B?
Or say that we
Are not just those persons which we were?
Or that those A's made in reverential fear
Of parents and their wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true grades false grades untie,
So our loving bonds had also been a lie?
Or, your own end to justify,
For having purpos'd change and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these 'scapes I could
Dispute and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do.
It's my parents I'll let sue.
PODUNK

"It is not enough that there be a Williams College," writes Paul Fussell in his book Class (1983); "there must also be a University of Southern Mississippi to give it value." The University of Southern Mississippi is certainly doing all it can of late to oblige. With a tinpot dictator (Shelby Thames by name) whose random antics put Pore Jud (plagiarizing ex-prez of Central Connecticut State College) in the shade, a resume padding vice president, and a somnolent group of overseers which is allowing a gut-wrenching situation to become blood-curdling, USM (I assume that's its nickname) defines podunk.

What's sad is that USM clearly has a core of principled impressive faculty (two of whom just got locked out of their offices and had their computers confiscated) and committed students (many of whom are doing all they can to topple the dictatorship).

I don't use "dictatorship" lightly - it really does look, from here at least, like a Papa Doc operation down there. The daughter of the president, for instance, was apparently the recipient of the largest merit raise at the university last year, for running a program she seems unqualified to run. And like the resume-challenged vp, Thames's daughter promotes most of her faculty to tenure-track or full-time on her program's website, even though, according to local sources, very few of them are.

The vp, Angie Dvorak (Antonin is spinning in his grave), seemed to claim on her cv (or so it's reported) that she'd earned tenure at the University of Kentucky, when she in fact earned it at a community college (this matters, according to faculty at USM, because Dvorak is now making decisions about the tenure and promotion of four-year university faculty when she herself never earned tenure under a four-year system).

But it's not really the resume-padding that podunks USM. As the November 2002 New Yorker pointed out, all sorts of people from all sorts of realms pad:

[There's] Ronald Zarrella, the chief executive of Bausch & Lomb, who confirmed two weeks ago that he did not, after all, have an M.B.A. from N.Y.U.— [and] Quincy Troupe, California's newly appointed poet laureate, who, shortly after Zarrella's announcement, acknowledged that he had never received a degree from Grambling College, in Louisiana, despite making that claim on his résumé. (Mr. Zarrella remains at his desk, backed by the Bausch & Lomb board; Mr. Troupe's resignation has been accepted by the California senate, presumably on the ground that the last thing a state needs is a poet who makes things up.) These embellished résumés, testing our taste for the legend of the self-made man (as well as Sir Philip Sidney's claim that "the poet . . . never lieth"), can now be filed alongside those of Kenneth Lonchar, the former chief financial officer of Veritas Software (who gave himself a Stanford M.B.A.), Sandy Baldwin, the former president of the U.S. Olympic Committee (doctorate in American literature), George O'Leary, the former Notre Dame football coach (master's degree in education), David Geffen, Miss Virginia 1995, and John Holmes, the porn star, who invented a degree in physical therapy from U.C.L.A.

And after all, there's padding and there's padding. Disgraced Washington Post reporter and ex-Pulitzer Prize recipient Janet Cooke, John Leo reports, 'said she had graduated magna cum laude from Vassar, earned a master's degree at the University of Toledo, studied at the Sorbonne, was an accomplished pianist, and spoke four languages. An hour's checking surely would have unraveled her fictional past, but nobody made the effort. A Post reporter said that Cooke, who was 25 when she arrived at the paper, "would have had to be at least 35 years old to have done all the things she told people she had done."'

No, it's President Thames and his mad firing of tenured professors because they represent the AAUP that makes USM podunk. As this pompous confused man gets cornered, his behavior will become more and more bizarre. The spectacle will be a feast for disaster-voyeurs, but for anyone who cares about the American university, there will be a strong temptation to shut one's eyes.



UPDATE, April 19: New Curriculum Vitae Symphony

Madame Dvorak, whose claims to four-year, research university-style tenure (she needs this to continue doing what she's been doing as a high-ranking SMU administrator -- reviewing and making promotion decisions) have now been subject to serious faculty investigation, is changing her tune. She's not really willing to give the investigative committee her full cv, and is hemming and hawing and setting terms all over the place as the merde begins to approach very close to the ventilateur for her.

The committee has anyway issued its findings: she should be removed from the academic vp position, for which she is unqualified. Serious vindication for the two faculty members, still officially fired, who first questioned her credentials.
MA's Are From Maharishis, Ph.D's Are From Postage

Much hoohaw au blogosphere about Dr. Mars/Venus, John Gray, having fudged his academic credentials. As with that other psychic credulity profiteer, Dr. Laura, Dr. Gray isn't quite the doctor he appears to be, having gotten a joke Ph.D. from a diploma mill and before that a levitationally correct MA from a maharishi madras. Like the New York Times Magazine writer who didn't appreciate people questioning his recent hard-breathing story about sex slaves (see UD post, Tuesday, January 27), Gray is running around telling various unlikely people - including an obscure Irish blogger - he's gonna sue, sue, sue if they don't stop beclouding his physicianly aura.

Begosh and begorrah. Why would a zillion copies sold entrepreneurial giant like Gray - who has also lately established a national chain of mars/venus clinics for disorbital men and woman - want to get bogged down with lilliputians nipping at his heels? Why did he feel the need to butch up his BA in the first place? Americans don't give a rat's ass whether their lifestyle adjusters made it out of high school. It's only Gray's groundless middle-class anxiety about documentation that drew him into this swamp. Do I pause before opening Windows on my computer and say "Bill Gates is a college dropout! I can't do this!"? No. Does the United Nations look at Angelina Jolie and say, "She barely made it through high school. She's strikingly inarticulate. She can't represent us all over the world!" No.

And what are the implications of this simple truth for the lemming-like run to college on the part of all young Americans?

UPDATE, April 3 04: From the Springfield Missouri News-Leader , here's another tale from the diploma mills, this one particularly embarrassing given the professor's position running a "character" center:

Embattled C of O dean gives up role in character program

By Steve Koehler

Larry Cockrum, the College of the Ozarks administrator whose educational credentials have come under question for several months, is stepping down as director of the school's character center.

In addition, Cockrum has asked that the doctorate he received from the now-defunct Crescent City Christian College be dropped from behind his name in the school's online and printed academic catalog.

Crescent City, operating in Louisiana, was found by Texas and Louisiana investigators to be a diploma mill, which offered degrees in exchange for little work.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

WHAT MAKES LIFE WORTH LEAVING?

as Finnegans Wake asks it. Outside of painful terminal illness, I don't know. Contemplating the four student suicides this semester at New York University (1010wins.com March 10), I'm as stunned as everyone else.

There's much talk of "clusters," and it does seem noteworthy that all of the students jumped. Two jumped from the same interior balcony in the university library (NYU has now placed a barrier there).

There have been two student suicides at my university this year; one of them was a sorority sister of a number of women in my course in the short story.

I increasingly suspect that there's a basic mental divide between people instinctively attuned to the world and people at serious odds with it and subject to sudden panics about whether they should go on existing. What I mean is that if you've never even remotely contemplated killing yourself - if you've never even remotely questioned the obvious fitness of your being in the world - there's no way you're ever going to understand a suicide. In his poem "For the Suicides," Donald Justice, who like most of us stands on the outside looking in, says as much:

...We stand, now, at the threshold,

Peering in, but the passage,
For us, remains obscure; ...

...At the end of your shadow
There sat another, waiting,
Whose back was always to us.

In his final stanzas Justice is still perplexed -- though he does remark that the suicides he's known (the poem is dedicated to two of them) seem to have had divided selves, one self punishing another self, with suicide the only conceivable cessation of hostilities:

When the last door had been closed,
You watched, inwardly raging,
For the first glimpse of your selves
Approaching, jangling their keys.

Musicians of the black keys,
At last you compose yourselves.
We hear the music raging
Under the lids we have closed.

For the people in New York City, there's the additional symbolic weight, in these suicides, of people falling from great heights. The New York Post ran a front-page photo of one of the NYU students falling backwards out of a highrise apartment building - a sickening reminder of the 9/11 photo of a young man falling from one of the towers.

Because I feel pretty strongly about the suicidal/nonsuicidal disconnect, I doubt there's much generalizable about, say, the college experience, or the urban college experience, or the high-octane competitive urban college experience here. (The boyfriend of one of the women who jumped is quoted in the Post: "This is not about NYU,. She is not just a number or statistic - and this has nothing to do with school. This was about love.") The NYU suicides, though they shared a method, differed a good deal, from what one can tell, in motivation and circumstance. Indeed suicides have always seemed to me (in my experience of them) very fine-tuned to the people committing them; eloquent final acts, they tend to express a meticulous specificity. In 1998, Philip C.Gale, an MIT sophomore, went to a 15th-floor classroom, and, as the Boston Herald reported at the time, "drew a physics formula on a blackboard showing what happens when a body falls from a great height. Then he slammed a chair through the classroom window and jumped more than 200 feet to his death."

Friday, March 26, 2004

The Most Exciting Essay I've Ever Read, Word for Word...

...is Jan Morris's four-page description of La Paz in her 1963 book Cities. I found it in the old hardback Oxford Book of Essays that I used in my Essay in English course last year at the University of Toulouse. George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" runs a close second, but I've reread "Down and Out" so often that it's gotten a little old. I'd never come across "La Paz" before. I finished it all aflutter, and every time I go back to it I finish it all aflutter again.

So what makes it a great essay? Pure stylistic viagra. "She is a city of the Andes, and it is the swarming Andean Indians who nowadays set her style. The men are sometimes striking enough, with their ear-flapped woollen hats and Inca faces; but the women are fascinating beyond description. With their rakishly cocked bowler hats, their blinding blouses and skirts, their foaming flounces of petticoats, the babies like infant potentates upon their backs and the sandals made of old tyres upon their feet - gorgeously accoutred and endlessly industrious, plumed often with a handsome dignity and assurance, they give to La Paz a flavour part gipsy, part coster, and all pungency. There are, I swear it, no more magnificent ladies in the world than the market-women of La Paz. Bowlers cockily atilt, like bookies', they sit high on trestle tables in the covered market, their bosoms grandly heaving beneath white overalls, their faces at once lofty, cunning, all-observant and condescending; and they are invested so closely by all their wares, so heaped about with pineapples and bananas, so wallowing in papayas, mandarins, nuts and flowers that they put old Marvell quite in the shade, in the luscious sensuality of the lives they lead."

Or. "The scene is shadowy and cluttered, and you cannot always make out the details as you push through the crowd; but the impression it leaves is one of ceaseless, tireless energy, a blur of strange faces and sinewy limbs, a haze of ill-understood intentions, a laugh from a small Mongol in dungarees, a sudden stink from an open drain, a cavalcade of tilted bowlers in the candlelight - and above it all, so clear, so close that you confuse the galaxies with the street lamps, the wide blue bowl of the Bolivian sky and the brilliant, cloudless stars of the south."

Life, life, and more life. One always sounds like an idiot, talking in generalities about the imperative to live intensely - like some damn fool vitalist or Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House. Emerson sounds like an idiot when he's on about active souls and intensified being. Yet we can stand it from Morris, because she's not talking about intense life - she's in the midst of it, describing what it actually feels like.

It's much more than that, though - her language has somehow to convey all this charged existence. How does she do it? Same way James Joyce does. She's learned or intuited certain tricks ... like ... watch how Bolivia becomes bowl becomes bowler becomes bosom [with blinding blouses and babies thrown in] -- these curving sly alliterative turns... well, you can note them, but it ain't so easy doing them. Or notice how a sharp word will suddenly burst out of a soft sentence - "plumed" does this - or how she astonishes you with an unexpected word like "invested" which when you think about it (given that she's been talking about clothing, and also about how like capitalists the women are) makes perfect sense. "The wide blue bowl of the Bolivian sky and the brilliant cloudless stars of the South" sounds like ancient poetry translated by some genius....

And through it all there's the pulse-beat of Morris herself, plainly aroused by the geographic and social surreality she's found at twelve thousand feet. "MUST go to La Paz!" I said out loud when I finished my first reading of this essay. Must go to La Paz.


postscript: The Vocabula Review [vocabula.com], December 2000, agrees - in a feature titled "Elegant English," they quote from various exemplary writers, and one of them is Morris, describing La Paz.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

TEACHING TODAY

When University of Colorado Professor Emeritus Joyce Lebra, a distinguished teacher and historian, turned down the university's bestowal upon her of its prestigious "University Medal" a couple of weeks ago, citing the scandal of the university's football program [Dailycamera.com, March 18 04], people were pissed.

Especially by the old girl's salty language in her rejection letter: she would never take a prize from a place with such a "gross distortion of priorities," where the rapist football squad makes the institution an "embarrassment." Lebra, who has written many books about Asia, went on to write that "The focus and priority on football has undermined the atmosphere of this university, which by definition should be dedicated to academic endeavor at the highest level."

One of Colorado's rejected Regents got all the way up on her high horse and by way of response to Lebra employed the third person. "One is disappointed," she said, as if she were Queen Victoria.

I salute Professor Lebra for her principled protest. Disdain at the highest and most public levels is one of the only ways of waking university personnel up out of the sleep of unreason. Of course the would-be awarders in this case cannot be expected to welcome her harsh reminder that they are not academic aristocrats but servants to scum. Lebra has made herself few friends among the Ragin' Regents of Football U. But she's old and laureled and can afford to alienate everyone. Good for her.

HOT

My husband thinks I should take the word "hot" up there [^] out of my description of GW, the university where I teach. It is a little silly, I guess - GW ain't that hot.

Still, at the moment the place is definitely on the boil. Onaccounta even as I sit here watching my Literary Criticism students take their midterm exam, some band they assure me is semi-famous is on the quad just outside the window, hotting up the crowd that's gathered on a spectacular spring afternoon to welcome John Kerry and Howard Dean.

How do you write an essay about what Kant means by purposiveness without purpose while the Democratic presidential candidate calls out to his flock a few yards from your ear? It's distracting enough that overnight all the campus dogwoods have flowered and a warm sun's come in; now they've piled on a political rally too.

Still, my students seem to be doing okay. Very bright and charming bunch, this class. I reminded them, as I handed out blue books, that they chose to attend a university four blocks away from the White House. If they wanted quiet, they should have gone to Kenyon.

Over the years at GW, I've grown accustomed to screaming convoys of presidential limos on the street below my office. Once we all had to stay away from our windows until we got the all-clear, while President Clinton arrived to give a speech here. A sharpshooter stood atop the building across from mine, ready to pick me off if I decided to water my spiderplant.

That's pretty hot, ain't it?

---------------------------

[ps. - Kerry's speaking to the crowd now. Maybe it's my weak ears, but it sounded as though the crowd was more excited a few moments ago, when Dean was speaking...]

[pps. - By way of explaining my continued ambivalence about "hot" - in 2002, GW was one of twelve universities named 'most hot' by Kaplan/Newsweek...

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Honoring The Invisible Adjunct

"How to atone for the achieved uniqueness?" asks James Merrill in "Tony: Ending the Life," a poem in memory of one of his best friends. Contemplating with sadness the end of the blog Invisible Adjunct, in which a genial, hyper-literate adjunct professor of history presided over fascinating and civil discussions about various unconscionable changes in the contemporary American university and in so doing created a real community, I am reminded of this line of Merrill's. It captures the survivor's guilt that people like me tend to feel (come to think of it, I don't know anyone else who feels it, but that may be because I've never really talked about it with anyone) in regard to the many talented and dedicated people, like IA, who have been unable to get tenure track jobs in the humanities.

Of course I don't think I've achieved anything like the "uniqueness" that Merrill has in mind; but I and other tenured professors in the academy have achieved (through some obscure mix of skill and luck) something extremely valuable - a secure vocation that corresponds almost exactly to what we and many other people want: the independent pursuit of ideas through reading, writing, and teaching. Years ago, when I was on the market, I made a campus visit to Princeton, and one of the professors there said to me, "So, this is the nature of the work we do.... If you can call this working." He didn't mean they were lazy - he meant that virtually every element of their faculty life was so marvelous that it didn't feel like working. (And yes, I'm sure there are tenured Ivy professors who complain, but check out my recent post about complaining academics to see how I feel about that.)

It is undeniable, in other words, that for those rare Americans who actually want to think with their lives (rather than watch tv or make buckets of money or whatever), the college or university setting is ideal. There are other thoughtful settings, to be sure - excellent secondary schools; think tanks; certain non-profits - but the security and autonomy academia offers are exceedingly rare commodities, and they're worth working hard to try to get. Academia tolerates eccentricity, so you don't feel, when you're a professor, that you're compromising who you are; it's a significantly less corrupt setting than many other workplaces, so you don't feel compelled to become cynical about the enterprise; people on campuses tend to judge one another not in terms of clothes and cars and vacations but in terms of the quality of their thought. Universities are flexible about giving you leave if you want to teach or write or study somewhere else for awhile to vary the pattern of your worklife. It is stirring, on campus, to be surrounded by ever-renewed legions of intelligent, curious young people, some of whom are in turn stirred by what you say to them.

It is no doubt embittering for many people to realize that even having worked hard and done brilliantly they are unable to land a tenure-track job and enter this world. Or to realize that the tenure-track job they've landed is in Ickystan and will not do. They are right to feel some bitterness, because an academic life can turn out to be a very valuable life indeed.

But one can go too far in idealizing academia, as one can go too far in idealizing anything. It's a big world, and there are outcomes that are just as good, or better. By achieved uniqueness I take Merrill to mean being able to say that you lived your life to some significant degree; and this is an achievement available under all sorts of arrangements.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

INSOLENCE AND INTELLECT

Bravo to the students at Pomona College, part of the recently rooked and humiliated Claremont system of colleges. As today's Los Angeles Times reports:

On Walker Wall, a free speech area on the Pomona College campus, the slogan "Hate Free Campus" was painted two weeks ago in 4-foot-high letters. On Monday, that was partly changed to proclaim: "Hoax Free Campuses." A phrase on the wall that once said "Discover the other within" was altered to say "Discover the liar within."

These students know that the only way to beat back vicious hoaxers as well as insipid college administrators is through intellect and insolence. I can think of few stupider phrases than Discover the other within. The wit who killed it on that campus killed it for good. Good going, Pomona! You'll be fine.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

DUNN GONE

Kerri Dunn has been placed on leave from Claremont. As a possible last-minute replacement for her, I propose Jay "Shut-the-Fuck-Up-Bitch" Wade, psychology professor, Fordham [equityfeminism.com, December 10, 2001].
Today's post (Sunday) is down there a bit - just scroll - title's How Long, Oh Lord? How Long?

I'm trying to work out some kinks in my program's calendar. Sorry.

Friday, March 19, 2004

HOW LONG, OH LORD? HOW LONG?

The ink's barely dry on Pore Jud's resignation papers; Kerri Dunn is only just being fitted for handcuffs; the University of Southern Mississippi's President Thames is about to flow gently out of his job -- things, in short, seemed to have quieted down on the academic scandal front. Some of us even thought we might be able to turn our attention to substantive questions - curricula, grading standards, whatever.

AND NOW THIS!

Editor's Note [New York Times, 21 March 04]

A report on Feb. 15 about the wedding of Riva Golan Ritvo and Alan Bruce Slifka included an erroneous account of the bride's education, which she supplied.

Ms. Ritvo, a child therapist, did not graduate from the University of Pennsylvania or receive a master's degree in occupational therapy or a Ph.D in neuroscience from the University of Southern California. Though she attended Penn for a time, her bachelor's degree, in occupational therapy, is from U.S.C.

The Times should have corroborated the credentials before publishing the report.


KEEryst. If you can't trust the New York Times wedding announcements, what can you trust? Sure, Jayson Blair damaged the credibility of their FRONT page, but those of us who pounce each Sunday upon their wedding announcements (as Veblen, Vidal, Fussell, Brooks, and other class mavens could tell you, these pages are RIFE) have always considered their data - specially the university stuff - sacred. Can it be that even one young bride is capable of such extensive fraud (note that she awarded herself not merely a master's and a Ph.D., but a Ph.D.in neuroscience, far more glamorous than o.t.)? And can it be that the Weddings fact checkers are too starry-eyed to wonder whether people desperate to impress me with their academic credentials might lie about them?

Your bloggeure begins to despair...
PORE JUD UPDATE

President Judd has retired, citing his health. Newspapers are checking sources for the citation.
LET'S REVIEW, SHALL WE?

Another week, another heaping helping of hoaxes - and I'm only talking about the academic ones.

Other cultures, to be sure, have their Ern Malleys and Ossians, but there's something special about the United States when it comes to self-aggrandizing chicanery. In the general population there's an exquisite calibration between credulity (hoaxees) on one side and narcissism (hoaxers) on the other; but in the university population in particular there's a double dose of narcissism and credulity, so we get (to list only the most notorious over the last few years)

*** The Sokal hoax, in which a clever physicist got an unclever critical theory journal to publish reams of manifest bullshit;

*** The Yasusada hoax, in which a clever assistant professor of English in the American midwest somewhere got an unclever poetry journal to publish poetry he claimed was written by a Japanese survivor of the Hiroshima bomb;

*** The Wilkomirski hoax, in which a rich goyish Swiss guy got historians to believe he was a Polish Jew who survived the holocaust through a series of experiences that would have made Jerzy Kosinski (another hoaxer) blush;

*** The Rigoberto Menchu hoax, in which a book written by a sophisticated French ideologue was successfully marketed to American academics as having been written by an oppressed peasant.


Again, these are just hoaxes for and about academics; I won't bother reminding you of the Jayson Blairs and Stephen Glasses. I'm interested only (this here weblog being after all University Diaries) in the President Judds who palm off as their own work the work of others.

And who are rewarded for it. Having disgraced his institution, Judd recently received an overwhelming vote of confidence from the faculty. (He's in the hospital at the moment, by the way, resting comfortably after having collapsed. I fear, however, he may have plagiarized someone else's collapse.)

Poor Kerri Dunn, on the other hand, the latest in a long line of hate crime hoaxers, is far from being a university president. A mere visiting professor, she will be easily disgorged from the Claremont colleges into the hands of federal authorities irritated with her for lying to them. After dropping the claim that she didn't do it (under pressure from physical evidence and eyewitnesses), Dunn's lawyer will say she's effing out of her mind and that she trashed her car in the same belle hysterie into which Winona Ryder falls whenever she steals tens of thousands of dollars worth of clothes.

[Update, three hours later:

Sheesh! It's hard to keep up. The Ryder comparison was more apt than I knew. From today's Los Angeles Times (latimes.com):

Dunn, who received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Nebraska, had a few brushes with the law while in Lincoln, court records show. She was arrested Sept. 29, 2000, on a shoplifting charge of which she was convicted and fined $200, records show.

Other charges of possession of stolen property, refusing to comply with police, and failure to appear in court were dismissed.

She was arrested on New Year's Eve in 1999 in Lincoln on similar charges of concealing merchandise, but that case was later dismissed, records show. She was also found guilty of driving on a suspended license in 1999 and was fined $50, records show.
]

But Dunn is much more dangerous than a petty thief - she is an ideologue. She is like the lecturer in English at the University of North Carolina who sent an email to her class condemning one its students as a violent hateful person because he said in a discussion that he had trouble with homosexuality; like the Berkeley instructor whose course description growled that conservatives better stay out of his classroom; and like the Columbia instructor who wished out loud for "a million Mogadishus." As with zealots everywhere and at all times, these characters are capable of all sorts of nastiness, including, in the case of Dunn, profoundly destructive crimes. Anything for the cause.

University professors and administrators have a special responsibility to overcome their all-American credulity and become more skeptical. Why special? Because the people we are supposed to be educating are young. Young people can be expected to act as the intelligent, sensitive Claremont students acted when they thought Professor Dunn was something other than a liar - with excitement and outrage and passion on behalf of all sorts of good things like tolerance and kindness. We are supposed to help our students cultivate not the angry cynicism that the Claremont students feel today, but mature circumspection. By over-reacting and posturing, the Claremont administration played to its students' emotions and gave a conwoman a podium. They have done great damage to a great university.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

TEACHING TODAY

Dunned


Ah hell, let's just keep it coming, shall we? Yet another in a series highlighting notable faculty at American and overseas universities.

Today: Professor of Psychology Kerri Dunn, Claremont Colleges.


Since no one was around to do it for her, Kerri destroyed her own car - broke windows, slashed tires, wrote anti-semitic and racist statements all over it, etc. - because of her insistence that her institution be made aware of the pervasive reality of hate crimes in America [latimes.com, March 18]. Like a firefighter who sets fires in order to heroically dash in and put them out, Kerri stages hate crimes against herself in order to be lionized as a victim of hate crimes.

Galvanized by the appalling nature of this act (Kerri didn't mention to Claremont that she'd done it herself - two witnesses came forward a few days after her lionization to describe watching her do it -- and investigators reported that Kerri's responses to their questions about this were, er, "inconsistent"), all of the Claremont colleges were shut down for a day of rallying, garment rending, and Dunn-worshipping. I quote from The Student Life, a newspaper at Claremont:

'Dunn made a surprise visit at the end of the rally, speaking publicly for the first time since the hate crime. "I can't tell you how it makes me feel to look out into the sea of you and know that you are here to support me and the larger issue of civil rights and equality," said Dunn after waiting two minutes for the crowd's explosive applause to die down. "These were terrorists," Dunn said of those responsible. "Calling these acts ignorant is a dangerous misnomer. It's an excuse to turn your head."'

Two minutes!

Well, you know what's next. Like Jayson Blair, Kerri will turn out to have been suffering from any number of traumas - cocaine addiction, recovered memories of childhood molestation -- and when interviewed during the national promotion of her book -- Burning Down My Mother's Car -- she will say "I now think the reason I was drawn to the field of psychology was an attempt to heal my own wounds..."

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

TEACHING TODAY

Third in a series highlighting notable professors in the United States and abroad.

Louis Althusser Memorial Professor
University of Manchester

After poisoning his wife and various townspeople - none fatally, though that was the intention - Professor Paul Agutter went to prison in Scotland for seven years of a twelve year attempted murder sentence. Now free, he teaches ethics at the University of Manchester [BBC online, March 10: "Poisoner Employed as Ethics Tutor"].

Like University Diaries' last featured professor, Mark Belnick of Cornell (scroll down), today's lecturer offers students a perspective that one might call, after Joni Mitchell, both sides now. There's nothing theoretical about Agutter's takes on good and evil. He's been there.

"Now then, let's see, Mr. Lancaster, in the third row. Let us say that you have fallen out of love with your wife and in love with another woman. You are a trained biochemist and you understand how poisons work. What do you do?"

"Er...file for divorce?"

"In what way would that make use of your specialized knowledge in dangerous substances?"

"Um, in no way. But I don't see why..."

"Miss Silverstone?"

"Well, if I were to decide to kill her rather than divorce her - which I guess means I have to assume either that I dislike my wife very much or that she refuses to grant me a divorce or something - I would be attracted to a substance which had no taste and no color and which could be put..."

"In her gin and tonics. Yes. Let us say that you are aware that every night the lush - that is, your wife, drinks a lot of gin and tonics. What would a plausible poison be, Mr. Stevens?"

"Atropine, I think. She wouldn't notice a thing."

"Bingo! Now can we think of any reason why we might not want to do this thing? Miss. Evans?"

"Well, if anyone knew there was tension between my wife and me, and my wife mysteriously died, suspicion might be directed at me."

"And so... Mr. Lindsay?"

"So...I guess I'd try to deflect suspicion by poisoning other people in the vicinity, so that police would assume some tainted food was responsible."

"Yes. For instance, you might take a few bottles of tonic to which you've added atropine to the local grocery and let them get bought and imbibed."

"Excuse me, Professor Agutter?"

"Yes, Miss Collison."

"You actually did all of this. It was and is incredibly evil. I do not understand why you received only a twelve year sentence, of which you served only seven."

"I'm working through this, Miss Collison. I'm working through it. You and your fellow students are helping me clarify the moral basis of my behavior in this particular set of activities. It is very hurtful to me that you feel free to use such hateful and judgmental language. I am doing my best. I shared a cell for awhile with a man who incinerated his entire family. We are all guilty of something."

Friday, March 12, 2004

PORE JUD IS DAID

Another day, another loony prez at boony u. High salaries, low qualifications, ethical confusion and emotional instability have done in quite a few university presidents lately; and today’s specimen, featured in this morning’s New York Times and everywhere else, is Richard T. Judd of Central Connecticut State University, who at an annual salary of $200,000 cannot spell ("From what I have been advised," he wrote one of his faculty members a few years ago, "you breeched the tenets of what I asked the faculty in this program to do."), and whose scholarly works, far as I can tell, amount to an out of print co-edited textbook on emergency “first responders.”

It may be his background in emergency responsiveness that inspired Judd a few years ago to impersonate a police officer in order to force some guy he thought was speeding to pull over. He flashed the lights on his state car and pretended his CCSU i.d.card was a police badge and got thirty days probation.

CCSU figured he meant well and forgave him. But Judd’s plagiarism problem again has the merde flying. Using student-patented techniques of international web crawling plus cut and paste, Judd concocted an opinion piece that the now very angry Hartford Courant, blinded by his prestigious position, published. “Judd, 66, is on a trip to the Middle East on university business and could not be reached Tuesday for comment,” the Courant reports. “Talk Tuesday among faculty was that Judd was being called back to Connecticut early.”

Yep. This time I think he’s as dead as pore Jud who got up on that blazing haystack in Oklahoma!

Why, though, does it take blazing haystacks for universities to notice that their presidents are off their nut? Judd’s done all kinds of other questionable and embarrassing stuff involving faculty appointments and use of state funds during his rather short tenure. The man is a manifest catastrophe and as of this writing he’s still a university president. At least John Silber, still haunting the halls of Boston University, has a respectable scholarly background and made some good appointments. I’m genuinely puzzled as to why so many university presidents on obscure campuses are allowed to become little Ubus, throwing their weight around and getting crazier and crazier. Judd’s breeches have long been untenanted, but it took rank outsiders who happened to have read an editorial of his to notice.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Please scroll down to March 7 for today's (March 11) post, "ACADEMIA TODAY: STEROIDS AND STEINBECK." Sorry for the mixup.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

WHO IS DAVID LESTER AND WHY ARE PEOPLE SAYING SUCH TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT HIM?

Professor David Lester, my hero, is this morning’s villain among university internauts.

From Invisible Adjunct to Crooked Timber, they’re unloading the full academic arsenal against him: sneering contempt, laughing scorn, haughty dismissal, rank incredulity (“Must be a parody!”), etc.

Why is this happening? What has he done? Why do they hate him? Why do I love him?

Where shall I begin? First, I think there’s a cultural problem here. Professor Lester is British and he writes in that nonchalant goofy way some British people write -- like, here I go, I am who I am, I don’t care what you think of me. John Stuart Mill singled out tolerance of eccentricity as a crucial mark of a free society. The British specialize in eccentricity, turning out generations of people like Rebecca West, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Quentin Crisp and many others who are absolutely bizarre and do not give a shit that you find them so. Lester, while not as impressive as anyone in this group, is this sort of person.

Second, Lester is breaking a cardinal rule of academia: In an essay in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (available online) titled “Complaints, Complaints,” he complains that academics complain unconscionably, given that their jobs are among the most glorious the world has to offer. He is absolutely right.

I’d extend the point to many other jobs Americans do (Robert Hughes wrote a whole book about this problem in America, titled The Culture of Complaint), with being a professor right at the very top of the non-complainables. Professors, as I’ve suggested before in University Diaries, complain for a lot of reasons, but mainly they complain because the profession selects not only for liberals (see the Duke dustup) but for neurotics. A neurotic will complain under any conditions (think of Princess Diana). Because they are neurotics as well as university professors, many professors conclude that to be intelligent (i.e., hireable as a university professor) you must be a neurotic. By definition a neurotic is unhappy. Hiring committees are expecting to see people who are unhappy. If you go to your interview at the MLA with a button on your lapel that says Recovering Catholic, you will be probably okay; if you have a Happy Face button, you are in trouble. (I've talked in a number of places in UD about how unhappiness is the default position in American academia. David Brooks gets at the underlying class aspect of this nicely in one of his New York Times columns: “As you know, there are two kinds of women’s magazines in the world, nonsmiling and smiling. In the nonsmiling magazines, which tend to be upscale, the models in the photo spreads wear these blank or haughty expressions because, you know, happiness is so middle class.”)


But Professor Lester is abhorred not merely because he points in the direction of neurosis rather than working conditions to account for the endless bitching of tenured university professors; he is abhorred because he is not a team player. Collegial, that is. Lester’s unflappable British logic and insouciance have led him to detach as much as possible from the administrative structure of his university. He is in no way an irresponsible academic: it’s clear he does his bit, in terms of teaching, publishing, and administrative activity. But he doesn’t attend departmental meetings, and he doesn’t answer his office phone, and he’s had his name taken off the department email list.

Finally, what makes Professor Lester particularly delicious to me is his field of specialization: he is a suicidologist. He has spent his life examining the reasons why people get so miserable as to do themselves in. He is sharing with you the fruits of his labor. Rather than condemn him, read carefully.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

For Spalding Gray




["The monologue and the man, ever hard to distinguish, had fused entirely. And vanished. All that was left was tragedy." John Penner, houstonpress.com]




There is a species of clown
Who invites us to watch him drown.

Jarry as Ubu, atrocity doll,
Was big daddy of them all.
First alter-ego, theatrical game,
Ubu and Jarry merged into the same
Stammering, angry, uproarious joke
On all of us. But while we woke
From the stage, Jarry stayed behind.

Flooded by his own creation, his mind
Dissolved in the drama of the thing.

In the soul of all comedy kings
There's the same
Black pooling of the atrocity game.

Our horror is hilarious, the way they wear it.
What kills them is their need to share it.

Monday, March 08, 2004

ACADEMIA TODAY

UCLA SOLVES DEADWOOD PROBLEM

Los Angeles, March 8 - The University of California at Los Angeles has for a number of years been solving its deadwood problem through a bold, profitable, but, some say, risky strategy that just may make it a template for universities across the nation.

The identification and handling of campus deadwood is one of the knottiest problems facing American higher education. How does a university phase out unproductive tenured faculty?

UCLA administrators grappling with the problem looked to that university’s respected Willed Body Program, which, as reported in today’s New York Times ["U.C.L.A. Official Is Held In Cadaver-Selling Inquiry,” John M. Broder, March 7], “receives about 170 cadavers every year for teaching and research.”

Although the sale of body parts is illegal, the market is lightly regulated, and a recent police investigation has revealed that the head of UCLA’s program has for years been profiting from the sale of organs and tissue that he took from bodies donated to the university for purposes of scientific inquiry.

“We talked to the folks over in Willed Body,” says UCLA’s acting provost, “and they explained how the market in kidneys and liver parts works. We conceived the idea of approaching deadwood faculty with the following proposition: after five years of nonproductivity, defined as nonpublication of a book or five refereed articles, the faculty member would have a choice between selling one kidney, with profits going to the university, or accepting a modest early retirement package. Faculty loved it! Not only are they saving a life, but they are taking the pressure off of themselves and contributing to the wellbeing of the institution. It’s a win-win situation.”

Not everyone is sure. “What happens after ten years? Fifteen?” asked Charlotte Bayfield, UCLA professor of Corporeality Theory and author of Willed Bodies that Matter. “I find the image of nonstellar university professors gradually being scalpeled to nothingness over the course of their careers distasteful,” she said. “What’s the end point? When they die is what’s left of them handed over to the Willed Body program? It reminds me of the film Soylent Green.”

UCLA’s provost, when told of Bayfield’s reservations, scoffed. “Earth to Bayfield!” she said. “Universities are part of market reality, like it or not. We understand that these matters have to be handled sensitively, but we also see that if UCLA doesn’t become efficient, we are going to attract the attention of budget cutters and disgruntled alumni. Until we are able to dismantle tenure, we are going to have to keep looking for innovative ways to make underachieving faculty yield value.”

Sunday, March 07, 2004

ACADEMIA TODAY
STEROIDS AND STEINBECK

Los Angeles, March 11 --- The ongoing criminal investigation of UCLA's Willed Body program has sparked investigations of other possibly illegal activities on the sunny, palm-lined campus. This week, for instance, police uncovered an arrangement between UCLA's Athletics and English departments in which selected literature professors were allegedly given performance-enhancing steroids.

"We got a tip from a recently retired post-structuralist," said Lieutenant Italo Svevo. "She suggested we look into why a number of tenure-track assistant professors in her department were routinely publishing not one, not two, but six books a year without breaking a sweat. She said first she figured a lot of the monographs must have been co-authored, or maybe edited by the faculty member. But no - each one had exactly two hundred and fifty pages, and each page was written by one author. She thought it smelled funny."

Svevo arranged to audit some of these industrious professors' classes, and he was staggered by their frenetic, take-no-prisoners lecture style. "It reminded me of the way the Allan Bloom character in Ravelstein is described," he remarked. "It was wild! The kids were jumping out of their seats. Occasionally the professor would display hyper-irritability - a classic steroid side-effect - for no apparent reason."

The investigating unit eventually decided to zero in on one professor in particular - Lydia Fertig, a fifth-year tenure-track assistant professor who, it was generally known, had suddenly switched her research interest from Joyce Carol Oates to Norman Mailer. Svevo approached her late one evening in the university library, where she sat hunched in a chair, typing frantically at a computer keyboard.

"Professor Fertig?" Svevo whispered.

She shot around in her chair: "What the HELL do you want."

"I wonder if I could ask you a few questions," he said, showing her his badge.

She laughed. "Let me save you some time, officer. Yes, I stabbed him. No, he's not pressing charges. Thank you for respecting my private life. Fuck off."
TO: ALL A TEAM MEMBERS

FROM: Janice

SUBJECT: For Your Attention

I've been asked by many A-Positive friends and colleagues to comment on the University of Georgia course titled "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball" (Fall 2001), in which all enrolled students received As. In the course of an investigation into recruitment irregularities, officials at the university released to the public that course's twenty question multiple choice final exam - its only requirement. A few questions from the exam follow:

5. How many halves are in a college basketball game?
a. 1
b. 2
c. 3
d. 4

6. How many quarters are in a high school basketball game?
a. 1
b. 2
c. 3
d. 4

8. How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a Basketball Game?
a. 1
b. 2
c. 3
d. 4

11. What is the name of the exam which all high school seniors in the State of Georgia must pass?
a. Eye Exam
b. How Do The Grits Taste Exam
c. Bug Control Exam
d. Georgia Exit Exam


Although this is a fairly easy exam, several students in the class did not take it and still received As.

This is a real test case for us.

It represents, if you will, an absolutely "pure" instance of the A-offering (see post below, The Way of A). Students report that the course's instructor (a coach at the university) made clear to them that there was no conceivable way in which they could fail to receive an A for Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball. Few students attended; the instructor, toward the end of the semester, also routinely skipped. The course was without content. The instructor appears to have written the exam mainly for purposes of self-amusement. The publication of the exam has exposed the University of Georgia to national and international derision.

So - a number of you have asked - what are we to do? What are we to say? How are we to defend to a taunting world this instance of grade inflation?

Well, I was wringing my hands about this last night when I came across an opinion piece by Stanley Fish in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education that made me ashamed of the fact that I'd been wringing my hands. Faced with an uncomprehending, non-academic world, Fish argues, professors and administrators should stop defending academia's practices in terms that they think non-academics will understand. Our activities in universities will never be intelligible to people outside of universities unless those people agree to go back and attend the modern university for awhile in order to understand it from within. Here's Fish - he says what I'm trying to say much better than I can:

[We must begin] embracing the fact that few nonacademics understand what we do and why we do it, and turning [this fact] into a weapon. Instead of saying, "Let me tell you what we do so that you'll love us," or "Let me explain how your values are our values too," say, "We do what we do, we've been doing it for a long time, it has its own history, and until you learn it or join it, your opinions are not worth listening to."

Instead of defending classics or French literature or sociology, ask those who think they need defending what they know about them, and if the answer is "not much" (on the model of "don't know much about the Middle Ages"), suggest, ever so politely, that they might want to go back to school. Instead of trying to justify your values (always a weak position), assume them and assume too your right to define and protect them. And when you are invited to explain, defend, or justify, just say no.

I'm perfectly willing to concede that I don't know the first thing about basketball - its strategies, its principles - just as I'll bet my local congressperson doesn't know anything about the Middle Ages. And although this particular basketball theory course seems to me to have been rather loosely taught, I'm sure the field, to quote Fish "has its own history," and until I learn it my opinion isn't really worth listening to. More broadly, rather than "trying to justify [my] values" relative to things like academic freedom and grading policies, I should simply "assume them," and when asked to "explain, defend, or justify them, just say no."

And so my friends: No! in thunder. Just as Tom Buchanan said to Jay Gatsby that "there are things between Daisy and me that you'll never know," so I say to you that there are things between a professor of basketball and his students that you and I will never understand. It is not our place to. We stand outside. Our worlds are incompatible. Leave it alone. Let it go.

Friday, March 05, 2004

THE VERDICT


-- Ladies and gentlemen, I am most deeply obliged by your kind solicitations, said Simon Dedalus. I have no money but if you will lend me your attention I shall endeavour to sing to you of a heart bowed down.

When first I saw that form endearing,
Sorrow from me seem'd to depart:
Each graceful look, each word so cheering,
Charm'd my eye and won my heart.

Full of hope, and all delighted,
None could feel more blest than I;
All on earth I then could wish for,
Was near her to live and die:

But alas! 'twas idle dreaming,
And the dream too soon hath flown;
Not one ray of hope is gleaming;
I am lost, yes I am lost, for she is gone.

Guilty as charged, on all seven counts:
SEC perjury, and conspiracy.
Martha, dearest, you lied about accounts
And now they're taking you away from me!

Martha, Martha, I am sighing,
I am weeping still for thee;
Wouldst that I could be there
Oh to comfort thee!

Ah! Martha return!
When you're released my Martha
Come, come to me.


-- Martha it is. Coincidence. Lovely name you have: Martha. How strange! Today.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

FINDING NINA: LOST WOMAN OF THE QUADS

Her enormous green eyes stare at you with an uncanny, almost aggressive, power; and ever since 1985, when National Geographic printed her photograph in its special report from the front lines of the culture wars, our readers have clamored to know more about this mysterious melancholic. Who was she? What world of harshness and strife did her eyes reflect back to us so piercingly?

Our photographer, Skip McCoy, who took that incredible picture so long ago, was as intrigued and captivated as anyone else. “I decided I’d go back to the remote region where I’d first seen her and try to find her again,” he says. “After decades of conflict and the virtual disappearance of quad culture, I wasn’t optimistic she was even alive anymore. But I had to try.”

McCoy recalled only that she had been sitting on the lawn of a college campus somewhere on the southern Arizona border region, conducting a class on an obscure novel by Anne Bronte. “I’ll never forget the scene that greeted me that day,” he reminisced. “It was a sunny afternoon, and she was sitting cross-legged on the grass, holding a book. There were about fifteen students ranged around her on the grass, and they were all holding books too. She was performing a ritual that quad cultures called ‘close reading,’ and the students were listening carefully and sometimes making notes in the margins of their copies of the book as she spoke. Something told me I had to capture this vanishing way of life, so I asked her if she would mind looking up to be photographed. I was astonished when she got angry and said something about how it was impossible to teach a class anymore without a thousand interruptions and distractions. The fury and futility she expressed at that moment really stirred me, and I just clicked away. You never know what’s going to turn out to be a great photograph.”

McCoy could not have foreseen how that one picture of a scowling young woman, her eyes expressive of so much dismay, would come to embody for a generation of Americans the lost world of the liberal arts college. “It’s as if she perceived even then the disappearance of everything - the classroom, the book, tenure, independent scholarship - and the advent of technology transfer, licensed research, the knowledge industry. You could actually see a whole way of life receding in her eyes.”

Although the world she represented had always been marginal and has now disappeared completely, McCoy remembers being moved by the tattered integrity of Nina’s way of life. “The books were all used copies,” he remarked. “The college buildings were in desperate need of maintenance. Nina’s clothing was worn and thin. Everyone on that campus - teachers and students - knew that it was only a matter of time before the medieval life of humane study was pushed aside for good. But they kept at it. It was the only way of life they knew.”
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Nutty Nina the Bronte Lady! Of course I know who you mean,” smiled Maggie Conway, Residential Life Director at Old College Condos, the gated Luxury Senior Community that now sits on the site of the quads. Maggie, a genial leathery-skinned gal of a certain age, was happy to take McCoy to a basement apartment in one of the more modest dwellings in the development. “No view of the golf course,” said Maggie. “Not that she cares. She can’t afford to pay anything, but we all got together and decided to make a place for her here so she didn’t have to leave. She didn’t want to leave.” As McCoy neared Nina’s unit, his heart beat rapidly. “I couldn’t believe I’d actually found her after all this time. She was alive; she was still here. What would she be like?” he wondered.

“Oh Professor!” Maggie called out as she pushed open the door to Nina’s condo. “She loves it when we call her that. Are you preparing another tea, Professor?”

“Tea?” asked McCoy.

“Every Thursday Nina invites a bunch of us to her place for a ‘Bronte tea.’ We drink Lady Gray while she reads to us from Wuthering Heights. It’s so cute! It gives her something to do.”

In the darkness of the tiny dining room that now appeared before him, McCoy made out the shape of a woman - older, certainly, and still in tattered clothing; but as soon as she turned around to look at her visitors he saw the same fierce gleam in her eyes that had been there so long ago. He didn’t need to check his famous photograph -- it was Nina.

“So,” she said, looking McCoy up and down and obviously recognizing him as her long-ago photographer, the man who’d made her image famous, “come to visit Miss Havisham, huh?”

“Who?” McCoy asked.

“Don’t recognize the allusion, huh?” she asked with a malignant smile. “Come to see ol' Bartleby staring at his wall, huh?"

“Sorry. What?”

Nina shook her head; there was a glint of contempt in her still-amazing eyes. “Gregor in his bedroom? von Aschenbach on the beach? Bertha in the attic? Nothing? Nothing?”

“Sorry,” said McCoy. “Nothing.”

“Then you deserve this,” she said, suddenly drawing a pistol from a little pink purse that lay on the table. “You be Quilty; I’ll be Humbert. I’ll let you try to get away.”

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

THE
WAY
OF
A


I looked beyond;
Flowers are not,
Nor tinted leaves.
On the sea beach
A solitary A stands
In the waning light
Of an autumn eve.

The nature of the sensations to be aroused in offering the A differs with different grade-masters. Some, like the author of the above lines, aim at utter loneliness; others seek a different effect, as in the following:

A cluster of summer trees,
A bit of the sea,
A pale evening moon.

It is not difficult to grasp the meaning here. The writer wishes to create the attitude of a newly awakened soul still longing amid shadowy dreams of the past, yet bathing in the sweet unconsciousness of a spiritual light, and yearning for the freedom that lies in the expanse beyond.

The Way of A - widely known as the "grade ceremony" - holds an aura of mystery for many people, but its governing impulse is simple: to affirm, in offering the A, the worth of human life and the beauty of the ritual of the grade.

The A began as a therapy and grew into a religion of aestheticism - Aism, a cult founded on the adoration of the student among the sordid facts of human existence. It is essentially a worship of the Pupil, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

The Philosophy of A is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about men and nature.

The long isolation of Academia from the rest of the world, so conducive to introspection, has been highly favorable to the development of Aism. You may laugh at us for having "too many As," but may we not suspect that you outside the Academy have "no As" in your constitution?

The A-offering is not a poetical pastime but one of the methods of self-realization.

Laotse spoke of the A thus: "There is a thing which is all-containing, which was born before the existence of Heaven and Earth. How silent! How solitary! It stands alone and changes not. I do not know its name and so call it the A. With reluctance I call it the Infinite. Infinity is the Fleeting, the Fleeting is the Vanishing, the Vanishing is the Reverting."

The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings. Aism accepts the mundane as it is and tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry. In the A- ceremony serenity of mind should be maintained above all; the great values are harmony and tranquillity. "The true aristocrat is the one who is free of grade anxiety," said the master Rinzai (d. 866).

Monday, March 01, 2004

TEACHING TODAY

Second in a series highlighting notable teachers on America’s campuses.

"Kozlowski also used Tyco's extraordinarily generous bonus system to co-opt many key executives at headquarters and in the field. In effect, he twice bought the loyalty of the most strategically positioned employees, cutting at least 50 of them in on his under-the- table largesse. It is not clear how many of them understood that their relocation perks and "special bonuses" may not have been approved by the board. But Mark Belnick, a respected New York lawyer whom Kozlowski lured to Tyco in 1998 to serve as general counsel, allegedly signed a secret employment contract tying his compensation to the CEO's. According to Tyco, Belnick was paid a staggering $20 million in 2000 and also dipped into the covert New York relocation loan program for $10 million to buy and renovate a home in Park City, Utah, for his wife and son. Belnick was indicted along with Kozlowski and Swartz but charged only with falsifying business records. He has pleaded not guilty." Business Week Online December 23 2002


Professor Mark Belnick has, since 1999, directed and lectured in Cornell University’s pre-law summer program. He has also, for the last couple of years, stood handcuffed in a variety of courtrooms, under indictment for defrauding Tyco shareholders of millions of dollars through, in the words of the SEC, “egregious self-dealing transactions.” Belnick, whose trial gets underway this month, seems to have been paid tens of millions of dollars to fiddle with Tyco’s books in order to cover up the spectacular malfeasance of its executives. (He’s also accused - more conventionally - of misusing company funds for multiple luxury residences.)

Despite Belnick’s highly publicized likely involvement in a raft of unethical and illegal activities, Cornell is standing by its man, affirming in its defense of him America’s commitment to the presumption of innocence. And while some might claim that keeping an indicted former executive of one of the dirtiest of criminally run corporations on the faculty is unwise - particularly when the professor is preparing students for the field of law - others might point out that effective pedagogical use might be made of such a person.

For instance, Gerald Graff of the University of Illinois has argued that rather than isolate themselves in their classrooms with their own set of ideas - ideas often interestingly at odds with those of some of their colleagues - university professors should “teach the conflicts.” That is, they should stand up together in front of classes and air their intellectual differences.

I can imagine a kind of dream instructional scenario in which Professor Belnick might be paired with one of Cornell’s distinguished moral philosophers to duke it out on the subjects of good and evil, distributive justice and personal greed. One of America’s greatest philosophers of justice, the late John Rawls, once taught on the faculty of Cornell, and it would have been enormously enlightening, I think, for philosophy, political science, law, and accounting students to witness the two of them in mental combat:

Professor Belnick: Twisting the law to enrich oneself at the cost of others, and then twisting it again to avoid jail time for what you’ve done, is a perfectly legitimate activity.

Professor Rawls: Let’s twist again, eh? Don’t you think that people so grasping and arrogant as to destroy hundreds of peoples’ livelihoods as well as the public’s trust in the commercial sector deserve on the contrary to twist slowly, slowly in the wind?

Professor Belnick: Not at all. Extremely rich and powerful people who’ve gotten to the top through brilliance and amorality have demonstrated their superiority to ordinary drudges. They live by different rules, in a deluxe realm of which the drudges know nothing. Drudge laws do not apply to people like me.

Professor Rawls: Civil society is founded upon a shared instinct toward fairness, equality, tolerance, and the rule of law.

Professor Belnick: But why stop once society is civil? Once things are pretty civil, it’s time to take advantage of all the affluence, good will, and stable institutions out there.

Professor Rawls: No, once you’ve achieved a civil society, it’s time to pay attention to its weakest and neediest members.

Professor Belnick: I don’t do weak and needy. I don’t see weak and needy. I see penthouses, Ivy League students, ski chalets, and fantastic restaurants. What do you want? [gestures to students in audience] Do you want to ride in crowded subway cars or in your own big Escalade? Do you want $50,000 to work with hopelessly weak and needy people, or five million dollars to do what rich people tell you to do? It’s your choice. [officer of the court arrives; places cuffs on Belnick] I’m about to pay one million dollars - a sum I can well afford - to bail myself out of this. I’m not going to spend even one night in jail. Then my legal team will get all my charges dropped. After that I’m undergoing a religious conversion to get my good name back. A bientot! Don’t forget to fill out the teaching evaluation form.

UPDATE: March 16 04: From today's Cornell Daily Sun: "The School for Continuing Education and Summer Sessions [has been] notified that [Belnick is] not available to teach this year, said Glenn Altschuler, the school's dean.