Tuesday, August 31, 2010

And now for something completely different

As I fight my urge to ignore my research, prepare to talk to a friend at a distant university who is hiring and might potentially be interesting in hiring the LesboProf, and try to avoid the loving beckoning of the Kindle-of-Work-Death, I just finished reading a hilarious little piece on sex at professional conferences in the Chronicle.

My favorite piece is where the author describes the actions of people by discipline:

Creative writers stand up, say "I'm leaving now," and then stare fixedly at you. Philosophers, a more intuitive lot, simply disappear into the mist, but you can find them in the hallway in front of the vending machine, slamming their palms against the display window because the Doritos bag got wedged halfway down and now they are out of quarters. Sociologists loiter in the parking lot. Psychologists will follow you to your room, so there's no need to say a word, although you may require a temporary restraining order by noon the next day. Ethnographers are fine with exiting while necking. Historians may require some cajoling, but the promise of a side trip to the 7-Eleven magazine stand will usually suffice.
Oh, yes, there are more disciplinary pickups mentioned in the piece, though my own discipline is sadly missing. Ah, well. Having been a very chaste conference-goer, after my first professional conference was marred by professorial bad behavior, I know little of the ways of the "unwashed," as the author calls them. But I delight in the gossip of untoward (consensual) conference behaviors, and thought this piece was a riot.

Hope you enjoy it. And don't forget to send in that registration for the next conference soon.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Catholics and gays: Another public row about the classroom

You know it is a very special day when an Archbishop chooses to write a public letter complaining about a specific course being taught at a local Catholic university. Or perhaps it represents an ongoing tension with a specific gay instructor teaching the class... one who wrote a letter to the editor five years ago challenging the Catholic stance on homosexuality. A letter that, in fact, was signed with his title and academic affiliation and that ultimately cost the faculty member his administrative position (but not his job) at said Catholic institution. Ah, the perqs of tenure.

I find this ongoing tension between religiously affiliated schools and the denominations of which they are a part, especially Catholic schools, to be very interesting. As someone who has always attended and worked at large publics, the challenges of the private religious school are intriguing and, at times, revealing of the struggles within major religious groups in our larger culture.

The issue of signing your affiliation to a critical letter is an issue for any academic, regardless of whether you work at a public or a private institution. I understand Mott's (stated) motivation. As he notes:
Dr. Mott, who received his doctorate in political theory from Louisiana State University and who has been at Seton Hall since 1997, said that using his title when he submitted the letter was necessary to add weight to his statements. He added that he was not speaking for the university, but as an academic and as an openly gay man. ''I was not speaking as a representative of the university,'' he said, ''and they know that. If it was the president of the university who wrote the letter, that would be a different thing. I was just a dean, I have no authority to speak for the university.''
There is something to relying on our academic titles to gain legitimacy and respect. I have struggled with this issue myself, from time to time, when I want to comment on an issue that is related to my experience as an instructor or my research. I have been exceptionally careful of what I say when I was being quoted in my role at my university, and I would not use my title if I was going to be critical of my university or public officials in my state. Of course, Mott is being deliberately disingenuous in ignoring how incendiary his letter would be when written by the Dean of a Catholic university.

But this newest hullabaloo is over a course, appropriately titled, "The politics of gay marriage." As an issue, same-sex marriage is constantly in the news, especially in New Jersey, where the argument about domestic partnerships versus same-sex marriage has waged for several years. Further, the topic is sure to draw interested students, and it provides an useful entree for investigating American political and social systems. Though the Archbishop argues that the course "seeks to promote as legitimate a train of thought that is contrary to what the Church teaches," there is nothing to show that this is true. In fact, while the Star Ledger identifies one of the textbooks (among several) that is being used, "What’s Love Got To Do With It?: The Case for Same-Sex Marriage," a book by state Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a closer look at all the textbooks reveals a more balanced and academic approach to the topic.

The other books being used in class are:
  • Just Marriage, by Mary Lyndon Shanley, is a collection of perspectives from historians, political theorists, and legal scholars, including (according to Amazon,com) Nancy F. Cott, William N. Eskridge, Jr., Amitai Etzioni, Martha Albertson Fineman, and Cass R. Sunstein.
  • Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, by Nancy Cott, a very thorough discussion of the changing role of marriage in the  culture, policy, and polity of the United States.
  • Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today's Debate over Gay Equality, by gay historian George Chauncy, provides a good discussion over why the fight for gay equality has focused on marriage as a primary political issue.
The other obvious issue here is that few of these students will misunderstand the Catholic Church's perspective on this topic, though perhaps a more nuanced understanding could be a piece of the course. But the Archbishop is disingenuous himself when he ignores the disagreement within the Catholic laity and clergy about the issue of same-sex marriage, especially as it relates to civil versus religious marriage. In fact, recent surveys have found that only a minority of Catholics in California (23% of white Catholics and 44% of Latino Catholics) and Rhode Island (32% of Catholics) oppose civil recognition of same-sex relationships. Of course, perhaps this is part of the real problem here.

A recent study using data from the Higher Education Research Institute's national surveys of student attitudes found that Catholic students tend to graduate from Catholic, secular, and other religiously-affiliated colleges supporting gay people's right to marry.

Regarding same-sex marriage, the study said there is no other issue on which Catholic students -- regardless of where they attended school -- moved further away from the church. Only one in three Catholics on Catholic campuses disagreed "somewhat or "strongly" that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Catholics on non-Catholic campuses were slightly less likely to disagree.

Once again, I have to ask about the appropriate role of critical thinking in a religiously-affiliated university. Seton Hall's mission states that its "students are prepared to be leaders in their professional and community lives in a global society." In fact, it sees itself as "a diverse and collaborative environment" that "focuses on academic and ethical development." Further, in its policy barring racial and ethnic discrimination, the university states, "Seton Hall University abides by values that proclaim the dignity and rights of all people. In keeping with this fundamental principle, we affirm the value of racial and ethnic diversity and welcome persons of all groups, cultures and religious traditions to Seton Hall." Its guidelines for investigating complaints of discrimination, harassment, or whistleblowing include protections based on sexual orientation, with the caveat  "(in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the proscriptions of the law)."

While one part of the university's mission is to provide a religious perspective and support for religious and moral (read: ethical) development, another major component has to be supportive of critical thinking, enhancing the life of the mind, and encouraging students to engage in civil debate about controversial topics. If these schools are not going to be fundamentalist bastions of closed minds, they have to be able to accommodate instructors and students with diverse religious, social, cultural, and political affiliations and beliefs. Otherwise, what is the difference between these schools and Sunday School?

This course is being offered as a political science class, engaging a politically volatile topic that touches on major components of American social thought, history, and policy. I am pleased that Seton Hall is going ahead with the course. It must, to maintain its integrity as an institution of higher learning and to fulfill its own mission statement.

Friday, August 13, 2010

What I am NOT doing

You know, I think that the best way to capitalize on sabbatical joyousness (and not sabbatical misery) is to think about the things I am NOT going to be doing in the next week when classes resume. I will not be:
  • listening to students pleading to get into another section of the course on a different day, because their work/play/sleep/therapy/childcare/class/travel schedule will not permit them to attend the day they actually signed up for the class.
  • preparing, facilitating, and attending 4 orientation events
  • attending welcome party for new doc students
  • meeting with advising and orientation staff from across the university to tell them about my program
  • participating in "welcome week" activities with new students to shill for the major
  • attending the "welcome" party for faculty and staff
  • making last minute fixes to my syllabus and web-based course presentation media
  • getting a key for the new smart classroom
  • scheduling committee meetings and attending bajillions more committee meetings
  • following up with university administration to see if the policy changes we recommended are actually going through
  • attending the teaching summit
  • meeting with doc students who think they might want to work with me
Now, all of that said, there are some things, even among those, that I will miss. While students complain, they also check in, show me pictures of their children, tell me about their summers and their plans for this year, and bring warmth and excitement that is contagious. The round of orientations and parties, while draining, is also a good energy booster, getting me into the spirit of a new year of possibilities. Setting out agendas for the next year's committee meetings is encouraging, expanding the opportunities of what we can do.

That said, I found the beginning of the semester for my six years as an administrator to be exhausting. Truly. It kicked my ass every year.

What am I doing the first week of the semester this year? Um, going to the beach. Yup. A solid week of watching the sunsets, listening to the waves, and reading the Kindle on the beach.

Am I bringing some work? You bet. Will I feel bad if it doesn't get accomplished? Nope.

Monday, August 09, 2010


This is what PRIDE looks like!

As a lesbian academic administrator, I am so proud of these LGBT College and University Presidents that I could almost cry. Not only did they meet for the first time in history, but they did so as OUT LGBT leaders in higher education. They even released a picture (above).

Inside Higher Ed has a fantastic article about the meeting, in which the leaders of the new group describe its purpose: 
...the group will focus on leadership development for those who are gay presidents or who aspire to be, professional development for gay people at all levels of academe, and on education and advocacy to promote equity and diversity.

We need this kind of active recruitment, support, and visibility for LGBT administrators in higher education. There are many issues for LGBT people in higher education: the high rates of LGBT student attrition; hostility on campus towards LGBT students, faculty, and staff; lack of comfort among colleges hiring LGBT administrators; the limited number of campuses with the full range of LGBT-supportive policies;  and continuing negativity towards LGBT-related scholarship in many disciplines.  There is work to do, and this kind of group can help raise awareness regarding these issues.

So, three cheers to the brave LGBT administrators who attended this initial meeting of the Queer Presidents Club! I plan to keep an eye on their development and progress. Who knows, perhaps one day I can join their ranks!