Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Arbitrary, because Wednesday
Sorry for the very light blogging lately ... no, wait, scratch that, I’m not sorry at all. Not at all! I’m proud, proud of the very light blogging lately. It has been some of the finest very light blogging this blog has ever seen, even if I do say so myself.
And it’s about to get even lighter (proudly, I say!) because I’m skipping out. Leaving town. Hitting the road. Going on vacation. Yes, even though I become the new Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State at midnight tonight (the midnight change of command ceremony is an awesome, beautiful thing), I am beginning my new job by taking a vacation. It’s the only way to set the right tone, I believe.
The truth, of course, is that I’ve been working on next year’s programming for the past few months, and working pretty feverishly on the transition for the past few weeks. And most of all, watching one dystopian movie after another for my film festival, “Bad Futures” (name coined by the elusive Janet Lyon), which will take place at the State Theatre on October 15-17. Thanks to Nick for suggesting Akira and thanks to Chloe Silverman for introducing me to Code 46! I just ordered the soundtrack, because you know I love that spacy ambient dreamy stuff.
Oh, and it’s about the time of year that I remind everyone that I also love this:
Jamie does too, except that he thinks the lyrics are “hey, Jamie, it’s the Fourth of July.” “It’s about me,” he chirped from the back seat of the car last week. And who am I to contradict him?
Besides, there are more important things to argue about. Like, for instance, this travesty, this insult to all that is right and good, a ranking of the “100 best punk bands” in which X is consigned to the 51st spot. WTF? I’m sorry, but don’t These Kids Today listen to real music anymore? Hard to argue with four of the first five, I’ll admit that (Bad Religion, meh), but the next five should obviously be X, Hüsker Dü (40th? are you people out of your minds?), Sex Pistols, then maybe Black Flag and Minor Threat. And while it’s nice to see some love for Sham 69, the Minutemen, and the Dead Milkmen, there’s a lot of chaff in that top 50 ... and no Dead Boys? no Fear? no X-Ray Spex? no Flipper??? Doesn’t anyone listen to the classics anymore? Sonic Youth, OK, but no Pixies? Also notable for their absence: Nirvana. I haven’t been so depressed by a discussion of music since someone responded to this epic thread by complaining that I’d overlooked Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Which reminds me: no Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers? Really? Really?
I’ll be back in mid-July. In the meantime, feel free to suggest more revisions to this sorry list.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Even though today is Friday, this post is not ABF—neither arbitrary nor facetious (and certainly not fun). I suppose it’s my own fault that I have to make this clear at the outset, since I have been known to make up “letters” from imaginary “readers” now and then. But the following letter is quite real, as is my reply. The person who wrote to me, earlier this week, suggested that I might post the exchange (so long as I deleted his/her name), in the hope that s/he could get some further advice in comments. So, dear readers, if you have further advice, offer it in comments!
Dear Dr. Bérubé,
After reading your “Employment of English” at the tail end of my master’s in literature in 2007, I had pretty well sworn off my fanciful idea of becoming a professor. I come from a modest background and my parents have been hit pretty hard by the recession, along with most of my extended family. Making those kinds of sacrifices of time and lost income with very little hope of a job at the end just seemed dangerous to me.
I went back to journalism to weather the coming economic storm because I had an in at a large newspaper. (I had been a reporter for two years before the M.A.). Of course the recession has hit newspapers very hard. In the last four years my newspaper has let go of half its staff which once numbered nearly 1,600. I find myself compromising more and more and writing fluffier, stupider stories than ever before. Though I believe in watchdog reporting, I can’t say I do much of it, and I hold little hope of doing much anywhere else right now.
What was once a distant second in terms of a career is starting to look like my best option, and I began studying for the monstrous GRE subject test in literature around February of this year. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m making a huge mistake. I’m married now, 29, and I’d like to have a small family eventually. I’m a solid writer, was awarded best thesis in my department upon graduation, and I Really Care about literature. Of course I realize there are probably a lot of other people fitting my description with PhD’s who won’t find work anytime soon.
It may be an inexorable dilemma I’m facing, but I thought I’d ask what you thought. Should I drop the PhD plans and get on with finding decent pay for decent work? Is there any hope of a job in or out of the academy for an English PhD? I don’t want to hurt my wife or future family by making a foolish choice, but I get the greatest satisfaction from writing, reading, researching and teaching. I’m in a fix, and I’d really appreciate any thoughts if you can spare the time to write back.
G. (not his real initial)
Thanks for writing to me, and for reading my old book as well. I wish I could say that things have gotten better since 1997-98—and if I wanted to equivocate, I could say they have, because the market for English PhDs did indeed improve between the years 1998 and 2008. It wasn’t great, of course, but it wasn’t abysmal. Now, it’s abysmal. The financial collapse is still having ripple effects, not only on private colleges’ endowments but also (or especially) on state budgets, and I’m convinced that we’ll see a second shock to that system once the stimulus money disappears. Over the next decade or so, I’m guessing that states are going to face one severe crisis after another (infrastructure, pensions, K-12), and higher education isn’t going to be one of the priorities. So I’m not sanguine about the near future of public higher education, and I doubt whether the private colleges and universities will be able to expand as the publics contract.
What that means is that the precipitous drop in jobs listed with the Modern Language Association—from 1826 two years ago to 1380 last year to about 1000 this year (a 24 percent drop followed by a 27 percent drop—the details are all here in this .pdf)—may turn out to be a structural depression that lasts for years. The early-90s drop eventually let up around 1999, as figure 1 in that report shows. If this downturn is as bad as that one, we’re looking at a “recovery year” of something like 2015. But if this downturn is worse, as I fear, then I’m not sure we’re looking at a “recovery year” at all. Instead, we might be looking at something like a jobless recovery, in which the new positions in English are overwhelmingly off the tenure track.
I truly wish I had better news from the front. I realize that journalism, too, is going to face one severe crisis after another, and I don’t think its future is much brighter than ours. So part of me wants to say, “eh, between journalism and doctoral study in English, it’s pretty much a wash.” But I hesitate to say this to someone who’s 29 and wants to start a family one of these days. If you were to start a PhD program in 2011-12, you’d be looking at another four-five years of study, followed by ... well, maybe followed by a better market in the years 2015-17, but maybe followed by a bleak market in 2015-17 made bleaker by all the people who didn’t get decent jobs from 2011-15. You don’t want to be adjuncting when you’re 35, this I know. And I don’t see how it’s possible to raise a family on adjunct wages (though many people manage to do it nonetheless).
In saying all of this, I haven’t so much as addressed your conviction that you’d be happiest with a job that involves writing, reading, researching and teaching. It is indeed a great job, even when all the committee work is factored in, and of course I think that the desire for such a job is not only entirely legitimate but (in a perverse sense) completely sane. Which is to say, I’m not one of those people who grouses relentlessly about how the profession is rotten to the core and spits out everyone who Really Cares About Literature and rewards only the hyperprofessionalized theorymongers with icewater in their veins. As you’ve probably gathered from my old book. The only question, as I see it, is whether the profession of literary study will offer a sufficient number of those great jobs for the people who aspire to them. And I fear that the answer is no, that the odds of any one person getting one of those jobs is extremely slim. Now, in one sense that’s the Monte Carlo fallacy at work, because your odds of choosing any number between 1 and 1000 is 999:1, and yet you chose a number! So yes, obviously, somebody is going to get some decent job here and there. But should you take that chance? That’s your call in the end, because only you can answer the question of how much of your life (and your family’s life) you’re willing to juggle in order to give it a shot. But I do feel an obligation to be as explicit as I can about just how steep the odds are, and how severe the personal sacrifices might be.
I hope this helps, though I expect that it will simply make your inexorable dilemma seem even less exorable, and more of a dilemma.
P.S. Don’t worry too much about—or study too long for—that monstrous GRE subject test in literature. As I learned in the course of writing this little essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 41.5 percent of English departments require the test. By contrast, 96.2 percent of departments require a writing sample—and for good reason, because it’s the single most important piece of information in an applicant’s dossier. Which is to say what I should have said earlier: go ahead and apply this fall, and see what happens. At that stage, after all, you have nothing to lose save for the application fees. When you have a better sense of what your options are next spring, feel free to write to me again to talk them over.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Back on Memorial Day weekend, in between my trips to Irvine and NYC (in May) and my crazed Philly-DC-home-DC-Providence trip (in June), I actually got to spend some time with my family. Nick and his crew (Rachel, Shachar) drove from New Haven, and we all hung out and actually used our backyard—just as we’d hoped to do last summer when we were doing all that neck-straining painting and landscaping and stuff. There was much ladderball and badminton and beer, with various young guests coming in and out all weekend; the fun was interrupted only by my attempt to trim the Boundary Hedge from Hell, which had grown from its ordinary six feet to something like nine, exploding in all directions and now containing two or three young trees. Many thanks to Nick and Shachar for helping out! It is a hideous job, especially for someone like me who was raised in a parking lot and cannot tell a hoe from a pruning saw, and each year when I undertake the task with the electric clippers I rarely fail to cut through the 100-ft. extension cord in the course of the two-hour struggle. And there is a ladder involved. Ladders and power cutting-tools—a winning combination any time of year! But this time Shash held the extension cord so it didn’t get tangled in the hedge (taking care to avoid the sentient parts of the hedge that are capable of reaching out and grabbing the cord), and Nick used ye olde nonelectric hedge clippers to do the edging. Best of all, these doughty young men hauled out the wheelbarrow and carted away heaps upon heaps of hedge trimmings, until we almost had enough trimmings to make a second hedge.
And then we decided to go to the pool! Well, almost. Nick prevailed upon Shash to stay with him and play Zero Wing World of Zelda Call of Duty Warfare 4, the better to cultivate their pallid complexions, while Janet, Jamie, Rachel and I went to the Penn State Natatorium, where they have those diving platforms that were mentioned in this aquatic-themed thread back in aught-six, when Jamie first worked up the courage to jump off a diving board (check out comment 22, and no, I still haven’t gone off the 7.5m platform and probably never will).
On most days the Nat is pretty empty. One August day last year it was so empty that the lifeguard allowed Jamie to jump off the 1m platform, even though the 1 and 3 are usually closed—probably because they’re positioned just below the 5 and the 7.5, respectively, and Penn State didn’t want people jumping onto each other or something. Well, this year was different. For one thing, all five platforms were open (though no one goes off the 10), and there was a new policy in place: no one goes up the ladder until the previous person has dived. (In years past, you would have one diver on the 5 and one on the 7.5, and the lifeguard would indicate—by holding up a 5 card or a 7 card—who was cleared to jump.) For another thing, there was a high school girls’ volleyball tournament in town ... except that all the volleyball games must have been over for the day, because holy mother of Moloch with a libero, the Natatorium was packed almost to capacity with teenage girls. And apparently there’s nothing high school volleyball players want to do more, when they’re not playing volleyball, than to plunge 24.6 feet into a pool. Dozens of these folk were lined up to jump off the platforms; almost all of them went off the 7.5, half of them running and shrieking and half of them inching to the edge and back in an agony of indecision.
Well, we thought, so much for the platform diving. Janet and I did the Sunday crossword puzzle while Jamie went his way and Rachel went hers. Then I swam a few laps, Jamie and Rachel went off the springboard, and we figured that would be it for the day. Time to get back and use that new grill in that redesigned backyard!
But then Rachel said, “we really have to jump just once.” She was right, of course, but, as I pointed out, the line was almost half an hour long. “We’ll jump once and then we’ll go,” she persisted, and she was right again. So we got in line behind 25 or 30 shriekers-and-inchers ... and much to my surprise, after ten minutes, Jamie joined us. “Jamie,” I asked, “do you really want to jump off the platforms?” “Michael! I can do it,” he replied.
“OK, then, are you going to jump off the one-meter like you did last year?”
“No way! I can go off the three.”
I had my doubts. One of the funny things about those platforms is that they look twice as high once you’re actually on them, so that, for example, when you’re up on the 5 (which doesn’t look very high from the ground) you think you’re jumping off a three-story building; and Jamie, as you well know, has a fear of heights. Since he’d only gotten over his fear of diving boards four years ago, I figured he would climb up to the three, flip out, and either (a) retreat to the one or (b) get stuck up there so that I’d have to retrieve him.
“Are you absolutely sure?”
“No problem!” he insisted, somewhat dismissively. Fine, I thought, we have 15-20 minutes to talk this over. So I told him that he must, must, must hit the water with his feet first. He must not, must not, must not jump forward the way he does on the spring board, landing knees-and-chest in the water. He must, must, must jump straight down. And so forth. “Michael!” he said, “I got it.”
Indeed he did. So here he is contemplating his ten-foot jump into the deep end (photo courtesy of the Blackberry of the elusive Janet Lyon):
And he didn’t hesitate for a second. He sized it up, took a few steps, and wooosh! Our Jamie went flying into fifteen feet of water from the three-meter platform. Rachel followed from the 5, and I went last. Somehow, Janet managed to catch me in mid-flight looking as if I am about to do the Mexican cliff-diving thing from the height of one meter:
Yesterday, on our second trip to the Nat (thankfully it was back to nearly-empty), Jamie not only went off the three again (while I stayed with the five); he also doodled around the far end of the diving well and then decided to take off from the surface (that is, without jumping in) and touch the bottom. For this he got a warning from the lifeguard (no playing around in the diving well!), but he was so pleased with the feat (and even the lifeguard was secretly impressed) that he swam over to me bursting with glee. “I did it!”
“You did what?” I asked.
“I touched the bottom! By myself!”
“Wait, you just touched the bottom? In the deep end? Just now?”
“With your hand?”
“Yes! And I pushed myself back up!”
“Wow.” That really is impressive. “And you had enough air? Do you feel all right?”
“Michael! I’m fine!”
“Well, OK then. But you are a crazy child. You know that.”
He does, too. We’ve spent the past two nights camping in the backyard wilderness, braving the elements (the deer, the bears, the wolves, and the lawn furniture), and later today we pack him off for another week’s stay in the LifeLink apartment. Oh, and one other thing. Jamie is mindful of the fact that when Nick was about his age, he (Nick) bleached his hair blond with Clorox. So when I finally prevailed upon him to get his (Jamie’s) hair cut on Friday, he insisted on getting highlights. Though he didn’t put it quite that way: when the young woman at Supercuts asked him how short he would like his hair, he replied, “blond.” We eventually worked out a deal (he kept picking extremely dark colors from the highlight color samples, which would kind of defeat the purpose), and now he is the proud bearer of some very attractive highlights. Or, as he prefers to call them, “headlights.”
Nick finds this very hard to believe. But it’s true! See?
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
As a forward, I should exult in such moments; goaltenders thwart us nine times out of ten, every damn day of the year. But instead I come away with a dull sadness, a bone-deep ache, an intimation of the fragility of our little lives and the hollowness of every human triumph.
Friday, June 11, 2010
Something about something
So here are some of the things we’ve been doing over at the Modern Language Association lately.
I know, there’s an enticing teaser. But I’m blogging about this for two reasons. One, these are examples of how the MLA addresses public issues that involve matters of concern to the profession. Two, most members of the MLA have no idea that their disciplinary association does these things as a matter of course. As a result, people tend to think that the way to get the MLA to Say Something About Something is to propose a “resolution” to be debated at the Delegate Assembly meeting at the annual convention. A list of the resolutions passed in the last ten years is here. As you can see, the MLA supports and/or condemns a wide range of stuff! Although in reality, the rate of member participation in these votes is extremely low. Last year’s resolution, for example, drew the support of about 2.5 percent of the membership, while 1.5 percent voted against it.
Over the years, we’ve tried to reform the resolutions process, with little success. For example, when I was first elected to the Executive Council in 2002, the MLA had instituted a new rule for proposed resolutions—namely, that when factual matters were at issue, the resolution should provide evidence for its claims. Well, that drew some outraged responses! Evidence for claims—surely this would have a chilling effect on the speech of resolution proposers. And sure enough, it didn’t even work: one resolution that year condemned a specific institution for something or other, and even though the Delegate Assembly didn’t have the means to determine whether the institution had in fact done that thing (despite the proposers’ repeated attempts to provide evidence for their claims), they voted for it anyway. It was later rejected by the Executive Council for being erroneous. (The EC has to reject resolutions that are erroneous, libelous, or tortious.)
Especially assiduous readers of this blog will recall that in early 2006, I posted two exceptionally tedious, Internets-breaking essays on the MLA “emergency resolution” process, which was thrown into crisis by the strikebreaking at NYU that year. In the years since then, it seems that many MLA members have realized that the association isn’t very good at issuing condemnations of individual institutions. Oh, sure, we get it right once in a while, as we did with the epic condemnation of Yale’s response to its graduate student strike of 1995-96. But more often, we wind up debating (and passing) deeply flawed resolutions that wind up (a) getting us sued, (b) being withdrawn by their own proposers after being approved (yes, this really happened—it was totally amateur hour), or (c) being determined to be erroneous, tortious, or libelous. That’s probably because the MLA doesn’t have an investigative arm, the way the AAUP has Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure; and it’s also because many MLA members don’t realize that the AAUP doesn’t censure institutions until it conducts a thorough investigation. (The AAUP’s post-Katrina report is a model of how these things should be done.)
Even resolutions that don’t name institutions can be problematic—like this year’s, which (if it passes, which it surely will) puts the MLA on record as advocating that everyone who teaches at a college or university in the United States should be eligible for tenure. It’s very well-meaning, and not very well thought out. (Postdocs should not be eligible for tenure; neither should the kind of short-term, part-time appointments that involve famous writers, artists, journalists, or political figures. And I could go on.) It also conflicts directly with a much more substantial MLA statement, namely, the MLA Issue Brief on the Academic Workforce (.pdf), as well as the MLA statement on the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty, which I helped to draft in 2003. But so it goes. And sure enough, some people are going to think that “everyone should be eligible for tenure” is the official position of the MLA.
(Speaking of which: those statements in the previous two links, together with a whole entire mess of useful information and guidelines, are now part of the MLA Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit. The overall percentage of MLA members who know that their association has an Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit, complete with comprehensive data, recommendations for institutions, and salary recommendations, is kind of depressing. So if you’re a member of the MLA, or if you know someone who is, would you mind spreading the news, perhaps by sending this post or the Advocacy Kit to people via the new “electronical” mail? Thanks!)
Finally, as I’ve argued before, the resolutions process just isn’t a good way to respond to fast-breaking developments in the academic world. That’s why I keep telling MLA members that if they want their association to Say Something About Something in a reasonably timely fashion, they should request that it be put on the agenda of the Executive Council. It’s as simple as that.
So, then, here are some of the things the Executive Council has done lately.
Following a discussion in our February meeting, we wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, acknowledging the State Department’s decision to reverse the Bush Administration’s refusal to allow scholars Tariq Ramadan and Adam Habib into the United States, and more broadly urging the State Department “to cease the practice of denying entry visas to academics and scholars on ideological grounds.”
Then at our meeting in May, we approved a letter to Arizona governor Jan Brewer, defending ethnic studies programs as well as teachers who speak with accents: “Because citizens of the United States speak many different languages in addition to English, because every speaker of every language has an accent, and because ethnic studies is important to contemporary American education, we urge you to work toward reversing the policy decisions we cited at the beginning of this letter.”
And last but not least, the Executive Council adopted a statement drafted by the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities on the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos.
So that’s something.
On another front: last week I published a tiny item in the Times Higher Education Supplement titled “Think Outside the Book.” In it, I wrote, “In a provocative pair of newsletter columns, [MLA President Sidonie] Smith challenges the discipline to move ‘beyond the dissertation’ and to begin to imagine the new and various forms scholarly work can take.” Alas, even though the essay is online in the Intertubes, it is not THES policy to use the new “hyper” links, so my attempt to direct readers to Sid’s columns was an epic fail. Those columns are here and here, and they’re well worth your time. Pass them along, too, if you would be so kind. Thanks!
Now back to my meetings. I’ll check in again next week sometime.
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Jamie takes part one of his French II final today. Wish him luck!
And as for those other finals:
Three things about this clip are awesomely awesome. One, “because of the excitement, the CBS television network pre-empted its prime-time regular programming to carry this game.” Two, there is no music in the world like early-70s sports highlights background music. And three, the unreadable clock at the old Chicago Stadium, which makes its first appearance at 2:38, just after Lemaire’s world-transforming goal from 80 feet out.
Oh, yes, the action is pretty good, too. Note Pappin’s reaction to Dryden’s insane kick save at the 4:00 mark—one suspects that Pappin relived that painful moment in his dreams many, many times. I have one question, though—who’s “Henry Richard”? I wonder if he bears any resemblance to this guy.
(Oddly, this account of Richard’s stormy relationship with short-lived coach Al MacNeil underplays the drama going on behind that series: “Richard was a veteran player on that 1971 Montreal team, and his ice time was not what he was used to. After game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals with Chicago Richard boiled over, calling Montreal coach Al MacNeil ‘incompetent’ and ‘the worst coach I’ve ever played for.’” Um, MacNeil had benched Richard in game five. Which made his exploits in game seven all the more delicious.)
Two things from jazzbumpa’s comment 66 in the previous thread:
Quenville throws tantrums like a petulant 2 Yr old. When I pointed that out during last year’s play-offs, you agreed with me. (I just spent the week end with a fun 2 Yr old - quite a refreshing experience.)
Yes, I agreed with you about that incident, but that’s partly because Quenneville’s disastrous outburst in last year’s conference finals was so anomalous. I’ve followed him since he got his first head-coaching gig in St. Louis, and he was always calm, cool, and collected. His Blues teams were disciplined and always stayed classy (except for that Pronger kid). So when he lost it in game 4 against Detroit, it was as if his whole team went down the tubes with him. But no, he doesn’t make a habit of that kind of thing.
Anyway, did you see Hartnall take a running elbow smack into the back of one of the Hawk’s heads last night? What can that be other than an intent to injure. At least it got called, which was also refreshing.
Yes, it appears that for the very first time in his career, Scott Hartnell got called for throwing an elbow to the head. His previous 388 unpenalized elbows to the head notwithstanding, he went to the box and felt shame. But the Hawks won’t get that call tonight, just as they didn’t get it in games 1-4.
And here’s an idle question. Pittsburgh likes to think of itself as a tough town, a steel town, a hard-workin’ burg where real men eat real food. Philadelphia likes to think of itself as a tough town, too, full of nasty Phillies and Eagles fans and Broad Street Bullies and cheesesteaks wiz wit. And yet the Penguins have always been exclusively a “finesse” team, which, as King Kaufmann once explained, is code for “a team that listens to show tunes in the locker room.” And everyone involved with the Pittsburgh franchise, including the fans, is cool with that. Three Stanley Cups can’t be wrong! Whereas the Flyers simply can’t help themselves. Even when they have some real finesse-type talent to their credit, like Briere and Gagne, it’s as if they just don’t feel adequate out there unless they’re also stocked with an array of cheap-shot artists (from Bobby Clarke to Hartnell and Pronger) and murderous psychopaths (from Dave Schultz to Dan Carcillo). On that note, here’s a hello to namesake Craig Berube, the former enforcer (seventh all-time on the Feel Shame list!) who’s now a Flyers assistant coach.
Go Hawks! Win tonight and spare us 48 hours of chatter about what happened to you all in 1971. Because if I hear one more time about Hull’s shot hitting the crossbar instead of giving Chicago a 3-0 lead, I’m going to give someone an elbow to the head.