Sunday, July 31, 2005
Nature's Ultimate Gated Community|
What happened to ‘framing’? Why is the Democratic front-runner for President spending August in Nantucket, while our Republican President spends it in Crawford? Take a peek at the responses of the real people, the people who read Lucianne.com, to the announcement that Hillary and Bill will attend fundraisers and stuff on the island this month. Do liberal elites think the idiots in Iowa don’t know about Nantucket? Couldn’t they have found someplace a pinch more geographically central and a pinch less ostentatious for their party?
Ah, Nantucket, muse of limerick writers… “Over the past decade or so,” writes Geraldine Fabrikant in the New York Times , “this 50-square-mile, fishhook-shaped island off the Cape Cod coast has come to be dominated by a new class: the hyper-rich. … Once a low-key summer resort, Nantucket is rapidly turning into their private preserve…. [P]roperty values have zoomed so high that the less-well-off are being forced to leave and the island is becoming nature’s ultimate gated community. ‘It’s a castle with a moat around it,’” says one of the home owners.
A castle with a moat around it. Way to frame your values of community, democracy, and fairness.
“Here and there hedges have sprouted up, tall as windsurfers, to partition the property parcels. They separate the community, contributing to the ineffable sense that something familiar and precious about the ethos of the island is disappearing. ‘At least one new family has built a hedge to avoid people seeing them as they pass by,’ said Wade Green, 72... ‘Those open paths had an old-fashioned elegance to them. It is part of an old and fading spirit of community. Blocking them off is an unfriendly and antipublic thing to do.’”
UPDATE: Or, Why Going to Nantucket is Really Stupid:
Jacob Weisberg in Slate:
Yet Hillary does face a genuine electability issue, one that has little to do with ideology, woman-hating, or her choice of life partner. Plainly put, it's her personality. In her four years in the Senate, Hillary has proven herself to be capable, diligent, formidable, effective, and shrewd. She can make Republican colleagues sound like star-struck teenagers. But she still lacks a key quality that a politician can't achieve through hard work: likability. As hard as she tries, Hillary has little facility for connecting with ordinary folk, for making them feel that she understands, identifies, and is at some level one of them. You may admire and respect her. But it's hard not to find Hillary a bit inhuman. Whatever she may be like in private, her public persona is calculating, clenched, relentless—and a little robotic.
AMBIENT MOROSITY II|
The blogger Instructivist (great blogname) picks up the following ed school course description, typical of many current ed school courses:
Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice
One, two, three, scratch your head. What the hell is this about? Anything but the content and teaching of math, that’s for sure. In today’s New York Times, there’s a remarkably tough-minded attack on ed schools, titled Who Needs Education Schools? It isolates a couple of things that keep middle-class kids in public classrooms stupid.
Diane Ravitch is quoted: “The idea of ‘preparing excellent teachers who are excellent in their subject,’ she says, has been overtaken by other concerns -‘professors wanting to be respected in the university, and teachers’ colleges wanting to become places where research is done and to be agents of transformational change.’”
A recent study of ed school curricula is cited: “The general posture of education schools, they concluded, was countercultural, instilling mistrust of the system that teachers work in. Among the texts most often assigned were Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, an indictment of schooling in poor urban neighborhoods, and writings by Paulo Freire, who advocates education to achieve political liberation. Theories of how children learn… were more likely to be taught than what children should learn…”
The clever contribution of teachers’ unions to the profession is mentioned: "Because unions have resisted extra pay for high-demand skills like math teaching, the gap in ability between teachers and other white-collar professionals will become bigger, not smaller.”
Looks a lot like loser France, doesn’t it (see post just below)? A culture of enforced radical egalitarianism. Curricula devoted not to the intellectual patrimony but to brooding over how the system’s screwing you.
Saturday, July 30, 2005
“La morosité ambiante tient au fait que rien ne peut être fait et personne ne semble avoir la solution,” writes Maurice Levy in Le Monde about contemporary France. We French today are “perdants,” he says -- losers -- and no one seems able to do anything about it.
“Mr.Levy,” reports The Telegraph, “said the French had only themselves to blame for losing the Olympics, and that the country needed a wake-up call. ‘We have narrowed and stunted ourselves and we paint ourselves as losers, and no one wants to be among the losers. It's time we opened our eyes wide, took an icy shower and looked reality in the face: we are in decline, going down a slippery slope.’”
Well, those last couple of sentences present a very rich mix of metaphors, but UD won’t bother with that because she wants to concentrate instead on the claim Levy makes that the whole world rightly regards France as a loser, and that unless there’s a political and cultural reckoning soon, France won’t count at all in the new global economy.
This seems to me a plausible claim. I posted a little essay about my impressions of France shortly after having lived and taught there. It said similar sorts of things. Here it is.
From Duke University's Chronicle Online:
' The Young Conservatives [at Texas A&M] ranked Bonilla-Silva as the top perpetrator of academic abuse in the classroom in their Professor Watch List Hall of Dishonor.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
Playing Right into|
The Absent-Minded Professor
From The Charlottesville Newsplex:
UVA PROFESSOR FALLS DOWN SHAFT
(Injuries are "consistent with a fall such as this.” Most informative.)
Excerpts from a few winners of this year’s bad fiction contest, sponsored by San Jose State University.
“As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual."
“India hangs like a wet washcloth from the towel rack of Asia.”
"The crushed body of the sports car had turned her into a creature of free and perverse sexuality, releasing within its twisted bulkheads and leaking engine coolant all the deviant possibilities of her sex."
[Oh. That third one's not really a winner. It's from the much-praised novel, Crash, by J.G. Ballard. Sorry.]
UPDATE: UD's blogpal, Sherman Dorn, submitted a very good bad entry, and university-themed at that:
"Leaning backwards over the balcony after three glasses of Merlot, the dean suddenly found himself dropping into the courtyard like a delinquent duck shot by a vigilante Supreme Court justice, landing squarely on students about to be honored for making the Provost's List and finally realizing his public ambition of impacting college students in a lifelong way."
In the Heart |
Of the Headland
UD has an old friend, a professor, who’s thinking of giving up his American citizenship, moving permanently to Montreal, and becoming a Canadian when he retires from his university. His disgust with “what this country’s become” is intense, abiding, deepening every day. The lack of universal health care, the invasion of Iraq, the power of fundamentalist religion -- the basic overtaking of the country by yahoos, as he sees it -- has distressed him to the point of utter rejection.
I respect this man’s willingness to take his convictions to their conclusion, in the same way that I respect American Jews who, convinced that the Jewish people won’t survive outside of Israel, change their citizenship. Henry James became a British citizen shortly before his death in 1915, when it became clear to him that his loyalty all of his adult life had been to his adopted country. There’s nothing wrong, in UD’s book, with loving another country more than America and wanting to live there and be loyal to it.
The problem for the Democrats - a problem especially acute in that virtually Republican-free laboratory of liberal Democrats which is the American university - comes from significant numbers of them who share my friend’s disgust with the country but do little with that disgust other than respond in visceral and self-destructive ways to events here. The party is wisely attempting to distance itself from this strong and alienating strain within itself, as Will Marshall notes:
The problem for Democrats is that an important part of their base -- upscale white liberals -- seems torn about the meaning of patriotism… The right answer to GOP jingoism, …cannot be left-wing anti-Americanism. Of course, progressives can criticize their country and still be patriotic. Indeed, one of the highest forms of patriotism is being honest about your country's flaws and taking responsibility for fixing them. But it is what's in your heart that counts. Are your objections rooted in a warm and generous affection for your country, or in a curdled contempt for it? Too many Americans aren't sure if the left is emotionally on America's side. And that's a big problem for Democrats.
Note Marshall’s reiterated stress on the heart. You can’t fake love of your country, and Republicans don’t have to, because that’s what’s in their heart. Their problem is that many of them are overfond.
The liberal elite I’ve grown up among, the elite I know, scorns emotion in general. Any emotion. They’re into what Richard Rorty calls “dry knowingness.” Irony’s fine. Deconstruction of someone else’s rhetoric is peachy, and Air America-style contempt well and good. But straightforward emotions are for the simple-minded and naive.
“Many people who become academics,” concludes James Elkins, author of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (2001), “fail to feel anything very strongly... Virtually all academics are in the tearless camp.” Based on his surveys of art historians and other academics in the humanities, Elkins remarks that “the majority of such people...actually distrust strong emotions,” which are seen as “old-fashioned, romantic, and unfitted to modern art,” not to mention “private, irrelevant, incommunicable, misguided, and ignorant,” and “not well defined or widely documented ...unprofessional, embarrassing, ‘feminine,’ unreliable, incoherent, and largely inexplicable.”
Underlying this emotion-phobia, as the sociologist Karl Mannheim suggested decades ago, is “the great historical process of disillusionment, in which every concrete meaning of things as well as myths and beliefs are slowly cast aside.” Intense aesthetic emotion, like intense patriotic emotion, is simply one of the casualties of a larger “destruction of all spiritual elements, the utopian as well as the ideological” in modern life, a condition Mannheim calls “matter of factness”. Mannheim regards the ascendancy of matter of factness as a catastrophe, “the decay of the human will” to comprehend and improve the world.
The website Daily Kos responds to Marshall’s essay in this way: “It's truly disappointing that this is the crap Hillary has signed on to. More of the failed corporatist bullshit that has cost our party so dearly the last decade and a half.”
Marshall is a corporatist. To understand more about corporatism, let us visit again with Professor Donald Lazere.
UD has already written about Lazere. She has already suggested that the rallying cry for Democrats who want to get somewhere should be Anyone But Lazere. Yet some evil genius keeps putting him forward as the voice of progressive academic Democrats. Here he is recently in Inside Higher Education :
The range of American political discourse is pathetically limited to often-superficial differences and trivial debates between two equally corrupt parties that are captive to corporate America and the military-industrial complex. …Why are conservatives so terrified at the notion of socialist views being expressed in these realms that they have poured hundreds of millions of dollars in the past thirty years into overwhelming them? Why do they hysterically depict corporate-servant Democrats like Clinton and Kerry as radical socialists? And why do they smear democratic socialists by distorting their beliefs and equating them with their deadly enemy, Communism — when such red-baiting would be recognized as nonsensical anywhere else in the world?
What’s truly bizarre about the most progressive Democrats today is how ancient they sound. The parties are equally corrupt! They’re captive to the military-industrial complex! They’re running scared in fear of the power of socialism! And by golly, socialism is not Communism! These are the words of someone living in the late 1950’s.
Add to this antiquity prominent spokespeople like Teddy Kennedy (why oh why was he trotted out during the Kerry compaign?) and Jane Fonda (months ago she was the wife of a hyper-corporatist who personally owns much of Argentina; now she’s someone who boasts of taking a cross-country trip on a bus fueled by vegetable oil) to this, and mix with a kneejerk union-maid worldview, and what you end up with is not progressive.
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
The ‘thesdan with the New TV|
I was at a party at a 'thesdan’s the other day, and at one point, when everyone was chatting in his living room, he suddenly turned on a huge television he’d had installed in the middle of one of the living room’s walls.
There was an embarrassed lull in the conversation as we glanced at him. He smiled at us and then back at the screen, which broadcast a technicolor golf tournament. He gave a satisfied nod.
After a few seconds, he turned the television off and we went back to our chats.
I was reminded of this conspicuous consumption moment when I read Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column today, in which he worries about America’s growing non-competitiveness with scrappy nations like China, Ireland, and India. Friedman sketches a suicidally lazy culture of entitlement in which accomplishment and reward are fully decoupled:
John Mack, the new C.E.O. at Morgan Stanley, initially demanded in this contract he signed June 30 that his total pay for the next two years would be no less than the average pay package received by the C.E.O.’s at Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns. If that average turned out to be more than $25 million, Mr. Mack was to be paid at least that much. He eventually backed off that demand after a howl of protest, but it struck me as the epitome of what is wrong in America today.
Friedman concludes that Americans have decided being on the offensive competitively is “too much work. Maybe that’s the wristband we should be wearing: Live wrong. Party on. Pay later.”
The 'thesdan with the new tv is sort of like the Morgan Stanley C.E.O. What matters is not what he generates for the world in terms of value, but where he is on the status chain - a form of competitiveness, to be sure, but, as Friedman notes, a passive and self-destructive one.
Juliet Schor and other economists have pointed out that we respond not to absolute but to comparative measures of personal wealth. The 'thesdan’s display of purchase power superiority assumes that, like him, we spend our lives comparing our personal wealth to that of our neighbors. The display intends to generate the sort of envy that compels us to buy our own mounted television. Having bought this expensive toy (party on), we merely increase our debt burden (pay later).
Friedman makes the same point about our refusal to give up cars that are bigger than our neighbors’ cars - a gesture with personal debt implications, to be sure, but also, as Friedman notes, one with moral and political implications in terms of American dependency on Middle East oil.
But is all of this “the epitome of what is wrong in America today”? Well, maybe, if you push what he’s saying a little further.
Push it toward universities, for instance -- the subject of this blog. Harvard University’s money men departed en masse recently because a lot of alumni opposed their compensation, typically around twenty or thirty million dollars a year for each of them. The alumni called it “obscene” for a non-profit institution dedicated to education to be associated with Wall Street forms of compensation.
In their defense, the money men basically said: This is how much we’d be earning if we were in the private sector. If you want to keep us, you’ve got to pay us that way. We wouldn’t think of working for a non-profit like Harvard at the sort of pay cut that would bring us in at only ten million dollars a year. Why should we? Harvard’s no different from any other corporation.
It’s the lateral competitive thing again. The intrinsic worth of an activity counts for nothing. What counts is your monitoring of the money and goods people in your cohort are getting.
This is also a way back into ye olde grade inflation question on American campuses. You get grade inflation when more and more teachers are comparing their salaries -- strongly linked to course evaluation forms -- to other teachers, rather than focusing upon their vocation. (Their salary matters more than it should because they’re planning to buy one of those mounted tv things.) You get grade inflation when more and more students are comparing their GPAs to those of other students, rather than focusing upon the content of a course of study.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
AND NOT ONE OF THEM COMES TO VISIT|
“The choice of the word ‘American’ in the magazine’s name was a deliberate decision to identify ourselves with this country’s tradition and future,” writes one of the editors of the liberal magazine American Prospect; “curiously, some people assumed at the beginning that a publication presenting itself as ‘American’ must be right wing.”
This is the rhetoric-phobia of the American left, and Paul Starr’s right that it’s at the heart of its problems. Merely invoking the word “America” skews reactionary for a lot of people -- it means nationalism (evil), patriotism (kitschy), chauvinism (dangerous). It means a fundamental assumption that under all the problems America is a great country worthy of our love, whereas America is a profoundly flawed country which we must not allow ourselves to love. If we allow ourselves that sort of simple-minded passion, fascism will result.
One convenient moment in the left’s cultural history in this regard is the Katha Pollitt flag-waving thing. She wrote a column in the Nation about how her daughter, after 9/11, insisted on flying the flag, despite Pollitt’s efforts to warn her about “the worst elements in our own society -- the flag-wavers and bigots and militarists.” See how it all gets bundled together?
“What would happen,” Pollitt asks in that same essay, “if the West took seriously the forces in the Muslim world who call for education, social justice, women's rights, democracy, civil liberties and secularism?” That’d be the Kurds, primarily. Where is Pollitt’s column about the Kurds? If she wants to take them seriously, she should pay a visit.
The blog Nobody Sasses a Girl in Glasses is extremely charming. An undergrad at the University of Chicago chronicles - in sparkling prose - her not very pleasant internship summer in Washington DC.
U.C., D.C. -- these are very much UD’s sorts of coordinates, and she’s intrigued by this blogger’s take on them. As with another wonderful undergraduate blog, Slightly Critical, UD commends this one to you for its energy, humor, and seriousness.
Monday, July 25, 2005
Position-taking on the Aesthetic|
The Reading Experience is a great blog, devoted to serious discussion of aesthetic responses to fiction.
The blog’s writer, with whom the Chicago School of Aristotelians would have been comfortable, takes it as a first principle that there is a unique, valuable, and describable mode of human expression called “the novel,” and that the novel prompts in readers a unique, valuable, and describable response.
This response has primarily to do with the aesthetic power of novels, and secondarily to do with the ideas and arguments that novels convey. He writes:
[T]he aesthetic response should be [our] initial response [to a novel]. Otherwise why bother with the "art" at all? Why fool around with the formal manipulations and the fancy writing in the first place when we can just leap headlong into the "content"? If the aesthetic is a "peculiar mode of appreciation," why not demand that the artist stop tempting us with it? By all means discuss the content. Just don't do so as if the artist had made it available to us in the same way as the essayist or the polemicist.
The defensive tone here is about the writer’s attempt to deal with the content-driven, aesthetics-disdaining attitude of a fellow blogger, who writes:
The aesthetic: A peculiar mode of appreciation that wishes to place in brackets or disavow the obvious content of a work and stress instead form and symbolism.
Notice that the aesthetic brackets the “obvious content” of a novel. There are literal, pressing meanings in novels -- meanings which can help liberate us from our mental chains -- but these are being shunted aside in favor of figurative and vague possibilities…
My favorite expression of this popular academic notion comes from the art critic T.J. Clark, who writes:
The bourgeoisie has an...interest in preserving a certain myth of the aesthetic consciousness, one where a transcendental ego is given something appropriate to contemplate in a situation essentially detached from the pressures and deformities of history. The interest is considerable because the class in question has few other areas (since the decline of the sacred) in which its account of consciousness and freedom can be at all compellingly phrased.
Bourgeois reactionaries, groping after the self-flattering metaphysical certainties they lost with the decline of religion, glomb onto the novel (or the painting) because it jollies them into thinking that they have a complex and free consciousness. The reality is that they’re held in a ideological vise by repressive capitalist states, but they can’t be allowed to see that. They have to be jollied into a kind of blind complacency by works of art which suspend all the important questions about social reality and display mere prettiness.
This is the familiar politically fixated take on the novel -- a take which has dominated the academy for a number of decades, though it’s now being challenged. There isn’t an “aesthetic response” at all; there’s just a degraded spiritual response. And like all spirituality it makes us (to quote Timothy Shortell) moral retards.
Another recent Reading Experience post drew a response from the New Republic critic James Wood which states exactly the opposite point of view about aesthetic experience -- that it makes us ethically keener.
Why should we have aesthetics OR the moral? (The moral, of course, meant in its largest sense, to mean something like 'meaningful human conduct and the discourse about that'.) Why not both? The aesthetic is a human product, and so it will always have a moral dimension.
Humanism, the human subject… For the political critic, Wood merely deepens the offense by defending a traditional understanding of us as autonomous, actively conscious, volitional beings for whom the best novels are not those with obvious political meanings, but those whose presentation of human consciousness shows it to be deep and complicated and enterprising and conflicted.
BLOG THOSE METAPHORS!|
"Molly Ivins, a Texan who's described herself as 'a left-wing, aging Bohemian journalist,' delivers her hard-Left views in prose distinguished by mean-spirited potshots marinated in a somewhat labored cornpone populism."
"Though the 'hate speech' juggernaut has lost some steam, a huge schism remains between how radical a liberal and a conservative student can get."
No Accounting for Taste?|
UD Accounts for Taste.
Later today, I’ll post a little essay on aesthetics, since that term has been bouncing around the literary blogosphere lately in an interesting way. But for now I’ll note three instances of what you might call aesthetic surprise: moments in the cultural reception of art when a sudden general embrace of a particular piece of (in these cases) music catches the musical establishment off guard.
For instance, critics are astonished to discover that the most downloaded music of the moment is Beethoven. In a “fantastic experiment in the democratisation of high culture,” and an “amazing piece of free market research,” more people recently downloaded the symphonies of Beethoven (made available for a short period of time by the BBC) than any rock, pop, rap, jazz, or other offering. Yes, the Beethoven was offered gratis, but still. Classical music is supposed to be dead or dying; and it’s always been an elitist sort of thing, etc.
How to account for it? The BBC has a large audience. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is the European Union’s anthem and therefore widely recognized. People can’t resist the idea of getting the whole set of anything. It’s about status anxiety: people don’t really listen to the stuff, but they figure all educated homes should have Beethoven on tap.
All of this perhaps played a role; but I suspect the simplest explanation is closest to the truth. The high-profile BBC offer exposed large numbers of people to Beethoven’s spectacularly exciting and beautiful music. UD’s daughter just got a bright green iPod, and if she’s looking for something to heat up her Coldplayed ear, the beginning of the Seventh Symphony is hard to beat. Beethoven offers one addictively haunting melody after another, played through with intensifying variation upon variation until all hell breaks loose. He offers innocuous little lyric poems that expand into thrilling human epics.
But don’t take my word for it, folks! Listen to Dmitri Tymoczko.
[T]he drama of [one particular Beethoven] passage is the way it symbolizes both desire –in the form of the chromatically ascending chords – and limitation, as represented by the fixed upper note. It is as if Beethoven were suggesting that, while no amount of effort on his part would enable him to leap beyond the limits of his piano, his music demands that he try – as if the world of sticks and wires, the ordinary physical realm in which pianos exist, cannot be reconciled with the world of Beethoven’s aspiration. Needless to say, this coupling of an exhortation to transcendence (here heard as an inexorable chromatic chordal ascent) with a warning about the impossibility of success (the stubborn pedal point at the top of the piano) recalls Kant’s conception of sublimity. Like the Temple of Isis, the music seems to question its own adequacy, giving with one hand what it takes away with the other.
A similar example, from the Fifth Symphony.
[It] seems to mark an incompatibility between a musical idea and its realization. In the Tempest, the differences between exposition and recapitulation alert us to the conflict. In the deformed seventh-chords of the recapitulation, we can actually hear the musical idea (an abstract, mental thing) being compromised by the exigencies of actual physical performance. In the Fifth, there is a similar incompatibility between what is conceived (two very different chords, with different functional meanings) and what is played (a single sound).
In other words, although Beethoven’s music typically “does embrace heroic passions on an unprecedented scale, it still retains some distance from those passions–some sense of humor, or self-consciousness, that ameliorates their weight.” Tymoczko concludes:
[We] can have tremendous, Beethovenian passions without losing all sense of our own limitation. (As one can have powerful political convictions while still recognizing that reasonable people may disagree.) Beethoven himself may not have achieved the perfect synthesis of these two, complementary qualities. But the evidence of both his music and his life suggests that he tried. Passionate maturity, neither resignation nor moderation nor fanaticism: that, perhaps, is what is truly sublime.
All of which is to suggest that Beethoven is among the rare composers to have captured what we instinctively recognize as the authentic human condition, our actual nature as people, the way we actually feel and think as we experience our lives. This is a way of getting at what people mean when they say he’s the ultimate Romantic. As with William Blake, his music offers a wholly humanized landscape. There’s no easy spiritualized transcendence of our human condition here, but on the other hand there’s no Beckettian insistence on our trivial materiality either.
The same delicate play of transcendence and limitation helps account for an earlier instance of aesthetic surprise. About ten years ago, in what Time magazine called “the unlikeliest of symphonic success stories,” Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” sung by Dawn Upshaw, became a hit in England and America. The writer for Time describes the piece as a “transcendental meditation on mortality and redemption for orchestra and soprano. In three slow, slow, very slow movements lasting nearly an hour, it speaks of bleak despair yet sings of sublime hope. Against all odds, this deeply felt, quasi-liturgical piece -- composed 17 years ago but newly recorded -- is captivating a huge public on both sides of the Atlantic, far bigger than most serious compositions ever…”
At the time, people recounted driving in their cars and vaguely listening to this thing on the radio and getting pulled into its strange mixed feel of lullaby and dread. A suffering questioning maternal voice dominates the piece, and the voice sings in Polish, a language few listeners know. So they are responding not to the content of the series of songs, but to the almost universally recognizable tonal expressivity with which Gorecki has managed to infuse it.
As it happens, the words of the songs are unbearably sad. They are sung by people imprisoned by the Nazis. Parents mourning children who’ve been killed. But, as with Beethoven, the sheer formal intensity and control of the piece acts as an implicit check on total despair, even as it does us the honor of acknowledging the possibility of total despair.
Final example? This is a much easier one. The New York Times reports that
When Amazon.com released its Musicians Hall of Fame this month, ranking the Top 25-selling CD's in the site's 10-year history, a few of the results might have been surprising - Enya at No. 8? - but all the names on the list were recognizable stars. Except one: No. 5, Eva Cassidy.
Again the aesthetic surprise. Eva who? Of course, if you read UD with care you’ve already discovered Eva Cassidy, one of UD’s enthusiasms. I’m sure word of mouth helped, as did Cassidy’s early death. But the only real answer is staring you in the ear. Listen to her voice.
Sunday, July 24, 2005
“Despite his youthful summer jobs in the steel mills at Burns Harbor, Ind., where his dad was an executive, Roberts has led a sheltered life, absorbed in the law,” David Broder worries (via Betsy's Page) today in the Washington Post. “Private Catholic schools, Harvard, appointed jobs in the White House and Justice Department, a million-dollar-a-year corporate practice, married to a fellow lawyer -- all commendable but insulated. …[I]t would be comforting to know that Roberts has been ‘out in the world’ enough to know there's more to life than law books."
It is indeed discomforting to think of any important public figure who hasn’t been out in the world, who has not been tempered and seasoned by the raw reality of life.
One model here would be the famous statesman who began as a struggling painter, and then hawked tourist postcards on the streets of Vienna. At one point he was so poor he lived in a homeless shelter. During World War One, he served in the army with distinction. After the war, he was a street orator, and he eventually spent time in prison for his political views.
UD: Sliver of a Sliver|
Richard Posner comments on blogs, newspapers, and reading habits in the New York Times:
The argument that competition increases polarization assumes that liberals want to read liberal newspapers and conservatives conservative ones. Natural as that assumption is, it conflicts with one of the points on which left and right agree - that people consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Were this true, liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them.
UD does indeed read Dissent, The Economist, The Nation, The Village Voice, City Journal, left/right, left/right, left/right…. Owning no tv, she doesn’t do the CNN and Fox thing. And predictable ideologues of left and right do not interest her.
But does she cover the political spectrum in her reading because she’s inviting challenges to her biases? No. She actually does enjoy “being in a state of doubt.”
The other weird thing about her is that she thinks writing well covers a variety a sins. A writer might be saying all sorts of crap, but if she’s saying it beautifully, UD will go along for the ride.
Saturday, July 23, 2005
ROGER SCRUTON |
COMING TO PRINCETON
UD’s a Scruton fan. His book The Aesthetics of Music is spectacular. Here’s a bit from a piece about him in The Independent:
At 62, Scruton appears to be happy now, with his books, his young wife and his children. Across the Atlantic there's a new house in Virginia, which will serve as a base during his visiting professorship at Princeton next year, and near which Roger and Sophie will be able to hunt without their collars being felt by the law. He has created a haven from the "absolute will-lessness, fed on drink and sex and drugs" that he fears is our future.
Couple of things. Virginia to Princeton is a big commute. And - assuming Scruton’s moving to the Middleburg horse-country area - I’m not sure I’d call that a haven from drink and sex and drugs…
UD welcomes visitors from Whirlpool.net.au, “a fully independent community website devoted to keeping the public informed about the state of broadband in Australia. Since its inception in 1998, it has become a premier destination for broadband Internet subscribers. As well as its rich source of broadband news and information, Whirlpool boasts one of Australia's largest technology-related online communities.”
Someone on one of their forums was looking for the Ted Hughes poem, “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother,” which UD quotes in full in an earlier post.
Feel free to look around.
CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?|
Mr. S. and Mrs. S., although fond of one another, live in very different worlds. Here is a snippet from a telephone conversation between the two of them this morning. Can this marriage be saved?
Mr. S.: We can’t fly to Baghdad today. Sandstorm.
Mrs. S.: I had to push the dog off the bed in the middle of the night. He was taking up too much space.
Mr.S.: We’re served dinner in a State dining room on a table set for fifty.
Mrs. S.: Takeout Taxi was late delivering my Hamburger Hamlet Special. I got a ten-dollars-off-your-next-order coupon.
Mr. S.: I’m drafting language about the human rights of the Kurdish people.
Mrs. S.: I finished my piece for the Garrett Park Bugle on the Fourth of July parade.
University of Georgia Update|
[For background, Search “Georgia.”]
From Access North Georgia:
A University of Georgia instructor says linebacker Tavares Kearney twisted her wrist after she confiscated his camera cell phone because she suspected him of using the device to cheat on a nutrition exam.
Here’s a general update on the health of the team from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
If Kearney is unable to compete for Georgia this fall, he'll become the seventh member of the 19-player incoming class to miss the season. Five others did not meet academic requirements and a sixth, Antavious Coates, suffered a season-ending knee injury this summer.
Friday, July 22, 2005
More Commentary on|
the Iraqi Constitution
The blogger at Semi-random Ramblings notes that virtually no one’s taking note:
Jeez, you’d think their first freedom-enshrining Constitution would be getting more press (did they have this problem in 1776?) Why is it we have to go to a non-media source for news that should be trumpeted across the front pages of every freedom-loving newspaper in the world? …Ho-hum, democracy and freedom being codified for 25 million people. Yawn.
As the world explodes around us, let us take refuge in the trivial.
UD doesn’t know why she and Patti Davis didn’t cross paths long ago at Northwestern University. UD’s a bit vague on the years - Davis is older than I am - and Davis dropped out of NU and transferred to USC pretty quickly. Still, they went there at roughly the same time.
Davis doesn’t mention having attended NU in a piece she wrote recently about the school’s championship women’s lacrosse team, some of whose members wore flipflops to meet President Bush and thereby scandalized many people who thought they should have dressed more formally.
Herself a total slob, UD feels uncomfortable chiming in on this one; but the story certainly brought back memories of NU.
There weren’t any winning sports teams in my day. I remember going to one and only one football game at NU, which was at that time a major football joke all over the world. It was a bright clear very cold afternoon. UD and her friends sat up high in the stadium. The players were squiggly things in purple doing God knows what down there. Losing by sixty points.
It was understood that the team would lose, so UD’s cohort had a fine time floating on the surreality of the situation. None of them understood or gave a rat's patootie about football, and their only interest was in scoring the precise degree of humiliation which their team, as usual, was undergoing at the hands of some truly Big Ten outfit. I still remember how much fun it was to cheer hysterically, knowing that our team was a huge obvious loser. There was a tension-free, let-it-all-go feel to it.
Years and years later, UD had the inestimable privilege of going to a Washington Redskins game. You have to live in DC to know just how sought-after Redskins tickets are. A friend of a friend couldn’t use them, so we got them.
We sat high up in the stadium. The players were reddish squiggly things moving about. I grew bored and pulled out that day’s New York Times acrostic, which occupied me nicely for the next couple of hours.
He didn’t say it on his way to the funeral.|
We’re not calling the woman in to give evidence.
It’s substantially true.
His reputation was already ruined.
How can a guy who lives in France sue an American magazine anyway?
British courts are sure fun to watch.
From the Times online:
Roman Polanski, the film director, was today awarded £50,000 libel damages over a Vanity Fair article which stated that he made sexual advances to a Scandinavian woman soon after his wife’s brutal murder in 1969.
Telle, the Truth
Polanski Account Affirmed
Thursday, July 21, 2005
I don’t quite get the reasoning here, but drawn as I am to Bobo (David Brooks’s “bourgeois bohemian“) explanations for things, I think it’s worth considering.
The blogger from Oxblog (via Andrew Sullivan) seems to say that liberals are going to give Roberts a pass because he’s one of them:
JOHN ROBERTS, THE ANTI-BUSH? I don't know heads or tails about constitutional law, so I'll have to focus on the politics of John Roberts' nomination. And what I know so far is that 'liberal' journalists are falling all over themselves to see who can praise Roberts more.
The Bobo heart of this is “Roberts graduated summa cum laude and was the managing editor of law review. He's not just an Ivy Leaguer -- he's the kind of Ivy Leaguer that journalists and pundits wish their children could be. In other words, Roberts is supposedly the kind of Ivy Leaguer who thinks in a way that fellow Ivy Leaguers readily understand and heartily praise…” Because the media wrongly stereotypes Bush as stupid, it assumes his Supreme Court nominee will be stupid too. When the nominee is not stupid, but is in fact smart in just the way the media recognizes and admires, the media is so astonished and grateful (imagine what we could’ve had!) that it decides to make the best of it.
Something like that. As I say, the argument’s not entirely clear. What I find strangest about it is the claim that liberal media elites, winner-take-all people, feel an affinity with this winner -- summa, Harvard, and the rest.
They may feel such an affinity, but what I gather about Roberts suggests that beyond his strong analytical intellect he has little in common with liberal media elites, and is in fact significantly more alien to them than Bush. His lifelong Catholic piety, for instance, indicates a religious particularity, seriousness and steadfastness not at all like Bush’s bad-boy-born-again thing. His singular, late in life marriage and apparent lack of wild bachelor behavior before that makes him sound more like an Irishman, circa 1950, than a twenty-first century media guy.
Most alien of all, I’d say, is that intellect itself. Clearly, Roberts is a cerebral nerd. He doesn’t look like one, but he is. He loves thinking about and interpreting the law. Liberal media elites are not intellectuals; they are intelligent generalists who admire action, not meditation. Kerry, their last presidential candidate, had an Ivy League record just as mediocre as Bush’s, and they didn’t mind.
Update: The Washington Post also picks up on the 'fifties gestalt.
' Speaking at the AlwaysOn conference at Stanford University, futurist George Gilder predicted a harrowing future for humanity. TV will die, he said, and be replaced by blogs.
It’s Not Just the Bloggers.
[Letter to the Editor, Oregon Daily Emerald, University of Oregon Newspaper]:
As a University of Oregon alumnus, I read with some disquiet about the University’s Five Year Diversity Plan.
NEUROTIC COFFEE-DRINKING JEW|
"Among other charges in [her] suit [against Southeastern Louisiana University], [former Dean] Landesberg-Boyle said her Jewish identity was often met with scorn at Southeastern. She said that when a Jewish candidate was interviewed for an SLU position in 1998, one campus employee told an administrator in a memo that 'we don't need another neurotic coffee-drinking Jew.'"
[Thanks to D. Avid.]
…is admittedly far removed from the concerns of this blog. But since UD’s husband is working in Kurdistan at the moment, she’s reading and thinking about it.
Which doesn’t mean you have to, but I thought I’d share, anyway, some interesting remarks I’ve found in my Kurd-surfing. The first is by Shlomo Avineri, in the journal Dissent.
That there are so many more Arabs (and Turks) than Kurds has determined attitudes toward the Kurdish people. The issue is, obviously, not only numbers. It is also a matter of the power of Arab — and Muslim — states. It entails concern for oil and Turkey’s strategic location. And finally, it concerns the fact that the Kurds are not only a small people, they also do not have powerful friends. They are a nation without many cousins abroad or fraternal allies.
The second is something Christopher Hitchens said in a recent interview.
This is the flag of Kurdistan in my lapel; but my Kurdish comrades say that …their main responsibility is for the new Iraq now. And they who would have every right to say we want to get out of this prison house of the state are willing to still cooperate to help to emancipate the rest of it. I think that's an extraordinary sacrifice on their part. Deserves more recognition than it's had.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
SNAPSHOTS FROM HOME|
Whoa! ‘thesda beats out Cambridge and Princeton as best educated!
Hiram Hover’s tracking Ward Churchill and his exorcists.
The editors at The Education Wonks have featured this recent post (scroll down) of UD's on their most recent Carnival of Education. As always, the Carnival is a compendium of the best that bloggers have been writing on the subject.
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Via The Cranky Professor, who points out that “the same thing can be said about most of our fields,” there’s this from The Right Coast:
Do you sometimes feel, Professor, that no one is listening to you, that your articles are ignored? IS ANYBODY LISTENING?!! Well, the bad news is, you are probably right. That is, you probably are being ignored. I will try to make this point in forthcoming article(s), but probably no one will pay any attention to me, so this is your chance . . .
For readers who’d like more background on what UD’s husband is doing in Kurdistan, here’s a story from the Christian Science Monitor.
And, if you've got a good eye for details, here's more, from UD's old friend, Peter Galbraith, in the New York Review of Books.
UPDATE, Monday, July 25: Opinion piece from Galbraith in today's Boston Globe.
Ed School Diploma Mills|
From an editorial in today’s New York Times:
“[A] constant flow of data …shows poor and diminished performance in middle schools and high schools. …The states must … bite the bullet and finally close any colleges of education that are no more than diploma mills.”
Can you imagine any state closing any college of education?
Monday, July 18, 2005
THE AGONY OF HYPOCOGNITION|
Andrew Sullivan has some fun with the linguistic pretensions on view in the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s profile of George Lakoff and his ideas for the Democratic party about “framing” their message differently.
Lakoff tells the reporter that the party “suffers from ‘hypocognition,’ or a lack of ideas.” Sullivan calls hypocognition “my favorite new word,” and notes that it’s “coined by ‘framer’ ‘expert,’ George Lakoff. It means ‘lacking ideas.’ As bullshit goes, it’s pretty good.”
In a very quick Google study (UD can’t futz with jargon too long without getting jumpy), I find that the word means all sorts of different things. A guy writing about “corporate colonialism” says
Hypocognition results when a term is used to conjure up all-positive images to prevent us from understanding what is really going on. For example, hypocognition makes it hard for the public to believe there can be anything wrong with “globalism” or “free trade,” which sound like the apple pie and motherhood of the 21st century.
Anthropologists use it to mean something else again, as do dermatologists.
What strikes me most about the Lakoffian view of the world, as described in the article, is its utter rejection of the possibility that we might - to some modest extent - be rational autonomous agents, capable of forging and defending our own positions, and capable of independently changing our positions as well. The first thing the Democrats need to understand, according to Lakoff, is that they
have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be "activated" by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.
The combination here of pseudo-empiricism (Science has proved we’re all programmed! Activate the frames!) and contempt for the idea of intellectual agency is unlikely to generate models of discourse that your typical American will find appealing, as Marc Cooper points out in an article in The Nation, from which the New York Times writer quotes:
"Much more than an offering of serious political strategy, [Lakoff’s book,] Don't Think of an Elephant! is a feel-good, self-help book for a stratum of despairing liberals who just can't believe how their common-sense message has been misunderstood by eternally deceived masses," Cooper wrote. In Lakoff's view, he continued, American voters are "redneck, chain-smoking, baby-slapping Christers desperately in need of some gender-free nurturing and political counseling by organic-gardening enthusiasts from Berkeley."
"[W]e no longer have a culture of writing. Writing is now a specialty. So judges, politicians, businessmen, lawyers--and now it seems law professors--increasingly hire ghostwriters (whether they're called ghostwriters, law clerks, or research assistants) as specialists in writing. I am one of the dinosaurs who still does all my own opinion writing (and of course book and article writing as well). You probably are too. But let's face it: we're on the road to extinction." [Richard Posner quoted at The Volokh Conspiracy (scroll down to "The Truth About Ghostwriting").]
From today's New York Times:
Public Relations Campaign
[For a related earlier post, go here.]
UPDATE: Daniel Drezner picks up on the same story. His response:
"Why the hell didn't anyone mention that I could have hired PR people to pimp up my material before I handed in my friggin' tenure file???!!!"
Sunday, July 17, 2005
OBLIGATORY HARRY POTTER POST|
UD’s Joyce-themed (first two names, Anna Livia), fourteen-year-old spawn is wild for Harry and has now read the latest book in the series and reported the same feelings of despair and why go on as all the other Potter-mad blogspawn whose parents have written about them this morning...
UD herself isn’t drawn to the Rowling books (her husband, currently in Kurdistan, likes the novels, but none are unavailable in his palatial compound -- a place that sounds, now that I think of it, much like Hogwart’s). She does enjoy, though, recalling the curious circumstances of her daughter’s reading of each book as it was released.
For one of the releases, they were in Ubud, Bali. UD had ordered it way in advance from Amazon, and there it was, waiting for her excited child in the town’s ramshackle post office. For another, they were in Biarritz, and they assumed they wouldn’t be able to find the English edition on the day of its release. Which was silly - Biarritz is a very British French resort, and they picked up the book at the first bookstore they visited.
The kid marched the book down to the beach, got herself comfortable, and didn’t move for the next four hours.
THE CREATIVITY REQUIREMENT|
UD’s defense of the five-paragraph argumentative essay formula as a foundation for young writers elicited a good deal more than five paragraphs of comments from her readers (see “Make a Paper Doll of It”).
It’s interesting, this Sunday morning in ‘thesda, where you can’t see out of your house windows for the humidity and there’s a heat advisory on, to read that all of the letters the New York Times published in response to the original article agree with her.
Some of the letters you’d expect. There’s a note from someone at the College Board insisting that “the SAT essay is carefully designed to measure a student’s mastery of many different elements of writing, with prompts to stimulate critical thinking about complex issues.” No doubt this is so, but it doesn’t get at one of Timothy Burke’s points -- you’ve got to train exam readers who recognize valid departures from the 5-paragraph form and don’t punish them as non-standard.
Most of the other writers acknowledge that the formula isn’t ideal but “it’s better than nothing.” It‘s “a reasonably good way to develop a little facility handling supporting evidence.” “American society places great emphasis on individual liberty and intellectual creativity, but students can’t be great creative writers if they are not technically competent.” (This is one of the reasons UD advocates the end of the Creative Writing undergraduate major, as well as a more general cutting back on the kudzu-like growth of Creative Writing courses in college. Few students have the technical competence - let alone the literary culture - to spend most of their college time writing personal narratives.)
Another letter writer, echoing a point David Foster made in his comments about Stravinsky, writes, “creativity by definition involves playing with conventions…. One cannot be creative without some mastery of the conventional.” “[T]here is little evidence that creative flights, as such, impart clarity, depth, or cogency of thought. The ability to organize and evaluate reasons (logic) was once the centerpiece of a good education. Sadly, it has been displaced by content-centered courses that teach students what to think rather than how to think.”
This final comment goes to the great irony of America’s story-telling approach to education and life (television, as many people have pointed out, is an infinitely extended presentation of one little narrative after another): creativity turns out to be mandated content. Instead of allowing students the slow path toward the discovery of thoughts, experiences, and modes of writing that preceded them (call this slow path “education”), teachers rush their students down the self-expressivity superhighway.
Students find there what you’d expect: an inchoate, immature, unrealized, uncertain self. They’re young, after all, with little reading and little experience. They don’t know how to organize their thoughts about the world or about themselves. They don’t have much in the way of thoughts about themselves and the world. What they have are feelings. It’s counterproductive to go at the problem of emotional unclarity by playing to feelings.
You end up with courses like the one I wrote about a few posts ago -- the one at DeAnza College, which is about orchestrating students’ thoughts and feelings from the outset, rather than allowing them to learn something. “Creativity” designates a certain ideology at this point, just as susceptible to force-feeding as any other ideology.
Saturday, July 16, 2005
NEWMARK in the |
Betsy Newmark of Betsy’s Page (which links, UD is proud to say, to University Diaries), is featured in today’s Washington Post, in an article which discusses the increasing centrality of blogging to American life.
UD has written a lot lately about the growing importance of blogs in academia; the Post article notes their significance throughout the culture.
Haloscan, UD's comment service, is still having problems today.
A Regular University Diaries Feature
It’s getting wild in the world of the syllabum omnium. This is the book length syllabus in which you tell your students everything about yourself, discuss your spiritual life, worry copiously about things you might say that might offend some of them, warn off registrants insufficiently committed to your social goals, promote your business and community interests, and by turns cajole, psychoanalyze, threaten, and adore the anonymous group of undergraduates who’ve never met you and whose only relationship with you is that they’ve signed up for your university course.
UD thought she’d seen the ultimate syllabum omnium in a course on deviance taught at Rutgers, in whose first assignment the instructor threatens her students with arrest:
Assignment 1 Doing Deviance
Introducing your course to your students by referring them to the office of the prosecutor seemed to UD rather a malign turn from the bizarre but relatively benign syllabi omniae she had already encountered. Like the syllabus in which students couldn’t pass the course unless they voted in a presidential election. The one in which students got scads of points if they went to a health food restaurant, ate there, and then submitted a “proof of eating” form to the instructor. The one in which students got points for militating on behalf of a local anti-smoking ordinance. The one where students had to make phone calls on behalf of a politician the instructor was advising.
Strange things all, but they lacked the threat of jail.
Via the website Discriminations, UD sees that things have again been taken up a notch. A professor at DeAnza College in California not only includes this assignment in his syllabum omnium:
Week 8 Race and Higher Education
The professor also notes, in his prolegomena to students, the following:
[O]ver the course of learning and using the emotionally-based tools taught in this class you may feel tempted to extend your relationship [with fellow students] into more intimate realms. This is because we are setting up a learning environment that can allow for closeness and trust that some of you may have not previously experienced in a school environment. While we encourage you to develop close and trusting friendships and working relationships, our experience has been that building "romantic" relationships with members of the class (where such relationships do not already exist) can be harmful to our primary goals of learning. Therefore we encourage you to be thoughtful about the nature of the relationships you establish. Explicitly, this means especially refraining from any unwelcome intimate advances. Should this occur to you or should you have questions about this policy, please contact the instructor immediately.
POSTSCRIPT TO THE |
‘Bloggers Need Not Apply’
Academic bloggers can fuss all they want, but in the end I guess this is the only real response to the pseudonymous scold at the Chronicle of Higher Education. It comes from Mark Grimsley, a history professor at Ohio State:
Custer and the Art of the Blog - Addendum
[Hat tip to Ralph Luker.]
Friday, July 15, 2005
From Eugene Volokh’s website Volokh Conspiracy(Volokh is a law professor at UCLA):
A Lesson for Law Reviews, and for Authors:
THE THRILL IS GONE|
I don’t know what’s wrong. Faithful readers know how much UD loves a good plagiarism story (“And pray,” as Lady Bracknell says, “make it improbable.”). So what with Professor Finkelstein going after Professor Dershowitz in all the papers, she should be full of glee.
And yet… and yet … (as Erich Heller, UD’s professor at Northwestern long ago, used to say) -- she discovers within herself absolutely no interest in this high-profile case. The combatants are both shitskies, for one thing, so when they meet for radio debates you root for both of them to lose… There’s no subtlety, either. They just bang away at each other, bang, bang, bang…
For the record, UD figures Dershowitz probably did lift some of the book what’s his name accuses him of having plagiarized. Dershowitz is one of those busy professionals who has groups of students do a good deal of the writing of his books for him, far as UD can tell (for another Harvard law school instance of this practice, see Ogletree), and, as UD has pointed out before, there are obvious dangers to this form of outsourcing.
I realize that this is an important story is some ways, and so I’ll do some outsourcing of my own. Hiram Hover, a fellow academic blogger and a very impressive one, does seem to be able to get excited about Finkelstein/Dershowitz. Read him.
Just Trying to Help|
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
A criminal justice assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is under investigation on allegations of finagling a scholarship by forging an application for a female student with whom he sought a relationship.
Trouble with the comment function on the blog this morning. I'm working on it.
Thursday, July 14, 2005
KD, an English major at George Washington University, has begun a blog, Slightly Critical, about what it's like being an undergraduate studying the humanities. There are only a few posts up, but it already looks interesting. UD has added it to her Links -- it’s number three on the list.
IN THE PENAL COLONY|
"[Martha] Stewart clearly feels battered by her transformation from American icon to convicted felon, an ordeal she has characterized, at various times, as 'a small personal matter blown out of all proportion,' 'an almost fatal circus event,' and 'this fucking mess.' Yet in the course of our conversation I sense that she also feels redemption in the aftermath of her experience at the penal colony. 'I felt very close to Kafka during parts of this ordeal. I even got a Kafka t-shirt to wear.'"
Vanity Fair magazine
...yesterday in the rain. I wondered as I wandered why, after so long, there wasn't even a small meditation garden or something. Someplace where you can get away from peddlers and commuters and gawkers. Instead you walk around and around the observation fence, able to hear but not see construction work at the site, glancing at a random collection of signs and images along the fence, dodging high school journalism students who want to interview you about how you feel... I realize the monumental importance of doing the memorial park and the new tower right; it's okay that the project is taking ages. But it wouldn't be difficult to put a plaque somewhere and grow grasses around it to set it off from the streetscape.
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
MAKE A PAPER DOLL OF IT|
Last week, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a pseudonymous writer attacked people who don't write pseudonymously. This morning, in The New York Times, a formulaic writer attacks people who write formulaically.
The Times piece follows the established journalistic formula for contrasting the free spirit of art to the imprisoning grip of the state:
First, narrate a marvelous exciting personal story describing what it's like to leave your stultifying bureaucratic public school and fly like a bird in a creative writing seminar:
Exciting, mind-stretching, eye-opening, calling the voice out -- fabulous.
And she got an A!
But -- how newsworthy is the A? What do you figure the grade range was in this course? ... Non-formulaic question.
Second, draw the obvious moral:
"One of the major points was, good writing is good thinking. That's why writing formulas don't work. Formulas don't let kids think; they kill a lot of creativity in writing."
Rule-bound activity kills creativity, the opening of the voice, the expression of the self, personal freedom, excitement...
Third, insert bogeyman:
And so, when Ms. Karnes returns to Allendale High School to teach English this fall, she will use the new writing techniques she learned and abandon the standard five-paragraph essay formula. Right?
Well, if the public schools aren't about helping real estate values, what are they about? Fundamental knowledge in building an argument - precisely the knowledge the New York Times writer acquired in order to get his job - is just a cynical exercise imposed upon innocent children by a mercenary state even as those children struggle to find their authentic voice.
Fourth, strengthen your "It's all about money" argument by marshalling evidence:
In Michigan, there is added pressure. If students pass the state tests, they receive $2,500 college scholarships, and in Ms. Karnes's middle-class district, families need that money. "I can't see myself fighting against MEAP," she said. "It would hurt my students too much. It's a dilemma. It may not be the best writing, but it gets them the money."
Damn straight they lose points for one-sentence paragraphs! I trust they also lose points for cliches like "law of the land."
Anyway. As the article continues it becomes clear that we have a category confusion going on. When the state test says "writing," it means making coherent arguments in prose; when the teachers interviewed say "writing," they mean telling stories in prose. The teacher of the creative writing course explains:
Paper dolls, pairing up -- we're quite a distance from a polemical essay. To be sure, we're in a warm cooperative creative space; but this is not where we're supposed to be.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Is That Spinoza In Your Pocket,|
Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?
Armed Professor Arrested at Airport
Ohio State professor Frank Holtzhauer was arrested while carrying a fully loaded handgun through a Port Columbus Airport security checkpoint yesterday morning, said Scott Lorenzo, the Transportation Security Administration Manager at the airport.
From "Holster" Holtzhauer's faculty webpage:
Dr. Holtzhauer's areas of interest include a range of issues from public health workforce development to violence as a public health issue, Reye's syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, and infectious diseases including Legionnaires disease. Frank began his public health career as a field epidemiologist with the Ohio Department of Health and then moved thru [gevalt] the ranks to become the Chief of the Division of Epidemiology.
Monday, July 11, 2005
"They had not the apparatus for judging," writes EM Forster's narrator, in A Passage to India, of various characters' attempts to understand India. UD'd say the same for the Pennsylvania state legislature as it begins to constitute a committee to judge the intellectual diversity of the state's university system.
Hiram Hover has the correct, non-hysterical take on the matter.
But is this really such a victory [for the Academic Bill of Rights]? Certainly, it's several steps from being a win for the ABOR. Remember, when legislators can’t be bothered to legislate, they investigate. And in this case, the resolution's sponsor doesn't expect a report for almost a year and half.
Instead of trying to define, understand, and measure something they haven't the apparatus for, the legislature should encourage the public universities in Pennsylvania to give their graduating students simple exit exams so the taxpayers funding the universities can find out if students know any more after four years in the universities than they did after four years of high school.
HITCHENS, NEW YORK|
"What he loves most is the idea of America, and particularly of New York, 'the magnetic compass point of my life.'"
This is a reviewer in the New Statesman --
-- writing about and quoting Christopher Hitchens. UD's admiration for Hitchens began as pure stylistics -- he just writes better than everyone else. Like his model, Orwell, he's emotional without being manipulative and self-indulgent; erudite without being snobbish; broad in subject matter without ever being vague, and committed to important moral and political battles without being self-righteous.
UD's admiration for him gradually widened out into a steady interest in his content. Hitchens is a person capable of significant ideological change, a change that seems to have come about for him as a result of eagerly seized immediate engagement with world conflict -- again, like Orwell, who went to Spain; or like Michael Kelly, who died in Iraq. Everything Hitchens writes is interesting, not because one agrees with everything, but because everything he writes is imbued with humanity.
By which I mean -- well, look at New York, his magnetic compass point, and current location of UD. Here humanity's on stage; here there's a public and vivid tableau of people engaging the world with intensity. UD walks onto this stage - New York City - only occasionally, but when she does, she recognizes that, like Paris, this city is thrillingly open and free. Personalities are accessible to the eye here; there's a palpable sense of personal and political lives being lived fully.
But this isn't where the humanity UD has in mind comes in. It comes in with the full acceptance of the vulnerability that this freedom carries with it. To live an authentic life in the polis, as writers as different as Gillian Rose and Allan Bloom knew, means doing what Rose called "love's work" at the risk of annihilation. Lately the stakes for all of us in the city are higher, but here we all are; and the great value of people like Hitchens is that he reminds us why.
Sunday, July 10, 2005
UD's enjoying New York City. She saw the musical The Putnam County Spelling Bee today and liked it, though she didn't laugh as uproariously at it as she figured she would.
It looks as though UD's husband will travel to Kurdistan in a few days, to advise the Kurds on their constitution. Which will mean that UD won't be at her summer house in Upstate New York when she thought she'd be. She'll probably be back in 'thesda, which will mean more regular blogging.
Saturday, July 09, 2005
Dan Drezner at http://www.danieldrezner.com/archives/002167.html (sorry - I'm on an alien computer and can't figure out "highlight" quite yet) says pretty much what I'd like to say about a recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece (the link's in his article) which complains under a pseudonym about bloggers who don't use pseudonyms.
The author is on an academic hiring committee which has the habit of turning up as finalists for their jobs only non-academic bloggers -- people whose blogs are about venting personal stuff. Since there are many serious impersonal academic bloggers, from graduate students to professors, this outcome says something about the nature of this search committee, perhaps, but little about academic bloggers.
Particularly sad in the original article is what the writer does with his correct observation that it's hard to find the obscure journal articles that candidates have typically written, and all too easy to find their blog entries. As a commenter on Drezner's blog points out, a focused and well-written academic blog gets hundreds of serious readers a day, while articles in obscure journals may not get read by anyone but search and promotion committee members. And yet the visibility and responsiveness that blogs represent seem to this committee member merely an occasion for possible embarrassment. Far better for everyone to squirrel away their ideas in hyperspecialized journals than to put their ideas out there and risk having them taken seriously by a real audience.
Sadder yet is the academic stereotype of timid conventionality that the tone as well as the anonymity of this piece reflect.
And saddest is the possibility that reprimands of this sort will stay the hand of intellectuals drawn to the blogosphere.
Friday, July 08, 2005
UD will be in New York City, and then Upstate New York, for the next couple of weeks. Blogging will be lighter.
Thursday, July 07, 2005
From IN MEMORIAM|
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel:
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.
SNAPSHOTS FROM HOME|
It’s two in the afternoon, July 6, outside the Garrett Park, Maryland post office. UD is racing down the steps to the place in order to check her mail (there‘s no home delivery in Garrett Park). The taxi that’s taken her from the metro to the post office is idling behind her, waiting for her to come back from getting her mail so that it can drive her home.
A few steps from the post office door, she’s stopped by three teenage boys - she vaguely recognizes them as locals - who start filming and interviewing her.
“Excuse me,” one of them says to her. “How do you feel about G-Unit?”
UD peers down from her higher step at the boy below her. Despite her very wide-brimmed hat, she‘s squinting from the sun. She is in a hurry.
“Hm,” UD replies. The camera is rolling. The boys are staring. “G-Unit... G-Unit... I feel … that you should only wear a ... G-Unit... if you are at the beach.”
The boys look at each other and giggle. UD proceeds into the building.
On her way out, the boys salute UD from their shady bench near the post office. “Thank you!” they call out. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
STORMING THE TEMPEL|
Think of it as the July Fourth Deep Impact probe crashing into Comet Tempel 1.
The collision shot the thing’s nucleus out and sent radiant debris into space. Scholars are now huddling around the data: "We don't know exactly what we kicked up yet," one of them says.
Think of the pulverization of the study of literature in colleges in this way. If you do, you begin to understand a recent opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed whose author announces with satisfaction the death of English departments. “I propose that the discipline is dead, that we willingly killed it and that we now decide as serious scholars and committed intellectuals what should replace it in this new world of anti-intellectual backlash and religious fundamentalism.”
Unlike Tempel 1, which just occurred, the temple of literature was stormed awhile back. Decades ago. But, as this author points out, while people sheltered in English and Comparative Lit departments have as a result been writing and reading apres le deluge for quite awhile, they haven‘t yet officially and institutionally acknowledged the absurdity of continuing to call what they do “English” or “Comparative Literature.”
Few of the professors anachronistically housed in English departments any longer restrict their scholarly and pedagogical activities to novels, plays, poems, and secondary works about those things; they’ve been reading and teaching any and all texts for years, not merely those which (for purely political reasons, they argue), have historically been given the imprimatur “literature.” These new texts include all conceivable non-written materials: television shows, walls with graffiti on them, menstrual blood, space chimps.
Still fewer of these professors bother consulting any canons, or any standards of aesthetic value, when assigning texts. Surface complexity makes getting to the political stuff harder. What matters is delivering the correct social content to your students, and you can do that faster with didactic novels, preachy essays, video documentaries…. James Wood gets the separation between people interested in aesthetic value and people who’ve become university professors exactly right:
Value follows intention. There is no greater mark of the gap that separates writers and English departments than the question of value. The very thing that most matters to writers, the first question they ask of a work - is it any good? - is often largely irrelevant to university teachers. …Writers are intensely interested in what might be called aesthetic success: they have to be, because in order to create something successful one must learn about other people's successful creations.[I found this quoted on Maud Newton's blog.]
Readers are interested in aesthetic success, too, until they’re convinced in graduate school that it’s an elitist ruse. As undergraduates they have the same impulse most of us do to try to account for the power of literary art over us. In graduate school they learn that this fascination with the power of aesthetic experience is just tricked up religion (the IHE essayist complains steadily about America being a religious country). They learn how to say this sort of thing (taken from a comment thread at The Valve) with confidence:
[F]ormalist definitions of the “intrinsic” properties of literary language inevitably wind up in one of two places. Either they turn into simple tautologies (literature affords reading experiences of a distinct kind, and reading experiences of a distinct kind can only be induced by literature), or they involve their proponents in angels-dancing-on-pins exercises, like trying to determine how the sentence “Twenty minutes later we were in the car” can be nonliterary in a journal or diary, but literary when it appears on page 119 of DeLillo’s White Noise.
It’s good we’re only hearing about this now. Imagine how discouraged William James would have been to be told that the whole “varieties of religious experience” thing is either a tautology or a pin dance…
Anyway. Used to be the only thing you had in common with other members of an English department was a shared valuing of a reasonably stable set of literary works. Those works were all over the political, religious, and philosophical spectrum, so the commonality had nothing to do with shared attitudes toward content. It had to do with shared attitudes about the distinctive value of literary art -- with what a novel could do that a philosophical essay could not do.
You had a strong Department of English Literature as long as you had a strong sense of differentiation between literature and other things. Nowadays (UD spits some tobacco into a pail, scratches her armpit, leans back in her rocker) in these here … Studies Agglomerations, you need to pledge allegiance to certain political propositions before they’ll let you agglomerate.
That’s why Studies Agglomerations are ground zero in the intellectually non-diverse academy. They are what people have in mind when they complain about monolithic liberalism in universities.
Yet although most of the agglomerated share a politics, they have little else in common. Everyone’s racing down a different rabbit hole after something that hasn’t been decoded.
So post-English departments have done two things -- they’ve dismissed literature as such from the literature department; and they have balkanized into smaller and more obscure units. “I find humanities scholars lovely people, but I don't have fuck all of an idea of what they are talking about,” writes a commenter at Butterflies and Wheels. He’s not the only one.
For all of these reasons and more, post-English departments have become moving objects irresistibly attractive to academic downsizer probes. These departments are suffering, the IHE writer notes, "massive declines in enrollment." They risk being cost-cut right out of the university.
Comet Tempel 1 is a tough piece of work. It has lost a bit of radiance, but it’ll recover. Those of us huddling around the radiant debris of what used to be the English department hope it’ll recover too. A discipline is a terrible thing to waste.
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
THIS I BELIEVE|
Cultural competency, academic bills of rights, speech restrictions, syllabi with required “here are my moral commitments” and “here’s what you might find morally offensive in this course” sections, and now “ethical competency” …You just can’t seem to stop people from meddling and mandating in the American university classroom. All you can do, if you’re UD and it’s the morning of the fifth of July and you’re exhausted from yesterday’s blowout, is keep trying to swat this stuff down.
UD admires Candace de Russy, the SUNY trustee who’s relentless in going after the academic follies of the public university system of New York (most recently, she wrote scathing things about the introduction of a “casino“ major in some SUNY schools). But her latest opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed is a real mess.
It’s a mess in the same way opinion columns defending cultural competency, and university reports defending mandatory summer camps in diversity training for faculty, are a mess. All of these pieces of writing take on the same vast, complex, and delicate human matter: how we engage with one another in the world. You can formalize this matter to some extent, as in moral philosophy; you can describe variations, as in anthropology; you can analyze things like religious imperatives (“Do unto others…”) as in theology. You can’t stick it into your curriculum and make your students moral.
Remember Randy Newman’s song, “Sandman's Coming”: “It’s a great big dirty world/ If they say it ain't, they’re lying.” Students understand this because they’re in the world; business school and economics students really understand it, because they’re on the cutting edge of the market-based world of the United States -- a world that the French, for instance, in rejecting the EU Constitution, cited as too down and dirty for them. You can try to make market capitalism kinder and gentler, as the French wish to do; you can attack it outright; you can defend it. What you cannot do is what Russy attempts to do in her Insider Higher Ed piece: pretend that it doesn’t encourage unethical behavior.
Alan Greenspan acknowledges that it does in a recent speech at the Wharton school, when he notes that despite endless legislation and rules, there’s still significant, high and low profile corporate corruption:
But recent corporate scandals in the United States and elsewhere have clearly shown that the plethora of laws and regulations of the past century have not eliminated the less-savory side of human behavior.
Greenspan goes on in a vague way to call for more oversight and perhaps yet more legislation; he concludes, even more vaguely, by saying this to Wharton’s graduating class:
A generation from now, as you watch your children graduate, you will want to be able to say that whatever success you achieved was the result of honest and productive work, and that you dealt with people the way you would want them to deal with you. … I do not deny that many appear to have succeeded in a material way by cutting corners and manipulating associates, both in their professional and in their personal lives. But material success is possible in this world, and far more satisfying, when it comes without exploiting others. The true measure of a career is to be able to be content, even proud, that you succeeded through your own endeavors without leaving a trail of casualties in your wake.
UD finds this eloquent and empty. More substantial is the reality, as Russy herself notes, that “in his book Moral Dimension, Amitai Etzioni equates the neoclassical economic paradigm with disregard for ethics. Sumantra Ghoshal’s article “Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices,” in Academy of Management Learning and Education Journal, blames ethical decay on the compensation and management practices that evolved from economic theory’s emphasis on incentives.” Yet Russy averts her gaze from this pretty straightforward truth and, bizarrely, locks onto poststructuralist philosophy:
[T]he efficient markets hypothesis is itself a reflection of a deeper and broader philosophical positivism that is now pandemic to the entire academy. …Over the past two centuries the assaults on the rational basis for morals have created an atmosphere that stymies interest in ethical education. In the 18th century, the philosopher David Hume wrote that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” so that morals are emotional and cannot be proven true. Today’s academic luminaries have thoroughly imbibed this “emotivist” perspective. …[T]o learn to act ethically, human beings need to be exposed to living models of ethical emotion, intention and habit. Far removed from such living models, college students today are incessantly exposed to varying degrees of nihilism…
But rather than go on to defend Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights or something like that, Russy then shifts course again and says anyway it doesn’t matter what nihilistic relativist philosophers teach; what matters is how they act: professors must be living embodiments of morality, and if they’re not, they should go:
[T]he growing influence of nihilism within the academy is deeply, and causally, connected to increasing ethical breaches by academics (such as the cases of plagiarism and fraud that we cited earlier). Abstract theorizing about ethics has most assuredly affected academics’ professional behavior….It is time for the academy to heed the AAUP’s 1915 declaration, which warned that if the professoriate “should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of … the unworthy… it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”
Whether it’s from the left, as in mandated cultural reeducation, or from the right, as in mandated morality-embodiment, it’s the same coercive effort to engineer a great big pretty world.
Monday, July 04, 2005
THE ACADEMIC BILL OF RIGHTS|
Today, when we celebrate, among other things, our Bill of Rights, it’s worth reminding ourselves that despite the hysteria, the Academic Bill of Rights has as of today “been introduced in 15 state legislatures this year and that not one passed it.” The Academic Bill of Rights responds to a real problem - the lack of conservative views at American colleges and universities - but goes about it the wrong way, dragging yahoos from various legislatures into the mess.
UD realizes that they’re not all yahoos. But enough of them are.
UD just sent off to her co-author a revised chapter of a book they’ve been working on, and she noticed that in the act of rewriting she consulted her blog a lot. Quotations, paragraphs, ideas about beauty (the book’s about the return of aesthetic considerations to literary study in the university classroom, and in the larger culture, after years of beauty’s dismissal by theorists) were scattered about the blog’s pages. They had only to be picked up, reworked slightly, and inserted into the revision.
A story in this morning’s New York Times confirms that other essayists, novelists, and scholars, are discovering the same thing.
For years, book authors have used the Internet to publicize their work and to keep in touch with readers. Several … are now experimenting with maintaining blogs while still in the act of writing their books.
This is the sort of outcome Terry Teachout has in mind, I think, when he anticipates that bloggers, a “network of free-standing, independent commentators who self-publish their thoughts where they can be heard by anyone who cares to listen,” may be creating “a new kind of common culture. …I still feel the need for a common space in which Americans can come together to talk about the things that matter to us all. And so my hope is that the blogosphere, for all its fissiparous tendencies, will evolve over time into just such a space. No doubt there will always be shouting in the blogosphere, but it need not all be past each other. When the history of blogging is written a half-century from now, its chroniclers may yet record that the highest achievement of the Internet, a seemingly impersonal piece of postmodern technology, turned out to be its unprecedented ability to bring creatures of flesh and blood closer together.”
Sunday, July 03, 2005
THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND |
"[T]he university must come to the aid of unprotected and timid reason. The university is the place where inquiry and philosophic openness come into their own. It is intended to encourage the noninstrumental use of reason for its own sake, to provide the atmosphere where the moral and physical superiority of the dominant will not intimidate philosophic doubt.
FREEDOM OF THOUGHT|
Vincent said the allusions to mind control and George Orwell's "1984" are unfounded.
These are comments the author of Oregon’s diversity plan - now an administrator at the University of Texas - recently made to the UT newspaper. Let us consider them one at a time.
1. “"Orwellian would mean they didn't have an opportunity to weigh in.” The word “Orwellian” does not refer to the absence of an ability to weigh in. It refers to forms of institutional repression founded on lies, and featuring outrageous invasions of individual consciousness.
2. “My only criticism of [faculty who sent the letter] is that they didn't give any alternatives.” Yes they did, and they continue to do so. Here are some of them:
Don’t issue public reports whose recommendations have staggering implications for university faculty without talking to a couple of faculty first.
Don’t put faculty names on the list of participants in the report’s drafting if those faculty have not in fact participated in the report.
Don’t recommend enormous and expensive institutional changes founded on a concept (cultural competency) that you do not define.
3. “He defined the term as the skill to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds.” UD has encountered quite a number of definitions of cultural competency at this point. She has heard it defined as having to do with students, not faculty -- with the degree of readiness university students from diverse backgrounds have for the university classroom. She has heard it defined as having to do with professors -- with their degree of readiness to understand and educate students from diverse backgrounds. She has heard it defined not as any particular skill at all but rather as a theoretical commitment to certain principles of social justice.
Vincent’s definition may be the vaguest yet -- being able to work with people who come from a variety of backgrounds. If you are asking the faculty of a university to approve millions of dollars of allocation for this, you are likely to be turned down.
UD thinks it’s time for people who want enormous diversity plans at their universities to get precise or get off the pot. Perhaps she can help.
One of the people who’ve commented on cultural competency notes that it began life in the medical field, and this makes perfect sense. You’re a WASP from Boston who has done nothing but go to prep school, U. Penn, and then med school in Manhattan. You are now suddenly practicing medicine in a town that has a significant Hmong population. You’re going to need a translator. You’re going to have to be a basically empathetic, curious, and tolerant person. And you’re going to have to learn some stuff about Hmong culture. You’ll never be a particularly good doctor to these people, for all of your sophisticated diagnostic skills, because their culture is really alien and will basically remain so. But over time you’ll get better with them, and they’ll get better with you.
There may be some marginal utility, in this rather unusual scenario, to your attending a seminar or two on Hmong ways. There is no utility to your being dragged to Psychodrama Stage in some local auditorium and made to confess your sins and act in a skit.
See, what people are trying to get at with this “Orwellian” thing is that you should pretty much leave them be. What was it Pascal said? “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
As the Fourth Approaches, |
Four Easy Pieces
We’ve had a toad on our doorstep for the last three days. Wanting to know why, I googled toad and doorstep and instantly got a sermon from the First Lutheran Church of Galion Ohio titled "Toadily Awesome" :
There was this contented, poised, inquisitive, observant toad. We might call him, in fact, a pondering toad. He had perched himself on the brick threshold and was taking in the world scene from his unobtrusive vantage point. …I’m grateful to the pondering toad. I’m sure he makes my life quite a bit easier by reducing the pest insect population in my garden. He looked pretty plump, fattened, I’m sure, by a gullet of flies and ants and mosquitoes and aphids and other assorted bugs.
Americans, says the New York Times, citing a big study, “were evenly split between absolutists and relativists in 2000, a significant change from 1981, when 60 percent fell into the relativist category."
I am not sure what this means. My social scientist husband tells me it doesn’t mean anything. “What - to begin with - do they mean by absolutist?”
Martin Weitzman goes to trial soon. “[A]n avid gardener who sought the manure for flower beds at his Gloucester home,” writes the Boston Globe, the Harvard economics professor “said he often took it from farmland about a mile from downtown Rockport. But Weitzman is adamant that he was given permission to do so about three or four years ago from a man who was hauling manure to nearby fields at the time. The professor said he can't remember the man's name or what he looked like, but he assumed the man had the authority to grant the OK, and that it applied to the surrounding fields.”
'"My mantra is, if you don't expect anything, you'll never be disappointed," said Mr. Kooper, who has the air of an eccentric English professor, his curly hair thick and gray, his voice given to odd, owlish inflections.'
Saturday, July 02, 2005
THE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR|
AS PAVLOV’S DOG
From the Diversity Plan Draft, University of Oregon, May 2005:
“Cultural sensitivity and knowledge are necessary but not sufficient for individuals to behave in a culturally competent way. What gets rewarded, gets done.”
“There's a huge amount of intellectual, academic and literary company to keep, but politically, it's all axiomatically liberal. I don't mind that, but it's thought to be uncontroversial. As the '60s were winding down, and the revolutionary tone had gone, one of the things that came out was, "The personal is the political. I thought, 'That's it, it's over. It's all self-centered now.' The way things have gone, it's all nonjudgmental, "I'm OK, you're OK," no stress, noncombative, no unpleasantness. It's done untold damage,” says Christopher Hitchens in a recent interview.
He’s talking about his time spent as a visiting professor at American universities, and he reminds us that many of the bad things University Diaries isolates about contemporary American universities take place as part of a larger “therapist” culture (as the authors of the recent book, One Nation Under Therapy call it) to which the university, which could have resisted it, has largely surrendered.
On one level, Hitchens is noting what American as well as French political theorists have lamented - the transformation of serious, dialectical, impersonal social thought into narcissistic, undialectical, personalized emotivism. “The personal is the political.” “It’s all self-centered now.” This transformation has been particularly destructive to the university, which has historically been -- call it an ivory tower. It’s been a place apart, a highly critical space within a largely uncritical popular culture, a place where fidelity to dispassionate reason rather than passionate feeling has allowed people who enter it as students and instructors to escape the self-centered idiocies, laziness, and lies of the larger world.
When the immediate context of that larger world is an enormously powerful, wealthy and self-indulgent country, when the resources available toward indulgence of the self are infinite, it’s all the more important that universities retain a certain stoical apartness -- a sense of limits, both material and moral, an insistence upon subjecting the orthodoxies of the culture to critique, and so forth. But because most colleges and universities have been seduced by therapist culture, they begin to look less like academic settings than Aveda spas.
And, as in the larger culture, the fundamental animating assumption of this odd development is that all students are neurotic and weak and in need of massaging. What feeds this assumption?
It’s kept going in part by a steady stream of studies that seem to prove runaway madness in the American public. In a result straight out of Alice in Wonderland (“We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.”), the latest high-profile psychological study of Americans reveals that half of us are or will soon be mentally impaired. One professor responds:
"Fifty percent of Americans mentally impaired -- are you kidding me?" said Dr. Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. While the new survey was carefully done, Dr. McHugh said, "the problem is that the diagnostic manual we are using in psychiatry is like a field guide and it just keeps expanding and expanding. Pretty soon," he said, "we'll have a syndrome for short, fat Irish guys with a Boston accent, and I'll be mentally ill."
The authors of One Nation Under Therapy note that
Jim Windolf, editor of the New York Observer, tallied the number of Americans allegedly suffering from some kind of emotional disorder. He sent away for the literature of dozens of advocacy agencies and mental health organizations. Then he did the math. Windolf reported, 'If you believe the statistics, 77 per cent of America's adult population is a mess.... And we haven't even thrown in alien abductees, road-ragers, and internet addicts.' If we factor in the drowning girls, diminished boys, despondent women, agonised men, and the all-around emotionally challenged, the country is, in Windolf's words, 'officially nuts.'
Once you convince everyone that everyone is clinically depressed or whatever, you justify the invasion of all American institutions by therapists and the therapeutic mentality. “Therapism tends to regard people as essentially weak, dependent, and never altogether responsible for what they do,” write the authors of One Nation. “Alan Wolfe, a Boston College sociologist and expert on national mores and attitudes, reports that for many Americans non-judgmentalism has become a cardinal virtue. Concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, are often regarded as anachronistic and intolerant. 'Thou shalt be nice' is the new categorical imperative.”
Recall what the writer of the PBS series Declining by Degrees said about American universities to Tavis Smiley: “[T]here's kind of a nonaggression pact between an awful lot of faculty members and students, saying in effect, if you don't ask too much of me, if you don't bother me, I won't ask a lot of you. You'll get a good grade. I'll have time to do my research.” It’s not just that non-judgmentalism has inflated grades and deflated intellectual discourse. Therapeutic niceness has now morphed into cynical mutual exploitation.
And really - when every other aspect of the American university setting - wellness centers, Starbucks, and the rest - is luxe, calme et volupte, how can we expect the classroom to be a holdout? “The popular assumption that emotional disclosure is always valuable, and that without professional help most people are incapable of dealing with adversity, has slipped its clinical moorings and drifted into all corners of American life.” It has already drifted into the personalized, emotionally disclosing classroom; and now this popular assumption has come after faculty themselves, as in mandated diversity summer camps of the sort the University of Oregon envisions.
Friday, July 01, 2005
GOOD THINGS, |
AND HOW INSTITUTIONALIZING THEM
FUCKS THEM UP.
UD would like to bring three recent academic controversies together - involving collegiality, diversity, and historical understanding - in this post. The general point she’d like to make about all of them is that the troubles these excellent behaviors and ideas are running into comes from the tendency of institutions to corrupt and trivialize cultural goods. It just seems to be the nature of institutions to want to incorporate complex cultural goods into reductive bureaucratic structures. Yet the more they do this, the more people become cynical and resentful about these goods, or the more people exploit them for illegitimate ends.
Let me be more clear by listing the excellent social and moral ideas and behaviors that I have in mind:
1. Collegial relations with other people.
2. The ability to educate students who come from a lot of different cultures.
3. An understanding of one’s racial history.
These are all obvious goods. We all want them, for ourselves and for others. They are also complex and sensitive goods -- there’s a lot of wriggle room within each of them, and each of them can easily be damaged or destroyed. Culture, to quote Lady Bracknell on the subject of ignorance, is like a delicate rose -- dry and press it and the bloom is gone.
Here’s an example of wriggle room. Christopher Hitchens’ idea of collegiality is profoundly different from, say, that of the college president in Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution (“His voice not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put out your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get something more comfortable. … He wanted you to like him, he wanted everybody to like him… .”). Hitchens, with his love of conflict and his relative indifference to your comfort level, would not be considered at all collegial by many people. But in fact Hitchens is just the sort of serious intellectual serious universities should want to have around, warts and all. That’s why Berkeley invites him there for visiting stints.
Once institutions start telling you in more and more rule-bound ways what collegiality must be, you begin to lose Hitchens and gain President Robbins.
15 Pro-Collegiality Rules
There are always a few news stories floating around about people like Robert K.C. Johnson, an impressive scholar at Brooklyn College. Johnson’s for the most part less impressive colleagues, citing collegiality, almost managed to fire him. He has a post up at Cliopatria on the subject, from which I’ll quote:
As someone with a painful first-hand experience with the criterion, I oppose the use of collegiality in personnel matters. In theory, of course, it's better to have a department peopled with professors who work well together. But in practice, I don't see any way to structure a system that can ensure that the criterion won't be abused.
UD doesn’t much care about motives here - professional jealousy, politics, whatever. She cares about outcomes. Any university should want to encourage interesting and productive scholars, not drive them away. Formalized collegiality criteria allow departments to look away from what matters - good teaching, interesting writing - and toward what doesn’t -- being liked by everyone. More than that, rule-bound collegiality criteria, as Johnson suggests, make for cozy departments with unchallenged students. There is a direct line between collegiality mandates and grade inflation.
“The workshops and events listed in this announcement offer important opportunities for faculty and staff to have a better understanding of how to interact appropriately and respectfully with others on campus.”
All university professors should be insulted by this childish language in the University of Oregon’s announcements of seminars they can take to learn how to communicate better with a diverse range of people. The intellectual content of seminars like these is often little higher than an episode of Barney. They share with Barney the assumption that you are a moral moron who must be led in small slow steps, with much smiling encouragement, around the basic building blocks of human life in groups. Blown up, these seminars become the University of Oregon’s notorious Diversity Initiative.
Teach your students. Do your best with all of them. Concentrate on the content you want to teach rather than the personalities in front of you. Tell your students that who they are is, for the purposes of classroom instruction, less important than what sort of brains they have and how responsive their brains are to new and challenging ideas and forms of mental discipline. Assume your students are as smart as you are - or smarter - and act that way. If they respect you, they’ll want to rise to your assumption about their intelligence. The worst thing you can do pedagogically is get everybody all self-conscious about themselves. The best thing you can do is free them from themselves so that they can enter different worlds.
Diversity mandates corrupt the impersonal pursuit of knowledge by making professors as well as students self-conscious about irrelevant and trivializing elements of the classroom theater.
[Joanne Jacobs also talks about Oregon's diversity mess today.]
Understanding One’s Racial History
UD’s initial response to the Philadelphia high school system’s decision to mandate courses in African-American history
was positive. She still thinks that it’s a good idea, actually. She’s keen on requirements generally, and this particular history is central to our understanding of ourselves as a nation.
So she was a bit surprised to read Timothy Burke’s hesitations about the idea:
You might think I’d be enthusiastic about the proposal. All the Africanists in the region could certainly contribute a lot of pro bono assistance in the development and implementation of the program, and if they go ahead with the plan, I’d certainly be willing to pitch in.
Note the basis of Burke’s reservations: “But I already sense that this course is so freighted down with competing and contradictory missions from consciousness-raising to self-esteem improvement, to being a subject aimed at producing critical thought in all students to being a subject intended to do identity work for only the African-American students, that I suspect this justification won’t play out in practice." Burke is suggesting what I began this post with -- when bureaucratic institutions get hold of cultural goods (in this case, serious historical self-consciousness), they tend to dress them up in trivializing and personalizing ways (self-esteem, identity work, consciousness-raising). They freight them down and lose precisely the primary goal of schooling -- to convey significant content in a way that produces dispassionate, analytical, open-minded intellects. You do not derive a sense of your own value from hagiographic versions of your past. You derive a sense of your own value from being able to understand nuanced and uncompromising presentations of the truth of history.
MEDILDO DAYS II|
[For an earlier Medill School of Journalism
post, look here.]
The tale of Diana Griego Erwin, the columnist who turns out to have made up scads of her colorful and witty sources, allows UD finally to share with you a deep dark secret from her own past -- the moment, to be precise, when she knew that she should not be a journalist.
She was in a classroom at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. She must have been eighteen years old. It was a dark and stormy winter afternoon in Evanston, which is near Chicago, which has dark and stormy winters. “Get out there with your notebooks and get some quotes from housewives about how they’re coping with the inflation rate,” our instructor said. “Go to the playgrounds. Go to the supermarkets. Go and get your quotes.”
UD shivered. She looked around at her classmates, all of whom were zipping up and zooming out of the room for the long trip across town. UD yawned.
Eventually she was alone in the room, the instructor also having left.
She looked out of the windows to confirm that this was indeed a bitch of a day -- heavy snow, major wind factor, cold as a witch’s tit. She decided to walk to her nearby dorm room.
Where her roommate, hearing of her sorrow, suddenly left the room and returned with the Evanston phone book. “Find your housewives in here, and give them speech!” she said.
UD was shocked at first, but then, well, she wrote and submitted an article rich with colorful and witty expressions of dismay over the inflation rate.
The next day, the journalism instructor began class by reading, word for word, UD’s article to everyone. “See?” she said. “See how a really hard-working reporter gets a great story with great quotes? Make this your model.”
Two days after that, UD began the process of withdrawing from the journalism program. It was too easy - at least for a verbally flashy degenerate like her - to make stuff up.