Sunday, February 27, 2005

S(ad) A(ss) T(est)

I saw an oxymoronically brief "in-depth" report on the the New SATs during one of the nightly network news shows. The College Board spokesman took great pains to suggest that the test was designed to be much more "familiar" to students from their coursework than those old-fashioned analogy questions. The text also includes a new and highly touted "essay component" (25 minutes) that is supposed to give colleges great insight into their applicants' critical thinking skills.

Color me skeptical. (What color is skeptical, anyway? Puce? Umber? Celery?) From what I see in my own students, they need to be more uncomfortable with anything having to do with college. I realize I'm embracing my own inner curmudgeon, but my students are too damn "familiar" with the work—at least they think they are—already. They resist adamantly my suggestion that they might engage intellectually with anything that doesn't fall neatly into a five-paragraph essay, or that writing might reflect complexity or ambiguity. Published writers are most frequently evaluated as writing pieces that are "too long," whose ideas are "too complex" and thus "not relatable" to the "average reader" (the level to which most of them, apparently, aspire).

I realize that my students are at the stage in their intellectual development where these are the natural responses to complexity (and yes, I know Perry has been discredited of late, and that there are alternative models, including, of course, the famous feminist revision, similarly subject to revision, called Women's Ways of Knowing.)

My point is not that my students are on the cusp of intellectual advancement, but that, with few exceptions, they are resistant to the idea that they need to advance--or that the college classroom might be a place to encounter things that are more advanced than they are.

Consumerism, I suspect, is high on the list of culprits that have made them tyrants of relatability--that is, everything they encounter is subject to an initial evaluation based primarily on their pre-existing level of comfort. In other words, nothing should challenge, discomfit, or disrupt their complacent self-confidence. I remember feeling on-the-edge-of-my-seat in most of my college courses, sure that even the dreariest lecture would somehow help to initiate me into a rich intellectual world. Of course, that's why I became an academic. But I can't help but feel sorry for my students, who can't imagine the value of knowing or understanding anything more than what they already know. For the most part, and with a few marvelous exceptions, they see learning as a process of pure knowledge transfer. They are not averse to me providing "facts" (which are unfortunately few in my discipline), so long as those facts don't interfere with their egocentric weltanschaung or challenge the centrality of how they "feel" about anything.

I doubt the new, comfort-fit SATs can do much to address this; in fact, for all the trepidation students naturally feel toward them, I suspect, without much evidence, that the new test will do precisely the opposite; that is, it will convince them even more that college should and will resemble a mediocre high school course.

I've worked with the College Board before, grading student essays, and frankly, I can't believe anything in their purview could work toward complexity of thought and expression. I suspect that the new essay component will merely solidify the triumph of oversimplification that is the 5-paragraph essay, and make it even harder for me to chip away at the edifice of Introduction-3 Examples-Repetitive Recap/Conclusion that defines their writing. And let us not even speak of the army of 'free-lance' graders who will be exploited to perform piece-work grading, via the internet, to score these essays.

In a recent post at Critical Mass, Erin O'Connor references Andrew DelBanco's piece in The New York Review of Books on the decline of American higher education. I was struck by these lines:
Today, as David Kirp points out in Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, New York University, which has lately made a big (and largely successful) push to join the academic front rank, employs "adjunct" faculty--part-time teachers who are not candidates for tenure--to teach 70 percent of its undergraduate courses. The fact that these scandalously underpaid teachers must carry the teaching burden--not just at NYU, but at many other institutions--speaks not to their talent or dedication, but to the meagerness of the institution's commitment to the teaching mission. At exactly the time when the struggle to get into our leading universities has reached a point of "insane intensity" (James Fallows's apt phrase), undergraduate education has been reduced to a distinctly subsidiary activity.

Under these circumstances, one might expect to see students fleeing to colleges whose sole mission is teaching undergraduates. Fine colleges such as Swarthmore, Amherst, and Williams, which have significant endowments and high academic standards, do indeed have considerable drawing power. Yet these are small and relatively fragile institutions, and even the best of them are perennial runners-up in the prestige game, while other impressive colleges --such as Centre College in Kentucky or Hendrix College in Arkansas--must struggle, out of the limelight, to compete for students outside their region.

The leading liberal arts colleges will doubtless survive, but they belong to an endangered species. Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, and Morton O. Schapiro, president of Williams, report that even now "the nation's liberal arts college students would almost certainly fit easily inside a Big Ten football stadium: fewer than 100,000 students out of more than 14 million." In today's educational landscape, barely one sixth of all college students fit the traditional profile of full-time residential students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. One third of American undergraduates now work full-time, and more than half attend college part-time, typically majoring in subjects with immediate utility, such as accounting or computing. These students, and their anticipated successors, are targets of the so-called electronic universities that seek a share of the education market by selling Internet courses for profit. A few years ago, the president of Teacher's College at Columbia University predicted that some wily entrepreneur would soon "hire well-known faculty at our most prestigious campuses and offer an all-star degree over the a lower cost than we can."

My college belongs among those "perennial runners-up in the prestige game" and is constantly trying to entice students from farther and farther afield. Our claims to academic superiority are belied by our nearly 100% applicant acceptance rate, and our endowment has not kept pace with our students' financial needs, and our students work more and more hours, and live more and more of their lives away from campus, despite the administration's determined efforts to return to the liberal-arts college life of the 1950s.

All of these things seem related to me; my students have more pressure to be a part of the corporate, consumerist world outside the college gates—a world that reinforces the centrality and validity of their current ignorance. They don't believe they can afford—in time or money—the kinds of challenges that a college education might offer. Instead, they want an education that leaves them more polished, but essentially unchanged. The schools that are 'succeeding," in DelBanco's bleak view, are those that respect and respond to this vision of American students as workers and consumers—the very notion that liberal arts colleges, with their quaint old-fashioned emphasis on critical thought and educational breadth, struggle to counter.

It's not surprising, in this world, that my students resent a published writer who wastes their time with parenthetical counterexamples or confuses them with "too many commas." But it is sad—very sad.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

I got soul

It's Black history month, as everyone out there probably already knows. In honor of this fact, our lily-white (okay, not entirely; I have anecdotal evidence of at least four black students—only half of whom are African, not African American) campus has planned appropriate events. This is preferable, at least in theory, to past years, during which the majority white student body has found it appropriate to mark the occasion with performances involving the un-ironic use of blackface. The ire with which these have been greeted by progressive faculty and community members of a variety of hues is completely mystifying to the students, who insist that "they didn't mean anything by it" and are thus freed from the necessity of understanding the form's troubled and--um, RACIST--history.

This year, the committee who plans and implements such things has apparently gone to great lengths to avoid the appearance of cultural stupidity--um, insensitivity--among us. So far, no white rappers, Blaxploitation film fests, or basketball tournaments appear to be scheduled.

Instead, we have, I kid you not, a "Soul Food" station in the cafeteria. Most of our students are biologically, culturally, and politically Bland. The most popular choices at our cafeteria are usually the generic Chinese food, whatever has been fried, and the pre-wrapped jello servings. I'm just not sure I see our blond lasses bellyin' up for chitlins, greens, hogs feet, or whatever else the administration thinks classifies as "Soul Food." Angel food cake would be more appropriate. And Wonder bread.

This is a school located, despite its best attempts to convince its student body otherwise, in a somewhat gritty, down-at-the-heels town with a small but highly visible black population--visible mostly for their persistent and perverse attachments to crime and poverty, at least according to local media. Visitors' directions to campus prominently feature a circuitous route deliberately designed to avoid anything resembling an integrated neighborhood, so that the parents can be assured their little darling will encounter Diversity only in the safely constricted confines of a lecture hall, and only when the Diverse himself boasts an SAT score just as mediocre as that of their own child.

I've been here long enough that I no longer remember what it was like to have challenging discussions about real racial issues; a genteel and suppressive silence reigns here. Students are generally allowed to continue believing that things like discrimination and poverty were problems "back in the day," and that only a pessimistic perversity prevents their faculty from realizing that and getting with the program.

Now, pass me some of that sweet potato pie!

let me play, too!

This is why no one tops The Bitch. From her discussion, via Trish Wilson, about the continued ban on selling sex toys in Alabama.
Trish Wilson says,
I've learned that the Supreme Court has decided to let stand the Alabama law that forbids the sale of sex toys. According to Stupid Country, the law makes it "a crime, punishable by a year in jail or a $10,000 fine, to sell 'any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs' in Alabama."

Parsed by Bitch, PhD., the implications read like this:

Now, Trish expected me to be offended, but really, I find the thing just risible. Apparently the ground for the decision is not about privacy, but about "restricting the sale of sex." According to this brief article, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that "siding with the sex toy merchants could open the door to the legalization of behavior such as prostitution."

Ah yes, we all know this story. A young girl, fresh and innocent, purchases her first vibrator. She becomes addicted to sexual pleasure, masturbating constantly, and neglecting her studies and her family duties. Her hair becomes greasy and unkempt, and her eyes unfocused, and she begins to steal money to purchase more vibes. Anything, anything! to feed her habit. Next thing you know, she's lost touch with all that is Good and Holy and is prostituting herself on the street, mere pennies for a blow job, anything to earn money towards a rabbit vibe. By the end of the novel, there she is, poor, ruined thing, standing on a street corner in the freezing rain, fingering herself right out there in public in front of god and everyone without even realizing what she's doing, all sense of shame lost in her addiction, muttering "suck your cock?" to every passing car.

Happens all the time. Only by outlawing sex toys can we protect women from their inner whores. Don't give me that "if you outlaw sex toys, only outlaws will own sex toys" crap, or the "they'll just masturbate with cucumbers or electric toothbrushes" argument. It's a slippery slope, and we must stop masturbation here and now or we'll descend into a nightmare world of humping and groaning and civilization, as we know it, will be doomed.

What's missing from this brilliant post, and from the comments I have read on her site, is an acknowledgement that this is not about banning all sex aids. The Supreme Court left untouched the question of edible undies, naughty lotions, and carb-free lubricants (at least, as long as you refrain from rubbing yourself up against the packaging). No, the suspect items are those that (and you heard it here, first), replicate the Divinely Ordained Penile Privilege of penetration and stimulation! Think about it, people. Sex toys come in all shapes and sizes, but their common subversive function is to make male anatomy obsolete! Not only will women become the sluttish whores we always knew (and, perhaps, wanted?) them to be, but they will learn to reject the Male Member in favor of his colorful, flavored, multi-textured and battery-operated stand-in! What woman wouldn't choose a night-long session with Mr. Cox over the dubious staying power of a real, live man? You get to drink the whole bottle of wine, because He can always get it up!

This does not in any way discredit the "all women are eager to become whores and it's up to us to save them from themselves" subtext of the decision. I suggest, however, that the real anxiety is occasioned by the prospective obsolescence of male genitalia, the slippery slope from "boy toy" to "sex toy" to "who needs you?"

Road Rage

Scenes from the freeway:

Today I passed, was passed by, and finally re-passed an aging Lincoln Town Car, driven by a fleshy, heavy-jowled, light-skinned black man. Belted in the back seat, in the opposite corner: his passenger. A broomstick, topped with a tousled Carol Channing-style frosted pageboy.

Reliving former glory days as a chauffeur? Training for his driver's license? Practicing with do-it-yourself crash-test dummies?

Or maybe he's making a movie:

Then I get to work and find this in my inbox, courtesy of my husband, whose ability to locate internet oddities is without equal. It's a video made during a lengthy drive across Iowa, throughout the duration of which the driver listened to ABBA's "Dancing Queen" on continuous play. WHY? What makes these people do these things?

Maybe academia ain't so bad.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Did she jump, or was she pushed?

Okay, I keep trying to stay away from the Larry Summers brouhaha--mostly b/c I don't want to take the time to read the actual transcripts, and can't improve on what others are saying about the problems with his logic (i.e., that the differences in success between men and women are attributable to three likely possibilities.) Here I'll just quote straight from Dr. Bitch:
[Sanders:] There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the--I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are--the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

[La Professora B] So. He is not, as some have claimed, merely listing three possibilities and encouraging us to discuss whether or not they might be contributing factors. He is explicitly saying that women are not in science because they choose not to be (the "Mommies don't want high-powered careers" argument); because they are genetically inferior ("at the high end"; this is the "oh sure, some women are smart, but the best women aren't as smart as the best men" argument); and that, oh yeah, maybe socialization and discrimination happen too, but really that's far less important than the fact that women really don't want these jobs, and if they do, they're just not good enough.

Then I read this at my new fav, "ABD Mom":

I understand why women who have children while pursuing a PhD are far more likely to drop out than women who are not mothers, and why mothers are far more likely to be denied tenure than non-mothers. We're not leaving the academy because we want to; we're being shoved out the door. Right now, I can pretty much feel my adviser's foot up my ass as she tries to kick me out the door so I'll "quit wasting her time."

Before I had El Pistola, I never would have imagined this. My advisor seemed very supportive. I knew she had had several doctoral students who were moms, and she seemed to like babies and kids very much; she prided herself on being easy to work, and frequently talked about former students who had had babies, as if she was trying to show me that she approved of my pregnancy.

[. . . .]

But how things changed after El Pistola arrived. It was no longer acceptable that I was taking six months off--where was my proposal for the dissertation? Didn't I know that I was behind? Why wasn't I "doing anything?" It was as if all of the conversations we had while I was pregnant--conversations during which I clearly stated that I would be doing no writing for six months--never occurred. I know that I changed after I became a mom, but at least I prepared my advisor for that by clearly communicating to her the fact that I would take some time off. My advisor didn't prepare me for her changed behavior at all.

After the six months ended and I returned to my studies, the questions continued, and then some. I was told that I had a choice: "If you want to be a mom, be a mom. If you want to write a dissertation, write a dissertation." And there it was. A binary so cutting that it took my breath my away--I could write a dissertation, or I could be a mom. In my advisor's mind, there was no middle ground.

I happen to have a very supportive advisor, who has allowed me endless slack time (and believe me, I've extended this degree well beyond anyone's stamina—the fact that I not only have a daughter but have had a full-time teaching position for the past four years and have a husband with serious medical problems attests to my clear failure to make the PhD a "priority) and encouraged me to negotiate the mother/professor connection at my own pace and to my daughter's benefit. On the other hand, she's permanently exhausted and perpetually guilty about how little time she spends with her own children, so she's more a "do as I say" model than a "do as I do" model.) My doctoral program has clearly given up on me—once I didn't finish in the first year or two after exams, I apparently became invisible with respect to the kind of funding and other support that might have helped me to finish. In fact, after I'd been on indefinite leave for several years, I noticed that the department was finally starting to consider the reasons that SO MANY of us were not finishing our degrees in the scant funded time we had (we taught composition every term, except for a few paltry quarter-off type fellowships). Their first line of attack was to consider whether the students in the program were subject to a uniquely exaggerated amount of whatever the opposite of stick-to-it-iveness is. In other words, their first question in assessing the programmatic problems was, "What's wrong with these students that none of them are finishing our program?" Yeah, these folks could rise high in the Bush administration—at least in the Pentagon.

But then, I also see today that our local newspaper has reprinted this helpful and timely article on how to balance work and motherhood. The focus here is not on the pressures this woman felt, or on the definitive conflicts between what we as a culture expect of workers and of parents; instead, the story is one of her "good boss," who found a way to have her work a more sane schedule. Notice that her decision to stay home with her three-month old daughter is reduced to a typically feminine breakdown in the ladies room, in which her "guilt" over her daughter in daycare during her 50-hour work week (surprise!) finally caught up with her. The article does take a brief stab at the larger reasons behind this one woman's quandary (and far be it from me to criticize a boss's efforts to keep a long-time employee):

An increasing number of mothers struggle with balancing work and family, says Deborah Reed, an economist with the Public Policy Institute of California.

Mothers are more likely to work today than their mothers were. The number of working, married women with children younger than 6 increased from just under 30 percent in the 1960s to about 55 percent in the 1990s and has steadily climbed, according to an institute study called “Women, Work and Family in California.” The figure is even higher — 70 percent — for single women with young children.

Go figure. Why would a single woman with young children want to work? So irresponsible. I want in on the deal the other 30% have. But now we get to the subtext:

Men usually aren’t forced to make the same kind of professional sacrifices as women when children enter the picture, Reed says. The work interruptions “are a major factor in explaining why women earn less than men,” Reed says.

Really? Why not? And might this not be the defining issue here? It seems to me that the very way in which we understand "motherhood" (what my husband and I call The Tyranny of Mommy-dom) is fundamentally at odds with how we define (increasingly) career—the single-minded pursuit of one type of success, in one realm (the economic) no matter the cost (missed relationships, broken friendships, stress, ill health, lack of community involvement, etc., etc., etc.) And as so many fellow bloggers have suggested, until we define both Fatherhood and Motherhood (in their adoptive, step, gay, foster, and single-parent varieties) as equally vulnerable to the disruptions of a child _and_, even more importantly, as equally vital to the larger well-being of society, we're just chipping away at the symptoms.

Finally, the writer trots out the usual explanatory clichés: 1) "mothers" no longer want careers (the biological explanation, one presumes); 2) women who want careers should just get over the guilt of being Bad Mommies (even though they clearly are)

[Another source suggests that] women who once were driven by their careers but now find that motherhood takes priority. “Highly ambitious, career-oriented women, when they become mothers, have a shift in values. ... Perhaps the career is not that fulfilling anymore,” she says.
She also advises working mothers who struggle to balance career and children to find a good support network to help when times are tough. And, to lose the guilt.

“Working mothers spend so much time and energy feeling guilty. It’s so debilitating. ... Forgive yourself when things don’t get done.”

Got it. Thanks.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Laughing my maternal ass off!

Okay, my diss is a shambles and I can barely keep up with my job—the kind of job one's not supposed to have until after the g.d. diss is me to fuck up something so obvious, like "Degree first, then the job." (Yes, I'm the one with the socks on over her shoes).
But at least my darling daughter is not a vulva-obsessed humping machine like this woman's...

Oh, I expected that El Pistola would discover the joys of the clitoris when she entered puberty, so that's not what I mean by "eventually." I mean RIGHT FUCKING NOW. And I don't mean a little casual exploration of the clitoris, either. Yeah, she likes to reach down, pat her vulva (aside--why does this spellcheck not recognize "vulva?" Clearly the work of a heterosexual man), and say, "Bulba" when I change her diaper, and sometimes she'll play around. Not a big deal, and so not what I'm talking about.

Here is what I mean: This girl humps incessantly, and she humps EVERYTHING. Her cartoon-character themed, little flip-out couch; the floor; the bed; and even her Elmo alphabet toy. Let me tell ya, watching my toddler hump and grind away as Elmo shouts out, "R! Rrr-rrr-R! R!" is not exactly the way I pictured toddlerhood going down. Tantrums? Check. Separation anxiety? Check. Masturbation? Eh, not so much.

That's just a it yourself.

Waaaaaaay better than gay cartoon characters...

Which Sylvia Plath Poem Am I?

by echoing

Life's little traumas

Our two-year old daughter is just now recovering from one of those nasty upper-respiratory infections common to children. (Personally, I think it's fallout from the germy blond tykes at her preschool program, all of whom have perpetually snotty noses. One of those things that no one ever tells you about before you become a mother is just how much of your life will be dedicated to futile efforts at snot eradication, or how quickly you will resign yourself to the "draperies and upholstery as Kleenex" paradigm.)

I thought I had reached my personal parenting nadir last week, when I arrested her attempt to flee my side by grabbing—Hard!—her wispy top-of-the-head pony tail as she attempted to dart away toward the traffic. But no, worse adventures were in store. For her to sleep (and, importantly, for me to get any sleep whatsoever), we had to do something about her constant coughing. Enter the cough suppressant, known familiarly as "Yucky Medicine." She acquiesced to a couple of doses with minimal screaming. But by day 5, attempts to medicate her had deteriorated into full-scale battles, complete with flailing arms, kicking feet, and her impressive bubbling reflex, with which she managed to prevent nearly all of the medicine from getting anywhere near her throat, and which offered the added benefit (for her) of spurting great streams of it into my hair and face (already sticky with tears, drool, and snot). By the end of the battle, she'd gotten about one-fifteenth of the dose, cried herself into a major coughing fit, and rendered me permanently sticky and smelling of that sickly grape flavoring that adults falsely believe will disguise other, even more vile flavors.

I was Bad Mama. But what I hadn't counted on was the glorious forgiveness of toddlers. Even though I was the one who had inflicted the sticky grape suffering upon her, she came to me for comfort almost immediately. Now I can only dread the day when she remembers that it's me she's mad at, and has achieved the capacity to hold a grudge.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

color me...surprised!

I never would've thunk it:

You Are the Very Gay Winnie the Pooh!

Come on, he doesn't wear pants!
And he's a little too obsessed with Christopher Robin

What Gay Childhood Icon Are You?

Race and sex--in one post!

This may be what the internet does better than anywhere else: Andrew Meier's piece on the all but forgotten Tulsa race riots of 1921. This is the kind of thing my students (one of whom told me he didn't want to read Harriet Jacobs's gripping slave narrative because he thought it was time to move past the "whitey is evil" discourse) either don't believe, under-imagine, or just plain can't grasp. The students at my nice semi-liberal small college (as in, politically liberal as long as they don't see liberal politics making any possible infringement on their privileged lives...which they believe, of course, are due solely to their parents' moral values and hard work--not to any vaguely communistic-sounding systemic advantages) can't really see the point in talking about anything unpleasant from "back in the day"—hence their aversion to things like feminism, which has the taint of bitchiness, or discussions of race relations, which, again, they want to reduce to a natural and understandable sympathy among people of the same race. "It's only natural," they tell me intensely, "to want to hang around with people who understand you." "But why," I ask pointedly, "is it natural to assume that someone white naturally has more important things in common with another white person than with a black person?"

This is the point where they roll their eyes at my naive obtuseness and my refusal to move beyond my antiquated politics: "It just is," they insist. The most thoughtful of my students generally trot out the one black student they knew in their youth (almost always a childhood friend—very few of them have had any genuine interracial contact since puberty, if at all) who they feel ditched them by choosing to sit with other African Americans in the middle-school cafeteria. My white students can't see that their hurt feelings are the hurt feelings of privilege.

Oddly enough, it's generally my white, male student athletes (the most conservative group on our campus, anedotal evidence suggests) that have the most real-world contact with students of different races—especially with black students, who are a minuscule percentage of our students. Although they're pretty inarticulate about the differences that may be attributable to race and class, these boys (maybe it's my geometrically advancing age, but I see fewer and fewer of my college-age male students as anything more than pre-men*) seem pretty savvy about the gaps between them and their mostly-black teammates, and much less discomfited by actually bridging that gap.

*Maybe this is a subject for a different post, but I'm becoming increasingly aware of, and irked by, my male colleagues' (aged from 35-60) proprietary sexual attitudes toward their female students. Maybe it's an accident of biology and evolutionary sexual attraction, but few of the women professors I know admit to, joke about, or share with colleagues their ribald fantasies about their male students. [And here I realize that the heteronormative society of even liberal academia means that I am apparently discounting the possibility of same-sex attraction and/or harrassment, since harrassment is what I'm really talking about. But I'm not; I just don't think most out gay colleagues are willing to risk being thought about by their fellow faculty in terms of their sexual appetites any more than absolutely necessary. Or maybe they're smarter and more mature about their sexual adventuring than my male, heterosexual colleagues. No, wait—maybe it's that I don't have any out gay colleagues. Rarer than hen's teeth in our department.

Anyway, even accounting for the culture's obsessive sexualization of younger and younger girls, and the prevalence of pubic-baring jeans, I'm disgusted by both the politics and the biology of my male colleagues leering openly at their students. I know it's stupid to be disgusted by male biology, but still. Frankly, maybe I'm just pissed off that I can't manage a hot dream about even my good-looking male students—they all look as though they would smell of warm-ish milk and sweaty socks, which just doesn't get me going. On the other hand, I confess that even my pretty confirmedly hetero self has noticed that more than a few of my female students are hot, hot, hot. I have yet to manage a change in sexual orientation, dreamwise, but perhaps should keep working at it.

Note to clueless colleagues: No, it's still not okay to tell me how hot one of your students is, and how distracted you are to have her in class. Especially not if she's nineteen. Nor is it appropriate to mention the sexual attractiveness of prospective faculty members who visit the campus. N-E-V-E-R. I'm not denying you the enjoyment of your sexuality. But please, keep Li'l Dr. Willy on his leash around campus.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Stuff and nonsense

I'm enjoying the lively debate over Larry Summers's public descent into idiocy at Chez Bitch, but have too much of what a friend calls "professor head" (which I take to mean woolly with exhaustion and intellectually depleted) to participate in anything resembling coherent form. In a past life, I blogged pretty lucidly (or so memory serves) about the egregious slippage in the notion of "choice" and how often it serves to obscure the power and privilege inequities of our society. Dr. B says it better, of late. But I find my female students, especially, are disturbingly comfortable with the idea that as women, they can't "have it all" but that their opting out of competitive fields or careers is merely a "personal choice" that reflects a personal pragmatism. They scorn the quaint idea that social inequality can or should be fixed, or that humans might not, in fact, be intended merely to support the corporate profit motive.

Lately I feel as though most of what comes out of my mouth in class could be paraphrased as follows: "Wake up! Your whole 'I'm an individual operating my free will to choose to shop at big box stores, promote family values, and protect freedom' is just a bulls*&t cover for your exploitation by a cynical governmental machine! When will you realize that you have more to gain from looking at the systemic similarities among you than insisting that you are all unique in your conformity because you 'freely chose it'?" But, of course, that would be propaganda of the kind that confirms conservatives' worst fears about the powerful academic liberal elite with their 40K salaries and 17-year-old Volvos corrupting the minds of America's youth with their suspiciously French-sounding ideas...

Also enjoying Cheeky Prof's February 18th visual scare tactic for her students [not sure how to link directly to the entry, but I'm referring to her "Ashes of Problem Students" jar]. It's approaching midterm, and, like all faculty, I'm finding it increasingly annoying that I am doing more work both for and in class than my students are. This does not breed sympathy and understanding for the undergraduate being. I offered to send my students the link to these Valentines Day Rules for Papers, but very few of them apparently know what "blogging is"—and they care even less.

An interesting financial spin on the tiresome Red State-Blue State dichotomy that's being trotted out to explain everything but the kitchen sink. I've excerpted a chunk of it here:
Follow the money, in this as in all touchy issues. Regional inequities -- who pays and who gets -- go back far and deep in U.S. history. One-way taxation without representation made the colonies rebel against Britain; the fight over whether the slave-holding South or anti-slavery North would prevail in the Western territories led to the Civil War. Discontent has bubbled up since then, whenever this state or that region lands in disfavor for federal spending, taxes and tariffs. But it's reaching a new boil now, thanks to two trends.

One is the way that the newest federal pie, Homeland Security funding, has been divvied. The likeliest terror targets are blue coastal cities -- New York, Seattle, Los Angeles (where al-Qaida was stopped from striking in 1999) and underprotected seaports generally. But that's not where the money's gone. A stock formula allocates 40 percent of funding equally to each state. So Wyoming, Dick Cheney's off-and-on home state and about as tempting a target as Baffin Island, gets seven times as much funding per capita as New York. When Homeland Security responded to criticism by trying to place a little more money where it's actually needed, Republican lawmakers snarled about favoring "Democratic cities."

Homeland Security is just a small slice of federal spending. But the big picture looks the same. Each year the National Tax Foundation, a flat-tax society that could hardly be accused of liberal bias, tallies the federal taxes coming from each state and the federal expenditures going to each. Harvard's Taubman Center for State and Local Government does firmer tallies, from confirmed data, periodically; its last report goes back to 1999 data, but it jibes generally with the Tax Foundation's findings. And these findings are not what a lot of people expect.

"There's a general perception out there that the blue states are big net recipients of federal subsidies," says Harvard business professor Herman "Dutch" Leonard. And there's a corollary perception that, in contrast to these welfare-queen states, the inland and Southern states are a heartland of self-reliance and private initiative, less dependent on federal spending. As Leonard says, "That historically hasn't been the case." And it's becoming less and less so.

In 2003, the top subsidy-sucking state, in percentage terms, was red-lite New Mexico, which received $1.99 in federal money for every dollar it sent to Washington, D.C. All the next eight net recipients of federal spending were redder yet: Kentucky, Virginia, Montana, Alabama, North Dakota, West Virginia, Mississippi and Alaska, which received $1.60 to $1.89 back for each tax dollar.

The list of net losers in the state-federal exchange, by contrast, reads like a Who's Who of Blue. Two of the top 14 were traditionally red Western states that are starting to turn purple, Colorado and Nevada. The other 12 are all blue: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Wisconsin and the biggest chump of all, New Jersey, where the federal government spends just $.57 for every dollar it collects. Clearly Tony Soprano did not negotiate this deal.

Only five blue states were net recipients of federal subsidies. Only two red states were net payers of federal taxes. Washington, despite its large military presence and big defense contractor The Boeing Co., received just 90 cents on its federal tax dollar. Oregon and swinging Florida are perfect washes: They received one federal dollar for every dollar they paid in taxes.

The reasons for those disparities are many. Military spending favors base-rich states such as Hawaii, by far the biggest per-capita net recipient among the blues. Crop subsidies favor Plains and Midwestern states (as well as California, which is nevertheless a big net payer to the federal government). Medicare and Social Security payments flow disproportionately to Florida, Arizona and other Sun Belt retirement meccas. Maryland, Virginia and New Mexico are big net recipients because of their outsized federal work forces (as is Washington, D.C., a special case that's off the charts).

But according to the Tax Foundation, the main reason so many blue states pay so much more than they get back is that their residents tend to earn more money and pay more income tax. William Ahern, the editor of the foundation's reports, argues that if blue-staters voted their self-interest, they'd join his group in supporting Bush's efforts to undo the United States' progressive tax structure and eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, a backstop designed to catch upper-income tax avoiders. And red-staters, who are less well off, would stop supporting Bush and instead defend the progressive taxation that favors them. Not likely, Ahern concedes: "It appears they'll follow President Bush wherever he leads them" while Democrats will "obey their instinct" and battle Bush.

But you can look at this topsy-turvy lineup another way. Blue-staters earn more on average and pay more in taxes, because they are better educated, more productive, less likely to be retired or disabled and generally healthier; rates of obesity, smoking and alcoholism (not to mention divorce and suicide) all peak in the South or West. The highly educated have always been healthier and earned more but more of them used to vote Republican; as the two parties have switched identities, these voters have gone Democratic.

What is not a factor, Ahern declares, is the greater political clout of the Republicans, who now control every branch of federal government for the first time since Reconstruction. But the numbers suggest that pork may play a part. The biggest recent losers in this sweepstakes, those whose balance of payments has improved most, tend to be red: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia. The biggest losers, those that are paying more and getting less, are blue: California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York.

Hmmmm. So much for that 'self-reliance' and those good ol' American values. Sounds like a Republican version of Robin Hood to me.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Everyone else is doing it...

Shoes are apparently the largely unspoken passion of the professorial set--at least those of us in the Humanities.

You scored as Quirky Shoes. You are Quirky Shoes! Combining style and an unflappable orginality, who cares if you'll never find a handbag to match? You're Fab-U-lous, dahling!

Quirky Shoes


Sexy Heels


Sensible Flats


Classic Pumps




What Kind of Shoes Are You?
created with

Modern parenting

I confess to inflicting on my daughter the insipid and retrograde Little Golden Books. Many of them are charming tales about treating others well, but several of the "classics" do all those contemporary no-nos like reinforcing gender stereotypes, offering limiting and normative visions of the family (all rosy and blue-eyed and hetero) that we enlightened parents are supposed to put the kabosh on.

But I have to wonder how I could manage to get this guy's satiric version printed up and sent around to a select group of friends who share my discomfort with the current climate of raging Christianity. I consider myself marginally Christian, but I'm alarmed at the way in which a certain kind of dogmatic and self-righteous personal faith is manifesting itself in all kinds of formerly secular locations—my classrooms, interactions with acquaintances, and casual conversations with strangers. (All of a sudden, and due not only to my own circumstances, a whole lotta people are offering to "pray for" me. Unsolicited). I'm not sure if the GWB regime started or merely reflects the trend towards what I find a pernicious contemporary form of affluent Christianity, one that focuses not on doing good unto others, but on doing for oneself. I find more and more of my students, mystifyingly, feel compelled to share their personal faith with me, and to expect (this is the clincher) my pedagogical decisions to accommodate their moral values.

Last year, I had several students refuse to read a controversial work because they felt that homosexuality was "just wrong." Being tolerant, open-minded, and respectful of any personal belief sturdy enough to compel a freshman to confront his professor, I agonized over how to respect their beliefs and still uphold that great old liberal arts tradition of informed skepticism (plus, of course, come review time, I don't want "she's an evil Satanist who disrespected my beliefs" showing up on multiple student evals...; principles are one thing; tenure quite another!). I'm not happy with my decision--I caved. I did try to clarify to the student that my job was not to enforce the faith she and her parents belonged to, but to challenge her beliefs so that she could better air them in public arenas. But I let her write a different paper, and then received a couple more requests for the same deal, which I refused (the first student came to me well in advance of the reading, while the others just wanted to jump on the bandwagon).

Pedagogical footnote: the student whom I did not allow to write a different paper ended up doing the class assignment, and writing a personally offensive but lucid, well-argued, and impassioned piece, for which he received his highest grade in the course.

I'm wary of this new-fangled and self-serving faith, that seems pretty completely devoid of the compassion and forgiveness that are fundamental to the "Christ" aspect of Christianity. Our president and others who worship at many of these "big-box" churches, with their parking lots filled with Lexuses and their amplified and watered down "Christian Rock" speak a language of Old Testament retribution and judgment, seemingly untempered by what their own personal Jesus actually taught, when and if he was ever here among us.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Had I the courage

I'd like to respond to some of my students' crappy efforts like this guy. Not, of course, that I would respond so churlishly to hard work by deserving but unskilled students. But it would be so darn satisfying to bring back the red pen and corresponding tone of scorn I remember from my own teachers "back in the day": "Your ideas are half baked and the phrasing of them atrocious." "English has a vast array of ways to join clauses; you, apparently, have mastered only one: 'and.' Try some of the others one of these days." Ah, school days..

I long for tenure, so I can be evil with complete impunity.

The missing link

No, it's not some joke about our president's inexplicably eerie resemblance to a chimpanzee—especially with the open-mouthed smirk he gets when he thinks he's scored some sort of intellectual point.

Actually, I mean the link to the blog about waitressing that I was trying to recall for my last post. I like her tag line, too.

Today I'm being a bad teacher and showing a video in one class, and letting the students in the other work together, instead of me babysitting them. I know I'm supposed to love the challenges of working with freshmen, but I so do not. The real consolation of teaching freshman courses is seeing a few of those students in later classes and realizing that they have, in fact, turned into semi-adults who no longer expect me to wipe their noses (or give them As just because they "worked hard." Or re-give my lecture in five minutes after class because they are "just not a morning person" and missed it the first time. Fortunately, I lecture almost not at all, so they are pretty well SOL.)

Short on sleep, short of temper. If I had the time, I'd head off to the mall for a new lipstick—which would make me feel better for about the three minutes it took for me to get from the store to my car, after which I'd be consumed by consumer guilt over my meaningless act of consumption.

More diet Coke, and bring on the video classes...

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

What academics do for fun

This is why it's such fun to be an academic. Of course, it's also why we're the target of ridicule from anti-intellectuals on and off campus. But frankly, after trying most of my life to find something else to do (see here, here, and one more that I read a couple of times by linking to Bitch PhD but can't find now (it's a general blog by a woman who works as a waitress in North Carolina, I think, and is so reminiscent of my own experiences that it's painful to read, even the funny bits), I'm pretty happy to work in any "industry" that gets all googly-excited about new ideas, even if many of them turn out to be lame. I should note that I'm not suggesting that popular culture a la The Boss is not worthy of serious study—at this point, since no one reads and no one writes and, judging by the most recent election, no one , popular culture is pretty much all we have left.

Back in graduate school, a smart and sassy friend hyped up a visiting Big-Name Academic as "the Bruce Springsteen" of American Literary Studies, causing an avalanche of witty e-conversations about the mechanics of tossing panties (only warm ones will do) at Professor Big-Name, PhD. How does one actually extract her panties during the talk, especially when dressed in the essential scruffy jeans that convey the necessary Serious Intellectualism?

As I recall, some Serious Marxists in the department accused us of Bourgeois Tendencies incompatible with the Revolutionary Objective of getting a PhD in an obscure subject, with which we could join the ranks of the marginally unemployed and utterly exploited. Plus one woman figured out that it would be pretty easy to remove a thong by simply snipping one side. No muss, no fuss—until they land on the podium. [Serious question; if undies/panties are plural ("they'), should I have used the singular "it" in my last sentence? Probably. But one is the loneliest number, even for a thong.]

Monday, February 7, 2005

In the fishbowl

It's so seldom that I find myself in agreement with Stanley Fish about academic politics. I certainly admire some of his work, but I'm uncomfortable with his eager cultivation of the curmudgeonly voice-of-reason role. But as new junior faculty, I'm painfully aware of my vulnerability to student evaluations, and ashamed at how desperately worried I am about whether my students are enjoying my classes. In this, I realize, I'm a total sellout. The very premise of my job—one I have yet to have challenged by any actual experience—is that I know more than my students about some very specific subjects and skills, and that I have dedicated untold years of my adult life to mastering those skills. By definition, then, I'm teaching because I know more about what they have signed up to learn. Therefore, it's contradictory to spend so much of my time worrying about whether, in the moment, they enjoy or even see the relevance of what I'm teaching.

I'm an enlightened, student-empowering pedagogue. I take seriously the notion that I have to meet my students where they are, to draw their interest, to clarify the relevance of the skills and subject matter. Common sense and a cursory observation of today's nineteen year olds prove that I can't assume that many of them are the book-obsessed language junkies I was at their age (oh, there are always a few, for which I am unspeakably grateful). I connect the subject matter to current events, am not afraid to poke fun at the excesses of academia, constantly invoke the practical (i.e., remunerative) value of what they are learning. I work harder than they do to create topics that they can "relate" to. (The tyranny of "relating to" is something for another entry).

But I'm deeply uncomfortable with my cowardice. I'm afraid to challenge their blank assurance that reading and writing carefully "don't matter" in today's tech-governed world ("au contraire", I want to say to them; "if all your connection with other human beings is going to occur via a screen, you'd better be master of your syntax--it's all that stands between you and ruin"). Too often I back away from a challenging pedagogical moment, because I'm afraid that their discomfort will lead not to learning but to evaluative savagery.

One of my regular courses is an historical survey of a not-too-popular era. Invariably, I have a sprinkling of students who, having been coddled and cosseted in other courses, refuse to believe that there could be a set of interpretive perspectives that they should master in addition to identifying what they find "relatable" (a fool's errand, in many of these works). These students routinely comment that I didn't respect their opinions enough in class ("enough," presumably, would have meant upending historical accuracy and careful reading in order to allow them to connect the work to their own stunted experiences). I'm exaggerating here. Most of my students—especially those who put any conscious thought into their own work—find me amazingly flexible, responsive, and willing to entertain their dubious contributions as long as they are learning something.

Recently, many of my fellow academics have found themselves scourged on sites like this one. Our college has recently implemented its own informal student-produced network of evaluations, too (separate from any formal evaluations or promotion decisions). What bothers me is not the availability of what was already common lore among students, but the imbalance. As professors, we aren't allowed to comment only on the students that are super smart, really hot, or irretrievable, but in practice, that's what these sites promote. Almost exclusively, the sites are venting grounds for angry, bitter, and, apparently, illiterate students, or they are a place to post anonymous flattery for attractive faculty.

I'd like to start an informal "rate my students" website, where instructors could post information for each other, all in the interest, of course, of better preparing ourselves to work with the "right" students:

Johnny is *hot*--I once gave him an A just for wearing those awesome Levi's! LOL :)

Nancy is lazy and her papers are boring. Plus, I don't think she read any of her assignments all quarter! :(

James tries hard, but the poor kid is dumb as a post...I finally gave him a C for showing up and staying awake. ;)

Sunday, February 6, 2005

Still hating freedom

I should clarify: I'm not more upset by students who don't understand freedom of the press and its role in democracy than I am by, say, the prospect of drilling in ANWR, the assault on Social Security, the encroachments on freedom of reproductive choice, or the threat of globalizing the "War on Terror."

But I confront every day my students' inability to believe that human beings really need the same freedoms and rights that they believe in, carte blanche, for corporations. Clearly, I'm the one out of step here, for believing in the naive concept of human decency and a moral obligation to our fellow citizens. My students are starting to eye me pityingly. "Ah," their eyes say. "So that's why she's stuck here in academia, instead of out in the Real World. She still subscribes to foolish notions like the 'common good.'"

I raised the notion of the "common good" recently, in a class of upper-division literature students. The class, significantly, has to do with acts of literary rebellion. The kinds of rebellion my students see as something from "back in the day"—the day, presumably, being a time before corporate capitalism rendered collective action unbelievably quaint. I dared to raise this notion, only to have one of the very best students in the class respond thus: "Well, the communists kind of wrecked that, didn't they? I mean, the common good is pretty much a socialist concept..." Eighteen heads nodded assent.

My students don't believe in the most basic tenets of the Enlightenment—the social contract, consent—that form the basis of American government. Instead, they're dazzled by the false promises of individualism. Each is comfortable with the notion that the most we owe our fellow man is to step over him when he lies in the gutter at our feet. They believe that corporations need more rights than people do, because, well, corporations supply jobs wherein people can exploit themselves, missed vacation by sixty hour workweek, into an early grave.

In their hatred of "communism"—which, since most of them were born well into Reagan's first term, has been anything BUT a major player on the world stage—they are unswaying. Better to starve to death individually, they believe, than to attempt something so passé as collective political action.

Saturday, February 5, 2005

testing, testing...

Same old stuff, but a new address. More later on the state of the world, the state of my world, and random musings about the professoriate. I notice there are quite a few like me around here.

Right now, I'm most upset about high school students who Hate Freedom—or, at least, think it's highly overrated in the case of the press. What I can't seem to do is get my own students to fear corporate conglomeration and media aggregation, or to recognize that a proliferation of channels does not equal an abundance of genuine points of view. They're big believers in the freedom of the market, infinitely less concerned with any more public freedoms.