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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)

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Tragedy of Addiction

"Not watching TV - and not wanting to be on TV - has in itself become a form of virginity in America, rarer than the other kind, so rare as to be poignant."

Frank Rich, New York Times, 1 February 04

It’s funny how various minority groups are talking about boycotting television because of their under-representation on the screen. I mean it’s funny from my perspective. My non-minority nuclear unit got rid of our tv ten years ago.

We didn’t toss it out because affluent white suburbanites like us were underrepresented. Au contraire, TV was us, the upper-income, middle-aged, two-wage-earner, not-too-many-kids American family. Our representation needs were met all the way down the demographic-particulars scale: I was represented by scads of wisecracking working mothers; equal numbers of befuddled fathers stood in for my husband, and an entire repertory theater of precocious females performed my daughter.

Naturally, our tv models did not capture us completely, in all our quirky complexity. For instance, I don’t drive, and no adult tv characters - beyond the lame and aged - fail to operate a motor vehicle. On tv, aliens drive. But in general, tv did a nice job of conveying me, particularly my mood swings and diets. Occasionally my husband felt that his Catholicism was underrepresented on tv, but when this identity-component rose to become a felt representation-need, he rented The Sound of Music.

For my daughter, there was no representation deficiency. TV has her down.

So why did we boycott tv? In large part, precisely for this reason. TV was living our lives for us and we, the actual flesh and blood us, were getting more and more accommodating about letting it do that. It seemed odd after awhile that instead of living our lives we were watching us onscreen as we paraded our family dynamics, had spats with friends over lunch at local restaurants, took comically disastrous vacations, and hugged one another after latenight chats. While it was obscurely gratifying that so many bright and literate television writers were devoting their lives to offering us these satisfying self-recognitions, it was also unsettling. We were disappearing.

Minorities who complain of underrepresentation might want to consider this still rather arcane problem. Television doesn’t just represent you; it usurps you. In this respect, to be underrepresented might be seen as a kind of privilege. It means that those bright and literate tv people haven’t really discovered you yet and set you going like a windup doll on the screen. You - as an individual, a family, a community - remain outside the soul-consuming vise of video.

I find the demand for “positive role models” on tv funny too. Of course plenty of these already exist, and other writers on this subject have pointed out that it’s a sign of maturity to tolerate some negative racial and ethnic representations. But this is beside the point. The
point is that the bright and literate tv people will be only too happy to accommodate you here, and soon enough all significant American subgroups will find not only compelling but also flattering versions of themselves all over the screen.

Lke Uriah Heep, tv usurps as it panders. And in this case, it usurps your moral autonomy. If you tell tv to make you virtuous, it will of course do so, because its job is to maintain a mood of self-pleased receptivity in you, the sort of mood that makes you likely to buy the cars and shampoos its advertisers show you. But what if you are in fact an unscrupulous person without the money to buy the Lexus? Or what if you’re a basically moral person who has, however, maxed out your credit cards? The positive role models in the program attached to the Lexus advertisement will endow you with a sense of
entitlement and exceptionality. You will decide to get the Lexus one way or another.

I know that almost no one’s going to get rid of their tv. When friends and neighbors grasp that we’ve gotten rid of ours, their visceral reaction tells us that we have committed an act of radical evil. But perhaps Americans can begin to consider with greater dispassion just what a television is. You cannot really do this, though, without burying your tv, at least for awhile. When Frank Rich, in the New York Times, wrote an angry attack on the excessive television coverage of J.F.K. Jr.’s death, his j’accuse lacked force, since obviously he sat there watching the crap he later described with such loathing. If television is as disgusting as Rich believes it is, why doesn’t he stop watching it? And since a lot of Americans seem to share Rich’s problem - they watch a lot of television; they hate television - wouldn’t Rich contribute more to his readers by attempting to account for the culture of widespread masochism of which he and they are a part?

Update: January 4 2004: In the New York Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen asks how Americans can protect themselves from the "psychological vulnerabilities" that result from an overestimation of personal danger from terrorism: "How can we protect ourselves from our psychological vulnerabilities? First, we can turn off the TV. A study of psychological responses to 9/11 found that, two months after the attacks, 17 percent of the American population outside New York City reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress related to 9/11. High levels of stress were especially notable in those who watched a lot of television. This anxiety is only heightened by cable networks, which have converted themselves into 24-hour purveyors of alarm."

UPDATE Events Overtake Hyperbole

From the Fond du Lac Reporter:

Posted Jan. 07, 2004

Man says he’s addicted to cable; wants to sue Charter

By Lee Reinsch
the reporter [email protected]

Cable TV made a West Bend man addicted to TV, caused his wife to be overweight and his kids to be lazy, he says.

And he’s threatening to sue the cable company.

Timothy Dumouchel of West Bend wants $5,000 or three computers, and a lifetime supply of free Internet service from Charter Communications to settle what he says will be a small claims suit.

Dumouchel blames Charter for his TV addiction, his wife’s 50-pound weight gain and his children’s being “lazy channel surfers,” according to a Fond du Lac police report.

Charter employees called police to the local office at 165 Knight’s Way the evening of Dec. 23 after Dumouchel showed up with a small claims complaint, reportedly intimidated an employee and made “low-level threats” to employees’ safety, according to a police report.

The report states Dumouchel gave an employee five minutes to get a supervisor to talk to him or their next contact would be “in the ocean with the sharks.”

According to the report, Dumouchel told Charter employees he plans to sue because his cable connection remained intact four years after he tried to get it canceled.

The result was that he and his family got free cable from August of 1999 to Dec. 23, 2003.

“I believe that the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched TV every day for the last four years,” Dumouchel stated in a written complaint against the company, included in a Fond du Lac police report.

“But the reason I am suing Charter is they did not let me make a decision as to what was best for myself and my family and (they have been) keeping cable (coming) into my home for four years after I asked them to turn it off.”

According to the police report, Dumouchel called Charter to stop his cable service in August of 1999 and was taken off the billing but not the cable service.

In a written statement, he said he put the family TV in the basement in 1999 after he had called to get cable disconnected, but soon thereafter, his wife had moved it back and hooked up the cable connection, and it still worked.

He stated he “made a deal” with her that “she could watch TV as long as the cable worked.”

He then went back to Charter and asked that they disconnect his service, which they reportedly never did.

He stated that he called Charter several times to get the service disconnected for good because he felt it was addictive, according to the report.

Charter’s director of government and public relations for eastern Wisconsin, John Miller, says he doesn’t take the threat of a lawsuit seriously.

“Even though we consider our services to be a very powerful entertainment product, I don’t think it’s reached a medical level yet where it could be proved to be addictive,” Miller said.

“In our society, any kind of legal action shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” he added.

Wisconsin Circuit Court records show no civil lawsuit papers filed in Dumouchel’s name.

Another Update : February 7 2004: A reader's comment from the wonderful website Chez Miscarriage:

"Mothers can be awful damn sensitive. For example, if I mention that we don't have a t.v. and that's why I couldn't, say, catch the glimpse of Ms. Jacksons boob, I immediately get a long, defensive lecture about how 'restricted, responsible viewing" is really the best way to keep a child from becoming a t.v. addict and etc, etc, etc.' The truth about our t.v.lessness is that it's mainly because I don't trust myself to enforce 'restricted, responsible' viewing so I prefer to avoid the issue all together. But ALL mothers go into purple paroxysms of defensiveness every time this factoid of my life is revealed."


The usually submerged activities of American professors of “cultural studies” have lately emerged, as they will occasionally, into the awareness of the larger educated public. This is the public that has struggled anxiously for years to send its children to the expensive
private universities where these professors teach, and it is not really bothered about the odd stuff its children talk under their influence. It knows that just as some freshmen undergo an Animal House phase, so others will spout a bit of nonsense and then outgrow it.

Yet this public also reads about the excesses of cultural studies, as when, for instance, The New York Times records the ridicule to which the jargon and clotted prose that critical theorists use is increasingly being subjected, or when prominent cultural theorists win international Bad Writing contests, or when bizarre course descriptions culled from university catalogues are published in mass market magazines. As these Americans scan excerpts from and commentaries on the writings of neo-Marxians, queer theorists, psychoanalytical feminists, and post-colonialists, what do they think?

Many Cultural Studies writers adopt a paradoxical rhetorical stance, a mix of heedless what-the-hell head-over-heels confessionalism, and a turgid, pregnant, gnostic, if-I-could-only-tell-all elusiveness. The tone is simultaneously defensive and bellicose, frightened and provocative, self-protective and aggressive, as if the writer has undergone assertiveness training, but not enough of it. The actual
writing style -- incomprehensible, ugly, belligerent, and, to the extent intelligible, absolutely flaky -- expresses, above all, total insularity.

Within the serpentine infinity of cultural studies sentences lies a combination of self-love and ignorance of the world outside the self. To read this writing is to get a sense of what it would have been like if Blanche Dubois had attempted to write a history of Southern culture. It’s like reading bad mystical writing: something zealous, convoluted, and stupid lives here.

The people in this world are clearly desperate to communicate something of importance to us. What is it?

In my translation, the message to us is something like this:

You perceive yourself as a blameless and comfortable white, straight, moral person; you are in fact a guilty and agonized racist, repressed homosexual, vicious colonialist, and all-’round immoralist. Because of your hegemonic powers over me, and over the world, I have become the twisted and angry person you see here; but my words are a weapon that will force your recognition that you are me.

Withdrawal from this sort of writing, and the world it evokes, is understandable. What remains to be understood is the attitude toward it of readers within the academy. This attitude has undergone an unsettling intensification: from an initial enthusiastic endorsement, it moved on to a kind of Beatlemania-like exhilaration,
and then culminated in the current dazed idolatry that seems to be encouraging the oracular writing upon which outsiders are beginning to comment. One needs to reach back to Charles Manson’s female associates shaving their heads in solidarity with him during his trial to evoke the intensity of devotion this writing has inspired in
its university readers. Roger Scruton recently wrote that the relationship between rock musicians and their fans is “tribal”: “[A]ny criticism of the music is received by the fan as an assault upon himself and his identity.” It is the same thing here.

As for the besieged theorists themselves, growing ridicule of their language either provokes them to offer more impermeability, or to maintain a haughty silence which hopes to convey to the outside world what all their writing hopes to convey: You are an abomination.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

How Teaching Evaluations Work

During a recent lunch with a friend who attends graduate school in California, she described one of the many ways in which teacher evaluation forms operate in the real world of the American university:

"Professor X has been hellacious all semester. She only teaches crappy obscure eighteenth century women poets, and there's nothing to say about their work! The class has had a morgue-like atmosphere... Anyway, she hands out course evaluation forms the other day, and she announces: 'Look, class, I'm up for three-year review, so these have to be good.'"

'I ignore her pleas and write what I think. These are anonymous, you know... So I said it had been a really bad class for the following reasons, etc. Well, Professor X determined - I guess through my handwriting - that I had written it. She took it to the chair of graduate studies and became hysterical. He called me into his office and said 'Never do that again.'"

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Things are in an uproar. The university has announced that food and drink are now forbidden in all classrooms. “It has something to do with taxes,” our departmental secretary mutters as students and faculty rush her desk in search of an explanation. Shock and denial seem the primary responses. “Well, I can still bring my latte, can’t I?” “No one can tell me I can’t eat lunch during Anthro!” “I’m not sure I can lecture at ten in the morning without sustenance...” “What next? Are they gonna take away our cell phones?”

Apparently the real problem is rats. People leave so many edibles behind in so many classrooms that the cleaning staff can’t keep up, and ravenous vermin run riot. It’s routine to see a student place soup, popcorn, yogurt, sandwich, coffee, cola, cake, napkins, straws, plates, and other accessories on his small desktop while you’re lecturing, and then to see the same student leave a tableful of uneaten food behind at the end of class.

In larger lecture classes, students bring even more food to eat while watching the movie or slideshow or tv documentary which is likely to be the main focus of the class. They sit in chatty groups in the back of the hall, passing goodies out among themselves. Many students read newspapers during these sorts of classes as well, completing the transformation of the salle de conferences into a Starbucks.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Who Wants to Be A Professor?

I thought of this game show idea (a variant of the hugely popular
American show, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?) the other morning, as I
walked by a poster in the lobby of F. Hall. The poster advertised a
special seminar to be taught next semester by “Professor Lanny Davis.”
Wasn’t Lanny Davis - one of the grubbier Washington lobbyists - President Clinton’s servile pointman on the Lewinsky scandal? Yes, that’s what Davis was. But now that the Unpleasantness at the Executive Branch has receded,
here he is in his new guise, a venerable academician... Someone made Lanny a professor! And someone could make you a professor too!

Yet why, you might ask, should I want to be a professor? Well, you
might be temporarily out of a job, out of clients, or, like Davis, out of favor
public relationswise. If you’ve been somewhat shitty in a past life, morphing into a Professor is like a colonic. An aura of cleanliness and
unimpeachability, of attentiveness to things of the spirit rather than material
objects, of studious selfless virtue, continues to cling to the professoriate in America, and you can have a piece of this! In a recent radio interview, a
well-known American journalist explained that he had lately been feeling rather bad about himself because he had lost his tv gig, “But since I’ve become a professor, I feel much better.” Being a professor does make you feel better, and everyone should have a swing at it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

First, I want to thank my niece for helping me set up this blog. She's remarkable. I hope she'll post here occasionally about her current experiences in a university honors program. It's my good fortune that her major science.

“The problem with universities,” James Redfield, a professor at the University of Chicago, recently remarked, “is that universities are not operations which are constructed for making money. They are operations which are chartered to spend money. Of course, in order to acquire money to spend, they do have to acquire it. But their job is to pursue non-economic purposes. Or, to put it another way, their job is to pursue and, in fact, to develop and shape purposes within the society in some specific way. They are value-makers. They are not supposed to be pursuing the values of the society by responding to demand; they are supposed to shape demand, which is, in fact, what education is all about.”

It’s interesting that Redfield calls the essential and distinctive nature, even the glory, of the university - its value-making activity, its independent self-creation - a “problem.” But what he has in mind is that most elements of American culture today - hypercareerism, tv-addiction, attention deficit, mass entertainment, mercenary greed, narcissism - conspire against the expression of self-generated intellectual and moral value that the university has always represented. And the university has been unable to resist that conspiracy.

More and more of the people who attend, administer, and teach at American universities lack mental clarity and ethical automony, certainly; but, much more horribly, they also lack the desire for these goods. Instead of inspiring students to want things like lucidity, historical awareness, passion, and courage, university leaders, having confused their institutions with operations which are constructed for making money, consult consumer preferences. Desperate to attract and hold students, they have long since forgotten what they might once, as sites of learning, have wanted those students for. Many faculty are similarly at sea, having lost sight of any self-generated research agenda, for instance, in pursuit of government and corporate funds, and having, in their teaching, abandoned the difficult business of understanding complexity for the simple joys of sermonizing.

Only students are blameless in this matter of drifting vaguely about waiting to be told what to do - it is not their fault that no one ever told them what being educated means.

Even Redfield’s university, famed for its Great Books curriculum and intellectual seriousness, is assuming the passive-receptive character of other American campuses. True, Chicago does not yet, as some universities do, offer a Masters degree in catering, but it is on its way toward becoming another master of academic catering generally - to the confused alarums of students, to the imperatives of industry, to emotivists who hate intellectuals... to almost everybody, really. Redfied knows that Chicago may someday be a model of fully functional market-driven passive-receptivity.