Monday, April 30, 2007

Second Life and First Year Property Law

First-year law students have been exploring virtual property law in Second Life this semester. I love this. The class has some posts about their project on Terra Nova as well as their own blog.

My summer reading plans include Julian Dibbell's Play Money, so I'm going to enjoy looking back over these law student views on this brave new world of virtual property.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Internet Radio Equality Act

Please take a moment to call, write, email or fax your congresscritter and ask them to co-sponsor the Internet Radio Equality Act, H.R. 2060.

This bill has just been introduced in Congress and will prevent the devastating royalty fee increases that will put thousands of Internet webcasters out of business on May 15th. Please call your Representative in Congress as soon as possible and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 2060.

Your action will help keep LumpenRadio on the air – along with many, many other more artistically deserving stations as well.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Fetishism of Digital Commodities and the Secret Thereof

Our friend at Limited, Inc. has been writing about Marx recently and it has inspired me to scribble a few thoughts on the subject of the fetishism of digital commodities. Once the stupefaction induced by end of the semester grading passes, I plan to return this topic again since it will be the focus of my research in the coming months.

The particular aspect of digital commodities I want to explore is the way use-value comes unhinged from exchange-value. In the digital age, you really can have your cake and eat it too. A digital commodity, like your favorite Metallica mp3, can be sold or given away as many times as you like and still be there for you to play again and again. It's like the miracle of the loaves and fishes – consuming without end and always having more to share, sell, or give away. Below are some preliminary thoughts on one aspect of this topic. Comments and suggestions are very welcome.

LI writes in a recent post on the fetishism of the commodity:

The bond between the system and the ideology is not accidental – as we said above, every human system has to explain itself. It won’t work, otherwise. Ideology, then, is a surface phenomena only the way skin is a surface phenomena – try living without it.
I like this imagery of ideology as the living skin of the commodity form. This means it can be peeled away – but not without a lot of blood and screaming. The ideology of capitalist private property is emblazoned on every commodity and reinforced by the uniqueness of every commodity. Even a mass produced item is one of a finite set of identical commodities. In digital commodities, though, there is never a limit to the number of copies. The imagined scarcity that helps enforce the ideology of private property disappears in the case of digital commodities. Stealing becomes an oddly abstract crime if the one you're stealing from still has the property in question. The loss of this one explanation for capitalist private property has occassioned a great deal of screaming about digital "piracy." Pirates are always scary, bloody and lawless. Perhaps it's the commodity form itself and its enclosing ideology of private property that's being tortured and skinned alive by these new-fangled digital pirates.

I'm looking forward to continuing these speculations. But, sadly, there are papers to grade first...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Return of Bizarro U

Here are the latest happenings in the ongoing tales of academic life between the disciplinary cracks at my Bizarro World university.

Faithful readers may remember that in our last episode, administrators at Bizarro U were busy dismantling my interdisciplinary department and sending all of the faculty back to our various disciplinary homes – all while anticipating that interdisciplinary research, teaching, and service would continue on campus unaffected by these trivial changes.

Now we have just been informed by our leaders that our interdisciplinary programs are to be resurrected and reborn at Bizarro U, not as simply another academic department, but as a brand new college. This is astounding. And not only has the creation of this college been conceived and decided since January, with barely a whisper to the faculty, it will be in place starting July 1. Truly bizarro.

I'm thrilled by this new development, although still less than happy with the continuing lack of faculty consultation. At this point, though, I'm willing to be cautiously optimistic about the future of interdisciplinary work on my campus. I think, against all odds, we may see a dramatic increase in institutional support for interdisciplinary research and teaching.

There is one very large catch in the current plans for the new college – it will not have any tenure lines of its own. This means that all the faculty working in the new college will have other masters to please who hold the strings of tenure, promotion, and merit raises. However, this may be a temporary situation. The complications of such a system may outweigh the difficulties of shaking lose tenure lines from other colleges. We shall see.

In any case, things are looking up at Bizarro U. Not only do I have tenure now, but I may get to teach in a shiny new interdisciplinary college. Bizarro.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Save Internet Radio

Please sign this petition to help keep internet radio safe and legal:

"As a fan of Internet radio, I was alarmed to learn that the Copyright Royalty Board has decided to raise music royalty rates by 300 to 1200 percent. For most webcasters the new royalties exceed their revenue and they simply will go bankrupt and stop webcasting.

The silencing of Internet radio would be a blow to listeners like me who enjoy the wide variety of choices only available via Internet radio. This will kill the great diversity of music that I hear over the Internet and all the independent artists who have a difficult time breaking through on other forms of radio.

I respectfully request that Congress look into this matter and take action to prevent it. Please understand that time is of the essence since the new royalty rates are retroactive to January 1, 2006 so they will cause immediate bankruptcies if they become effective for even one day. Please don’t let the music die"

Royalties and copyright law have yet to catch up with digital technologies and are a tangled mess by any standard. But this current situation with regard to internet radio is particularly heinous. Internet radio will be required to pay not only music publishers like BMI and ASCAP which support composers, but also performers -- something broadcast radio does not do. Recording artists receive their money from record sales and concert tickets. Radio play is simply one of the important ways they promote those sales. But now internet radio will be different from broadcast radio. It will have to pay a great deal more money than broadcast stations to play exactly the same music. Of course, internet radio doesn't just play exactly the same music. All those artists you never hear on broadcast stations will also no longer be able to be heard on internet stations either. Make some noise folks. This is something that shouldn't be allowed to happen.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Introducing LumpenRadio. Due to no popular demand at all.

On such a sad day, I find that music helps. We take requests. Just leave your comments below.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Grades and the Dispossessed

Tenured Radical's recent post on "What if Everyone Got an A?" reminded me of a passage I enjoy from Ursula K. Le Guin's novel, The Dispossessed.

In a section describing the disorientation of Shevek, a visiting professor from the anarchist moon Anarres who finds himself teaching physics to elite students on the capitalist world of Urras, Le Guin writes:

They were superbly trained these students. Their minds were fine, keen, ready. When they weren't working, they rested. They were not blunted and distracted by a dozen other obligations. They never fell asleep in class because they were tired from having worked on rotational duty the day before. Their society maintained them in complete freedom from want, distractions, and cares.

What they were free to do, however, was another question. It appeared to Shevek that their freedom from obligation was in exact proportion to their lack of freedom of initiative.

He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand. At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in. He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.

"Well, of course," Shevek said, troubled. "If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it." (127-128)
In the past, I've used this passage in class to engage students about the purpose of grades and grading. Sometimes I ask the students who the grades for? My favorite answer is the one that asserts that grades are for the professors – as if I'm saving them up to make a quilt or something. Students are usually fairly clear that the grades aren't simply for them – a courtesy we offer at the end of every semester like an after dinner mint. They aren't allowed to decline their grades. The suspicion that grades and degrees aren't really for the benefit of either the faculty or the students, but are more likely for the benefit of future employers who will be the end consumers of their college transcripts, is an uncomfortable one for most students and for many faculty too. I've certainly come to resent spending my weekends grading papers just to make hiring decisions easier for some distant personnel department. I'm not opposed to writing, assignments, feedback, or even competition in the service of learning and education. I just think it's unlikely that grades serve any of those functions very well.

Ok, now I have to go grade more papers...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Shoes and Boots

Vincent Van Gogh, "Peasant Shoes," 1886.

Thaier al-Sudani (Reuters), "The boots of a soldier killed in the bomb attack on Baghdad's Sarafiya Bridge on Thursday stand near the entrance to a hospital," April 13, 2007.
Van Gogh's painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth. ... We say "truth" and think little enough in using this word.
– Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art"
The dead soldier's boots are the disclosure of another truth.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Mass Depression

Here is a very nice passage from Vivian Gornick's "At the University: Little Murders of the Soul" posted by Amitava Kumar. It ties in nicely with some previous speculations I posted on academia as a culture of conflict. Concerning the professors inhabiting an English Department she visits, Gornick writes:

I soon discovered that each of them held the place they found themselves in at a discount. One and all thought they belonged somewhere better. The atmosphere reeked of brooding courtesies and subterranean tensions. I did not for a long time understand exactly what it was I was looking at. I had never before encountered mass depression.
I like the term "mass depression." It seems to capture the dispirited feeling one so often encounters at committee meetings, conferences and other venues where academics congregate. I think that cases of mass depression like the one described by Gornick are extremely common in academia. The solution to this malady that is usually imagined, though, is an individual one. It consists of moving on to a better department and a better institution where one's talents will be appreciated and where the mass depression of "brooding courtesies and subterranean tensions" do not hold sway. This grass-is-greener solution doesn't seem a likely one to me. Aside from the real difficulties in job mobility, the problems in the academy are structural, not just personal. There is little reason to think that as one moves into more and more competitive academic environments that the tensions will lessen -- this is something each of us should have learned simply from watching the various dysfunctional relationships between the faculty on our own dissertation committees play themselves out.

Changing the system from the current one of ever escalating competition and conflict over publications, teaching loads, and service obligations to one where our work loads are predictable and tenure, raises, and promotions are also predictable outcomes that can be looked forward to, rather than battles that have to be fought would help create the conditions for ending this mass depression. Collective bargaining could replace the multitude of individual labor disputes now taking place on a case by case basis in a predictable cycle that moves from open and bitter hostilities to "subterranean tensions" and back again in a boring and endless repetition of the same.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes

LI has written a beautiful post about the passing of Kurt Vonnegut. Go read the whole thing, but here is a small taste:

He survived the firebombing of Dresden – as did another now famous literary figure, Victor Klemperer. Fire responds to fire – the fire that destroyed Dresden on February 13, 1945 was of the same flame as that which destroyed Dresden’s synagogue on the night of 9 November 1938, even though the happy German crowd in 1938, entertained by the torching and the fortuitous torture of a Jewish teacher, forced to bow to the crowd and take off his hat, couldn’t see the obvious message in those flames. What power, high on its arrogance and so indebted to its power that it can only up the ante, ever has?

Vonnegut subtitled his most famous novel ‘The Children’s Crusade”, and the way it got that subtitle is incorporated into the book in the first chapter, when Vonnegut goes to visit his ‘war buddy’, Bernard V. O'Hare, and discovers that O’Hare’s wife doesn’t like him. And then she tells him why:

“Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. "You were just babies then!" she said.
"What?" I said.
"You were just babies in the war -- like the ones upstairs!"
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
"But you're not going to write it that way, are you." This wasn't a question. It was an accusation.
"I -- I don't know," I said.
"Well, I know," she said. "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn't want her babies or anybody else's babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
* * *
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: "Mary," I said, "I don't think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
"I tell you what," I said, "I'll call it 'The Children's Crusade.' "

Kurt Vonnegut did as much as he could to take the piss out of the ‘glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men’. He lived to see their children set fires that call to other fires in the future, fire to fire. News of his death comes on the same day that the Pentagon announced “that most active duty Army units now in Iraq and Afghanistan and those sent in the future would serve 15-month tours, three months longer than the standard one-year tour.”

Orgone Summer Camp

Here's something very odd. It is a sort of summer camp at Orgonon, home of the Wilhelm Reich Museum and Orgone Energy Observatory in Rangeley, Maine. In addition to rental cabins and the occassional conference on orgonomy and the ongoing influence of Wilhelm Reich, it also hosts Sunday afternoon summer workshops on "mushrooming" and "small woodland animals." Along with orgone accumulators, cloudbusters, and hiking and swimming too, it's like a strange little rustic Disney World for slightly kinky academics.

I confess a morbid fascination with Reich. He's an odd combination of radical social theorist, heterodox psychoanalyst, and scientific crank -- all things I adore. Reading Reich can be a little like reading Freud, Schreber and Lyndon LaRouche all rolled into one. And reading about Reich gives an added thrill of conspiracy theory and political intrigue thrown in for good measure with his unlikely death in a federal prison, the FBI investigation into his communist ties, and the bizarre FDA decision to burn his books.

I lived in Maine for a short time and I fear I missed my chance to visit this wonderfully strange and off-the-beaten track cultural shrine. I think I would have enjoyed Reich's beautiful woodland home and laboratory far, far too much.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


T E N U R E !

T E N U R __

T E N U __ __

My progress towards tenure and promotion:
T = Departmental recommendation
E = Chair's recommendation
N = Dean's recommendation

U = Provost's recommendation
R = Chancellor's recommendation
E = Board of Trustees' approval
I made it! I am now officially a tenured, Associate Lumpenprofessor. And despite the morbid graphics, I'm feeling pretty good today.

Congratulations and/or condolences are both welcome and appreciated.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Teaching Wikipedians

This link comes by way of academhack. It is an op-ed piece written by Cathy N. Davidson on the recent Wikipedia dustup at Middlebury College. Davidson writes:

Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia. It is a knowledge community, uniting anonymous readers all over the world who edit and correct grammar, style, interpretations, and facts. It is a community devoted to a common good — the life of the intellect. Isn't that what we educators want to model for our students?

Rather than banning Wikipedia, why not make studying what it does and does not do part of the research-and-methods portion of our courses? Instead of resorting to the "Delete" button for new forms of collaborative knowledge made possible by the Internet, why not make the practice of research in the digital age the object of study? That is already happening, of course, but we could do more. For example, some professors already ask students to pursue archival research for a paper and then to post their writing on a class wiki. It's just another step to ask them to post their labors on Wikipedia, where they can learn to participate in a community of lifelong learners.
I have actually been doing this in class this semester.

The central text for our course had no Wikipedia article yet, so I created and posted a brief outline of the book as a new article on Wikipedia. The major writing assignment for students in the class has been to write chapter by chapter summaries and to post them to the new Wikipedia entry. The article is now over 10,000 words and is really pretty good. It certainly could use more work, and right now I'm thinking that continuing to revise the entry may be the job of future classes.

The best part of this assignment, however, has been that the students have been VERY enthusiastic about it. Their writing doesn't seem like busy work to them. It's useful and meaningful to the world outside of the classroom and they are very proud of their creation. It has been a heartening teaching experience for me and I'm looking forward to using this method in other courses. I think it could easily be adapted to most classes where the Wikipedia article on some concept, book, author, or event could easily benefit from some focused attention by a group of students and their professor. And since nothing is ever lost on Wikipedia, the article can always be reverted back to a previous incarnation if the student work is judged to have done more harm than good. Plus, teaching students to be bold enough to change, edit, challenge and contribute to collaborative online communities is, I think, a worthwhile goal apart from any concrete results in online verbiage created.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Noah's Suspended Animation & Conservapedia's Suspended Disbelief

It seems that Limited, Inc. has been bitten by the conservapedia bug now too. Almost literally. Inspired by conservapedia's article on kangaroos, LI has asked bloggers to share the following nugget of "surrealistic science" with the hopes that it too will one day find its rightful home in the conservapedia. "Please, readers, pass this around. LI wants to add a little something to the Conservapedia. One tiny step for an idiot, but a giant leap for the idiocy of all mankind!" I live but to serve, so here it is:

Science has always found Noah’s ark a puzzle. On the one hand, God’s word says Noah built an ark and assembled all the animals, two by two – so we have some firm facts to go on. But how did Noah feed the animals, and keep them from eating each other?

The answer may come from “S.A., crypto-suspended animation in inverterbrates by Dr. Axel Kroeger and Dr. Nicalaus Swiboda in the Acta Oto-Biblica Vol. 10, issue 4 (2006), the premier journal of Bible based natural science out of Uppsala, Poland. Kroeger and Swiboda reproduced ark-like conditions by sealing off the Olympic sized swimming pool at the Holiness Temple College (where they both work in the endosynchrology department) and building a beaverwood structure to float on the pool. The two captured insects, perhaps the most difficult animal Noah and his family had to deal with. Using a simple to construct dry ice machine, using lumber from Mount Arak’s famous balsa trees and a simple combination of ice, sulphur, copper, tooth enamel, dew and fire, Drs. Kroeger and Swiboda demonstrated conclusively that the insects could be put into a state of suspended animation for up to two weeks. This, incidentally, made them much easier to stack.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Adjunct Freedom

Excellent! Here's an article from Inside Higher Ed on the American Federation of Teachers, academic freedom, and the use and abuse of adjunct faculty.

... the AFT is acknowledging that relying on the tenure system to protect professors’ academic freedom doesn’t work when more and more faculty members don’t have, and may never have, tenure.

“The greatest threat to academic freedom today is the subtle removal of many faculty positions from the tenure track and from engagement with institutional power through shared governance structures like faculty senates,” says a background paper the AFT produced to explain the idea of drafting a new statement of principles on academic freedom. “The mechanisms of tenure (or similar protections against arbitrary treatment), peer review and shared governance are vital to the maintenance of academic freedom.”
I posted recently on another Inside Higher Ed article about the increasing use of adjunct faculty as an attack on tenure and, having spent many years as an adjunct myself, I am in complete agreement with the argument that this constitutes "the greatest threat to academic freedom today." In addition to seeking to curb this alarming trend and increase the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty positions, the AFT is also seeking to increase the faculty governance role of adjunct faculty as well.

As is also the case with untenured Assistant Professors, though, simply including adjunct faculty on university committees does not necessarily translate into institutional power. It is a mistake to think that one can engage robustly in arguing for changes in personnel or curriculum policy when one's own job next semester depends on the continuing good will of the other faculty and administrators also serving on that committee. The problem is not simply the lack of adjunct faculty representation on university committees. The problem is that their status as adjunct faculty makes them too vulnerable for the task. Along with this, adjunct salaries are already so poor that adding yet more time consuming duties on top of their already overworked and underpaid positions is not the most progressive stance to take.

Faculty governance depends on tenure. There is no substitute for it. Adjunct faculty do not, and cannot, have the same academic freedoms and the same roles in shared governance as tenured faculty. This is not because they don't do committee work, but because they are not tenured. The only way to fix this fundamental inequality is to stop using adjunct faculty. I'm convinced that the best way to do this is to raise adjunct salaries dramatically. If there are no cost savings to the institution, there will be much less incentive to hire off the tenure-track.

Sunday, April 01, 2007