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Sunday, November 15, 2009

From the archives

Bill Benzon posted this gem in comments back in April, but with each wingnut outrage over how Barack Hussein al-Obama has destroyed all the global goodwill George Bush worked so hard to establish, I keep coming back to it and finding more and more of Teh Funny.  Calling on the “wrong” reporters, speaking in furren enemy languages, indulging in reverse racism, trashing the honor and dignity of the office ... it’s all there, thirty-two years before the fact.  It’s almost like Richard Pryor was some kind of genius.

OK, I’m off to Marlboro College.  Yes, they invited me back!  That was very kind of them.  And it looks like I’m staying in some very nice digs.  See you all in a few days.

Posted by Michael on 11/15 at 09:13 AM
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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Academic freedom update

The AAUP has a new video on the consequences of Garcetti v. Ceballos.  If you teach at a public university in the United States, watch this video.  Then distribute it to your colleagues.  Do this or I will come to your house—and you don’t want that.

The .pdf of the full AAUP report is here.  If you’re not up to speed on this stuff yet, now’s the time—the report is smart and useful and instructive and basically terrific.

OK, deep breath.

Yesterday, Sherman Dorn alerted me to the fact that the blogger known as Dean Dad has a, how shall I say, interesting interpretation of the AAUP’s position on Garcetti: because it is now possible, thanks to three lower-court decisions, for administrations to punish faculty for what they say in the course of their professional duties (and these might range from routine committee service to comments in the local newspaper about this or that university policy), it is therefore a good time to get rid of tenure.  Yes, you read that right:

Apparently the AAUP is launching a new campaign in recognition of the rocky judicial climate for its conception of academic freedom. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I agree so strongly that I wonder if it has thought through its position completely.

As regular readers know, I’ve argued for some time that the tenure system is unsustainable and even unethical. I’ve proposed as an alternative a system of long-term renewable contracts with academic freedom stipulated in the contract language. (For the record, I envision an initial contract of three years—consistent with current practice for most tenure-track lines—followed by renewable five-year contracts.) That way, if academic freedom is attacked, a complainant wouldn’t have to rely on an extra-constitutional and undefined legal doctrine; she could bring action as breach of contract. Academic freedom could also be stipulated in institutional policy. To the extent that employee handbooks and/or institutional bylaws are given the force of contract, the objection from ‘expiration’ is rendered moot. (The recent decision that non-renewal is tantamount to termination further buttresses this argument.) Contract law is well-established, so the claim wouldn’t rely on the good graces of any particular justice. What might sound, at first, like a retreat would actually be a significant advance for academic freedom.

Read the whole thing, as they say, and the comments too—especially the comment about how scrapping tenure will lead to an increase in salaries.  I have to go and teach today and make a bunch of statements in the course of my professional duties, as I’ve been doing on my last couple of out-of-town trips (I now serve on the AAUP’s Committee A and I chair the MLA’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities), so I have to keep my response relatively brief.  But for now, I am nominating DD’s post for the coveted Richard Cohen Award for Advanced Wrongheadedness. Five severe and distinguished wrongisms make this post worthy of the honor, in my humble opinion:

(1) The idea that academic freedom will be protected “to the extent that employee handbooks and/or institutional bylaws are given the force of contract.” Here’s the short answer: they’re not.  They are routinely set aside by courts.  The reason the AAUP is advising faculty to revise their handbooks anyway is that in the wake of a series of extraordinarily perverse court decisions, this is the best we can do.  We have to look to written safeguards in internal institutional procedures because the legal climate is so very hostile. We are not looking for better legal ground.  We are looking for matters of professional principle.  From the report’s executive summary:

Based on its review of relevant cases, the subcommittee report reiterates the imperative of making the case for academic freedom at both public and private institutions, not as a matter of law, but as a principle vital to the effective functioning of institutions of higher learning.

Which brings me to (2).

(2) As for the claim that “contract law is well-established, so the claim wouldn’t rely on the good graces of any particular justice”: yes, well, no one could possibly anticipate a situation in which employers set aside contracts.  Which brings me to (3).

(3) “Outside of the elite institutions, tenure is going the way of the typewriter. If the only alternative to tenure is temp gigs, then academic freedom becomes de facto the exclusive province of the elite.  But if tenure can be replaced with a more sustainable system featuring long-term contracts and academic freedom, then we can keep the best elements of it without chaining ourselves to a dying system.” This is some pretty amazing logic at work.  Back in 1970, roughly 70 percent of people teaching in American universities had tenure.  Now, after four decades of scorched-earth adjunctification, during which universities have created about three untenured positions for every tenure-track job, that figure is around 25 percent (check out the DD commenter who blames this on unions.  Come on, people, everyone knows ACORN did it).  That means tenure is now elite, and elitism is bad, so the responsible and egalitarian thing to do is to jettison the system altogether, because, after all, it’s dying.  Which brings me to (4).

(4) Dean Dad assumes throughout the post that the AAUP position is that only the tenured faculty have academic freedom.  This is badly mistaken.  We argue that every single person teaching and researching in a university should have academic freedom, and we’re still working out what this means for graduate researchers and teaching assistants (who work under various degrees of supervision).  We argue that people who are not on the tenure track should nevertheless have academic freedom with regard to teaching, research, and statements made in the course of their professional duties or as public citizens; with regard to their possible termination, they should also have rights of due process, and we’ve even laid out our standards for the appointment and nonreappointment of contingent faculty.  See “Recommended Institutional Regulation 13” (some serious scrolling required).  Which brings me to (5), and I promise you I’ve saved the best for last.

(5) “The accountability built in to a renewable-contract system would go a long way towards defusing the cheap political shots to which higher ed is now routinely subject.” Readers, friends, skeptics, and sworn enemies, I have lain awake all night trying to figure out how to reply to this without snark, and I have failed.  I keep trying to imagine Roger Kimball saying, “I used to get all squicky about queer theory, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, bring on the fabulous challenges to heteronormativity.” Or Daniel Pipes saying, “I used to target anyone who didn’t toe the Likud line, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, let a hundred critiques of Israel bloom.” Or my old friend David Horowitz saying, “I used to have a list of dangerous professors, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, Bill Ayers is just all right with me, whoa yeah.” But alas, I have to admit that I’m just not that imaginative.  I do worry, however, that many deans think this way: if only we got rid of tenure, we’d go a long way toward defusing those cheap shots! Well, sure, tenure is always going to be a target of public ire and resentment, particularly when unemployment is rising, entire company towns are shutting down, and the banksters of Goldman Sachs, together with 25 percent of college professors, are making out like bandits.  But if you really think that abandoning tenure is going to defuse the higher-ed cheap-shot industry, you don’t know who and what you’re dealing with.

Speaking of which, one of the stranger and stupider consequences of Garcetti is that the more you actually know what you’re talking about when you speak or write in the course of your professional duties, the less protection you have.  In other words, lunatics and cranks (and Moloch knows we have our share) have full constitutional protection for their remarks, but well-informed people, not so much.  That’s because Garcetti relied in part on the Pickering precedent (in which Pickering was found to have First Amendment protection for his remarks because his remarks were completely uninformed and implausible); see Robert O’Neil’s explanation of this curious development here.  Transcript:

In the current climate, it seems to me almost any faculty participation that might entail a controversial statement or an outspoken view is potentially at risk.  If the only time a state college or state university professor is really safe, in terms of First Amendment protection, is when talking about something that person is woefully uninformed about, has no expertise, couldn’t possibly be deemed to be within that person’s official duties—and that’s basically where we are now—then it seems to me at least all useful types of faculty participation in university governance are potentially at risk.

So remember, folks: if you’re going to speak out about something at your college or university in the course of your professional duties, first make sure that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Posted by Michael on 11/12 at 08:48 AM
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

All Eyez On Me

Now Brenda’s belly is gettin bigger
But no one seems to notice any change in her figure
She’s twelve years old and she’s having a baby
And the C Street crew and I are totally OK with that
Because this “Brenda” person isn’t anybody we know personally

Posted by Michael on 11/11 at 06:55 AM
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Monday, November 09, 2009

In the future you will find a love that lasts

The word on the street is that AMC has been purchased by Viacom—and with it, Mad Men.  In response, Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Moss, Robert Morse, Rich Sommer, and Christina Hendricks have decided to start their own show.  I can’t wait for next year!  But I hear that the actor who plays little Bobby is afraid he’ll be replaced.  These things are always hardest on the children.

In related news, David Lynch is reportedly furious that Mad Men featured Roy Orbison’s “Shahdaroba” during the closing credits of last night’s episode.  “The candy-colored clown,” Lynch growled.  “I don’t know what Weiner was thinking, but dammit, I’m the go-to guy for obscure Roy Orbison songs.”

As for last night: Don can be very ugly sometimes, no?  Calling your wife a whore makes the baby Gene cry, obviously, and it’s a nasty thing for a serial adulterer to say.  I suppose that involves a double standard of some kind.  But I was also struck by the scene in which Don tries to make amends to Peggy for basically ordering her to follow him into the nebulous Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce future.  Contrast that scene with the pitch he makes to Pete: when Roger says blandly that they’ll need Pete’s skills, Pete demands to hear—from Don—exactly what those skills are.  Pete has wanted that pellet for a long time, and he gets it: Don credits him with having the foresight to go after aerospace accounts, teenagers, and the “Negro market.” All true, and Pete gets his daily affirmation.  Whereupon Pete signs up for the nebulous future, which, as Roy Orbison reminds us, will be much better than the past.

Not so with Peggy: there is no point, during that strange and terribly vague conversation in her apartment, at which Don says, “you were right about Patio and Aqua-Net, you completely got it about Mohawk Airlines, and the way you thought on your feet during the meeting on Western Union was incredible.” All true, but it goes unsaid.  Peggy has wanted that pellet ever since Don told her she hadn’t done anything at Sterling Cooper that he couldn’t live without, but Don clearly doesn’t think that specific praise for Peggy’s talents needs to be part of the sales pitch.  Yes, he gets credit for recognizing those talents, and a little bit of extra credit for having enough self-knowledge to admit to her that he’s seen her as an extension of himself.  But that’s as far as it goes.  And, of course, nobody’s talking about putting Peggy’s name anywhere near Pete’s.

One last thing.  Two weeks ago Bill Benzon sent me a link to Benjamin Schwarz’s more-definitive-than-thou essay on Mad Men, and a few days later I read Amanda’s quite wonderful response.  Schwarz:

Mad Men’s most egregious stumble—though seemingly a small one—involves Betty Draper’s college career, and it is generally emblematic of this extraordinarily accomplished show’s greatest weaknesses, and specifically emblematic of its confused approach to this poorly defined character. Betty, the show establishes, was in a sorority. So far, okay. Pretty, with a little-girl voice and a childlike, almost lobotomized affect; humorless; bland but at times creepily calculating (as when she seeks solace by manipulating her vulnerable friend into an affair); obsessed with appearances and therefore lacking in inner resources; a consistently cold and frequently vindictive mother; a daddy’s girl—Betty is written, and clumsily performed by model-turned-actress January Jones, as a clichéd shallow sorority sister. (Just as Don’s self-invented identity is Gatsby-like, so Betty, his wife, is a jejune ornament like Daisy, though without the voice full of money.) But she’s also a character deeply wronged by her serial-philanderer husband, and she’s hazily presented as a stultified victim of soulless postwar suburban ennui (now there’s a cliché). So, perhaps to bestow gravitas on her, or at least some upper-classiness, the show establishes that she went to Bryn Mawr. But of course Bryn Mawr has never had sororities. By far the brainiest of the Seven Sisters—cussed, straight-backed, high-minded, and feminist (its students, so the wags said, preferred the Ph.D. to the Mrs.)—Bryn Mawr was probably the least likely college that Betty Draper, given to such non-U genteelisms as “passed away,” would have attended. So much for satiric exactitude.

There really should be a name for this kind of criticism.  Begging Amanda’s pardon, this is not merely about “feeling superior to the writers of ‘Mad Men,’” though it certainly is that.  It’s also about feeling superior to the rest of the show’s audience, who are clearly insufferably middlebrow, like that Charlie Rose fellow, “who can always be counted on to embrace the conventional wisdom”:  “not just Rose but also Mad Men’s affluent, with-it target audience are particularly susceptible to liking what The New York Times’ Arts and Style sections tell them to like (30-plus articles in two years!).” Unlike the Arts and Style sheeple, however, Benjamin Schwarz likes this extraordinarily accomplished show—but for the right reasons.

The important thing about this kind of criticism is that (despite its pretensions) it doesn’t really matter, finally, what those reasons are.  What matters is that Benjamin Schwarz has more cultural capital than you do.  The key sentence is this:

But of course Bryn Mawr has never had sororities.

Let me be more specific.  The key phrase in the key sentence is this:

of course

Look. I’ve been in the higher ed business for quite some time.  Why, I even went to an Ivy League school when I was a young thing, and I can name the Seven Sisters.  But this is news to me, because I’ve never kept track of whether Bryn Mawr had sororities.  Did you?  If not, you lose!  Go to the back of the class, because Benjamin Schwarz has more cultural capital than you do.

See, if you’re writing to catch Mad Men in an uncharacteristic mistake (one that Weiner admitted some time ago), it’s fine to say, “As it happens, however, Bryn Mawr has never had sororities.” Saying “of course Bryn Mawr has never had sororities” is quite another speech act, something akin to using the phrase “non-U genteelisms” a bit later in the paragraph.  U and non-U!  Ah, now, that one takes me back ... to a time before Schwarz and I were born.  It was just before teatime, I believe, the fall of 1954, Henry Pordes bookshop in Charing Cross Road, and Schwarz and I were chatting about Nancy Mitford’s essay.  “Die” was definitely U, we agreed, and “pass away” very non-U.  “An egregious stumble on the part of Mad Men, that Bryn Mawr business,” I said.  “Indeed,” Schwarz concurred, “though seemingly a small one.” “Of what,” I asked, “is it generally and specifically emblematic, do you think?  And have the cognoscenti largely ignored any of the show’s quiet virtues while extolling what are really the show’s considerable flaws?” “Ah,” replied Schwarz.  “I’m glad you asked.”

“More-definitive-than-thou” isn’t quite right, though, is it.  It’s more like “more-discerning-than-thou.” Because as it turns out, the cognoscenti have largely ignored the quiet virtue of Mad Men while extolling what are really the show’s considerable flaws. One has to be careful about the proper display of one’s discernment when one is writing about mere TV shows, particularly when one is writing about TV shows that have been written about in the New York Times Arts and Style sections 30-some times.  One does not want to be mistaken for the wrong kind of affluent, with-it people. 

But I am an awfully dim bulb in some ways, and I have to admit I had a hard time with Schwarz’s closing line:

The cognoscenti, though, have largely ignored this quiet virtue while extolling what are really the show’s considerable flaws. Ah, the media juggernaut.  If Mad Men were half as good as the hype would have it, the show would be one of the best ever produced for American television. It’s both.

I suppose that “it’s both” means that Mad Men is (a) half as good as the hype would have it and (b) one of the best shows ever produced for American television.  Uh, OK, but doesn’t an “if ... then” construction presume that if (a) is the case then (b) is also the case?  And what’s with the awkward slide from subjunctive to indicative?  Doesn’t this gambit demand something like “would that it were so”?  Otherwise, you wind up sounding like you’re saying, “if this were so, then this would be so, and so it is.” Ah, the media juggernaut.  If this essay were half as discerning as it affects to be, its final sentence would be better written.  It’s neither.

Posted by Michael on 11/09 at 10:21 AM
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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Even weirder than I remember

I believe I last taught Pale Fire in 1993.  Between that time and this, some enterprising and whimsical editor has apparently added these two passages to the novel, on pages 138 and 139:

Several trails cross the mountains at various points and lead to passes none of which exceeds an altitude of five thousand feet; a few peaks rise some two thousand feet higher and retain their snow in midsummer; and from one of them, the highest and hardest, Mt. Glitterntin, one can distinguish on clear days, far out to the east, beyond the Gulf of Surprise, a dim iridescence which some say is Russia.  (138)

It was decided to part, Charlie proceeding through the remote treasure in the sea cave, and Odon remaining behind as a decoy.  He would, he said, lead them a merry chase, assume sensational disguises, and get into touch with the rest of the gang.  His mother was an American, from New Wye in New England.  She is said to have been the first woman in the world to shoot wolves, and, I believe, other animals, from an airplane.  (139)

I have checked the text repeatedly with my special Confidence-Man® brand Counterfeit Detector, and there is no question that these passages did not exist in 1993, and that the kerning techniques used to interpolate these passages were not available on the IBM Selectric I or II in 1962, no matter what Mad Men might lead you to believe.  So I have to imagine that someone in the production department at Vintage International has gone rogue.

OK, I’ll be in DC for the next few days.  Don’t try to look me up if you’re in the area—I’ll be in a windowless room all Friday and Saturday, doing Important Committee Work, leaving Saturday night.

Oh, and I believe I said Yanks in 6, did I not?  And now the Bush Curse—from back when Dubya’s first-pitch and Ghouliani’s post-9/11 press conferences doomed us to eight long years in the wilderness—has finally been lifted.  Praise merciful Moloch!

Sure, you haters can say that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Goldman Sachs.  But you might want to stop and think why the Yankees prospered under Clinton and Carter but were utterly stymied throughout the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II eras. 

Posted by Michael on 11/05 at 06:37 AM
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Monday, November 02, 2009

Adaptation

This weekend I learned these things:

– Including our computers and cell phones, we have over 25 timepieces in my house.  Funny how the computers and cell phones know all about daylight savings.

– There is an intriguing but unsubstantiated rumor floating around the Internets that David Horowitz secretly ghost-wrote Going Rogue

– Betty no longer loves Don.  Also, Kennedy was shot in Dallas.  You knew the Draper marriage was going to come apart somewhere around November 1963, right?  You just thought, as I did, that it would be the season finale.

– I cannot watch more than fifteen minutes of the film version of The Sound and the Fury.  I’d always heard that it sucked in over 25 different ways, but I was curious as to whether this wasn’t just anti-adaptation snobbery at work, so yesterday I checked to see if someone had uploaded it to Ye Youtube, and sure enough, there it was.  At the fifteen-minute mark, I said to myself, “by Moloch’s cognitively disabled brother, this movie might actually be worse than The Spirit.  I didn’t know you could adapt a novel this badly. Yul Brenner as Jason?  Jason and his mother are not Compsons?  What are all these competing Accents From Around the World?  Caddy’s daughter Quentin does voiceover, after spending the night—riding a bus round-trip to Memphis?  And what is going on with that lunatic soundtrack? In short, W? T? F?” I peeked ahead, after reading on an IMDB board that Margaret Leighton’s Caddy was the one redeeming feature of the movie, only to find Margaret Leighton playing Caddy as Blanche DuBois.  And Jason kissing Quentin!  Sweet mother of Zuul, make it stop!  So I did.  I made it stop.  I mean, I’ve wasted time on the Internets before.  I’ve even read entire Townhall columns from start to finish.  But this movie was melting my eyeballs and making the vitreous humor run down my face.

And why was I anywhere near the film version of The Sound and the Fury in the first place?  Because last year I had a Bright Idea®.  I had grown tired of trying to sneak a few moderately whimsical or experimental or just plain fun novels into American literature survey courses, where they inevitably went over badly with everyone except my most talented and intellectually curious students.  (Though this was a pretty good way to find out which of my students really like reading.) I’m still not sure why “survey” seems to mean “varieties of domestic realism” to so many people, but this year I figured, eh, what the hell.  I’m going to offer a class called “Stranger than Fiction” in which I teach a bunch of challenging things with the appropriate surgeon general’s warning posted in the course description, beware, this class consists of one challenging novel after another.  I decided not to go hardcore, which meant that Nightwood and The Third Policeman didn’t make the final cut.  And I didn’t want anyone to get the impression that the twentieth century had cornered the market on weird, so I opened with Wuthering Heights and The Confidence-Man, promising students that WH would in fact be much weirder than its various film versions (and general reputation as a “romance”) would lead one to believe. (Indeed, it appears that one of the standard features of film adaptations of the novel is that Heathcliff must be whitened.  Yes, he’s played by dark brooding Byronic hero types, sure, but he’s whitened.  The only adaptation I can find that gets Heathcliff right is this one.)

Anyway, so the next two novels were those high-modernist classics, To the Lighthouse (Ross Douthat, white courtesy phone) and The Sound and the Fury, and for the next five classes I have the great privilege of teaching ... dang, now I’ve forgotten the title. Help me, Will!

I hear the film version is kind of odd—hard to tell just what’s going on at the end.  But I’m planning on enjoying the next few weeks, this much I know.

Posted by Michael on 11/02 at 09:06 AM
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