Friday, October 23, 2009

Academic Melancholia?

Do academics have good reason to be depressed?

When I was in graduate school, I had two friends (also grad students) who cried (literally broke down in tears) just about every single week of their graduate school careers--and it might even have been more like every day. They seemed truly miserable much of the time, and it took them both a lot of soul-searching to find a way out of that existential morass.

For me, back then, their plight always seemed like a powerful lesson, a reminder that "the life of the mind" should be challenging without being debilitating. But it isn't necessarily easy to maintain some kind of discrete firewall between those two alternatives. And academics seem to have more and more reason to court such melancholia all the time.

For one thing, the nature of our conversations/debates are sometimes so unnecessarily cantankerous--if not downright petty. Very little is new under the sun, least of all of that rhetoric/stance of dismissive and hostile critique. But how useful is it? What's the point? And that stuff only gets worse with the Internet. Everyone's doing it. With ostensible impunity. Indeed, academics aren't the only ones who seem to have gone FOX News (even National Enquirer) in terms of over-the-top and ad hominem attacks on interlocutors. But we are supposed to offer up a different model of engagement, no? (Just reading the venomous comments posted to people's Brainstorm Blogs can make one depressed.)

And are academics friendship-deprived?

That could be another reason for academic melancholia. Of course, we have colleagues. If we're lucky, very generous and supportive ones, but are we under-friended? I have one colleague who claims that he hasn't made a new "friend" in the academy since 1997. Not just a cordial acquaintance, but a substantive and full-fledged friend. Given the nature of our sometimes-hostile exchanges (as mentioned above), it stands to reason that we wouldn't concomitantly cultivate the skills needed to successfully befriend folks. I just had a grad student return from an academic conference and complain about the fact that everyone she met in the lobby of the conference hotel seemed to only half-listen to her as they scanned the crowd for more prestigious scholars to talk to. Does getting disciplined into academic life mean unlearning some of the basic rules of social interaction? If so, that's reason enough to be discouraged.

For most of us, how happy is life within the Ivory Tower? I keep telling non-academics that academia is the best gig around. And it is. But why do so many faculty members across the country sometimes appear quite clearly unhappy and anxious about their lot? And it is a state that often lasts well after individuals have cleared the tenure hurdle.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Racial Headlines: Rush Limbaugh, Marc Hill and Injustices of the Peace

I spent the last four days in sunny Southern California, and most of that time found me losing my mind about the zaniness of America's current racial landscape.

I went out West to take part in a fantastic conference, "Reading Scriptures, Reading America: Interruptions, Orientations, and Mimicry among U.S. Communities of Color," sponsored by Claremont Graduate University's Institute for Signifying Scriptures. I presented research from the book I'm currently writing (an examination of African-American Hebrew Israelites) as part of one of the conference panels organized by Velma Love (Florida A&M University), sharing the stage with Renee K. Harrison (Payne Theological Seminary).

Since it had been a long time since my last stint out West, I ended up squeezing in several different things: meetings with potential agents in Los Angeles (about some screenplays I've written), spending time with a couple academic friends and their newborn at UCI, and very briefly crashing the Ford Foundation Fellows conference in Irvine, California. (The Ford conference was as inspiring as ever!)

During much of my trip, I was also following three breaking news stories, excluding that boy-in-a-balloon "hoax" that CNN spent most of the weekend unpacking.

There was the story about that Louisiana justice of the peace who was unwilling to marry an inter-racial couple, Rush Limbaugh's response to his recent NFL snub, and Rupert Murdoch personally announcing FOX News contributor Marc Lamont Hill's firing at a stockholder meeting. All three stories are still playing themselves out, but I just wanted to make a few early comments.

1. Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish in southeastern Louisiana, refused to marry the mixed couple out of concern for their offspring--at least, that's the argument he made on CBS's The Early Show today. "I've had countless numbers of people that was born in that situation," Bardwell said. "And they claim that the blacks or the whites didn't accept the children. And I didn't want to put the children in that position." What a fascinating twist. Traditionally, such racially informed objections to miscegenation would have been framed in terms of eugenics (the degeneration of racial purity/prowess) or adamant white supremacy (the divinely pre-ordained discreteness of our racial order), but concern for the social plight of the children themselves wouldn't necessarily have been the trump card for an official in Bardwell's position. Of course, what is most interesting about Bardwell's stance is that he denies being racist at all--and claims not to even understand why his recusal has caused such controversy. He doesn't believe that what he did was unconstitutional, and he doesn't think that it should be considered racist. My recent book, Racial Paranoia, anticipates Bardwell's move and helps to explain the unprecedented logic of racialism in contemporary America.

2. Bardwell doesn't accept the charge of racism and neither does Rush Limbaugh. The latter penned a very careful response to his recent disavowal by those would-be St. Louis Rams owners in the Wall Street Journal while I was out in Cali. Limbaugh claimed that many of his accusers (including Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton) are actually the racists, citing Jackson's infamous "hymie-town" reference and Sharpton's role in the Tawana Brawley case. He also blamed Sharpton for fomenting the racial rage that erupted in two NYC riots during the 1990s. Sharpton is contemplating a lawsuit (for defamation) unless he gets an apology from Limbaugh, which I can safely predict will probably not be forthcoming. I did read my Brainstorm colleague's short post on the Limbaugh story last week. Mark Bauerlein's piece nicely frames the controversies, and he later asked readers if they could actually "cite Limbaugh's racist statements." Is Limbaugh a racist? That's become the operative question. I have listened to Limbaugh. His commitments to racial provocation are, in my opinion, self-evident. His investment in racial insensitivity (like his playful celebration of that "Obama, The Magic Negro" song) is also legion. Does that mean he's a racist? Part of the point of my recent book is to argue that claims/counter-claims about racism aren't productive. His advocates claim "no." His detractors say "yes." If someone can definitely prove that Limbaugh is a racist, does that mean that he doesn't have the right to own an NFL team? It is his $400 billion dollar media contract. He can spend that money on whatever he wants. But NFL players also have the right to voice their objections. Hopefully, the two sides can listen to one another instead of starting a shouting match that ends with both camps sulking in their respective, non-communicative corners. Also, I can understand why Limbaugh would try to defend himself against accusations of racism. But I don't buy the claim (given Limbaugh's consistency on questions of race) that the accusations themselves are on-their-face absurd. They can be wrong without being unreasonable.

3. And what can be said about Murdoch's ousting of Marc Hill? Hill was the object of an on-line campaign after a recent blog-post from David Horowitz that voiced outrage at the fact that Hill was given the privilege of serving as a pundit on Bill O'Reilly's nightly show. Hill was accused of supporting cop-killers (for comments about Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal) and of anti-Semitism (for an old article Hill wrote about Khalid Muhammad). I had assumed that Hill's job was safe. Fox News gets tons of pressure to oust other controversial figures on their programs, and they never buckle. If Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter are welcome on Fox, how could they ever justify firing Hill? Well, I was wrong. Moreover, there is a general logic to such witch-hunting that has become a pathetically hegemonic mode of political activism. It is justified by rhetoric of holding people "accountable." But what kind of politic really manifests itself in such victories? Is getting Beck or Hill or Coulter or anyone else off FOX News truly a gesture of political significance? How about thwarting Limbaugh's attempt to spend his millions? Or do such moves exemplify a trivialization of politics that is part of the problem?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ethics of the Pop Quiz

When I was an undergraduate, which really wasn't all that long ago, attending classes and completing my coursework constituted the sine qua non of my university existence. And that was probably true for many of my classmates at Howard University. Sure, we had extracurricular activities (some political and some recreational, some artistic and some just plain self-destructive), but that stuff probably didn't take up nearly as many hours per week as the tons of things students are busy with between class sessions these days.

I first noticed the difference (between then and now) when I taught at Duke University and served as faculty-in-residence for a first-year dormitory. I did the latter for three energizing years, and each incoming class seemed more over-extended and hyper-scheduled than the one before.

They were all serious students. They wouldn't have gotten into Duke if they weren't. But they also boasted an amazingly full life outside of the classroom. They volunteered for every worthy cause you could imagine. They interned at some of the most prestigious institutions around. They played multiple sports, toured with high school musical bands, and some of them even had time to start their own non-profits. And they were doing this all at the same time. In high school!

Indeed, what was most shocking was the realization that this model of full-time schooling mixed with full-time everything else only got ramped up once they started college. They were so accustomed to being frantically busy that they didn't even blink at the prospect of piling on tons more extracurricular work to their demanding semesterly courses: cheerleader, columnist for the campus newspaper, volunteer for university and community programs, RA, GA, athlete, lead performer in the campus play, official MC for weekly spoken-word events on campus, and on and on and on. It was exhausting (and admittedly exhilarating) just to watch them run around campus.

Of course, they got most of this stuff done because they barely slept. Again, I lived in the dorm. I know this to be true. They might have gotten up a little later than I did each morning, but that's only because they went to bed as my alarm clock rang out.

I think that I probably did two all-nighters during my entire undergraduate career. Nowadays, some students are lucky if they get away with two all-nighters a month--or even a week.

And they do all this not just because they can (new media technologies facilitate such hectic social dynamics in truly unprecedented ways), but also because they know that we (their professors and advisers) expect it.

It is no longer enough to be valedictorian. You have to excel in the classroom and demonstrate a robust set of commitments far beyond it. Everyone is telling them that this is what is going to make them stand out. And they've been hearing that mantra for a long, long time now, which means that some of them have been juggling schoolwork with other kinds of work (with an eye towards scholarship competitions and college admissions) since well before high school. It is hard-wired into is generation's cultural DNA. They assume that future employers are looking beyond 4.0 grade point averages (especially in an age of supposed grade inflation), so they are meeting those expectations with a vengeance.

And since that is the backdrop, I always feel a little guilty about the fact that my testing instrument of choice is (and has always been) the pop quiz. After all, aren't we supposed to be treating students like adults? Providing them with the readings, giving them the test dates, and then asking them to manage their time such that they are prepared for the scheduled exam--or not, right?

My pedagogical model, instead, is always predicated on wanting to make sure that students read the materials as I assign them, in time to contribute to classroom discussions, not as their admittedly packed schedules allow. But is that fair? Infantilizing? Unreasonable?

My students know that the unannounced quizzes are easy 100s for those who have done the reading. There are no trick (or particularly difficult) questions on them, just a request that students demonstrate (in "short answer" form) a basic comprehension of the readings before we go over them.

I've even been known to manifest the pop threat if a large lecture class seems particularly under-attended one slow Wednesday morning in the middle of the semester. Again, it is a reward for the folks in attendance and a punishment for the students who thought to sit that day out. But should I leave students alone to manage their hectic semesters and stop waxing nostalgic/romantic about some bygone, seemingly prelapsarian, moment when the classroom was ostensibly the center of the undergraduate universe?

Friday, October 9, 2009

You Can't Lose for Winning, Or Can You? Obama's Nobel Prize

I never understood the phrase, "you can't win for losing." Not really. I assume that it implies something like "without bad luck, I'd have no luck at all," the assumption that some people would only win anything if we gave out awards for Best Loser.

Obama recently lost his bid to help Chicago host the Olympics, but he clearly is a "winner," and that was even before he beat McCain in the last presidential election.

But the Nobel folks have taken his winningness to entirely new heights, and some detractors are confused (and insulted) by their recent decision--an attempt, some say, to counteract that Olympic snub or to thumb noses at the last Bush regime.

My brainstorm colleague Laurie Fendrich has already beaten me to the punch with her provocative and "political" contextualization of this morning's Nobel announcement. But I still wanted to add another inflection to this morning's Obama buzz, and it is predicated on the twitterati's tongue-in-cheek responses to Obama's newest win.

In a thread called ReasonsBHHwonNPP, here are some of the TwitterWorld's answers:

Because he fostered a friendship between a black professor and a white police officer.

For restoring US rep because they couldn't kick Bush a Nobel War prize on the way out the door.

Because he didn't smack Joe Wilson.

Because a beer in the rose garden is a revolutionary way to broker peace.

Because he has directed american military might toward our common enemy: the Moon.

Because the Arizona State University board of trustees weren't voting.

Because going for the Nobel Prize is like a race and well, he is half Kenyan.

Because anyone who has to deal w/Am Politics tday & hasnt punched anyone in the face deserves it.

And I know that Chronicle readers could undoubtedly add some zingers of their own. Indeed, Obama probably would have preferred not winning this particular prize, just because so many people are going to spend their time further demonizing him for it.

"Don't hate the playa," hip-hop MCs advise. "Hate the game." That's another colloquial saying that seems very appropriate today.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Establishment Clause vs. Memorial Cause

I'm teaching an undergraduate course on the mass mediation of religious beliefs this semester, and the students are taking an interdisciplinary look at how new media technology's ubiquity has changed (in big and small ways) people's religious experiences and practices all over the world, re-configuring spiritual communities and re-framing debates about religious tolerance.

The course examines the power of celebrity televangelists and their massive "digital churches."

It tries to provide some historical context for current (decidedly post-Scopes) debates about the science of "intelligent design."

It also traces contemporary and historical deployments of faith and religious truth to justify concomitant claims about the nature/reality of racial differences and gender hierarchies. For instance, popular readings of Noah's curse on Ham or Jacob's usurpation of Esau's birthright serve as two irreconcilable origin stories for the divine sanctioning of racialism. And Paul's oft-cited admonition in Ephesians ("Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.") has been a relatively unambiguous (if increasingly contested) justification for "male headship" in the church and beyond.

I have tried to organize the course such that students approach religion from an anthropological point of view (respecting religion as a particularly important example of "culture") while also recognizing that such would-be social scientific treatments might still represent blasphemous or irreverent engagements/interpretations (from the perspective of some believers). Or that it could slide too-easily into a dismissive attack on religion altogether, reducing it to little more than "false consciousness" (in the Marxian formulation) or even "neurological disorder" (in the Bill Maherian sense, which you find in his recent documentary, Religulous).

Students are asked to take religion seriously (culturally, socially and politically) without falling into the trap of seeing it exclusively as a threat to humanity. Indeed, for much of the time that sociologists and anthropologists have studied religion, they thought about it more as social glue than anything else, as something that helps societies to reproduce themselves over time and not only a potential handmaiden to our own annihilation, which is one version of the current take on religious excess in the age of WMDs.

The course also spends some time getting students to think about the relationship between "secular humanism" and "fundamentalism," two fraught and loaded terms in an ongoing debate about the true nature of religion's place within a seemingly rational "public sphere," a public sphere that was supposed to be creating more and more distance between its logic and the seemingly unfalsifiable principles of religious dogma. Of course, all of this means that my students and I are particularly primed for following any public coverage of religious controversies, and the newly Sotomayor'd Supreme Court's pending decision on that five-foot tall memorial cross housed (for over 70 years now) on a stretch of the Mohave Desert owned by the United States government is one case in point.

Since I co-taught a course on "race, religion and the law" at Harvard Law School last semester (with an absolutely brilliant scholar who truly understands these issues inside and out, Noah Feldman), I am particularly interested to see how the Establishment Clause fares against the memorializing cause that the cross represents. For the ACLU, this case is cut-and-dry. They say that such "stand-alone religious symbols" shouldn't have any place on public land whatsoever. Many military vets are outraged about the ACLU's stance, and some religious leaders accuse the organization of trying to purge America's public landscape of any and all religious iconography. The cross was declared a violation of the Establishment Clause in 2002, and Congress has been trying to find some way to resolve the issue without tearing down the cross itself. The ACLU thinks that the Congressional move to fix the constitutionality dilemma (by giving that strip of land to a veterans organization and declaring it a national memorial) is just a sham and doesn't correct the church-state problem in the least.

Any day now, the Supreme Court is going to tell us if the ACLU is right. For the students in my course this semester, the entire controversy is another example of religion's central place in America's cultural and political landscape.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The White House Strikes Back

In a web-post labeled "Reality Check," the White house recently blasted Fox News for trying to "smear the Administration's effort to win the Olympics for the United States."

The White House has been attempting to stay somewhat above the fray with respect to partisan media debates about the coverage of Obama's administration, but its official website offered a blog entry this Wednesday that castigated the "fair and balanced" network for supposedly being anything but. The post specifically highlights Glenn Beck's criticisms as indicative of the network's overall "disregard for the facts" in its coverage of Obama's White House.

The White House pushes back against several things:

a) Glenn Beck's claim that Vancouver lost a billion dollars when it hosted the Olympics is dismissed as a function of the fact that Vancouver will, in fact, host its Olympics in 2010.

b) A Beck guest arguing that Chicago's city government is so fiscally irresponsible that it has to close down city-services several days every week is met with the counterclaim that Chicago will only have three reduced-service days (including Thanksgiving and Christmas) in all of 2009.

c) Beck's questions about Valerie Jarrett's financial stake in Chicago's Olympic proposal is flatly denied by maintaining that she "divested all her real estate holdings except for a single investment that has nothing to do with the Olympic bid."

Of course, Beck won't let this stand, and his defenders are most certainly marshaling evidence for their rejoinders right now. I haven't checked, they might have already launched their counterattacks. At which point, Obama's supporters will be forced to respond in kind. America's politico-cultural war is all about an irrational escalation of this rhetorical arms race.

There is certainly no Archimedean point from which to engage these issues. Not for Obama, not for any of us. We all get dragged into this partisan alley-fight, even those of us who think we can just play-dead by the electoral curb somewhere, curling our political selves into a fetal position as rabid ideologues throw wild haymakers at one another above our heads.

Could it be possible that, say, Valerie Jarrett will get even richer as a function of Chicago succeeding to win the Olympic games? Probably. As will Chicago's "haves" on the other side that supposedly firewalled-off political aisle. Elites from both parties lie when they maintain that the other side corners the market on any self-interested implications of the work they perform in the public sphere. There are legitimate cases to be made about when such self-serving consequences cross the line, ethically speaking, but is there a point when the wildly partisan discourse that constitutes our political bathwater gets so dirty that the baby might not be able to survive? As professors, is there any way to teach our students to see the potential political ramifications of our social and cultural choices/beliefs without forcing them to gulp down the swill from that same filthy tub?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Are You E-gnoring Me?

The beginning of the academic year is full of excitement and activity. Especially activity. There's all that frantic prep to get courses ready for students (completing syllabi, posting readings, organizing lectures). Then your Fall meeting schedule starts to kick-in, and you end up spending late nights doing all the reading and writing that's no longer possible during daylight hours. I get it. I've been there. Truth be told, I'm marooned there right now.

If you have any "televisual interests" (i.e., if you are even the mildest of TV-Junkies), the new Fall season has started, and the shows you forgot about are clamoring for your distracted attention.

Many academics want to have their cake and eat it, too. We spend our summers hunkered down trying to make major headway on our research projects (which, for me, meant editing the first rough cut of an ethnographic film on violence in Jamaica and starting to gain momentum on my next book, an examination of Black Hebrewism/s). But we still want to maintain at least a bit of that scholarly momentum after the start of the Fall semester. And all of this is piled on top of things like childcare and/or romantic relationships and/or all the other substantive stuff of life convincing us that it's worth living.

Of course, something has to give. And for many academics, the composite "something" includes diligence about email correspondences.

And I get it. I'm notorious for delayed responses to emails. There are many folks who could tell you that. So, I am the last person who has the right to get upset when his own email queries drop into that cyber vortex reserved for unrequited letter-writing, a veritable black hole of avoided emaildom.

Many of us abuse emails, which means that others of us feel inundated by too many of them, most of it Internet litter (or worse) that requires disposal.

And what more than hubris allows any of us to assume that we'll get an email response back from someone we haven't even met, or don't know very well. For all we know, it probably just landed in their hyper-filtering "junk-mail" box.

But what about friends and colleagues who don't respond? You've sent off what you imagine to be an urgent or personal or detailed message, carefully crafted, about some topic of importance to you and, hopefully, them (not the forwarding of spam-infected jokes that some supposed cyber-friends propagate). But you get nothing back. Not after a day. Not after two days. Or a week. Or two weeks. Eventually, after a month or two, you just happen to remember, in a flash, that you never heard from them at all. "Hey, s/he never got back to me?" Not even an automated confirmation that it was received and opened, which is some small consolation for the cyber-dissed.

What is the proper response to such e-gnoring? Am I the only one keeping a list of such offenders--for some subsequent moment of non-cyber reckoning?