August 2009 Archives



Perhaps the worst aspects of the total tanking of the daily newspaper business (other than the awkwardness of taking a laptop into the throne room with you, of course) is that while they’re struggling to hang on against all odds, what used to be major newspapers are not only looking for the cheapest content available, but they are choosing material within that sample that’s likely to ruffle the fewest feathers and/or to reaffirm the traditional wisdom du jour rather than challenge it. A case in point is a piece published recently by , among scores of other papers, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a once-justifiably proud enterprise now not simply reduced to mediocrity but embracing it in practically every aspect as it plummets toward oblivion.
In an AJC op-ed column, John Zmirak, who is the editor-in-chief, of a volume that promises to tell “the whole truth about America’s top schools,” proceeds to reveal “the ugly secret” of “why tuition costs a fortune.” According to Zmirak, the reason why sending a kid to Sarah Lawrence is roughly equivalent to “ buying a C-Class Mercedes every year - without the car “ is that American universities now neglect their “basic charge” of giving students “not just a degree that's valued in the marketplace, but a chance to broaden their interests and deepen their souls; to gain a solid grounding in the fundamentals that made our civilization.” Instead they have turned into the equivalent of “featherbedding, unionized factories that [exist] to protect their overpaid workers—who [are] impossible to fire, [botch] the items customers paid for, and [spend] their energy generating oddball inventions no one wants.”
Don’t just take the Z-man’s word for it, however, because he’s simply one of dozens these days reciting the by now all-too-familiar mantra of Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, formerly Director of Research and Analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts under “W.” Back in the academic world again, Bauerlein dares again and again and again . . . to subject its dark underside to the harsh glare of public scrutiny. This time, through the good offices of those objective observers at the American Enterprise Institute, Professor Bauerlein has exposed what Zmirak describes as the “secret” that “most professors are paid based not only on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly books and articles they can produce.”
Apparently, Zmirak has been on a thirty-year walkabout on East Pluto, because that’s about the only place imaginable where Bauerlein’s revelation would come as news to anybody. Of course, Bauerlein’s urgent bulletin also serves up the requisite lambasting of the professoriate for its ongoing disgorgement of a veritable torrent of esoteric and obscure scholarship that nobody wants to read period, much less pay to read if served up in book form. I’m not saying that Bauerlein doesn’t have a point here--or did before he and others pounded on it so frequently and furiously that they wore it to a nub. Still, it strikes me as pretty peculiar to hear criticism of those who explore the patently obscure from a guy who is currently making a career of affirming the blatantly obvious. Bauerlein’s most monumental such affirmation is a recent book indicting the internet and its concomitant cellular techno-trinkets for turning a lot of folks in the under-thirty set into a generation of inarticulate, semi-literate mushheads. OMG! I mean, like, who knew?
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Bauerlein and other in-house critics who complain of a surfeit of irrelevant scholarship (or what passes for it) and contend that tenure is outdated, inefficient, and deserves to be put on the DNR list. I do object, however, when they demand that universities undertake “ a resolute shift from research to teaching” based on a self-serving teacher vs. researcher dichotomy that pre-supposes that all active researchers are, at best, indifferent toward their classroom responsibilities. Since I have been in my current post I have had three chaired colleagues in U.S. History who have also received awards for their teaching and all save one of us teaches a large section of the introductory survey course every year. Over what is damn near a four-decade career, I have certainly encountered more productive scholars who were also effective teachers than vice-versa. Research is the lifeblood of fresh, dynamic teaching, after all, and clever and dedicated as they might be in classroom, professors who ain’t doing it are at some level simply standing on the shoulders of those who do.
What also concerns me about our righteously indignant critics is the extent to which they, unwittingly or not, aid and abet those who insist that universities should adopt the “business model” where everything is about the bottom line. (Here’s a tip: If higher education in your state is overseen by someone who styles himself/herself as a “CEO” and talks about “demand for our ‘product,’” your public colleges and universities belong at the top of your prayer list.)
At the very least, academics who rub shoulders with those who want to treat universities as nothing more than another competing nodule in the omni-beneficient free-market (Which has really worked out great for us recently, hasn’t it?) should guard against naiveté. While the well-intentioned professors may have sound pedagogical objections to tenure, their buddies in the boardrooms are motivated purely by dollar signs accompanied by numbers requiring lots of commas. What they envision and are installing with gusto even as you read this is a system where distinctions among faculty as to competence or scholarly distinction count for little or nothing compared to how much it costs to retain their services. Basically, all Ph.D.s look alike to these folks and therefore are infinitely interchangeable, especially in fields like the humanities where a thirty-plus year surfeit of desperate doctorate-holders makes a plug-and-play professoriate all the more feasible. A system where every faculty member’s employment is effectively up for review at any point is destined to lead to the same strategy of downsizing embodied in the “business model”: dump the highest-paid first, regardless of their competence or contributions. From that point, it’s only an eraser toss or two to where the prof who writes or teaches things that the ol’ boys in the legislature don’t particularly care to hear or read becomes roughly as expendable as the guy in accounting who consistently breaks wind in meetings with top clients. Among the many other problems this post-tenure system would also pose would be the lack of continuity within disciplines or subfields at any institution. This would mean that, over time, one school’s program in economic history or English Lit would be just as likely to be as good (or as mediocre) as another’s.
What’s really interesting and even more depressing here is that the basic argument that tuition costs are being driven up by overemphasis on research over teaching simply isn’t borne out by the facts.
Take a gander, if you will, at the most recent ranking I could find of colleges and universities according to tuition rates:
1. Bates College $43,950
2. Middlebury College $42,910
3. Colby College $42,730
4. Union College (NY) $40,953
5. Connecticut College $40,900
6. George Washington University $40,392
7. Vassar College $39,635
8. Sarah Lawrence College $39,450
9. Bucknell University $39,434
10. Colgate University $39,275
11. Carnegie Mellon $39,150
12. Kenyon College $39,080
13. Skidmore College $38,888
14. St. Johns College $38,854
15. University of Richmond $38,850

What are you to make, you ask of this list of the fifteen priciest places to graze in the great green pasture that is higher education in America? How about the fact that, along with twelve others on this high-dollar list, Zmirak’s case in point, Sarah Lawrence, is classified by the Carnegie Foundation as “Baccalaureate/A&S” denoting institutions where the emphasis is on undergraduate teaching over faculty research. In fact only one of these outfits, Carnegie-Mellon, is identified as “RU/VH,” meaning a research university with a high level of research activity on campus. “Ah,” you say, “but all these institutions are private. “ “Ah, indeed,” I respond, "but so are research-oriented schools like Duke, Dartmouth, and Emory, which, while not cheap, fall well short of the extortionate tuition levels required to join this elite group. "

We career academics can certainly stand to be more self-critical of the way we operate, and in fact, we refuse to do so at our peril. Still, to mangle a metaphor from LBJ, those who are currently pissing inside their own tent to great acclaim from the champions of corporatism may well find themselves treading, uh..water, just like the rest of us when their new best friends pull back the flap and really let fly from the outside themselves.

I Don't Think Jesus Would 'a Done It This 'a Way


Ten years down the road, making one night stands
Speeding my young life away
Tell me one more time just so I understand
Are you sure Hank done it this ‘away
Did Ol' Hank really do it this ‘away?
(Waylon Jennings, Are You Sure Hank Done It This ‘A Way?)

Damn it! Here I am, trying to get ready to re-enter the unceasing fray against the forces of ignorance and indifference next week, ear-deep in footnotes that that make no sense for a book that probably doesn’t either and the damn health care thing has gotten plumb out of hand. I tried to warn Pres. Oby that this was no time to start messing with this issue, serious as it might be for many people, but would he listen? Why, of course not!! Not content with the trifling matter of getting us out of the worst economic mess we’ve seen since the Great Depression, he can’t wait to take us into the most divisive and complicated corner of the political and bureaucratic jungle.
In a nutshell, here’s how I see the health care thing. The current system has all kinds of problems, but, before Oby reopened this can of red wigglers, the middle class people I heard talking about the urgent need for reform were mostly physicians and the occasional small business owner. Now, to hear the news pimps tell it, we’re all up in arms on this issue. I’m aware that not everybody is fortunate enough to be middle class, but the point is, slice it anyway you want it, these are the folks who are going to pay for any change that is enacted, and also the ones who are likely to defeat any representative who takes a position on the issue they don't like.
The bottom line is that, if asked to think about it, most of us would decide we want better health care, but when you ask for a show of hands on how many are willing to pay more for it, you needn’t worry about needing a crowd of folks to count the “ayes.” Regardless of what’s involved and how many cultural, social, or ideological aspects it may have, this is an economic problem, folks, and as such it has no real universally popular solution. The best you can hope for is a response that establishes a cost/benefit ratio acceptable to the people who are bearing the costs, while providing reasonable benefits to those who aren’t. This virtually assures that there will always be significant dissatisfaction with the health plan du jour or with efforts to change it. From the political standpoint, Oby has thus found a way to enable his antagonists, who have thus far failed to gain traction on issues like his religion or place of birth. And here’s the thing, he’s offered them a cover issue that will give an ostensibly sound premise to the aforementioned lunatics plus a vast array of other people who want to take their guns into airports and restaurants and day care centers or tell us what we can and can’t do in the intimacy of our own boudoir, etc.
This isn’t to suggest for a minute that there aren’t very valid questions and concerns about what's up with the ObyCare proposal, it’s just to say that this whole ruckus isn’t really about health care. It’s just a chance to rant and rage (before an accommodating media) for people who still can’t accept the fact that a Democrat, much less a black one, actually got himself elected president of the United States. Much like the folks who demand that the Ten Commandments be placed in every public building but have never been anywhere near the Book of Exodus, 95% of the folks who are so angry about the administration’s health care initiative, don’t have inkling one about what it actually entails.
Alas, any discussion of the inkling-bereft, must bring us, sooner or later, to Rep. Paul Broun, who alas indeed, represents this particular district in the United States House of Representatives. I’ve gone on ad nauseum about ol’ Brounie before, (Gluttons for punishment, mash here and here.)

but he’s actually pushed me past simple queasiness now to urgent curiosity about my proximity to the nearest porcelain urn. Here’s the latest on the tenor Brounie sets at his “town hall” meetings on the health care debate:

CLARKESVILLE - U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Athens, walked into a North Georgia Technical College auditorium Tuesday evening to a standing ovation, holding three thick white binders.
"Folks, this is Obamacare," he said, holding the binders over his head.
"Let me start this by telling you what I think of this bill and (President) Obama," he said, and slammed the binders on the ground. [Brounie has worn his great fondness for Jesus on his sleeve throughout his time in politics. Here, however, he appears to be channeling Moses when he broke the tablet containing the Ten No No’s]
With that, Broun set the tone for a town hall meeting on health care reform. The Democrats' proposal is too expensive and will threaten millions of Georgians' jobs and lives, he said.
"This is a stinking, rotten fish, and they don't want you to smell it, and they want to shove it down your throat and make you eat it before you smell how rotten and stinky it is," he said.
At another point, Broun, who last year made national news by comparing Obama to Hitler, called Cuba's former dictator Fidel Castro and leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Obama's "good buddy."
He also spoke of a "socialistic elite" - Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - who might use a pandemic disease or natural disaster as an excuse to declare martial law.
"They're trying to develop an environment where they can take over," he said. "We've seen that historically."
Many speakers in the senior-heavy audience honed in on a clause in the health care proposal that would require insurers to cover end-of-life counseling sessions to help healthy patients decide beforehand what types of treatments they want to keep them alive if they are about to die.
"(Obama) is going to let the old folks die, and I don't like that at all," Oconee County resident Gene Aycock said.
Young people who get sick would get preference over the elderly under the Democrats' plan, said Broun, a medical doctor who made house calls in the Athens area before taking office in 2007.
"Eventually, mama will be lying in bed until she gets pneumonia and dies," he said.
[ Ironically this “death panel” nonsense originated with a proposal by Broun’s fellow Republican, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, who used the term “nuts” to describe this interpretation of what he actually suggested (also advanced by Brounie soulmate Sarah Palin, by the way)]….
At some town hall meetings around the country during Congress' annual August recess, conservative protesters have clashed with Democrats and disrupted events. However, at Broun's Tuesday hearing, the crowd of 500 or so clearly was almost unanimously on Broun's side and relatively peaceful.
One woman attempted to ask a critical question about covering the uninsured while Broun was speaking, and Habersham County sheriff's deputies briefly removed her from the room before allowing her back inside. When she rambled for a few seconds during the designated question-and-answer period, Broun politely asked her to respect the people waiting to speak, but members of the audience shouted, "Cut her mike." [ Now let me get this straight, it’s Obama and his crowd who are supposedly the “Nazis,” right? I just wanted to be sure because the way the anti-Obies are acting at public forums here and elsewhere sure reminds me of what Hitler’s crowd did in Germany. For that matter, it also makes me think of the tactics employed by the Commies to take over the local Elks Club, in a J.Edgar-approved film I saw in high school.]Attendance Tuesday was well short of the estimated 1,500 to 2,000 who came out to a similar meeting Broun hosted Monday in Evans, but enough people showed up that he split the group into two sessions. About 400 people packed into the 250-seat auditorium for the first meeting, and 150 stuck around for the second.
Broun assured the crowds he will vote against the Democrats' plan no matter what. [ Ah, that’s the old bipartisan spirit, Brounie. What you say about Obama or his health care plan is up to you, but since you are on record as declaring American leaders should "serve the Lord Jesus Christ," I have to say, with apologies to Waylon, Hank, and of course, Jesus, I don’t think Jesus would ‘a done it this ‘a way.]

As far as I can tell, anything that makes the evening news at least three times is a cinch these days to be made into a reality show. Since, more than two weeks after the fact, the gum-flapping about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates shows no sign of abating, you can see where we’re headed. “Elites in Handcuffs” would be an ideological natural for the Fox Reality Channel, or it could simply be spun off “Cops.” As the presumed pilot for the show, “Gatesgate” presents some interesting angles. On the one hand, Professor Gates, once described as the “Michael Jordan of Academia,” (I assume Birkenstock will be introducing a “Skip” super-sandal) is about as close to a celebrity as the ranks of the professoriate have been known to produce and, ipso fatso, therefore and thusly, he is a member of the nation’s much-reviled liberal “elite,” who devote themselves entirely to looking down on all the Sarah Palins and Joe-the-Plumbers among us with ill-concealed condescension and contempt.
Unlike many of those with whom he rubs leather-patched elbows, however, hailing from a blue-collar black family in Piedmont, West Virginia, Professor Gates was clearly not born on third base. (Check out his terrific childhood memoir, Colored People.) After the case broke, Helene Cooper wrote a great “insider” piece about African Americans who rose from definite disadvantage to the peak of celebrity and influence in their professions. For many of them, the result has been a certain, to borrow a term from W.E.B. Dubois, “double consciousness” or “duality” of perspective and identity that can be very beneficial in some ways, especially in terms of an enhanced capacity to see more than one side of a problem or its potential solution. On the other hand, the duality factor can also be a drag because it essentially comes with the built-in challenge of sustaining identities in two radically disparate spheres while appearing at least to be equally comfortable in both. Whether you are sitting in on a big-time powerbroker confab or gnawing on some ribs at your favorite joint back home, there are bound to be a number of times when you have to fight the feeling that you just don’t “belong.” All of us have had that sensation at least once, and I have never heard anyone describe it as anything other than disturbing and unpleasant. In a nutshell, I’m guessing that’s what happened with Professor Gates and maybe even vicariously to his friend in the White House, when Sgt. Crowley challenged the legitimacy of Gates’s presence in his own home.
Let’s face it, in Professor Gates’s situation, after thirty hours on a plane, finding ourselves first locked out of our own house and then accused of breaking into it, not many of us are going to be at the top of our game, self-control-wise. Besides, even if everything the arrest report says Gates did and said is true, which he says it isn’t, arresting him for creating a public disturbance does seem a bit of a stretch. (Hell, he wasn’t even waving a shotgun or threatening to dynamite his ex-wife’s trailer.) Nor can I avoid saying that it’s too bad that once he knew the suspect was actually in his own house, Sgt. Crowley couldn’t muster the patience and restraint simply to walk away from this one. However, although I can’t blame Gates for being honked off, if he did in fact say—as Crowley’s report indicates and the other officer on the scene affirms—anything that sounded remotely like “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” he signed his own arrest warrant right then and there. Professor Gates might be well blessed with book learning, but if he’d spend a little more time reading celebrity arrest reports like the rest of us, he’d know that words to that effect translate immediately in the mind of any policeman into “I dare you to arrest me, you ignorant, insignificant bastard.”
The New York Times’s Bob Herbert effectively conveys a comparably arrogant disregard for the feelings of people who might simply be trying to do their job when he writes, “You can yell at a cop in America. This is not Iran. And if some people don’t like what you’re saying, too bad.” (An aside to “Elites” producers: Get the cops to put a tail on Herbert. He’d be a good subject for an episode. Ditto for his colleague, that smug, self-righeous bastard Paul Krugman, who’d look damn good in orange coveralls mopping his boyfriend’s cell.)
There was, of course, an initial rush to judge this incident as simply another example of racial profiling, rendered all the more outrageous because the alleged victim was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. I thought at the time, however, that the public's take on Gatesgate would likely shift a bit, and, to my observation, at least, it has. Some of this is a reflection of nothing more than mere racism and partisanship, but some of it is also due to the fact that as this incident has brought him the wider name recognition he perhaps thought he already enjoyed, Gates’s persona and temperament have also come under broader and closer scrutiny. Some of the criticism directed at him by his fellow academics must be discounted against our notorious jealousy of anyone in our ranks who manages to become famous and/or earn good money, let alone both. However, let’s just say that the Skipster himself has given enough evidence on enough occasions (including this one) to suggest that Texas might be a more appropriate symbol for his ego than Rhode Island.
Perhaps struggling with the pressures of the duality thing, in his statements since the incident, he has implied that his victimization by the authorities affords him instant identification with every incarcerated black man in America, while simultaneously vowing to use his credibility as an intellectual and clout as a celebrity to singlehandedly make things right. You can reach your own conclusions from the following comments by the Hardened Con/Avenging Superprof, although the ol’ Bloviator prefers to help you, of course:

There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them,”
There are approximately 800,000 black men in prison, and on July 16, 2009, I simply became one of them.”

According to his daughter Elizabeth, the latter comment is what “my father said on the plane yesterday morning on our way to the White House.” I wonder if they shared a cab from the airport with other black men just released from confinement and headed for their White House debriefing. Anyway, tell us, Prof. how long was your “jolt” in the Big House?

I was in jail for four hours.”

They probably worked you over pretty good, though, and I bet you showed ’em they couldn’t break you.

“I told them that I was claustrophobic, that I couldn’t be in this cell. And a very nice police officer said here are some of your friends and I could talk to them one at a time in the interview room until the magistrate came and signed the form allowing me to leave. I was there just between 1:00 p.m. and 5:15 p.m., which is an interminable amount of time. I spent the rest of the time in another room, slightly bigger, and my friends just had to sit there and wait. And it was kind of like a Senate filibuster; we had to tell stories in the prison cell. . . .”
“I was astonished, you know? Your cell phone doesn’t work, and they set it up that way. It’s cold, man.”

Well, I certainly wouldn’t have handled it any better, I’m sure. Still, even if, as you insist, you were the victim of racial profiling, does your relatively humane treatment—by jailhouse standards at least—during your four hours in the slammer really afford you much kinship with all the folks for whom this practice has had such profoundly more serious, sometimes even tragic consequences? In fact, might not all the drama surrounding your story even trivialize theirs?

“I think it’s incumbent upon me to not let it drop—not to sweep it under the carpet—but to use this as a teaching event for the Cambridge police and police in general and for black people—don’t step out of your house. Don’t step onto that porch! You’re vulnerable. And second? To teach the police about the history of racism, what racism is. . . . “
“I am going to devote my considerable resources, intellectual and otherwise, to making sure this doesn’t happen again. I’m thinking about making a documentary film about racial profiling, and I’m in talks with PBS about that.”

OK, Whatever. I do want to say that I think it was good that you could kid around with Elizabeth about what Sgt. Crowley should have done.:

“He should have gotten out of there and said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, good luck. Loved your PBS series—check with you later!’ . . . .If he would have given me his card, I would have sent him a DVD!”

Elizabeth indicated that you both laughed when you said this, but, just for the record, you were kidding, right?

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