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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)

Saturday, May 29, 2004


Walking in the Stars

Last words are not remarkable as a rule.
They drift away, have nothing much to say,
Murmurs hardly loud enough to catch the ear:
'Please for some water', 'I so cold in here'.
Not more nor less than this or that.
Dying is a puzzled, incoherent act.
But this one! He described his desert days,
Rose-coloured forts and old battalion pals.
'Servant of the Crown', one of the old school,
He served the King in post-war Palestine.

One still, clear night in Galilee
The stars dripped silver in a midnight sea.
He and his platoon went wading out
Far from shore so that they could shout
Loud among the stars and be heard by God.
He ends before he ends the story:
A sentence cut in half is his last word.
His exultant voice clamours to be heard:
'I, walking in the stars, in great glory...'

Ian McDonald

Thursday, May 27, 2004

TO: Alliance for A's

FROM: Janice Sidley [for background, see UD 11/30/03 and related posts]


One thing is certain, however. Concerted efforts to combat and reverse grade inflation would undoubtedly mean lower graduation rates. Yes, some students, now gliding along learning little, would rise to the challenge of increased academic rigor. But many would fail. That is the inconvenient outcome that no one on the "assessment" bandwagon wants to contemplate, given that graduation rates persist as a standard measure of an institution's success. [NAS Online]

Hi everyone. I begin this email with the above statement, which recently appeared on the National Association of Scholars website, because it says it all.

People are suddenly scandalized about graduation rates from colleges and universities in this country, all because some big-time, high-profile report just appeared (I read about it via] telling us that although huge numbers of American high school graduates go on to enroll in a junior college or a college (around 80 percent), only about six out of ten of them graduate in four - no, make that six - years. Rates of graduation have been shockingly low across America for a long time, actually, and yes, this represents broken dreams, a waste of money, and a logistical nightmare as large numbers of students stay put, even as new waves of students arrive as freshmen, looking for dorm and classroom space.

What are we to do about what Kati Haycock, Director of the Education Trust, calls "these devastating facts"?

Well, first of all, I'm not sure how devastating this really is. Turns out, for instance, that many of our students are working twenty or more hours a week while they're going to college. And while for some of them this is about paying tuition, Jacqueline King of the American Council on Education points out that rich students work at the same rate as lower-income - not for tuition, but for "a car payment, a cell phone, a nicer apartment, a spring-break trip." Those working hours are obviously slowing down graduation time, but for a lot of students this is by choice. They want certain goodies, and they don't want to wait for four years to get them. Do we really want to say to our students: "Buckle down. Take summer courses. Don't own a car. Make do with a modest apartment." I don't think so.

As to that aspect of the graduation rates of particular interest to our group, I refer you to the very beginning of this email. Low grades are a stumbling block to graduation, obviously. Set high standards and be prepared for overcrowding as flunkies take up all available space. Give your students A's and watch them grab their sheepskins and go away.
It Had to Happen.

But Who Knew It'd Happen in England First?

The BBC reports:

A student who admits down-loading material from the internet for his degree plans to sue his university for negligence.

Michael Gunn claims his university should have warned him his actions were against the regulations.

The Times Higher Education Supplement reports that he was told on the eve of his final exams that he would get no marks for his course work.

The University of Kent at Canterbury says students are warned about plagiarism.

Michael Gunn, a 21-year-old English student, told the Times Higher: "I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise. I never dreamt it was a problem. I can see there is evidence I have gone against the rules, but they have taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning and warned me of the problems and consequences, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks and no one spotted it."

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Posthumous Homage

All were alienated Jews and all died young: Eric Michaels of AIDS, Gillian Rose, cancer, and Maryse Holder, murder. They left behind the kind of writing that makes you shiver.

"Little circlets of morbidity," Michaels called his lesions. All day, as he died, "I drift in and out of sleep; there's really nothing else to do. As a result, I dream excessively, and the membrane between sleep and wakefulness is very porous, nearly translucent. Most dreams appear wholly trivial, as if I've used up the store of significata and only have random images now to assemble erratically."

"How unutterably sad," wrote Holder; "to be born only in order to decay and depart forever from places one has mastered, that have belonged to one, or even from a life one hasn't yet had a chance to deserve inheriting because of laziness and fear."

"I find it impossible not to see that apartment," wrote Rose, remembering the New York flat of a friend whose life had collapsed, "which is branded into my mind, as the emblem of the postmodern city. With its garish half-light provided day and night by a green and yellow Tiffany lamp, it was the veritable philosopher's cave. Crammed with the phantasmagoria of Western culture, everything, by the time we got to it, was in a more or less advanced state of decreation. The most mighty art books, multivolume sets of the major philosophers in the original languages, Greek, German, and French, a unique music collection comprising thousands of records, tapes, and CDs, hundreds of American paperbacks of literature and philosophy - all were scored with dirt, infested with cockroaches, stale with dust and debris."

Unknown to one another, these three seem to me compatriots, a visionary cohort compelled into their best writing by their dissolution. Professors of anthropology, philosophy, and comparative literature, Michaels, Rose, and Holder realized as they declined certain surviving truths. For instance, "However satisfying writing is," Rose wrote, " - that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control - it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving."

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Diamandopoulos is an Attorney General's Best Friend

Universities should be more careful. If Boston University had been more careful, it would not have flushed millions of dollars down the toilet to make Daniel Goldin go away (see UD, 1/10/04, "Money Blindness"). If Cornell University had been more careful, it would not have had to deal with the embarrassment of indicted felon Mark Belnick on its faculty (see UD, 3/1/04 and 3/16/04, "Teaching Today"). If Claremont College had been more careful, it would not have elevated to sainthood a professor with a not-inconsequential criminal record who turned out to have hate-crimed herself (UD, 3/18/04). If the University of Colorado had been more careful...well, you know about that one (UD, 3/25/04).

If Adelphi University had been more careful, it would not, a few years ago, have had to fire its entire board in order to get rid of a university president whose expense account routinely featured such items as a $454.65 bar tab, which included, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education (12/18/98), "$150 glasses of cognac that he shared with [John] Silber, a former Adelphi trustee, who later said that he had been unaware of the cost of the drinks."

Ooh, wait, Professor Diamandopoulos, selfsame ex-president of Adelphi -- he is currently living semi-underground as a professor of moral philosophy (you can't make this stuff up) at Boston University, a position to which he was appointed, despite unimpressive credentials in his field, by cognac consigliere John Silber -- is going to turn out to be pertinent to TODAY's post!

Eliot Spitzer, New York's attorney general, has been chatting about ex-president Diamandopoulos... Journalists have tried to contact Diamandopoulos about this, but he is too busy pondering the age-old problem of good and evil and doesn't want to be disturbed... (The BU philosophy department website provides no information on Diamandopoulos, but here's a sample comment about him from a recent student - one of fourteen comments, mostly negative, on the Rate My Professor website -- "Be prepared to teach yourself from the readings. Google his name and find out about his moral character and then see if you'll stick around to hear him babble in his designer duds."). Anyway, we'll get back to him in a minute.

If New York University had been more careful, it would not have packed its board of trustees with unsavory businessmen, one of whom, Richard Grasso, also recently got an honorary degree from the place (Grasso never graduated from college, which to me only makes his rise from modest beginnings more impressive, but he apparently felt otherwise, and fudged on the matter for quite some time, reportedly claiming a degree he didn't have).

Cheek by jowl with Mr. Grasso on NYU's board sat his generous and pliable friend Kenneth G. Langone, former chair of the New York Stock Exchange's compensation committee (appointed to the position by NYSE head Mr. Grasso, certes ... Apparently John Silber was head of the compensation committee at Adelphi during the Diamandopoulos jubilee...I think there's an essay on homosocial bonding in here), and largely responsible for Mr. Grasso's rather controversial (see page one of today's New York Times) severance package from the exchange, an organization which is, like a university, a not-for-profit.

NOT. "Mr. Grasso's total compensation," notes today's NYT, "was...close to two hundred million dollars."

Despite Mr. Grasso's gracious willingness, once the merde hit the ventilateur, to give back forty eight million, he was forced to resign in disgrace.

Anyway, let's see, he's still got around one hundred and fifty million... He figures he'll take his toys and go home... But now Attorney General Spitzer is suing to make him give back one hundred million ['"You can't pay the head of (a) not-for-profit that much money," Spitzer said.'] and ... Jesus Mary and Joseph! That only leaves fifty million! What the fuck!

So now everybody's screaming and suing and Mr. Grasso is in a very principled way refusing to give up one cent (here he is in today's Wall Street Journal: "For me, this dispute has never been about money.") and his friend Mr. Langone (also named in the action and already up to his neck multitasking other unrelated lawsuits) has eloquently defended him ("I believe that Dick's pay is fair and reasonable.")...

Jack O'Dwyer, a "veteran public relations watcher," quoted by USA Today [9/17/03], sums it all up: "No PR can possibly help Grasso. There is no answer to pure greed."

Still, Mr. Grasso is certainly in a position to hire good lawyers, so Spitzer is working extra-hard on his case -- and that is where Papa Doc Diamandopoulos comes in:

NEW YORK, May 24 (Reuters) - New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's legal playbook for recovering some of the $140 million paid to former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso is likely to draw on state law applied to Adelphi University seven years ago.

While the relative serenity of Adelphi's academia differs greatly from the Big Board's frenetic, bare-knuckled commerce, they share an important characteristic that will guide Spitzer in the pursuit of Grasso's bonanza: Both are not-for-profit corporations under New York state law.

"As a not-for-profit, (the NYSE) lives and exists within a different framework," Spitzer said at a news conference on Monday announcing a civil lawsuit against Grasso. Compensation must be commensurate with services rendered, he added.


In the Adelphi case, the New York State Board of Regents removed all but one of the trustees overseeing the private university, based in Garden City, New York.

With the trustees removed, the president -- who technically could not be removed by the regents -- later left the school.

The Board of Regents said the trustees permitted then-university President Peter Diamandopoulos to pocket a "compensation package unparalleled among presidents of comparable universities in the face of plummeting student enrollment, rising tuition and fees, shrinking student services and course offerings."

In their argument, the Regents cited New York state's Not-for-Profit Corporation Law. Such entities, as stated in the document, have the power to hire executives and "fix their reasonable compensation ... Such compensation shall be commensurate with services performed."

Diamandopoulos, now a faculty member in the Boston University philosophy department, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. He is scheduled to teach History of Ancient Philosophy in the fall 2004 semester.

He went to work for Boston University under John Silber, former BU president who also was one of the Adelphi trustees removed from office by the Regents in 1997.

Hired by Adelphi in July 1985, Diamandopoulos was provided with a starting base salary of $95,000 per year and a retirement fund match of 13 percent of his salary. The university also provided him with a house, car, $17,000 for domestic expenses and other benefits.

At the end, the Regents said, he was earning about $330,000 in base salary for the 1995-1995 academic year. Adding in all the other benefits, the Regents' report stated his overall compensation was nearly $840,000.

The Board of Regents oversees all educational institutions in New York, public and private.

What particularly interests Spitzer is that, as the Boston Globe[12/5/98] reported, when "state Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco sued to recover what he alleged were 'millions of dollars misspent by former Adelphi University trustees to support a lavish life style for the college's ex-president,'" he managed to get quite a lot of money back. "As part of a settlement reached last month, Mr. Diamandopoulos did not admit any wrongdoing but agreed to surrender his tenured post at Adelphi, to repay the university $649,583 for excessive compensation, and to relinquish more than $765,000 in deferred compensation and sabbatical pay." Altogether, "Diamandopoulos and 18 former Adelphi trustees, including Silber, agreed to repay the university $4.3 million for some of Diamandopoulos's compensation and legal fees, after the New York State Board of Regents faulted the trustees for overpaying him."

During the heady days of post-Diamandopoulos Adelphi, the Chronicle reported at the time, "the university's recent advertising slogan,'Good Is the Enemy of Great,' which had been plastered all over the campus, [was] revised by faculty critics to read, 'Greed Is the Enemy of Good.'"

See, universities are not-for-profit institutions... Just like the New York Stock Exchange... People are supposed to behave differently around them... It's what I've been trying to tell you...

postscript: Cognac and dinner with Silber or with Kramer [another Adelphi board member]? Maybe both; maybe different dinners. Anyway, UD discovers the following comment on, circa 1996:

Who could fail to take special note of the report in the New York Times of the $707 dinner Adelphi President Peter Diamandopoulos and art critic and Adelphi trustee Hilton Kramer shared at the fancy Links club in Manhattan--charged to big D's university expense account--not long after the scandal broke involving Diamandopoulos's $523,000 salary, the second highest among college presidents in the nation? According to the report, $552 of the tab went for a 1983 Chaval wine and Martel cognac. Now that's what we call "trusteeship"!

I highly respect Kramer's writings on the state of American universities (in an earlier incarnation, UD's banner included a quotation from him); what a pity he's also capable of contemptuous behavior toward them.

Monday, May 24, 2004

24 May 04

[[[Pls. note: "Gated" correspondence]]]

TO: Undergraduate Oligarchs Consortium [For background, see Gated Correspondence post, UD, 23 April 04]

FROM: Josh, for the Steering Committee


Number of unsettling developments to report, I'm afraid. Our main message in today's communication to members is -- stop a bit. Hold on. Watch what you do and watch what you say. Keep your head down.

I. Politically, the most pressing issue we've been discussing as a group is the increased attention being directed toward so-called economic diversity issues on American campuses. Along with everything mentioned in our last correspondence, we have to add a PBS report ("Elite Universities Eye Economic Affirmative Action. Top Universities Look to Boost Enrollment of Low-Income Students.") which begins in this way:

"May 22, 2004 -- Research suggests less than 5 percent of students at America's top colleges and universities come from low-income families. Many of these elite institutions are considering class-based affirmative action programs -- such as full scholarships for underprivileged students -- aimed at boosting economic diversity on campus.

But some education researchers suggest there aren't enough college-ready low-income students graduating from public schools to raise these numbers appreciably."

The piece goes on to offer some statistics:

* Nearly three quarters of students at the nation's top 140 schools come from the wealthiest families; 3 percent come from the bottom economic quartile. (Source: Richard Kahlenberg, Century Foundation)

* A study of 19 selective universities found privileged students are six times more likely to end up in the pool of applicants than underprivileged students. (Source: William Bowen, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation)

* Research suggests that if admissions departments gave low-income applicants the same credit based on their economic status as they do to the children of alumni, the percentage of disadvantaged students at elite schools would rise from 11 percent to 17 percent. (Source: William Bowen, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation)

II: Then there's the situation at Columbia University:

"Tuition at Columbia's School of the Arts will reach $39,144 a year in the next three years, significantly higher than the tuition at competitors like Yale and Stanford. And while the number of applicants for graduate arts degrees has hit a record high, some Columbia officials say the school is losing top candidates to less-expensive programs. ..."I don't want to see a rich-kid program," [said an administrator]. "You find as you go deeper and deeper into the waiting list, you are starting to take students who can pay." ... Peter Smith, who was the dean of the School of the Arts from 1987 to 1995 and is now retired, said that if something does not change soon, the consequences could be dire. "The school will be in danger of becoming a place where only the wealthy and the foolhardy will decide to go." [New York Times, 24/5]

III. Finally, and most disturbingly, there is this:

"Authorities say Princeton University students are increasingly being caught shoplifting from the school store, with 10 Ivy League students arrested since March.

Twelve students have been arrested since the installation of new security cameras in the Princeton University Store several months ago, according to a published report.

Municipal Prosecutor Marc Citron told The Times of Trenton that the shoplifting is the university's "little secret."

"Everybody wants to hide it. Nobody wants to think that a Princeton University student, a future secretary of state ... would dare to commit a shoplifting," he told the newspaper in Sunday's editions.

University spokespeople did not comment on the arrests.

Students have been charged with misdemeanors for stealing items such as razor blades, clothing, sushi and cosmetics from the shop, which is partly a bookstore and a 24-hour convenience store. It is independent of the university.

Citron said the arrests have made him add to his explanations of why people shoplift. He said he used to have two reasons: people stealing to buy drugs and people with psychological problems.

"And No. 3 is the Princeton University student and I am not quite sure what category they fall into," he said. "What troubles me is that some of the students feel that they are so privileged, that they have the privilege (to steal)."

He said students during their court appearances have been unapologetic." [Newsday [23/5]

One of the students actually talked to the press:

"The (N.J.) Times sent an e-mail to 10 of the students charged with shoplifting requesting any comment. Three responded and only Brian Cochran agreed to comment.

The 20-year-old from Ohio was arrested April 2 for allegedly stealing magazines worth $15.44.

Cochran said he was not shoplifting, but putting items he intended to buy in a crate and mistakenly left the store with the crate. He said the magazines were clip art for the campus magazine BAMN! he publishes and that the university reimburses him for costs.
"I had no incentive to steal these magazines," Cochran said. He plans to fight the charges. But what really upset Cochran, he said, was that during his arrest the police found a fake Ohio driver's license in his wallet.

He was charged with possession of a fictitious driver's license, a felony. "I was on probation already and this on top of that, my housing (is in jeopardy) and they're talking about suspending me." [ 23/5]

We are least concerned with II, except as it reflects an increased willingness to indulge in something rather close to hate speech when it comes to us ("don't want to see a rich-kid program," ... "only the wealthy and the foolhardy."). But the PBS report should remind all of us that our values, and the values that have shaped historically-affluent institutions, are under siege as special scholarships are devised to lure middle and lower middle class people to campus. And the news out of Princeton is disgraceful. We're aware that many of us were raised never to carry money; we're aware that the transition from the family and from the familial prep school setting to the larger commercial world of the university can be bumpy. But please - do carry money with you at all times. You will be needing it. The Princeton students have apparently been fingerprinted and had mug shots taken.

Members will recall, we hope, that when Jamie Johnson tried to find subjects to interview for his documentary film, Born Rich, "there was just one problem," as New York Magazine put it. "No one would talk to him." Yes, eventually he did find a handful of people willing to go on camera; but for the most part we kept mum. We are, as Paul Fussell, in his very intelligent book Class calls us, the "upper-out-of-sight." We keep quiet. We don't appear. But we do have to come out of the shadows long enough to recognize threats and defend ourselves.

How can the website Tightly Wound [] describe "the tenureds" as smugly complacent bastards [See recent UD post, The Smug Tenureds (14/5)], and the University of Kansas have attained this result when it polled them? [From 21/5]:

The results [of the poll] -- which, among other things, show strong dissatisfaction with salary rates -- likely will be used as evidence to lobby the Legislature for pay raises.

"We've moved beyond anecdotal evidence," said Lloyd Sponholtz, chairman of KU's University Council.

The survey was the product of the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents, which is made of faculty leaders from the six state universities. It was completed online by 1,422 faculty members across the state, or about 35 percent.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said they "moderately disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" that their salaries were reasonable. At KU, the number was 66 percent.
But Sponholtz also noted that only 29 percent of faculty statewide -- and 31 percent at KU -- said they agreed with the statement, "Overall, I am satisfied with my job."

...[A] third of respondents statewide were "actively seeking" another job. ...[O]nly 16 percent of statewide faculty -- and 14 percent at KU -- strongly or moderately agreed that faculty morale is high.

Janice DeBauge, chairwoman of the Kansas Board of Regents, said she thought the survey would help show legislators the connection between low salaries and low morale.
"This survey gives us very good information to support us on that," she said.
Kim Wilcox, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at KU, said he didn't think there were any particularly alarming results in the survey.

"Our numbers look like everybody else's," he said. "This isn't just a problem at KU. I would suggest it's a statewide issue or a national issue in higher education."

Which are we? Self-satisfied sons of bitches or demoralized mendicants? Insupportable emissaries from the world of winner-take-all, or les miserables?

Your blogeuse is not sure how to go about attempting to answer this. She and her husband, both tenured professors, are happy in their work, but they are only two. I suppose if you polled our respective universities, you'd get levels of discontent similar to those of Kansas.

So maybe UD, an outlier in the business of faculty happiness, is not the one to solve this puzzle. But for what it's worth, her own observations of American university professors in all sorts of institutions confirm the Kansas study's finding of discontent.

An interviewer [Minnesota Review, 2001] once said to Stanley Fish, "In my academic job, the material conditions are the best I've experienced [in any job], but the ethos isn't..." Here and there on UD I've already suggested some elements of an answer to this mystery of good working conditions and deep professorial discontent. I've noted, for instance, the professoriate's widely shared equation of intelligence and anguish - only stupid (often religious) people who don't understand anything are happy. I've also talked about the toxic effects upon many of these people of years of psychotherapy and general hyper-self-consciousness.

But a more important source of discontent is a loss of faith in one's life work. "The sad news," Andrew Delbanco wrote about English professors a few years back in The New York Review of Books (available at the website) "is that teachers of literature have lost faith in their subject and in themselves. ... English today exhibits the contradictory attributes of a religion in its late phase — a certain desperation to attract converts, combined with an evident lack of convinced belief in its own scriptures and traditions."

I know a woman, now in her nineties, who devoted an illustrious university career to the gardens of ancient Pompeii. Long retired from decades as a demanding, inspiring teacher, she is still publishing books on her subject. She only recently stopped spending her summers in Italy. She lives in the same pleasant small house with a large garden of her own design and labor that she's lived in most of her adult life. She was never unhappy with her salary because she lived moderately, and she was never unhappy with life because she loved her field of study and had the freedom and resources to pursue it with the whole-hearted intelligence that continues to generate the admiration of colleagues and students. She never lost faith in her subject because the value of understanding details of human history was never in doubt for her, just as the value of understanding humanity as it obliquely reveals itself in great literature should never be in doubt for English professors.

Many professors have lost the focus upon what matters that this woman embodies.

In short - and I know it's not much - but I'd begin answering the problem of demoralized faculty by saying that if you piss your soul away on prestige items, and at the same time become hostage to hollow ideas, you'll certainly see your mood-o-meter plummet.

Friday, May 21, 2004


University of Utah

Academic year 2004 - 2005

NOTE: With the university's thirty-year ban on concealed firearms on campus recently overturned by the state [for background, see Christian Science Monitor May 10 04], new classroom protocols are in place. Please answer the following questions. Feel free to expand on your comments.

1.} If you carried a concealed gun during this class period, did you feel safer?

2.} What aspect of this course's subject matter compelled you to arm yourself for it?

3.} Describe any gunplay that occurred in this class.

4.} How well, in your opinion, did the professor handle the onset of any hostilities?

5.} Are there elements of the professor's teaching approach that may have encouraged the outbreak of armed conflict?

6.} Was it your impression that the professor carried a concealed weapon?

7.} If so, did your instructor ever have occasion to threaten the class with its use, or was the professor able to avoid having recourse to his/her gun?

8.} Did this professor's teaching style attract and hold your interest, or did you find yourself, out of boredom, polishing or playing with your gun?

9.} How powerful a weapon did you bring to this class? Do you vary your firepower depending upon course content (for example, more power for a more polemically oriented course)?

10. In keeping with certain related developments in the state (see, for instance, the town of Virgin's mandatory gun ownership law), some members of the university community are calling for mandatory gun ownership for students, faculty, and administrators. Do you think this would be a good idea? Why or why not?

11.} Based on any personal experience, please rate the timeliness and efficiency of the following campus personnel when summoned to your class:

a.] hostage negotiators;
b.] emergency medical technicians;
c.] suicide intervention experts;
d.] SWAT team.

UD has been pleased to note a number of orwellianisms in the news lately, as in statements like WAR IS PEACE. For instance, after recent revelations of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's almost-total plagiarism of a paper for a class he took toward a degree in communications scandalized Canada, he had a bunch of his supporters put out statements about how the incident actually pointed up his "enthusiasm for lifelong learning."

A better example involves statements that supporters of incoming University of Massachusetts president Jack Wilson have been issuing lately in defense of his enormous starting (really starting - this is his first year as a university president; he's been a professor of physics) salary: $500,000, as reported in the Boston Herald on May 21:

In addition to a base salary of $350,000, Wilson's pay is boosted by: a $40,000 housing allowance, a $12,000 car allowance, up to $18,000 for life insurance and 12 percent of his salary paid into a retirement annuity. Trustees could also give him an annual bonus of up to 10 percent of his base salary as well as unlimited raises.

In response to the outrage of university workers ('"What were they thinking?" cried SEIU labor leader Susana Segat, whose blue-collar workers at UMass-Boston have been without a raise in three years. "President Wilson is now getting private-sector CEO pay to run a public school in a state where public higher education funding has been slashed by more than 29 percent in last few years," said Segat, whose members' average pay is $30,000.') and trustees ('Trustee Larry Boyle, who did not know the contract had been signed until contacted by the Herald, called the package `"excessive." "The contract's too long, the money's too high," he said. `"I think highly of Jack Wilson, but let's see how he does on the job."'), a spokesman for the university said: "In fact, President Wilson's acceptance of this offer is a tangible indication of his dedication to the university." When asked why one should interpret his salary in this way, the spokesman noted that "Wilson won't use his entire car allowance."

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


There's a certain sort of sophisticate who takes an obvious evil - fascism, for instance - and says, hey, calm down, we're all kind of built along those lines, and anyway, what exactly is "fascism"? This is the sort of person who finds phrases like the transvaluation of all values rather too stimulating. Also the famous final speech in Wallace Shawn's play, Aunt Dan and Lemon, during which Lemon says

...there's something inside us that likes to kill. ... it's enjoyable to learn about killing that is done by other people, and it's enjoyable to think about killing, and it's enjoyable to read about killing, and it's even enjoyable actually to kill. ... We have to admit that we don't really care. And I think that that last admission is what really makes people go mad about the Nazis, because in our society we have this kind of cult built up around what people call the feeling of "compassion." I remember my mother screaming all the time, "Compassion! Compassion! You have to have compassion for other people! You have to have compassion for other human beings!" And I must admit, there's something I find refreshing about the Nazis, which is partly why I enjoy reading about them every night, because they sort of had the nerve to say, "Well, what is this compassion? Because I don't know really what it is." And so they must have sort of asked each other, you know, "Well, say, Heinrich, have you ever felt it?" "Well no, Adolf, what about you?" And they all had to admit that they really didn't know what the hell it was. And I find it sort of relaxing to read about those people, because I have to admit that I don't know either.

There's a less flashy version of this attitude in regard to university issues. People will ask -- Why are you getting so excited about diploma mills, faked credentials, corrupt administrators and faculty, grade inflation, boutique universities, plagiarism, the abandonment of a core curriculum? Get a grip. Things were ever thus. Everyone plagiarizes (From the Calgary Herald, May 14, 04: "Alberta's premier calls it much ado about nothing. Ralph Klein says it's no big deal about large portions of his recent university essay being lifted directly from the Internet without proper sourcing."), and everyone fakes credentials (From May 19, 2004: "While Lynn Ianni, resident therapist for Fox's "The Swan," does have a bachelor's degree in psychology from New York State University and a master's degree from Notre Dame, the Ph.D. from California Coast University that allows her to put the title Dr. in front of her name isn't 100 percent kosher. The document sleuths over at have discovered that the California Coast University isn't your standard accredited university. Indeed, it "does not require formal on-campus or classroom attendance," but instead charges a flat fee for whatever degree one seeks. For example, Ianni's Ph.D., obtained in 1998, would have cost her a very reasonable $4,000."). Who cares?

Corollary to this intellectual style is a mockery of the earnest morality of people who still get upset about certain things, who still think that people should try to behave honorably and that institutions should try to have standards. The mockery often plays out in Old/New World terms, as in the Frenchman noting with weary amusement the tendency of Americans to be outraged by things like adultery, corporate malfeasance, and nepotism.

Culturally, the American professoriate is in this regard "French" - it's largely composed of anti-bourgeois secular liberals who pride themselves on their knowing worldly ways and whose sworn enemies are bourgeois religious or self-consciously ethical conservatives. The specific intellectual elements which mingle to elicit professorial mockery of this morally earnest group include cultural relativism, a sense of the complex irresolvable ambiguity of everything, and a general tilt toward being titillated by new and shocking ideas (as in, for instance, foucauldian arguments about sadomasochism). This is the uncritically receptive audience for "scandalous" artistic breakthroughs, the group that lectures distressed rubes on the socially subversive free play of art, etc. etc. Some in this sector are at the moment quietly dismayed by the alacrity with which thousands of gay couples are lining up to get married.

So when, for instance, a report is issued, as a report was issued today, from a serious organization, announcing the virtual destruction in the American university of anything resembling an authentic liberal education, one can be sure that this portion of the professoriate will greet it with disdain and indifference.

Which shouldn't stop the rest of us.

Here's a summary of the report, from the ACTA website:

The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum
A Fifty College Study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni

Despite widespread lip service to the importance of a general education, a new survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni finds that a solid core curriculum in higher education has gone the way of the dodo. At a time when most colleges endorse the importance of a general education—a set of courses required of all students—in fact, colleges have virtually abandoned a solid core curriculum in favor of a loose set of distribution requirements. As a consequence, college students are graduating without the basic knowledge that was once considered the hallmark of a liberal education.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004


FROM: Janice Sidley [for background, see UD, 30 November 03]]


The promising new field of Spa Studies has just produced its first high-profile, "very credible" (in the words of its author, Mary Tabacchi) study, of relative degrees of satisfaction in spa versus non-spa vacations ("Cornell Study Reports Destination Spa Vacations Result in Increased Business Acumen, Energy," in PRNewswire, Cornell University, May 17).

To a significant degree, people prefer spa to non-spa resorts because they return to work from them refreshed, focused, and, in the words of the study, "able to function at an inspirational level in business and in their relationships." The "immersion spa vacation," the study goes on, enables one to "sort out the truly essential aspects of life," "achieve healthier, more joyous living," and be "in the zone." Tabacchi, who is also a member of the board of directors of the International Spa Association, and whose courses at Cornell include Hotel Administration 432: Contemporary Healthy Foods, concludes that "creativity" and "harmony" are measurably enhanced in spa vacations versus non-spa vacations.

Okay, well, what does this have to do with the Alliance for A's?

Our group, I remind you, is engaged in more than the maintenance of grade inflation in America's colleges and universities. We are, more broadly, dedicated to easing the on-campus lives of American college and university students in any way that we can.

Now, yes, I know that some campuses have already added certain elements (massage, hot tub, hot rocks) of the spa experience to their Wellness Centers; but this study is telling us that our students will never perform at the top of their capacity until an immersion experience is available to them. How to pay for it?

Go back up there and read what Tabacchi said about the immersion experience. It enables one to "sort out the truly essential aspects of life." What university department has historically specialized in this? Right, philosophy. And what field is one of the least popular, most struggling, among the humanities? Right again. Of course people want to sort out what's essential! But who wants to do it in an underlit classroom with a hardback anthology on your lap in which you squintingly try to make sense of Heidegger? And, even more important, who wants to conclude that life is a tragic, failed effort to return to some ground of meaning, some lost plenitude of being, when you can attain "joyous living" through spa immersion?

In short, I'm proposing the replacement of philosophy departments in the American university with immersion spas. Not only will this free funds (which will be supplemented, of course, with university/corporate arrangements) for new I.S. departments; it will acknowledge what we all know: that the depressive aura of philosophical thought in our time has undermined the happiness of our students, and that it's urgent that we begin doing something about it.

As always, I welcome your feedback!


Monday, May 17, 2004


Another in a University Diaries Occasional Series

[For earlier Teaching Today entries, see UD, 2/3/04, 3/1/04, 3/16/04, 3/18/04, 3/25/04] ]

Like the professor of popular culture in Don DeLillo’s White Noise who offers courses devoted to the evolving technology of car crashes in American film, University of South Florida English professor Phillip Sipiora offers a summer course devoted to Rogue Filmmakers.

The word “rogue” in the course title is a come-on (the directors listed are almost all mainstream), as is the titillating “Forewarning“ (pretentious people use this redundant word -- “warning“ is all you need) Professor Sipiora includes on his syllabus:

FOREWARNING: Some of the films we will view contain graphic language, violence, and sexual behavior. If explicit works offend you, please investigate the film list to see whether this course suits you or not. A serious interest in film and an open mind are absolute prerequisites for this course.

Note how this ominous forewarning equates any form of squeamishness about filmed images with having a closed mind and a lack of seriousness. Getting college credit for spending the summer watching violent sexual films is a mark of seriousness; harboring moral qualms about the activity is a mark of triviality and close-mindedness.

Speaking of morality, Professor Sipiora also has an academic interest in the field of ethics. A typical recent paper of his is titled “ A Profession in Crisis: The Absence of Ethics in the English Classroom.”

Yet Sipiora’s own rogue ethics have landed him in all the Florida papers - quite an accomplishment for an English professor. From the April 23 St. Petersburg Times online:

Inside his home, Phillip Sipiora has a 65-inch high-definition television, two 36-inch televisions, 15 speakers, six remote controls and a variety of other audio-visual equipment worth $22,834.

He also has two computers and a laptop valued at $11,614.

Sipiora, an English professor, says the equipment helps him teach film classes at the University of South Florida.

But USF auditors say Sipiora bought the equipment with university funds [UD note: That would be state funds - USF is a state university] and placed it in his home for personal use.

The discrepancy cost Sipiora his post as chairman of the English department this week. He resigned on Tuesday but remains a professor at USF.

[UD note: FOREWARNING: Violent metaphor coming up.] "I feel like I've been hit over the head with a baseball bat," said the 58-year-old Sipiora, hired at USF in 1985 and named department chairman last year. "I haven't had a chance to tell my side."

University investigators also say Sipiora's wife, Cary, was paid at least $4,900 to cater department events, a conflict of interest, and that he selected a textbook from a publisher with whom he was negotiating a book contract in 1999.

Information about the monthslong investigation was disclosed Thursday when the university announced it was looking into allegations of problems within the English department.

"The university is taking aggressive steps to address problems in the department," said spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon, who would not elaborate.

According to the university, Sipiora's misdeeds date to 1999, when he was the director of freshman composition. He was responsible for selecting the textbook purchased by roughly 3,000 students each semester for composition classes, university officials said. Sipiora picked a book just before signing a contract to write a textbook for the same publishing company, according to the university. Shortly after, he signed another contract with the same publisher for a second textbook, the university said.
He received roughly $35,000 in advances and other fees for the books, the university said.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Sipiora said he was not in charge of selecting the textbook. He was on a committee of faculty members who recommended a well-known grammar book, Simon & Schuster's Handbook for Writers, to the department chairwoman, Sipiora said.

He said he did not pick a book to help himself.

"I didn't have the authority to decide on a book," he said.

Investigators could not find documents to support his claim. It was a clear conflict of interest, they said, prohibited by university policy.

But Sara Deats, another USF English professor who was department chairwoman at the time, said she selected the textbook and Sipiora was not in charge of the process. "I signed the contract," she said.

University auditors also investigated tens of thousands of dollars' worth of film equipment in Sipiora's home. He paid for the equipment with money he earned teaching extra courses. But the university says any such earnings must be used for department needs. Sipiora could have bought a desk for his office, new computers or film equipment, but he needed to use it in the department for work purposes, said spokeswoman Carlyon. He had the equipment for personal use, the university said.

Sipiora said he was, in fact, using the equipment to prepare for film classes.
"There isn't a piece of equipment in my home not directly related to my work," he said. "There are no stair climbers or massage machines. . . . If I wanted to spend the money on myself, I would have taken a vacation."

And about his wife's catering for department functions, Sipiora said other faculty members liked her food and arranged for her services. Professor Deats said she, not Sipiora, hired his wife. "She is the best caterer in the city of Tampa, and I would never have a party anywhere unless she catered it," Deats said. "He had nothing to do with it." Deats said she did not know that it was viewed as a conflict of interest to hire the spouse of a faculty member. "We had never been told that," she said.

The university is also investigating complaints that Sipiora discriminated against female faculty members. USF has asked its Diversity and Equal Opportunity office to review the situation within the English department.

Pondering this truly extensive, family-wide corruption, I find myself with a very clear picture of Mr. And Mrs. Sipiora cuddling on their couch of an evening and grinning at the thought of all the goodies they’ve gotten out of the good people of Florida…until… [FOREWARNING: graphic content] a university auditor sneaks up on them from behind with a baseball bat and…

Sunday, May 16, 2004


UD's monastic approach to the university has meant that phenomena like financial aid offices, academic vice presidents, and freshman orientation weekends barely exist for her. Indeed the entire administrative machinery of the university is pretty much of a non-starter for your oblivious blogeuse, who concentrates upon teaching and writing to the exclusion of most other things on campus.

Vast public university events, therefore, like graduation ceremonies, make her head spin. Knowing this, she avoids them. But this year, as careful readers know, UD was honored with a prize from her university, and the prize was given to her as part of the undergraduate college graduation ceremonies.

So there she sat on stage, in the front row of gathered faculty, in her university's basketball arena. The bleachers were jammed with large proud families; the lights beat down on her face; her long black academic robe was hot. Here, concentrated in the arena, was precisely the public face of her university, a face from which she had averted her own for years. The genial deans, practiced in external relations; the department chairs grinning and hugging as they handed each of their graduating majors their diplomas; the faculty marshalls marshalling rows of graduates to the podium for their flashbulb moment. The university flag, held proudly aloft as we marched behind it; the soggy speeches from the students chosen to address their class ("Today, as a Women's Studies graduate, I have become a professional feminist."); the whoops and hollers and grunts of friends and relations as particular graduates stepped up to the plate.

The students had chosen a visiting professor, a famous glad-handing newsman, a Washington macher without a shred of intellectuality, to give the graduation address. The speech was the sort of exercise in cynical sentimentality for which television journalists are known: bathetic stories about one's "personal heroes," people whose heroism consists mainly in their having recognized one's own specialness; ominous allusions to Our Dangerous World in a context of total security and affluence; pious references to one's perfect family.

But after that the dean gave a good talk, an intelligent reminder of the actual particular moral and political dangers with which we live now.

When I stood to accept my award I was shocked to receive my own share of whoops and hollers from the English majors in the audience.

Although I'd approached the event with dread, it was, for the most part, rather beautiful.

Saturday, May 15, 2004


UD is off to attend two ceremonies at her university today in order to receive this year's award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising, about which she is both proud and puzzled. Who the hell thought she advised him/her well enough to tap out an enthusiastic letter to the awards committee?

Beyond puzzled and proud, UD is a tad nervous, because she does not do ceremonial occasions well. She has suffered from post-traumatic disorder ever since barely making it through her own wedding seventeen years ago. She fears that in his little intro about her before giving her the award, the dean will quote from The Letter or say something embarrassing and she will begin to giggle or weep or pee.

She is considering running over to Borders a few hours before the ceremony and reading John McCain's new book, Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life to butch up a bit before the big moment.

Friday, May 14, 2004


The weblog Tightly Wound takes off in a recent post after what it calls The Tenured, a group of "pompous, insulated...overbearing and socially pricks." TW acknowledges that not all people with tenure are like this, but there are enough of them to constitute a group, a species, a genotype, a flora, a fauna. Like Bridget Jones's "smug marrieds," these are the smug tenureds.

There's something to what TW says. A person with a lifetime sinecure may well feel smug, and this smugness - the institutional and social and indeed intellectual consequences of it - is one of the many reasons why thoughtful people like Richard Chait at Harvard have questioned whether tenure should survive in its present form. As to tenure's great historical self-defense -- tenure protects unpopular ideas -- it's also been pointed out that in the context of the United States it's hard to think of ideas -- even conservative ones, even in the academy -- that need the sort of protection that unfireability affords.

And yet there are occasionally instances - here and abroad - in which tenure clearly does protect a person with socially offensive views.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, a serious debate began to get underway in the United States about the use of some forms of torture in wartime to extract possibly life-saving information from enemy prisoners. In the November 5, 2001 issue of Newsweek, Jonathan Alter wrote:

We can't legalize physical torture; it's contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.

The next day, in the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg wrote:

Journalists are approaching the subject cautiously. But some said last week that they were duty-bound to address it when suspects and detainees who have refused to talk could have information that could save thousands of lives. Plus, they added, torture is already a topic of discussion in bars, on commuter trains and at dinner tables. And last, they said, well, this is war.

The historian Jay Winik, in an opinion article on Oct. 23 in the Wall Street Journal, detailed the reported torture in 1995 of the convicted terrorist plotter Abdul Hakim Murad by the Philippine authorities that led to the foiling of a plot to crash nearly a dozen U.S. commercial aircraft into the Pacific and another into CIA headquarters in Virginia. Mr. Winik went on to write: "One wonders, of course, what would have happened if Murad had been in American custody?" He did not, however, endorse the use of torture but suggested that the United States might have to significantly curtail civil liberties, as it had done in past wars.

Mr. Alter [see above] said he was surprised that his [Newsweek] column did not provoke a big flood of e-mail messages or letters. And perhaps even more surprising, he said, was that he had been approached by 'people who might be described as being on the left whispering, 'I agree with you.''"

Michael Wolffsohn is a German professor, a military historian. Wolffsohn recently commented that "In the anti-terror fight there are really no effective laws of war. I believe that torture, or the threat of torture, is legitimate as one of the instruments against terror, because terror basically...has nothing to do with our civilized order.... If we attempt to counter terror with gentlemanly methods, we will fail."

Although Wolffsohn later said that he did in fact condemn torture (one supposes he means that he condemns most methods, with possibly an exception for the psychological interrogation, for instance, that Alter talks about; but this is not clear), Wolffsohn has been severely condemned in Germany, and is fast becoming a national whipping boy.

Deutsche welle (DW-world-de.) quotes Angelika Beer, the head of the Green party, saying that "Wolffsohn had lost the right to continue in his teaching job and that he should voluntarily step down. Beer said the right to freedom of expression stopped 'at the point when it departs from the fundamental principles of our democracy and constitution.'" The Defense Minister is "considering taking legal and disciplinary steps against the professor."

Germany of course represents in these matters a special historical case; nonetheless, notice that a professor is being threatened with dismissal and worse because he has entered a debate in a way that people find deeply offensive. Here in the States, tenure protects people like Wolffsohn. I hope it protects him in Germany.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004


UD learned about the brevity of news cycles the hard way. After the Bali bombing, your bloggeure sent a reminiscence about Bali to the Washington Post. An editor there said he'd have published the piece if I'd sent it a couple of days earlier, but that at this point it was "too late in the Bali news cycle."

So okay, here I go on the big ol' diploma mills story, which is JUST BREAKING NOW, just hitting the media even as we blog. Congressional hearings have begun; shocking and embarrassing revelations about hundreds of federal employees, many of whom have complex high security jobs, having 'graduated' from bogus universities have revealed themselves; yet more scandalous revelations that many of these same people got federal funds to pay for the 'courses' they sweated over at these whatevers have similarly revealed themselves.

There are, as always, the funny stories, upon which the press will understandably focus: the Kensington University embossed paper recipient who until recently was on the National Commission on Presidential Scholars; the high-level Department of Education advisor who graduated from the same paper dispenser; the spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security who has three bogus degrees.

Yeah, and that last one's interesting. I went to the website of her triple alma mater - Hamilton University, Evanston, Wyoming - and found out that the place has a philosophy, a gestalt, a weltanschauung... Hamilton, first of all, is (its website explains) "exempt from state licensing due to its theocentric nature and affiliation." Which means? Which means that Hamilton believes, er, founds itself upon, um... well, let me quote:

The University...seeks to provide a Nature based forum for education of the mind, body and spirit according to its nondenominational theocentric doctrine. ... We accept all education as equal in Nature. We offer recognition and special designations to those who have achieved higher levels of understanding regardless if obtained naturally or formally. The university is a Nature based institution of higher learning which grants university level degrees that are based in whole or in part of [sic] education obtained through Nature.

I'm not sure but I think this means my dog can get a degree from Hamilton.

Anyway, UD has blogged before (3/29/04) about some of the trouble you can get into (remember Larry Cockrum, director of the Keeter Center for Character Education at the College of the Ozarks?) if you rise just a bit too high with one of these sham sheepskin type things...

But I'm here to tell you that Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), who's leading the charge against diploma mills, is bound to fail.

It's really lucrative. John Bear, a former FBI consultant, says the industry is worth $300 million a year. Shut one down and the same people will open another one under another name. So long as job advancement demands higher degrees, higher degrees will be sought. And there's another problem, coming out of legitimate American universities.

Online education sponsored by established American campuses has made it a great deal harder than it already was to weed out the diploma mills. When everyone's online, who's the bad guy? "With more legitimate colleges offering online degrees, the environment is ripe for diploma mills to flourish," writes USA Today , "because it's harder to determine whether a degree earned long distance is really legitimate. ... The use of such diploma mills is expected to spread as more legitimate universities and colleges turn to distance learning..." (28 September 02).

You tell me how to distinguish between

a.) a student at a non-selective accredited American university emailing a poem to a grad instructor who, without reading it, emails an A to the registrar; and

b.) a student emailing one thousand dollars to a financial officer and getting a degree.

The diploma mill is fully within its rights to point out that either both a.) and b.) should be investigated, or both should be left alone to pursue their scams.

The definitive book about distance learning, by David F. Noble, is titled Digital Diploma Mills (Monthly Review Press, 2002). A cosmic convergence is in progress.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


It’s a tired subject, I know, but remember Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? It was le desordre du jour a few years ago, claiming the purposiveness and joie de vivre of hundreds of thousands of yuppies from the redwood mountains to the gulf stream waters, until its inability to produce an etiology for itself put it to sleep for good.

To be sure, a few perimenopausal party poopers still drag themselves around telling anyone who’ll listen they’ve got CFS; but you haven’t read a thing about it in years, have you? It’s one more past-its-prime pathology-craze.

Yet the cultural unease out of which CFS was confected remains. The sense that Americans are working themselves ragged and fucking up their personal lives but good just so they can buy stuff is in fact more acute now than it was when CFS was riding high.

University Diaries likes to keep an eye out for professors who are thinking seriously about this important trend, and professors who are not.

Under not, there’s Professor David M. Levy of the University of Washington, who says that we need to protect our “psychic space” and “quiet time” in a world choking on “information overload.” To that end, he has introduced into his life plenty of non-screen and non-phone meditative breaks, as he should. End of story.

Not. The man after all is an American, which means he’s gotta market this. Instead of relaxing with his new-found wisdom, Levy’s gone bigtime, hitting up the foundations and organizing a three-day conference (“Information, Silence and Sanctuary“ is the pretentious title) which will, it says here (Washington Post, Monday),“diagnose and prescribe treatment for what is ailing Levy - and, in his view, most of the developed world.”

Well, if that’s all!

I mean, baby, if you’re planning on curing most of the developed world, that’s gotta cut into your mantras.

Barbara Ehrenreich, on the other hand, has the right idea. In a review in last Sunday’s New York Times of a book about a typical screwed-up upper-middle-class American family, she writes that the horrible psychological disorders of the overworked author’s teenage children seem to have a good deal to do with the author himself, who is seldom fully present to be a loving father to them.

Noting first the wise cynicism of American high school kids in regard to the bogus over-diagnosing of the psychology crowd (the diagnosis “bipolar disorder” is now, Ehrenreich notes, “so wildly faddish it’s become a casual term of high school invective”), Ehrenreich concludes her review in this way:

Why is [the book’s author] moonlighting anyway? So they can
afford the pricey suburb where he ''desperately'' wanted to
live because of its high-quality -- read: high-pressure --
public schools. Thus each generation is condemned to
scramble along on its own treadmill, with the gears of
family life making murderously tight connections between
the two.

Throughout his ordeal, [the author] clings to the notion that
mental illness is biologically based -- meaning accompanied
and sometimes caused by physical changes in the brain --
and of course it is. But this does not mean that we are
born with our psychoses, only with the potential to develop
them. Furthermore, the causality works both ways. Not only
can physical conditions in the brain predispose us to
aberrant behavior, but subjectively experienced states, of
stress or rejection, for example, can alter the chemistry
of the brain. So when huge and growing numbers of affluent
young people start displaying the kinds of behavior labeled
A.D.D., depression and bipolar disorder, it may be time to
stop talking about brain chemistry, or even family
pathology, and start looking for ''something in the water''
-- in this case, broad social causes.

Could there be an incoherent rebellion under way against
the relentless pressure to achieve, which kicks in now at
the preschool stage? It may be a clue that the symptoms of
many childhood psychiatric disorders seem to preclude
schoolwork and attendance. Maybe the only problem with the
kids is that they have been watching their own
high-achieving parents, and they have seen where all that

Saturday, May 08, 2004


The Passion Players are proud to present Edward Albee's searing modern drama, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Christina Axson-Flynn, whose case against the University of Utah drama department for religious discrimination is currently being litigated, plays Martha.

Ms Axson-Flynn, wrote the New York Times recently (Saturday, May 8), "says she was forced out of [the] theater program at the University of Utah because she would not read from a script with profanity. ... Ms. Axson-Flynn maintains that before being accepted to the audition-only program and in class she told instructors she would not take the name of God or Christ in vain, 'use a four-letter expletive that begins with the letter F,' or perform in the nude. When first confronted with scripted words she found offensive, she changed them without notice..."

Tonight's performance of the play includes textual emendations by Ms. Axson-Flynn. Examples may be found below.

ACT ONE: Fun and Games

Martha: Jimminee...

George: ...Shhhhhhh....

Martha: ...H. Cricket....

George: For Pete's sake, Martha, it's two o'clock in the ...

Martha: Oh, George! ... We've got guests coming over.

George: Goodness me, Martha... do you know what time it...

Martha: Ha, ha, ha HA! Make me another drink...husband.

George: Gosh, you can swill it down, can't you.

Martha: I'm firsty.

George: Jeepers.

ACT TWO: Walpurgisnacht

Martha: And you want to know the clincher? You want to know what big brave Georgie said to Daddy?

George: NO! NO! NO! NO!

Nick: Wait a minute now....

Martha: Georgie said...but Daddy...I mean... ha,ha,ha,ha ....but Sir, it isn't a novel at all... (Other voice) Not a novel? (Mimicking George's voice) No, isn't a novel at all...

George: (Advancing on her) You will not say this!

Nick: Hey.

Martha: The heck I won't. Keep away from me, you naughty fellow! (Uses George's voice again) No, Sir, this isn't a novel at all... this is the truth... this really happened...TO ME!


ACT THREE: The Exorcism

Nick: I think I understand this.

George: Do you?

Nick: Well, goodness gracious, I think I understand this.

George: Good for you, buster.


Thursday, May 06, 2004

The Embarrassing Problem of Piles

In an age of candor, it's remarkably little talked about; and yet millions of people suffer from it. For some, the solution is simply to read until it goes away. But for many others it persists, a recrimination, an obscure judgment.

And indeed to be fair we (let me acknowledge my own implication in this) bring it on ourselves. To stare balefully at the problem as if it came out of nowhere, or out of the mind of some evil genius, is silly. We summoned it, and we must make it go away.

We said to fifty people Write a ten-page paper about a short story of your choice, due on the last day of class. Why should we now survey with dread the blindingly white result?

Every semester this return to snowy mountain is a little more daunting. Some of these are plagiarized, dammit... I should devote an entire class session to its/it's... If I read In today's fast-paced society one more time... Not another complaint that modernism is depressing! ... I said an essay, not a stream of consciousness autobiography...

And yet when you do finally overcome your paralysis, the papers often turn out to be rather interesting, and in some cases even moving. As you make your way through the pile, a benevolent, infinitely patient attitude overwhelms you, and you begin to remember that you are a teacher.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004


It was at least a decade ago, and I was attending a summer-long faculty seminar on postmodernism at Harvard. One night all of the seminar participants attended a performance of John Cage works put on by Harvard undergrad and graduate music and theater students.

The activity on stage that evening was dully predictable. But what I saw off-stage fascinated me.

It was toward the end of the event, and the last shocking assault on my bourgeois sensibilities was just wrapping up on stage (I seem to recall a young woman in a bright red dress shrieking at a broken piano), and I happened to look behind me. I was sitting in the last row of the theater, and on the floor sprawled a young man and a young woman in a tight embrace. They had both been stage technicians, handling the lighting and the curtain and the sound, and now as their work was coming to an end, they were flush with excitement of a very particular kind - a kind I associate with a rare convergence in one's life of intellectual, sexual, and aesthetic intensity.

I envied them. I thought to myself: "I had moments like that when I was eighteen." They were proud of what they had done; they were stirred by the subversive whatever of the Cage performances; they were besotted with each other. It all came together in the way he suddenly broke away from the embrace and looked at her - pride, to the point of arrogance; a fierce confidence in the absolute rightness of their ragged insouciance... Part of me found it immature and stupid, but basically I was happy for them, because I recognized it as a rare pinnacle moment...

A recent news item (4/28) in Lehigh University's student newspaper - "CLASS UNITES TO PROTEST EXAM" - put me in mind of that night. A course called Movements and Legacies of the 1960s, taught by an old lefty, had instructed its students that college was just preparation for a life of corporate vileness. Its students, thinking this over, decided, reasonably enough, not to take the midterm.

'“It was not so much protesting that specific exam or that class,” Clare Burchi, ’06, said. “It was more protesting the whole idea of exams and writing down all that we had learned into a little blue book.”'

During the semester, the professor had mainly talked about what he called the American university's “hidden curriculum,” which a student described as "the notion that students are being trained to be machines to work for the major corporations as well as capitalism.”

Now the professor was in an awkward position. He had done his work too well. He had created truly serious protesters against the university status quo. What to do?

He told all of the boycotting students they'd get zeros on the exam.

That only emboldened them - a chance to suffer for their beliefs. So he relented and told them they could do some dinky makeup assignment instead.

My heart goes out to them. One doesn't want to look too closely at the intellectual content of their moment, but they had their moment, and I wish them well.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004


The banana, the Celtics cap, the nose rings,
The randomly uprising sneezes and the class response -
Bless you!
Yes, bless you on this darkling plain, ranged with dark things:
Exam books from Picasso's blue period; gray pens like unlit wands;
Gray sweatshirts with cryptic insignia; prewashed dirty jeans.

It's open book, but no answers lie within.
Quotations from Kleist and Kafka, yes, but not what anything means.
So you sit, guilty of dust and sin,
Pondering from your sad depths the scenes
Replayed before your rifling fingers
Of pregnant virgins and beetles with apples on their backs;

Pondering how it is that that nice I.B. Singer
Could turn out to have so black
A worldview. Well, all of them do.

Monday, May 03, 2004


FROM: Executive Committee


Hi Everybody:

This email is to announce the formation of a UCLA Team Asia subcommittee charged with outreach to the larger campus community. The Team Asia -- Calm Inscrutable Tendencies subcommittee (to be known as TACIT) will inaugurate a series of workshops and diversity awareness peer theater productions designed to educate students, faculty, and administrators as to our cultural tendency toward studying and learning while in college.

As you know, an administrator at the university, taking note of how much quieter campus has become with larger numbers of Asian students admitted, recently complained (Daily Bruin Online, 4/28) :

“Without generalizing, I would say that Asian Americans have not had a traditional role of activism in the United States. They believe the way to success is through education, so they might study hard at the expense of things others may deem relevant."

As we see it, the immediate task is to deal with this negativity by conveying to people the historical sources and social realities underlying the Asian tendency to identify "college" with academic effort toward some end, rather than with social protest, self-realization, and substance abuse.

But the larger task is to sensitize people to the sometimes demeaning speech to which Asian college students are subjected because of their particular cultural inheritance.

For instance, our first peer theater production, "Just Sitting There," will feature "Jody" and "Jill," Asian and non-Asian roommates, who are chatting in their room on a Friday night. Jill has just finished watching "Friends" and is now gathering her Walkman, cell phone, and makeup case in preparation for an evening out. She purses her lips as she looks at Jody, sitting quietly at her desk reading a large chemistry textbook.

Jill: Why are you just like sitting there?

Jody: I have a chem test on Monday.

Jill: There's this guy I told you about who like wants to meet you. He'll be at the party.

Jody: Sorry! I told you I probably wouldn't be able to go.

Jill: What is the matter with you? You never go out. You like never watch "Friends" with me. What are you doing here?

Jody: Well, Jill, it's a university. I'm studying.

Jill: Last week I asked you to skip like one class to check out this new Aveda Salon with me, and you acted like I was like nuts. I'm beginning to think you're nuts.

[At this point in the peer production, the actors will pause and invite audience members to comment on what they have seen. Diversity counselors will be on hand to facilitate exchange.]

Please congratulate the appointees to this important new subcommittee when you see them.

Sunday, May 02, 2004


It’s funny, the things that lodge in your consciousness. A scene from Compulsion, the 1959 film about Leopold and Loeb, in which they sit together in a University of Chicago philosophy classroom and become excited as their professor reviews the superman theories of Nietzsche, has always stayed with me.

I couldn’t have known, when I saw that film at the age of thirteen or so, that I’d become someone who talks about Nietzsche to undergraduates, as I did last semester during a discussion of Thomas Mann.

I think the scene in this film must have stayed with me because it was an early encounter with the frightening contagion of ideas - the ways in which certain claims about humanity can become toxically glamorous in psychotic, or pre-psychotic, minds -- can somehow provide a frame of reference, an order, a public respectability, for sick thoughts.

It’s not just the contagion, though - it’s the surprisingly easy susceptibility of some ideas to assimilation into already established destructive or self-destructive compulsions that‘s frightening. Klebold and Harris lit on a grandiose nihilism very much like Leopold and Loeb’s.

I’m reminded of all of this because the number of student deaths at my university last semester was sufficiently high to make headlines. An article titled GWU Grapples with Fifth Student Death in Four Months:The Recent Suicides of a Number of GWU Students has Left the Faculty and Student Body Scarred appears in the April 30 Washington Post.

The subhead is misleading and sensationalistic. Of the five deaths at GW only two are clear suicides. One student died in a car crash, and the other two students seem to have died in circumstances of such drunken late night confusion as to make any clear determination impossible -- although the degree of self-disregard they displayed invites the thought that they may have wanted to die. In any case, the two clear suicides were very young undergraduates.

None of the four GWU students whose deaths in the last four months were active or perhaps passive suicides were students of mine. But whenever I lecture on The Heart of Darkness or To Room Nineteen or The Waves or The Myth of Sisyphus or any of the many works of fiction and philosophy which implicitly declare what Camus explictly does in the famous first line of Sisyphus (“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”), I find myself scanning the room for too intense an interest.

This is part of what Clarence Darrow said in his successful effort to keep Leopold and Loeb from being executed:

"I will guarantee that you can go down to the University of Chicago today---into its big library---and find over a thousand volumes on Nietzsche, and I am sure I speak moderately. If this boy is to blame for this, where did he get it? Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it? And there is no question in this case that is true. Then who is to blame? The university would be more to blame than he is. The scholars of the world would be more to blame than he is. The publishers of the world---Nietzsche's books are published by one of the biggest publishers in the world---are more to blame than he. Your Honor, it is hardly fair to hang a nineteen-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."

UPDATE Monday: And this is what Ed Lahey, one of the wittiest newspapermen in history, wrote after Loeb was killed by a fellow inmate who claimed Loeb had come on to him sexually:

"Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition."

Saturday, May 01, 2004

TO: Alliance for A’s

FROM: Janice [for background, scroll down a bit]


Hello all:

In case you haven’t seen it, take a look at Newsday online. In a recent opinion piece there, Margaret McKenna, President of Lesley University, argues that the Columbine massacre might have been prevented if teachers at that school hadn’t been so damnably concerned with test scores and so less-than-concerned with their students‘ personal development issues. She points out, chillingly enough, that Columbine High’s standardized test scores were very high.

I think the implication here is clear: the more academically challenged the student, the more likely it is that he will set off multiple bombs and then gun down his fellow students while laughing satanically and asking if they believe in Jesus.

Wasn’t it Nietzsche who said “Man cannot stand very much reality?” Columbine demonstrates that our children cannot stand very much intellectual data. At some point while stuffing Civil War dates and Constitutional amendments into their heads, they’re going to respond by exploding into unspeakable violence. They’re going to start storing massive weaponry in their bedrooms and penning fantasies of world annihilation.

How can we stem the tide of Columbines? (Yes, school violence is significantly down in the United States at the moment. But given the pressures under which our children labor, there will certainly be other Columbines.) Two words: lay off. Give your students a break. If we want what President McKenna calls “peaceable schools” rather than the powder kegs that so many American secondary schools represent, we’re going to have to stop demanding that our students “know” things in that black and white, wrong and right way of the standardized test, and instead stress things like emotional intelligence, leadership skills, diversity-awareness, and, above all, creativity.