Friday, March 30, 2007

WARNING: This book contains frontal nudity, profanity & anti-war sentiment

This is the cover of a book my sixteen-year-old daughter checked out from her public high school library the other day. The title of the book is 2/15: The Day the World Said NO to War. It's a collection of photos of the global anti-war protests of February 15, 2003 that happened just before the invasion of Iraq. My daughter marched in one of the large anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C. during the run-up to the Iraq war and continues to have a keen interest in the anti-war movement, so she was very happy to find this book in her library.

I think it's wonderful that our public school's library has this book. It's certainly a much rowdier book than I can remember finding in my high school library. It shows pictures ranging from naked protesters in Antarctica to a granny proudly sporting a large "FUCK Your War" button. I think it's admirable our librarian purchased such a book for our very red-state school's library. I want to commend, encourage and support such efforts.

However, there was one thing about this book both my daughter and I found very disturbing.

On the bottom, left-hand corner of the front cover there is this label:

It says, "WARNING: This book contains frontal nudity, profanity & anti-war sentiment."

WTF?! One of these things is really, really not like the others. I'm alternately shocked, appalled, flabbergasted and bemused by this bizarre and jarring warning label. I can't quite believe such a thing really exists and, yet, there it is.

Although as a parent I would be fine with not having any warning labels ever, I'm not overly troubled by warnings about nudity and profanity. If that's the price for having these books available to students, then I would much rather have the books with the warnings attached, than not have the books at all. But anti-war sentiment is different. This is not something that needs a warning label. Ever. It is not something children need to be protected from. And it is not in any way, shape, or form analogous to nudity or profanity. Ideas are not something to protect school children from, and neither is peace.

I'm confident we'll be able to resolve this small, local conflict without any real acrimony. However, I am determined to resolve it. Anti-war sentiments are not going to be one of the things our children will be protected from, certainly not as long as our high school students remain unprotected from Army recruiters in their school.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The End of Tenure

Forget all the debates over whether or not the tenure system ought to be abolished. When tenure actually does come to an end, it won't be because of some faculty senate resolution. It will simply be because the majority of us are part-time workers. This is the real attack on tenure. Inside Higher Ed writes:

A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that of the 1,314,506 faculty members at colleges that award federal financial aid in fall 2005, 624,753, or 47.5 percent, were in part-time positions.

The new report, “Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2005, and Salaries of Full-Time Instructional Faculty, 2005-06,” also finds the proportion of all professors who are tenured or on the tenure track to be shrinking. Of the 675,624 full-time faculty members at degree-granting colleges and universities in 2005, 414,574, or 61.4 percent, were either tenured or on the tenure track. That is down from the 411,031 of 630,419 (or 65.2 percent) of professors at degree-granting institutions who were tenured or tenure track in 2003.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Great Firewall of China

This link comes by way of Abject Learning. Clicking on the picture above takes you to a site that let's you check to see if any particular web site is blocked in China or not.

Evidently, my own writings constitute a threat to this global superpower. Cool. This also probably explains why my site meter hasn't clicked over past the one billion mark yet.

You can read more about China's efforts to restrict internet access and about the various circumvention technologies available in this also banned article from Wikipedia.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Producing Deadwood

Circulating around the edges of every discussion of tenure and promotion standards, policies, and procedures is also talk about eliminating academic deadwood. The assumption seems to be that if standards are high enough, then deadwood -- faculty whose modest records of publication, teaching, and service don't warrant their substantial institutional power -- will be prevented from accumulating in the ranks of senior faculty. Seldom, though, does the discussion stray into asking questions about how the academy manages to produce this deadwood. That is, how do we transform bright, lively, talented graduate students into bitter, disaffected, unproductive deadwood?

In his 2004 book on peace studies and conflict resolution, Transcend and Transform: An Introduction to Conflict Work, Johan Galtung writes about life in conflict ridden areas:

Then there are those who have been neither killed nor visibly wounded: the raped, the externally or internally displaced, the refugees.

They can all build their lives around their hatred. But this will never be a really rich and creative life. Every day we can hear, at the micro- and meso- levels, stories of violence from people forever marked by conflict and violence. They have become offended, and have built their lives around the injustice they feel they have suffered. They become dark, sombre persons who radiate nothing, like black holes in the social universe, rather than a source of light that can shine within them, and for others. ...

The culture becomes a storehouse of deep wounds, way into the collective memory and soul of that people, wounds that are used to misunderstand everything and everybody rather that to search for new approaches.

In short: violence creates humans incapable of reconciliation and reunion, more fit for retaliation. ...

Their own creativity is something they lost a long time ago. (78-79)
Academia is not Rwanda. However, Galtung's description of the survivors of violence bears more than a passing resemblance to many of those we meet with at department meetings. All of us know, and some of us fear we may become, "dark, sombre persons" who move "like black holes in the social universe" and are "more fit for retaliation" than a "rich and creative life."

If you recognize any part of yourself, or your colleagues, in this description of people who "build their lives around their hatred," or you find it sadly plausible to describe your department or institution as a "storehouse of deep wounds," then it is imperative to resist the continual escalation of standards and increasing workloads imposed on faculty. Deadwood is made, not found. The escalation of standards for tenure is the surest path to increase the production of deadwood. Tenure is currently a violent process, although we don't often use that language to describe anything in academic life. But the survivors of the lengthy and conflictual process that stretches from graduate school to full professorship are marked by this passage. The cost of this violence is all too often the very joy and creativity that was the reason for the journey in first place. If our goal in the academy is to produce and foster a vibrant and creative faculty, then increasing the size of the stick and the number of strokes they are to receive along the way is a very poor strategy. It is a strategy more suited to producing the vindictive deadwood we all encounter in the academy whose "own creativity is something they lost a long time ago" and who are now only "fit for retaliation."

As some of my readers may already know, the aftermath of the violence of the tenure process is one that I'm currently grappling with myself, and one I've written about previously. I would like to avoid perpetuating the cycle of academic hazing that constitues the current system of tenure and resist taking up the role of bitter, vindictive, academic deadwood that I've now earned. It will be a struggle, though, not to become one of the academic "offended."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Grading Tip

If you ever find yourself needing to curve grades on a 100 point scale sometime, try this method:

Take the square root of the original grade and then multiply it by 10.

It's a wonderfully elegant curve. It's simple and fast to do. It adds the most the lowest scores. It adds a modest bump to high scores. No grade ever goes above 100. And the rank ordering of the grades never changes, that is, a lower grade never gets curved above a higher grade. Plus, if you still don't like the average, you can repeat the curve as many times as you like until you get the average you like. Try it.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Streams of Whiskey

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Here's some music of the day for you from the Pogues, along with an Acephalous photo essay on the rise and fall of Shane MacGowan's teeth.

Oh the words that he spoke
Seemed the wisest of philosophies
Theres nothing ever gained
By a wet thing called a tear
When the world is too dark
And I need the light inside of me
Ill walk into a bar
And drink fifteen pints of beer

I am going, I am going
Any which way the wind may be blowing
I am going, I am going
Where streams of whiskey are flowing
Where streams of whiskey are flowing
Where streams of whiskey are flowing

Friday, March 16, 2007

Spring Break!!

Duuude! It's Spring Break!! Well, ok... so LP's Spring Break wasn't quite like the one in the picture. But I did take the week off, got some sun, had lots of fun and didn't write or grade any papers at all. It was great. But I'll get back to work and to posting again soon. Promise.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Wages of Academe

I had promised Professor Zero that I would write more on the constant ratcheting up of tenure requirements as itself a kind of attack on the tenure system. And now with another timely post from Tenured Radical, I want to make good on that promise. TR writes:

I was told by those speaking for the minority negative vote in the department and on the tenure and promotion committee that because my "pace" was off (the standard for "pace" was jacked up for no other reason than what was ambiguously called "high standards," but actually my pace had increased since tenure and I had also chaired a program and a major university committee) that service to the profession at large would not be considered at all as part of the case. Collegial scholarly obligations had become regarded, more or less, as the equivalent of housework, as had administrative work at my own university.
The notion of "high standards" has become a kind of wedge issue within the academy. It can't be countered by championing some notion of "low standards" in opposition. That will never persuade. So a kind of bidding war has set in with everyone vying to have the highest standards. Of course, this war of ever escalating standards is fought out over the lives and careers of an increasingly beleaguered junior faculty. A standard that constantly moves, however, isn't a standard at all. It is something else entirely. It is a lever used to speed up the assembly line in the academy, to increase the amount and intensity of faculty work, and to decrease faculty wages. The fatigue caused by these constantly escalating standards also helps create the conditions where the faculty themselves become willing to relinquish the tenure system. Let me explain.

The issue of "standards" has become the current rubric under which faculty workload gets debated, although covertly. Faculty are notoriously reticent to think about themselves as workers, as folks who do a job for a wage. We prefer to see ourselves as intellectuals and not as laborers. This squeamishness means that very important discussions about wages and workloads take place in other less appropriate venues. The real issue being discussed and camouflaged by the rhetoric of "standards" is how much work for how much pay. That is, exactly how many classes will be taught, how much committee work will be done, and how many publications will be written in exchange for what wage. It is helpful to keep in mind that the most important measure of wages is lifetime earnings. Policies that work to lengthen time to tenure and lengthen time in graduate school are also policies that reduce lifetime earnings. They are policies that reduce faculty wages. Increasing the intensity of faculty work (more books, more articles, more students, more committee work, more administrative duties) also tends to reduce the wage in that more work is now being given in exchange for the same money. This increase in the intensity of faculty workload is accomplished most dramatically and successfully at the level of junior, untenured faculty who are most vulnerable to these demands. Getting rid of tenure will not solve this. It will simply make every faculty member as vulnerable as junior faculty are currently.

On TR's remark that service and committee work has become the equivalent of academic housework, let me just add that this is exactly right. As more women in the academy take on a larger share of this academic service work, the results are just as predictable as they are in any other profession. Every increase in women's participation in a profession has lead to a fall of wages in that profession. Work being done by women becomes viewed as less valuable and less important and the wage attached to it falls. In this case, the wage is simply its weight in promotion and tenure. That there are no returns to service in academia is almost universally recognized. It's very difficult to cajole senior colleagues to serve on committees when service work has become nothing but a net loss to their careers, and it's just plain wrong to further exploit junior faculty by forcing them to serve on committees when the fate of their careers still hang in the balance.

TR also writes:
The proliferation of post-docs (which are full-time contingent labor in drag, most of them) mean that more untenured people are being hired with a book either finished or in press, and several published articles.
This too is exactly right, and it is one of the primary ways in which the escalation of standards for tenure decreases faculty wages. By instituting a system where faculty work more years in lower paid probationary ranks, the lifetime earnings of faculty are curtailed. This works in tandem with the lengthening of graduate school requirements too where future faculty must now also serve longer. The effect is that instead of tenure before age 30 as in past academic generations, tenure after age 45 is now closer to the norm. This means that many years of one's working life have been shifted from the relatively high wage scales of full and associate professor to the much lower wage scales of assistant professor, lecturer, and graduate assistant. It means that faculty are working more and getting paid less. This shouldn't be news to anyone.

I have two specific suggestions to help combat these insidious trends. The first is work to incorporate the following language from the AAUP into the tenure and promotion documents at individual institutions. This shouldn't be such a hard sell, since many faculty and administrators see the AAUP's role as promulgating a set of professional best practices. The AAUP writes:
The total period of full-time service prior to the acquisition of continuous tenure will not exceed 7 years, including all previous full-time service with the rank of instructor or higher in other institutions of higher learning.
This would help stop the creation of a two-tiered career system where in effect one must go through two probationary periods rather than one. I'm one of those academics who have taken 13 years to tenure with numerous adjunct and visiting appointments. My vita is quite impressive these days. Sadly, my accomplishments are likely to be used against my more junior colleagues who are going up for tenure with a mere 6 years of post-Ph.D. teaching and research experience. The committee will talk of creating high standards, though, not of creating low wages.

Coupled with adopting this clear language on the length of probationary service, there also needs to be active resistance to the escalation of tenure standards. I suggest that rather than starting from first principles every time and asking, "How much should we require for tenure?" we ought to approach the question historically and materially and ask, "How much have we required for tenure?" Tenure and promotion committees should be made to look at past tenure files from the last decade and see what have actually been the requirements for tenure. I think this would help committees see themselves in their proper role of applying standards, rather than as creating them. It would also help highlight the appropriate weights of teaching and service and help prevent them from being completely discounted in favor of research.

Whatever we do to confront this problem, it is very important to resist despair. The system of tenure may be grievously ill, but it would be an even more grievous mistake to shoot it just to put it out of our present misery.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Academic Dueling

I am thankful for small favors. Among the many disciplinary problems on university campuses ranging from the ubiquity of drinking, drug possession, and academic dishonesty to more serious crimes such as sexual assault and arson, there is at least one disciplinary problem I don't have to contend with. Dueling. I am grateful that this particular academic tradition didn't migrate here along with so many other German University traditions. I'm glad we took up beer drinking instead.

Mark Twain wrote about these duels. The aim was to produce a wicked and sexy facial scar. It was more about the body modification than about demonstrating any particular skill with a sword. This is why you see so many scars in the portraits of nineteenth century Prussian aristocrats. It's not that they were leading cavalry charges. It's that they were in fraternities. Both Nietzsche and Marx had dueling scars from their college days.

So the next time I have to deal with a student drinking or drug infraction, I will try to console myself with the thought that at least there were no dueling injuries involved.

422,120 with a Bullet!

I love the blog rankings at technorati. I'm oddly pleased to have eased my way into the top half million blogs on the internet. I'll try not to let it go to my head.

There's an interesting moment where blogging veers into sport. There's a competitive edge to those rankings that's hard to ignore. Blogging agonistics seems a predictable outcome. I'm curious if there's betting on blogs yet? Is there a line on me in Vegas? That would be great. There is certainly a business facet to many blogs already with the understandable monetary incentive of advertising making itself felt. But there's a fantasy stock market in blogs too at blogshares. I'm not sure I understand the appeal of this. I suppose, though, since we CAN have a fantasy stock market organized around blog links that, given the internet, it means we WILL have such a thing.

Of course, we all know that blogs aren't really a sport, or a business. Blogs are... literature? journalism? autobiography? entertainment? art? Don't tell me, the answer will come to me soon I'm sure...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Memories of Teaching Baudrillard

I was saddened to learn that Jean Baudrillard died yesterday. I enjoy teaching Baudrillard. There's a certain joy in sharing theories that are so wildly exuberant with undergraduate students who are alternately both appalled and intrigued by his excesses.

Baudrillard also holds a peculiar record for me in inspiring plagiarism. One semester, after having spent two weeks lecturing on Baudrillard's strange theories of simulation and hyperreality, I found that three of the final papers from students in the class had been plagiarized. Sometimes this happens, and I try not to take these things personally. However, what was new for me was that all three papers were copied verbatim from exactly the same online essay. I had my own little hyperreal series of simulated Baudrillard papers lying on my desk. I was tempted to pass all three students for their clear grasp of his concepts -- and perhaps I would have if they had colluded to intentionally produce such an effect. Sadly, though, it wasn't genius on their part, but just plain old bad luck.

The bright side for me was that for the first time ever, the students didn't try to argue with me about their charges of plagiarism. Faced with the three identical papers and a printed copy of the website, they were gratifyingly humble in accepting their F's in the class.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Masters of War

By way of Professor Zero, here's a link to an excellent anti-recruitment effort organized by Leave My Child Alone that aims at helping to remove school kids' names from the military recruitment list mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. And just in case you want to remind yourself why this is important, you can watch this:

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Academic Love

Perhaps I can connect my current departmental troubles and its impending demise and all the rest of the small but troubling and time consuming academic politics I find myself constantly immersed in with that interestingly perverse reading of evil as emerging out of love. It is that notion of love as itself an imbalance that unjustly selects one particular thing in the world to be its object out of all the other possible objects in the world. This is the riff on the evil and violence of love used by Zizek, and the one I've written about before in connection with technology and the war.

In this case, the love at stake is the love of truth, standards, and academic rigor. I don't despise these things. However, I'm always wary of their champions. The most generous reading of the damage being done to myself, my colleagues, and our students is that it is not the result of any specific malicious intent by upper level administrators directed against our small, non-traditional academic unit of interdisciplinary teachers and scholars. Rather, it is their love of the ideals of the academy itself that motivate them to love its most traditional and disciplinary parts above all others. In moving to express that love, then, an injustice is done to those programs that live in the cracks and crevices of mainstream, disciplinary academic life and thus fail to bask in the full light of their budgetary beneficence. The evil and injustice of destroying a program is done out of love.

Of course, my own particular academic loves are no less unjust or violent. They ardently embrace some things and passionately exclude many, many others. There is no help for this. It is the nature of love. Hence, the irreducible need for politics. Noticing the production of inequities and injustices and addressing them directly and meaningfully is what political struggle is about. I'm pretty good at this most days. But it is always easiest to engage in this struggle when the fact that it IS a struggle is kept clearly in sight by all parties involved. Then the contest can move more or less along the lines of "fight hard, but fight fair." It is those terrains which try to define themselves as outside of politics in one way or another that always become the most difficult places to address the politics still lurking there. The academy, home of truth, is one of the very worst offenders on this front. "Truth is never political." That is an axiom vexed at every level of its formulation. Like Nietzsche's "'All truth is simple.' Is that not a compound lie?" the view that "Truth is never political" is actually an example of the most spectacularly political lie ever told. Sadly, the dismantling of my department has politely taken place on a terrain where the intrusion of politics is viewed as simply bad manners. This has been depressing all on its own. The opportunity to fight hard, but fight fair was never really possible, and so even the dignity of losing a battle well fought is also not possible.

Perhaps I'm being too subtle, though. Even the links between love and aggression don't require much effort to uncover. After all, it's really not all that hard to tell the difference between being loved and getting screwed.