Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reviving aphorisms as New Year's resolutions

That rough, old aphorism, "Never shit where you eat," doesn't seem to be followed very closely by academics.

We are known to go stomping into the Dean's office and rail about whatever grievous decision is vexing us at the moment. We write hateful notes to our colleagues, accusing them of high-handed skullduggery, and we exhibit cliquish tendencies that exclude peers we dislike. We act dismissive and thoughtless as we deal with support staff. We sometimes publicly embarrass students or blow off entire classes to suit our own (self-important) agendas.

The number of academics, especially men but some very well-published women, who sleep with staff members, grad students, or undergrads is consistently surprising to me. And it is rarely the case that the profs met the person in question in a bar. No, usually the first meeting happens in the professor's classroom or when the staff member was hired by the professor. Some academics are careful to wait until the grades are in before the first "date" (read: sex) occurs with a student, but many are not. While I would agree that not all of these relationships constitute "harassment," the problem is that the possibility almost always exists for this to occur in these relationships, even when the professor in question does not have that intention.

Perhaps these behaviors explain why the public sees professors as arrogant, elitist, and lacking common sense--because many of us fit the caricature.

I am sure Dean Dad will use this as another invitation to attack tenure... After all, if we didn't have an unreasonable sense of unending job security, we might be more careful in our actions. And if the Dean we yell at has to grin and bear it, rather than firing us, what impetus do we have to behave better? I am not sure abolishing tenure would rectify these issues, as the cultural identities of being a professor, an academic, and a scholar go far beyond the tenure issue.

We academic types like to think we are different from other workers, but the truth is, we could learn a lot from the 9-5 work world. Look around at the staff in your department...Staff members remember one another's birthdays, they ask about each other's children and families. They learn the rules of the systems of which they are a part, and they understand their role in the organization. They expect regular evaluation and feedback. Most important, they remember that maintaining positive relationships can greatly impact their success and happiness in the workplace.

Faculty members should take away a few of these ideas. We should learn the personnel policies of our employer and follow them, or work to change them when they are problematic. Our students are not consumers (ick), but their learning is one of the indicators on which we will be judged. We need to function within the organization, seeing ourselves as part of the system, part of something larger than ourselves. Along with staff and administrators, we establish the tone and culture of the department, just as we develop the curriculum. We should consider all of these part of our role as faculty.

So, when you are making your New Year's resolutions, perhaps you might consider reviving this old aphorism and making your department a better place to be. I'll do my part.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Oh, PU-Leeze!

You ever read something and just think... "Gimme a break! I mean, who ARE you?"

That was my reaction to reading Timothy Lukes' piece for the Chronicle Review. For those of you without the password, here is my somewhat biased synopsis. Lukes will not put a rainbow sticker on his door because it would compromise his politics and his desire to educate his LGBT students.

He has two primary points: First, he rejects the politics of identity and will not capitulate with any effort, however well-intentioned, that countenances such a politics. Identity politics obscures difference and posits only similarity related to one shared characteristic, offering a simplistic political understanding and ethos. He writes:

What I oppose, therefore, is not the safety of gay students, but the feeling of safety experienced by all students when they encounter the interest paradigm. A "safe space" sticker promotes a sense of comfort probably unintended by its promoters. It advertises the person displaying it as someone predisposed to a popular agenda, rather than an instigator of unusual, even unsafe, considerations.
So, identity-related stickers are out! Lukes is cool--he is an instigator.

Second, and his larger point, is that he believes that education is about unsettling students, making them feel unsafe and open to the larger truths and possibilities. We should not be about the business of worrying about issues of survival; ours is a higher calling, focused on issues of beauty and truth. A scholar of Marcuse, who teaches a course on politics and aesthetics, Lukes wants to talk about what matters--or what matters to him. He notes:

Thus by displaying the sticker, I would be betraying my gay students, not assisting them. I would be exempting them from the disorienting but essential epiphany that neither they, nor I, can be certain of their full identity. It would also preclude our sharing those beautiful exchanges of the fanciful and transcendental. Safety is a much more complex issue in a classroom than it is in a motor vehicle, and the best classes are those in which seat belts are occasionally unbuckled.

So if a student, gay or straight, craves a safe and secure recapitulation and celebration of popular identity taxonomy, my office is not the place to visit.

Thus, a "safe space" is stifling to creativity and real learning, and promotes a focus on the wrong issues.

These arguments are the kind of crap that makes my gf shake her head and denounce the uselessness of academics. Honestly, that is pretty much my own reaction as well.

I kept thinking what a noble and easy life has this tenured, white?, male, heterosexual?, full professor... I mean, he doesn't have to think about the gay male student:
1. who is just discovering his sexuality during his first six months away from home;
2. who isn't sure how to ask a guy out on a date, or even really where to meet or how to identify a gay guy;
3. whose roommate is filing a complaint because the student disclosed that he is gay, it "freaks" the roommate out, and he wants the student to move out;
4. whose parents are asking why he doesn't have a girlfriend;

5. whose religious upbringing teaches him that his desires are sinful and that to embrace his sexuality, he must discard any other notion of religious or spiritual connection or his sense of being a good person.
Being gay isn't all this student is, but it is certainly a part of him. Often, sexual orientation and gender expression become more important during people's teens and early twenties. And as LGBT students become more interested and aware of their sexual and gender orientations, they are made more aware, often at great pain and expense, of the ways in which society rejects and punishes LGBT people. Many studies of LGBT students have found a gross overrepresentation of these students among those who drop out of school, attempt suicide, and adopt unhealthy behaviors.

But, because Lukes is more concerned with his pursuit of beauty and light, he will demand that the hypothetical gay male student described above stop worrying about his damn sexuality and focus on real issues. And Lukes will forego any outward sign that he might be a good person to speak with this student. And perhaps, in the long run, he isn't. But what if Lukes is a good person, a good mentor, who is comfortable with LGBT people and can provide a friendly, accepting space for the student while they discuss and debate political philosophy?!

The "safe space" stickers do not signify the same thing as rainbow stickers worn by queers (and allies) around the world. (I would also argue that the meanings of the rainbow stickers also vary depending on time, location, and the people sporting them!) Instead, the safe space programs recognize that the benighted "real" world of fear, intimidation, and exclusion extends into the university, and LGBT students encounter these forces frequently. These students need very intentional signs of welcome, and that is all the stickers provide. Offering welcome and freedom from critique based solely on one's actual or percieved sexual orientation or gender expression is not antithetical to teaching in my book; actually, the creation of safe space allows the students to engage more fully and critically with materials, ideas, and differences, and to hear more challenging feedback from faculty.

Further, Lukes fails to recognize the many ways he already demonstrates who he is. What books sit on his shelves? What posters, comics, and postcards line his walls and cover his doors? Which books and articles has he written? Which courses does he teach? How about the ring on his finger, or the family picture on his desk? What groups does be advise? What is one more sticker, added to all that? One that says, "I am comfortable with diversity based on sexual orientation and gender expression. I am knowledgeable about issues people in these groups face, and I am not going to discriminate against you here based on these identity characteristics." What better invitation can an LGBT student get to engage in the process of higher learning?

As Angry Black Bitch might say...
Blink. Shudder.

Walk away grumbling.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Snow! YAY!

A lovely video of snow in the backyard.... the first snow of the real season for us. You can't really see it as well as I can, but it gives you a flavor. And it is still falling as I post!

I planned to work today, but it feels like a "snow day," so I have since decided to send out some holiday cards and sit by the fire with the gf.

Hope everyone has a great day!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Happy happy, joy joy

Oh, yeah, baby! This is what I would call a good time of year. Time to CELEBRATE!

Candidate interviews are done, class sessions are completed, and the holidays are around the corner. Even better, my side won recent departmental policy votes, and I have disclosed to departmental friends about the upcoming interview at Wooing School (WS). I feel unburdened, but I am still not sure what will happen with WS. I like my current program so much, I will have a lot to consider if I get the offer.

But all of that is to come later. Right now, I can be happy with my accomplishments and see the light at the end of the tunnel, which leads out of town for the holidays!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Holiday Christmas Cheer

Okay, so Dean Dad did a snarky post on Christmas music he hates, and lots of comments were made about Christmas carols and other music that drive folks batty! I replied to the post with my obscene (Jewish) love of Christmas music, but also added some additional commentary about being picky *where* I listen to the music. Nobody picked up on that thread, so I decided to come back and blog about it here.

At my very large, public university, and at almost all prior large public universities where I have worked or studied, the university choirs, bands, orchestras, etc. have participated in holiday concerts. I am okay with this in some ways, but not when they call them "Vespers." While the pieces performed tend to be the same (Handel's Messiah, Christmas Carols, and other sacred music, with a secular or Hanukkah song thrown in for "balance"), it makes a large difference to me when someone uses a religious term for a concert at a publicly-funded school.

Vespers has a distinctly religious connotation. Even Wikipedia notes that:
Vespers is the evening prayer service in the Roman Catholic, Eastern (Byzantine)
Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, liturgies of the canonical hours. The word comes
from Latin vesper, meaning "evening." The term is also in limited use in some
Protestant (especially Lutheran and Seventh-day Adventist) denominations to
describe evening services, and in some Anglican circles is used unofficially to
refer to Evening Prayer.
I run a departmentally-based mentoring program for at-risk students, one that is part of a group of programs across the university. Several of the other programs take their students to Vespers every year. Each year, I decline. Of course, my students can attend if they wish, they just won't do it as part of our group. I refuse to require students to take part in what is essentially a religious service masquerading as a "concert."

My refusal to take students has become an issue. Some faculty advisors in other departments argue that just as we expose our students to events connected to minority racial and ethnic cultures, we should encourage them to take part in this dominant (Christian) culture event. Other faculty argue that the event is truly secular, that it is an important part of campus culture, and we should all share in this university-wide event. These arguments ring hollow for me.

Perhaps had I not spent my entire life in public school choirs, singing Christian songs every December, I could believe that the dominant culture needed to be "shared" with everyone. My guess is that none of my students has missed out on this kind of cultural event; most have probably participated at one time or another.

And the secularization of religious holidays (with Santa, reindeer, snow, and so on) ultimately does not make them secular. The music shows that to be true. Actually, the music at "Vespers" concerts is decidedly religious. There is no "Grandma got run over by a reindeer" to be had. Instead, there are prayers, old and new arrangements of sacred music, and other religious accoutrements, such as candles, religious decorations, orders of service, etc.
I would urge public universities to stop holding "Vespers." If I want to introduce my students to religious music, we can go to the religiously affiliated school down the way and sit in on their services. Public schools should not hold these activities, or we should just call them concerts. I still won't require my students to attend, but I am sure you may find me there sometime...perhaps in the choir.