Monday, November 30, 2009

This Week: "On Location" at the AAAs

The American Anthropological Association is holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia this week, and I'll be there with bells on (maybe literally).

I realize that the last time I mentioned anything about academic conferences in one of my blog-posts, the critical responses came fast and furious.

One of the consistent commenters for that posting was someone named goxewu, who kept asking me if I had to cancel any of my classes so that I could trot off to these conferences. Even though I answered the query a few different times (and a few different ways), goxewu continued to push the point, even implying that I would probably have canceled my classes this semester if they were on Mondays and Fridays (instead of Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).

But goxewu's major gripe wasn't necessarily about those missed class sessions. One of goxewu's final comments makes the argument plain: "Prof. Jackson may have done academe an unintended service with his post on conference-going, which unintentionally shone a light on the academic equivalent of Congressional junkets (which are also about a third legit, a third of marginal use, and a third paid vacations)." But are only a third of all academic conferences really legit?

Back when I was in graduate school, we used to read the yearly journalistic stories (some called them "attacks") on the ostensibly bizarre themes found among offerings at academic conferences. And these stories were seemingly offered up with a similarly delegitimizing impulse at their core.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article on the 2004 Modern Language Association meetings started with the following line: "When a professor draws a parallel between Dumbo and Detective Monk, you just know you're at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association."

The annual news stories about the AAA meetings often playfully invoke the tone and register of traditional ethnographic monographs, as does this Chicago Sun-Times piece from 1991: "Adorning themselves with jackets of tweed or gaily colored beads, puffing on elaborately carved pipes, ears pierced and decorated with rings, members of a national tribe are holding their annual potlatch in Chicago this week. They number some 3,700 [closer to 5,000 will attend this year]. But once here, they will break into smaller groups."

In many ways, I am an advocate of the academic conference. And I don't think that these venues are a waste of time, or a scam--or that they will be quickly/easily scrapped for cyber conferences in the not-too-distant future (another theory offered up after my last post). But I do sometimes mildly grumble about the fact that I can't make all of the interesting ones that are relevant to my work. And new meetings seem to pop up every single day.

For instance, on Wednesday night, E. Patrick Johnson is performing his electrifying one-man show, Pouring Tea, an adaptation of his powerful new book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, based on an extensive oral history project. On Thursday night, the AAA will host a book launch and reception for Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, by S. Ann Dunham, the mother of President Barack Obama, who died in 1995, before she could publish her work. Dunham's daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, will be present to offer remarks at the reception, which follows a panel about Dunham's work. And the exhibit "Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction, and Poverty in Urban America," opens on Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (and runs through May 2010). The exhibit is based on ten years of ethnographic research by anthropologist Philippe Bourgois (my Penn colleague) and photographer-ethnographer Jeff Schonberg. They worked among a community of heroin injectors and crack smokers in San Francisco. The exhibit is based on their new book, also called Righteous Dopefiend. (Another Righteous Dopefiend exhibit is being presented in conjunction with the Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut Street. It is a multimedia installation that will run from December 3 through 31.)

I'll blog about these conference events--and others--all week.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The End of an Oprah

Later on today, Oprah Winfrey is supposed to announce that she's closing up shop on her wildly influential daily show. The lights go out on that televisual institution in 2011, and that will be the end of a pop-cultural era.

Of course, Oprah didn't invent the genre (and she wasn't the first person to ratchet its stakes up to national prominence), but she has owned that format for much of the last two decades, using it as an amazingly powerful platform, one that has made her the most recognizable first-name celebrity on the planet.

Some credited her "book club" with almost single-handedly keeping America literate (and the publishing industry solvent), a not completely hyperbolic claim.

I probably watched about 10 to 15 episodes of the show a year, but they were some of the most riveting moments of network TV: Tom Cruise prancing around on that couch and attacking psychoanalysis; Dave Chappelle, just back from Africa, explaining why he left his own lucrative and highly successful television show; Whitney Houston admitting her bouts with drugs, alcohol and Bobby Brown; and, of course, who can forget the James Frey controversy, which was probably the beginning of the end of her book club's golden age.

Earlier this year, I watched her show with Jay-Z, and just this week, I DVR'd her Sarah Palin interview. The hour-long format makes her engagement with these folks feel so much more substantive than the five-minute packages that you get most places on TV. She has time to ask Palin all the questions you thought needed to be posed (about that infamous Katie Couric non-answer, about Levi Johnston's public attacks on her family, about her preparedness for the White House). They are all questions we've heard put to Palin before, but Oprah's space feels like a much more intimate place for the conversation.

Indeed, Winfrey's been criticized for just such would-be intimacy, especially as it informs her unprecedented crossover appeal. Is it really fair to call her a postmodern mammy-figure (as some detractors have)? That seems like a cheap shot, an overly dismissive critique that can be thrown around quite self-servingly.

Part of what makes her show so entertaining, especially when it features someone like Palin, is that she is always as famous as the person she's interviewing. Palin is one of the most sought-after guests right now, a star in national politics, and the closest thing Republicans have to an Obama-like figure. Even still, Palin seems to recognize (and defer to) the aura of Oprah. Everyone does!

Over the past few years, Oprah Winfrey has been all over the news for what she's been doing outside of her daily broadcast (that all-girls school in South Africa, her stumping for then-Senator Obama, etc.), and she plans to devote more time to her new network, which will provide her with 24 hours a day to fill, not just one.

Winfrey is also doing things like financing the new Lee Daniels film, Precious, which I have still yet to see. Ugh!

With all of these pots on the fire, Winfrey is probably betting on the fact that she'll be even more influential after they shutter the doors to her studio show. I wouldn't doubt it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is Diversity a Dirty Word in the Academy?

Former United States Senator Rick Santorum penned an op-ed in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer that questions the military's commitment to "diversity." Santorum's "The Elephant in the Room: Diversity, but at What Cost?" argues that the Naval Academy's characterization of diversity as "highest personnel priority" is not just silly (as manifested in an attempt to diversify an all white and male color guard before a recent world series game) but also potentially "dangerous," especially if "the military's commitment to 'diversity' as job one prevented military officials and the Department of Defense from 'connecting the dots' when it came to the accused [Fort Hood] shooter."

Of course, academics hear a great deal about diversity, but is it becoming a dirty word in the academy, a potentially dangerous threat?

According to detractors, what's the problem with diversity?

Santorum likens it to "a politically correct incantation that forces otherwise reasonable people to say silly things," a critique many would extend to diversity claims within academica. (Indeed, it has been used to characterize the arguments made by many a brainstorm blogger, myself included.)

But what's wrong with diversity? The naysayers have many answers: that it discriminates against white males; that it rewards mediocrity/incompetence; that it perpetuates minority under-achievement; that it threatens the integrity of higher education; that it is undemocratic and unethical; that it runs counter to all of our loftiest ideals of equality. Diversity, they argue, is the euphemism of choice for quotas, which should be considered unfair and unconstitutional.

We know what the detractors think, but how do diversity proponents counter. Santorum lays out a version of diversity's defense in his piece, a version that seems pretty accurate to me (and woefully, as Santorum would agree, insufficient).

What's the defense of diversity, not just as an abstract principle, but as translatable into concrete decisions about, say, student admissions and faculty hiring?

Given the extent to which recent Supreme Court decisions have demonstrated growing judicial hostility towards race-inflected admission decisions/formulas (and with the increasing thematization/politicization of academia as ideologically Far-Left), are advocates conceding too much? Are they trying to have it both ways? That is, might academia be falling into a trap when it attempts to ostensibly cloak its programmatic commitments to diversity (one of the criticisms leveled at many current academic interventions)?

Is it enough to re-name programs that used to be explicitly marked as race-specific initiatives and still deploy them in service to similar goals, walking on egg-shells all the while? Are academics still fighting for a version of diversity with real institutional teeth? Or has that battle already been lost?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Most of the reviews are in, and if it weren't for Wes Anderson's new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Lee Daniels might have the most critically acclaimed motion picture of the year.

Precious, based on the novel Push, by the poet Sapphire, is finally going into wide national release today, but most critics have been gushing about this gritty little film for weeks.

Even before it had a distributor, I wrote about Daniels and the Sapphire book right here on my blog, especially after the film won prestigious awards at Sundance and Cannes, something close to the equivalent of Best Picture Prizes at both festivals.

I called my previous post "Sundancing with Controversy," because I thought that Daniels had chosen a very difficult book: the first-person story of a poor, sexually-abused (by her father), HIV-positive black teenage mother named Precious Jones who has to negotiate a cruel and unforgiving world. Daniels court's controversy in his films, so I wasn't surprised that he'd gone after this powerful (and disturbing) little book. Here's some of what I wrote about him back in January:

Lee Daniels is the unconventional filmmaker responsible for helping to create provocative and disturbing independent films such asMonster’s Ball (famous for Halle Berry’s controversial sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton) and The Woodsman (which boasts Kevin Bacon’s riveting and sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile). Shadowboxer, his 2005 directorial debut, was most cited for its incestuous interracial sex scenes (between Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Helen Mirren). But I own a copy of that movie simply to show people its bizarrely unexplained (and matter-of-fact) depictions of a suburban Philadelphia landscape seemingly awash in stray Zebras.

In all of his films, Daniels pushes the envelope. He usually rips and defaces it, too.

And just as I thought, even though most reviewers applaud his film as "unforgettable," "remarkable," and something that, according to Rolling Stone, will leave audiences "moved like no film in years," one or two critics have come down very hard on Precious. For example, Armond White's NYPress review has been making the rounds as the harshest version of this anti-Precious critique. "Not since The Birth of a Nation," White writes, "has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious." Quite a claim!

My colleague at Penn, Salamishah Tillet, has penned a very thoughtful reading of the film that places its generally positive critical reception in conversation with the venom that Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple received. Her essay puts the film's critical praise in a much more productive and robust cultural/political context. And it might help us to unpack some of White's hostility, too.

Has anyone out there seen the film? (It has been in NYC for at least a week.) If so, what's your verdict?

It just got to Philadelphia today. So, I'm planning to buy a ticket for the weekend. As you can guess, I'll give you all my two cents after I see it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Loathing Academic Conferences

For the sake of full disclosure, I should probably start off by admitting that I'm in the middle of a particularly heavy conference stretch right now, which clearly informs this mini-tirade.

American Studies, one of my favorite annual meetings, held its conference in DC this past weekend, and the event overlapped with the American Academy of Religion's gathering in Montreal. I'm finally just back from both, and the National Communication Association's conference starts tomorrow. In Chicago!

It seems that many of the academic associations (at least the ones putting on conferences that I've planned to attend) have conspired to meet at one and the same time most years. Indeed, some folks might even push for a few extra weeks in the Fall semester just to accommodate all of these meetings.

I have to admit that I really enjoy a great deal about these conferences. At ASA, I hung out with old classmates from Columbia, and met up with Doug Mitchell from the University of Chicago Press, the editorial impresario responsible for much of what's most amazing about Chicago's backlist.

Then I hopped on a plane for AAR (finishing, in flight, the provocative epilogue for Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980, a powerful argument about the links between liberalism and black radicalism/nationalism written by Devin Fergus, who matriculated through Columbia's History Department while I was making my way through Anthropology).

I have only been to three AARs in the last decade or so (and once it was simply to screen a film that I helped produce on African American deployments of the Bible), but I immediately got caught up in the energy of the meeting this year. Besides taking part in a panel that I found particularly useful for my own work (a session examining methodological concerns specific to the ethnography of religion organized by Marla Frederick and featuring Kersten Priest, Tracey Hucks and R. Marie Griffith), I also hung out with old friends, reconnected with new ones, and had a great discussion (about so much more than just my current book project) with Sharmila Sen at Harvard University Press.

But given all that, why am I back in Philly and feeling so drained? Usually, good conferences energize me (Ford Fellows Conferences got me through my final years of grad school), and I would characterize my experiences at both of these recent events quite positively.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I'm still trying to figure out how to "do" academic conferences properly. At this point, I spend so much more time just chatting with people in the convention hallways and grabbing "coffee" at hotel lounges (as opposed to sitting attentively through actual sessions) that it almost seems scandalous. Indeed, I went to a total of two sessions at AAR (besides my own) and not even one at ASA. I told you: scandalous! Granted, I only had a day (less than a full day) at ASA before shuttling off to Canada, but it still felt wrong.

And I made a pact with myself way back in graduate school that I would never read a paper at an academic conference. And I've stuck to that irrational decision. Maybe it is my own idiosyncratic version of ADD (academic-speak deficit disorder), but I get super bored when most scholars read papers, especially when they don't even seem particularly moved by what they're saying. So, I have lunged in the other direction. I just try to talk my stuff out. Sometimes with notes and sometimes without, which usually means that I forget semi-major points (even when I have the notes in front of my, I tend to make the mistake of not looking down at them) and probably come off as somehow not taking the event seriously enough (because I didn't read prepared comments). It also means that I don't always bring everything back together neatly at the end of my 20 minutes. But I think I am getting better at that. And cultivating such a non-readerly skill is worth the minor embarrassments along the way.

So, I come back from conferences not quite sure of what (substantively) I got out of them. And then it is right off to the next one.

In early December, the American Anthropological Association meetings are here in Philadelphia, and I am going to take part in all of that one, too. This time, at least, I won't be presenting. But I have already committed to checking out several sessions on every single day. I'll let folks know how that goes.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Who posts "comments" to blogs? And why?

It isn't just happenstance that some of the most dismissive and hostile "comments" to blog posts come from anonymous readers. Anonymity gives courage to the cowardly. And that was the case long before the Internet.

Of course, it doesn't even make sense to respond to dismissive comments. Nothing good can come of it.

I'm not sure that both of the comments listed below are dismissive, but I did want to take a second to reframe a couple of responses to my recent "mentoring" post.

The first, posted by "goxewu," is simple and straightforward:

Wait a minute. There's an "associate dean" for just "undergraduate studies" in just one school (and the middleweight one of "communications," at that) at Penn? Prof. Jackson is hereby enjoined from ever, ever complaining in the slightest about the problem of administrative top-heaviness in higher education.

This "goxewu" ignores the point of my piece and asks why a "middleweight" school like "communications" would even need an "associate dean" for its undergraduates? Is it really that atypical for "just one school" to have a dean devoted to undergraduate education? If anything, I would have imagined that "goxewu" would have asked why communication/s was a school at all, instead of just a department. The lack of such an additional query seems telling.

And why this drive-by attack on "communications" as middleweight in the first place? What does that even mean? Goxewu represents a lot of people (academics and non-academics) who relish the idea of banishing entire fields with the snobbish wave of a hand. In faddish discussions about interdisciplinarity, we should spend some time interrogating our assumptions about disciplinary pecking orders, assumptions that get translated into all kinds of easily assumed hierarchies within the academy.

The second comment, left by "vfichera," responds to the actual substance of my posting. S/he quotes some of what I wrote:

"I have been touched by some equally memorable students here, and I have been trying to ask myself how I can be most helpful to them, especially in the context of an academic lifestyle that can already feel so overburdened and hectic."

And then responds with the following:

A little bit of "Prairie Home Companion" would be useful here or a touch of Jaime Escalante ("Stand and Deliver") -- all of the students are potentially memorable. Mentoring is not about just helping the "memorable" to achieve greater heights of success but of unfolding the talents of all of the students, of touching those who feel out-of-touch, of being a true advisor instead of having "professional advisors" for students to "relieve the faculty of that burden."

The corporatization of the university has indeed been achieved by proliferating administrations which have, with the consent of the tenured faculty, eroded the traditional roles of faculty into bits and pieces which are "adjuncted-out" to the point where undergraduates are even paying tuition to teach and advise themselves, as "undergraduate TAs" and "peer-mentors" -- often for academic credit.

Mentoring starts with faculty's acceptance and faithfulness to the full panoply of teaching and governance responsibilities, not just research. As the tenured faculty participate in the unraveling of their own duties and responsibilities onto more "manageable" personnel, they are "enabling" nothing less than the transformative unraveling of the idea of the university itself.

I feel like vfichera is picking a fight with someone else, a fight that he or she has probably been waging for quite a while.

vfichera's discussion about the "corporatization of the university" should be taken seriously, and s/he lists a number of reasons (not excerpted above) why "the tenured professoriate" should do better by its students, which was the point of my post.

I don't want to fall into that old Clintonian trap of parsing what is is, but should we talk about what it means to call a student memorable?

I remember students for any number of reasons, including those "who feel out-of-touch." vfichera is right that mentoring isn't a zero-sum thing. We should take on all students, especially if they are willing to meet us close to half way. But is it wrong to remember some students more than others? Is anything else even possible?

But part of vfichera's real point is about the shifting of duties from tenured/tenure-tracked faculty to the growing number of hired guns working on an adjunct basis--and with much less job security. The adjunctification of higher education is an important issue. I'm just not completely convinced of vfichera's way of linking it to my post on mentoring.

Of course, comments to blogs (like blog entries themselves) often boast a tangentialist logic, stream-of-consciousness as organizing principle. Fair enough. And vfichera's point is still well taken: the move to relieve faculty of more and more of their advising duties is something that faculty members should be spending much more time discussing.