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Friday, April 28, 2006

Vendredi potpourri

Juan Cole is being pursued by a giant slug. Please send him some love today.  Yes, I know, Professor Cole can take care of himself, and he carries plenty of salt just for occasions like these.  But as he rightly points out:

If it weren’t for this little blog, I wouldn’t even have had a way of challenging Fund’s and the WSJ’s falsehoods. (And, if the media corporations can take “net neutrality” away from us, they’ll remove that avenue of reply, too.)

And while we’re objecting to smear campaigns, Khalil Shikaki is also being targeted for a special Two Minutes Hate.  This humble blog thinks it noteworthy when extremists call for the dismissal of politically moderate Palestinian scholars, and rejects extremists’ delusional claims that objecting to such calls amounts to anti-Semitism.

And while we’re looking into the latest issue of Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, check out general secretary Roger Bowen’s response to the disinformation campaign regarding that controversial (and now cancelled) conference on “academic boycotts.”

And while we’re talking about the AAUP, three cheers to Cary Nelson and Jane Buck for stepping up, getting arrested, and standing in solidarity with the NYU strike.  Three jeers to NYU Minister of Deflection John Beckman for pretending that NYU isn’t the only private university in the nation to have de-recognized a legitimate graduate student union (see the penultimate paragraph of the article).

And while we’re talking about academe and labor, please stop by and sign the petition in support of the janitors’ strike at the University of Miami.  There’s also a new blog about the strike, which you can visit by clicking on the very word “blog.”

And while we’re talking about blogs, you should go to the American Street right away, because one of their surprise guest bloggers has uncovered the GOP’s secret emergency plans for the coming Avian flu epidemic.

Have a great weekend.  And let’s go Sabres!

Posted by Michael on 04/28 at 12:46 PM
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Thursday, April 27, 2006

New Rangers VP Sounds Upbeat Note

New York, NY—In what observers are calling a “stunning” development, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, mere hours after tendering his controversial resignation to President George W. Bush, held a press conference at Madison Square Garden to announce that he had accepted the position of Vice President for Public Relations for the New York Rangers.  John Rosasco, who had previously held that post, revealed that he will become White House Press Secretary, as former Fox News anchor Tony Snow takes the helm at the Pentagon.

Mr. Rumsfeld brushed off suggestions that the Rangers’ opening-round series against the New Jersey Devils was not going well.  “We’re dealing with a few pockets of dead-enders in New Jersey,” he said.  “The series may take five, six, eight, ten, twelve games—that’s in the nature of these things.  But even though the Devils have slowed our progress, they haven’t stopped it and they’re not going to win.  The thought of their prevailing in this conflict is a terrible thought.”

Rumsfeld refused to confirm that Jaromir Jagr would play in game four, remarking, “You know that’s one of those unknown unknowns you can never know about.”

Speaking from an undisclosed location deep in the bowels of Pennsylvania Station, Rumsfeld’s former colleague Dick Cheney agreed that the Devils were in their “last throes,” and added that Devils fans were “objectively pro-evil, as their name implies.”

Posted by Michael on 04/27 at 05:58 PM
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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Cranky cons

Because there simply isn’t enough wingnuttery to go around the Internets these days (Sadly, No! having laid its claim to the musings of military strategist Lt. Col. Dafyydd ab Hugh), I decided to check out the National Review’s kinda brand new group blog devoted solely to academe: Phi Beta Cons.

What are Phi Beta Cons, you ask?  Well, I think there are two interpretive possibilities.  The first stresses the “Phi Beta” part, in order to suggest that unlike the merely “Crunchy Cons” of Rod Dreher’s organic home-schooled Birkenstocked-Burkean gemeinschaft utopia, these Cons are extra bonus special smart.  The blog itself, however, fails to bear out that interpretation, which leaves us with the absurd but inescapable second possibility that we are dealing with Phi Beta Convicts.

Much of the Tappa Kegga Cons blog is garden-variety culture-war hockey and hackery, but if you’re scouting for talent, the breakout star so far has to be National Association of Scholars president Stephen Balch.  On April 14, Balch took to the keyboard to complain about what he called Penn State’s “School of Politeness”:

Penn State’s biggest rhetorical guns have been pounding its College Republicans. Until firing commenced, the CR’s “Illegal Immigrant Awareness Day”, planned for April 19th, was to feature an exercise entitled the “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Game”. “It’s evident why many people would find this program offensive” said Terrell Jones, vice provost for educational equity. Although “protected by the First Amendment” the approach initially proposed “was unproductive and offensive to many”, echoed university president Graham B. Spanier. “Penn State is committed to ensuring respect for the dignity of all individuals within the university family”, added Vicky Triponey, vice president for university affairs. The campus GOP scrapped plans for the “game”, though not the event.

The pretended collaring of sweated labor may make for tactless play, but where was this overkill last November when members of the State College Peace Center gathered with placards reading “Drive Out the Bush Regime”, “Impeach them all”, and showing the president’s face behind prison bars?

Some people are offended by “Catch an Illegal Immigrant,” some people are offended by calls to impeach the President.  True enough.  It takes all kinds to make a world!  But the “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Game” was, as it happens, conceptually flawed, since the College Republicans did not have the presence of mind to deploy a Business-Friendly Branch of the chapter to employ the illegal immigrants at Wal-Mart once they were caught.  More to the point, however, someone really ought to point out to poor, addled Mr. Balch that Penn State does indeed treat its students differently than it treats local groups (like, say, the State College Peace Center) who have no affiliation to Penn State, and who, last we checked, were still permitted freedom of assembly by an official government document of some kind.

Six days later, Mr, Balch appeared again, this time to sound the alarums that the Modern Language Association’s language map is in fact a critical component of a remarkable anti-American scheme:

The Modern Language Association has rolled out a new device to persuade Americans of their lack of peoplehood.

Whoa!  Check it out, non-people!

A recently revamped, interactive “Language Map” displays state-by-state, county-by-county, and zip-code-by-zip-code, answers to the census question, “Does this person speak a language other than English at home?” All the user need do is plug in a language—there are 300 to choose from—and select a location. A map then appears, say a state divided into counties, with the counties distinguished by a color code indicating the percentage of various language speakers located therein.

This map is so nasty and so anti-peoplehood!  But wait—there’s more nastiness yet to come!

The map design contains elements that could mislead the unwary about the degree of America’s linguistic fragmentation. The color code, for example, is not used consistently language by language. With respect to English speakers, the dark red indicating the highest degree of concentration only kicks in when the level reaches 94.11%. For Spanish speakers it does so at 61.88%. For Greek speakers at 0.678%.

That is just incredibly sneaky.  In fact, if I’m reading these statistics correctly, the Greeks are more than 90 times sneakier than the Spanish!  And who knows when the dark red level kicks in for the really dangerous anti-American languages?

As Balch points out, to get to the actual truth you have to . . . um, you have to click the mouse:

The map will tell you, if you care to press for “more detailed information”, how many of these foreign language speakers also speak English well—a fact which changes initial impressions considerably. At first glance, my home town of Princeton, New Jersey has 14.03% of its population listed as foreign language speakers—quite counterintuitive to a resident. But only about a fourth of these admit to not speaking English well, or to not speaking it at all. The figures for Los Angeles County suggest that 57.83% of the population aren’t English speakers. Yet upon searching through “the details,” it turns out that the figure is actually about 19%.

Let’s hope that high-school students doing their prescribed multiculturalism research pay close attention.

Yes, let’s!  We can’t have ordinary people thinking that Princeton is the kind of college town that has so many multilingual professors and graduate students that they make up one-seventh of the population.  And let’s hope those high-school students in their multiculturalist boot camps are reading the invaluable Phi Beta Con blog, so that they will learn how to use this map correctly!

But hey kids, wait until Stephen Balch finds out how much furren fluoride the MLA has slipped into his very own drinking water.  Let’s just say that the figure of 14.03% would be, uh, quite counterintuitive.

Posted by Michael on 04/26 at 03:55 PM
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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Old business

Earlier this month, our hard-working civil servants in the Department of Education released an “issue paper” on “Frequently Asked Questions about College Costs.” The .pdf, should you want to consult it, is available for your perusal hyar, and the accompanying Inside Higher Ed story is thar.  And the paper’s argument, should you dare to believe it, is that college costs have risen so precipitously because of . . . tenure!

You heard that right, folks:  tuition has been going up 10 percent a year for the past 15 years, faculty raises have averaged 3 percent a year during that time, therefore faculty are to blame for rising college costs.

The time-honored practice of tenure is costly.  Tenure was originally conceived as a means to protect “academic freedom.” It has evolved into a system to protect job security.

What a travesty!  Everyone agrees that professors should have academic freedom.  But now, it appears, they want to keep their jobs when they say unpopular things, as well!  This needs to stop, because it costs too much money:

A combination of institutional practice and emerging case law has resulted in a situation where institutional flexibility is reduced in two key ways.  First, if student demand for academic programs shifts, faculty capacity to deliver it cannot.  Tenured faculty members are not interchangeable parts (a physics professor can’t usually teach journalism, and vice versa).  Second, it has become increasingly difficult for college administrators to remove a tenured faculty member who is no longer effective.  Thus, the decision to tenure has an accompanying long-term price tag that easily exceeds $1 million per person.

You gotta love that free-floating “thus.” I only hope that Robert Dickeson, the author of this little gem, raised his pinky to his pursed lips when he trotted out the figure of one million dollars.

As for those unpopular academic programs: yes, it’s true, tenure prevents universities from firing entire departments of physicists, classicists, art historians, and philosophers whenever there’s a student stampede to the Accounting department.  That’s just one of the reasons that universities are not Engines of Dynamism®! 

Indeed, Dickeson names the problem in so many words, under a separate heading on page 2: “Colleges are not managed with efficiency as the primary value”:

Colleges maintain large physical infrastructures that often include libraries, computing centers, academic and student-oriented buildings, power plants, research facilities, theatres and stadiums.  This infrastructure is rarely used to capacity.  Typically facilities are used only eight-to-twelve hours a day, five days a week, for less than 52 weeks per year.

Well, that’s easily remedied.  Close the unpopular libraries and research facilities, and schedule the student production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for the 4-6 am slot at the Student Union 24-Hour Theatre.  I imagine that the 2-3:30 am section of Introduction to Metallurgy will be a big hit, too.

There’s much more in this vein: the very next paragraph complains about “the unique culture and extraordinary power of the faculty,” who seem to believe that “they are the university” and that they “‘own’ all curricular decisions.” And, of course, there are plenty of useful suggestions for how to fix all this:  hire more part-time instructors, offer more on-line instruction, and, most of all, take your cue from the private sector:

Proprietary, for-profit schools, sometimes called “career colleges,” are gaining in popularity, particularly among adult learners.  For-profit schools use a business model to deliver higher education.  Almost all faculty are part-time, thus lowering costs.  Only programs for which there is demonstrated demand are offered, and they are offered at times and places convenient to the students.  There is little capital outlay for high-expense items, such as libraries or football stadiums.  There is no research function or public service function.  The curriculum is fixed, the outcomes are measurable, and teachers are held responsible for results.  The reward structure for these institutions is directly related to student success.  There is a fundamental model shift in organizational expectations to “What’s it going to take to satisfy students?” from the traditional, “What’s it going to take to satisfy faculty?”

But the problem with this “issue paper,” in my humble opinion, is not that it reads as if it were written by a 19-year-old who can quote Atlas Shrugged by heart.  The problem is much more severe.

This entire paper is plagiarized.

It’s a serious charge, and I do not make it lightly.  But I happen to know who wrote the original version of which this is a cut-and-paste copy: I did.

Just over six years ago, I wrote a parody essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education about how universities could become more like businesses.  Here are some of my most controversial suggestions:

It will be objected (rightly, I must admit) that, even now, students are not getting enough for their money.  That is why tuition deregulation must be accompanied by curriculum re-regulation.  On many campuses, entire departments do little or nothing to prepare students for employment, enhance the university’s portfolio, or develop new products for corporate underwriters.

I refer, of course, to the arts and humanities.  According to one conservative estimate from a former higher-education leader, 50 percent of the research currently being conducted there is nonsense.  Departments of history, for instance, often focus obsessively on the past, while our children need to be prepared for the future. . . .

But when it comes to the long-overdue task of initiating mass firings of faculty members, we run into the biggest problem of all: tenure.  The institution of tenure is profoundly antibusiness and, consequently, profoundly wrong.  As James F. Carlin, businessman and former chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, perceptively wrote in these pages on November 5, “lifetime job guarantees border on being immoral.”

Moral law, in other words, clearly mandates termination-at-will forms of employment, not merely because all healthy growth requires regular pruning, but also because American society ought not to support anyone who has become unproductive.  Nor, as Mr. Carlin noted, will dismantling tenure jeopardize academic freedom, for “state and federal statutes, commissions against discrimination, and the vigilant news media protect anyone—in or out of academe—who wants to expound unorthodox beliefs.” Surely faculty members are aware that the American mass media will stand firm in defense of controversial scholars, as they have done so often in recent memory.

More to the point, tenure prevents university presidents and trustees from engaging in what may be the hallmark of American business today: the use of efficiency experts and external consultants to fire middle-aged account executives, nurses, editors, and secretaries, after having made them run a humiliating gantlet of pointless self-assessment trials.  That ritual is vividly (and, I confess, entertainingly) depicted in contemporary films like American Beauty and Office Space.

Like business, academe is rife with anxiety, territorialism, and ill will.  But what academe lacks is a mature culture of abjection and groveling.  Fiftysomething faculty members with 30 or more years of service to their colleges simply do not live in terror that they may be terminated without reason.  That constitutes a major reason why most Americans do not understand the institution of tenure.

Dissatisfaction with tenure is all the more rampant now that new technology has the potential to make faculty members as obsolete as telephone operators.  With the judicious use of the Internet and your ordinary household touch-tone phone, in fact, most college courses could be conducted for $4.95 a minute: “Press 1 and the pound key for a lecture on the Italian Renaissance, press 2 for a lecture on the French Revolution.  For seminar credit, just log on with a password and a credit-card number.” If not for tenure, such systems would already be in place—and colleges and universities would be richer places of learning for it.

Finally, academic institutions have stubbornly refused to engage in the single-most-important activity of American business in the 1980’s and 90’s: namely, mergers and acquisitions.  Think of how a powerful conglomerate like Harvard/ M.I.T./ Tufts/ Boston University/ Boston College could revolutionize education delivery in the greater Boston area. And why shouldn’t a lean, sleek enterprise like Adelphi University attempt a hostile takeover of the entire bloated, mismanaged State University of New York system? Not only would that force SUNY to cut personnel costs and close outlying plants in Geneseo, Plattsburgh, and New Paltz, it would drive up the value of both SUNY and Adelphi, to the benefit of stockholders.

Of course, for mergers and acquisitions to work, academic institutions would have to issue stock. It has long been a truism of academe that a free society requires a free marketplace of ideas. It’s about time the products of that marketplace were made available to the ordinary investor. Indeed, this is perhaps the most critical item of all: If American colleges and universities truly want to reconnect with the American public, they will have to go public. It worked for Martha Stewart. It can work for Sarah Lawrence.

I know, I know, you can’t parody the libertarian loons, whether they’re in the Star Trek wing of the blogosphere or writing “issue papers” for the Department of Education.  All I’m saying is that I want the credit for saying it all first, and for saying it so clearly.

Posted by Michael on 04/25 at 10:35 AM
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Monday, April 24, 2006

Brief Rangers update

Down 2-0 with 2:13 to play in the second period, the Rangers have a full two-minute five-on-three power play and a chance to get back into the game—and the series.  They pass sloppily in the Devils’ zone and turn it over a few times, but manage a couple of legitimate scoring chances, on one of which Petr Sykora hits the post after Brodeur barely gets a piece of his one-timer from twenty feet out.  They were just that close to a 2-1 game.  Then, as the penalties expire, the Devils chip it out of the zone to a streaking John Madden, who, just out of the penalty box, comes in alone on Kevin Weekes with no one around him for maybe thirty feet.  He slows as he nears the net.  And why not?  He has all day and all of the night.  He dekes, tries to chip it past Weekes on the short side, but Weekes clamps down . . . and the puck trickles weakly behind him, to rest safely on the goal line with five seconds left in the period.

But wait!  Here comes Rangers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, hustling back on the play.  Somehow, Ozolinsh, in “covering” Madden, manages to work his own stick over Weekes’ left shoulder and directly onto the puck (still motionless on the goal line), then manages to poke the puck over the line and into the net.  Now, I’ve seen players put pucks in their own net before, but never quite so craftily as this.  I mean, this one took dexterity.  And what timing, too!

Madden actually had two shorthanded goals on the night, but for this second one, he owes the hapless Ozolinsh a nice pink Cadillac.

In other Eastern Conference news:  I think I recall saying, with regard to the Flyers-Sabres series, “I betcha Antero Nittymaki will see some action before we’re through, and not under happy circumstances, either.” Well, sign me up at ESPN.com, folks.  Robert Esche was magnificent in a losing effort in game one, but tonight he stopped half of the ten shots he faced.  In came Nittymaki, under very unhappy circumstances indeed, trailing 5-0 after just one period.  My prediction in the Canes-Canadiens series isn’t looking good, but my, tonight’s 6-5 2OT speedskating contest was fun to watch. 

Posted by Michael on 04/24 at 10:25 PM
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Pilgrimage plus

Hi folks!  Guess where I was this weekend!


One hint:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.

And from every shires end . . . you know where those folk wend.  To this place:


Had I ever been to Canterbury before?  Nope.  I’ve never been to England, period.  It was great, even though I arrived at 8 am on Friday and left at 10 am on Sunday.  I was giving the Journal of American Studies Lecture to the British Association of American Studies, and those of you who remember last week’s virus-related woes will understand that I came this close to cancelling—and leaving the BAAS without a Saturday evening plenary address.  (In which case they would have had to go straight from the afternoon’s last panels to the dinner and disco!) Twenty-four hours before my departure late last Thursday afternoon, I honestly didn’t think I could get on a plane—and didn’t think any of my fellow passengers would want me to get on a plane, either.  But everything went very smoothly, with only a bit of coughing here and there.  Once again, and with feeling, thank you, prednisone.  But also thank you cough syrup with codeine, which is most useful for helping a body negotiate jet lag while suppressing the odd cough here and there.

I pretty much lost all of Friday, because the Obligatory Squalling Infants (two of them!) were stationed only two rows behind me on the flight over, so I slept for only 90 minutes on an overnight flight.  Instead, I read almost everything for the remaining two weeks of my seminar, including Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is just as good the second time around.  (We end the course with it.  That was a good idea, I think.) But on Saturday I got a chance to walk around the town and take a few “holiday snaps,” including this one of some of that barbaric British jargon:


Please do not leave donations outside the shop when we are closed because it will be fly tipping. “Fly tipping,” of course, is a British term of art for illegal waste disposal, and the sign should probably read, “because it will be regarded as fly tipping.” Then again, performative utterances can do whatever the hell they want, because they’re performative:  it will be fly tipping, because it just will, even if you think of your little donation as an act of charity. 

My favorite Furren Sign is a notice I saw on a bus in Brisbane, Australia in 1999 as I was going to watch my first-ever rugby game (the locals beat Balmain 42-10):  Scholars and children are asked not to occupy seats whilst adults are standing.

Speaking of scholarly things:  I vow not to rest until my books are available in airport vending machines.  Here’s the book-dispensing contraption in Gatwick that gave me the idea:


If you look carefully, you can find the ubiquitous Dan Brown occupying two spots in the upper right corner—and you can also see Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha amid the mystery and thriller crowd, James Patterson, Tess Gerritsen, Jodi Picoult, Dean Koontz, etc.

And now for the “plus” part of this post.  When I returned to the States, I found that Eric Lott had written to the Nation in response to Russell Jacoby’s review of Lott’s new book, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual.  Always a dicey enterprise, writing to defend one’s book from a hostile review in a forum where the reviewer inevitably has the last word.  And I’ll be dealing with Eric’s work in my own inimitable fashion a bit later on, when I begin My Next Project in a few weeks.  But for now I simply want to note that Jacoby, in his reply to Eric’s letter, writes as follows:

To praise his book is to surrender thinking for hype and jargon. Here is an example of thought à la Lott: “As Linda Zerilli observes in a remarkable diacritics essay, universalism’s comeback follows the perceived political inadequacy of postmodern theory—with its focus on subject position, difference, and new social identities—to draw up any account of any overarching collective or united front.”

Actually, I do see irony—another English professor who cannot write English—but no thought.

OK, so here’s the deal.  I hereby announce the First Annual Good Reading Contest, in place of Dennis Dutton’s famous Bad Writing Contests of the late 1990s.  Readers are invited to try to improve on the efforts of the perspicacious Mr. Jacoby, and paraphrase the sentence, “universalism’s comeback follows the perceived political inadequacy of postmodern theory—with its focus on subject position, difference, and new social identities—to draw up any account of any overarching collective or united front.” It’s not really very hard!  All of the words in the sentence are, in fact, English, though admittedly some of them are polysyllabic . . . oops, I mean big.  So let’s all try to figure out just why universalism has made a comeback lately!  And remember, if we can all agree on how best to explain universalism’s comeback, then universalism wins—which means we all win.

Just don’t resort to any unfamiliar terms, and please don’t leave slabs of jargon in the comments.  That would be fly tipping.

Posted by Michael on 04/24 at 08:00 AM
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