Thursday, September 24, 2009

Promotion Paranoia

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from a friend/colleague at a university on the West Coast. (I'll try to stay purposefully vague about things, which will include avoiding gendered pronouns.)

The person, a rigorous scholar in the social sciences, is frantically trying to get a dossier completed for a pending promotion review, which explains why I would get a buzz at 8:45 in the morning, Philadelphia time. Said friend/colleague was pulling an all-nighter.

This colleague was freaking out about the tenure process, and our conversation went something like this:

ME: Hey, it has been a long time. How are things?

THEM: I'm going crazy over here.

ME: Why? What's up?

THEM: This tenure thing. They are trying to make me go insane.

ME: All the material you have to assemble?

THEM: No. Well, yeah. But not just that. There is all this voting about the process. Everyone is constantly voting on whether my file should move to the next phase. All these hurdles. Voting, voting, voting. And I've caught myself interpreting every small exchange with my colleagues as an indication of how they might stand on my case, on how they might be voting. Ugh! And every once in a while I get a strange look or comment that nearly drives me over the cliff. It has gotten to the point where I wish I could just avoid any contact with ANYBODY until the process is done. How did you cope? Any tips?

Unfortunately, I didn't have any tips. At least nothing that I thought would really help. I was lucky enough to be on leave when I first went up for tenure, which meant that I could mostly avoid the kind of "promotion paranoia" that my friend was describing.

I always tell people that one of the benefits of going to Columbia University in the mid-1990s was that you were exposed to some very high-profile tenure denials. There was one in Comparative Literature that I remember. And even in my own department, Anthropology.

Those decisions made some of my fellow graduate students completely terrified of the tenure process, which was so secretive and seemingly capricious. But for other students, those same decisions were potentially liberating. That's because we thought of them (fairly or not) as little more than "political" decisions, either with the capital "P" of ideological differences (people who just don't like your theoretical endgame) or the small "p" of pettier interpersonal differences (people who just don't like you).

Either way, it seemed to instruct us that we had better do what we really enjoyed (as fledgling scholars), because there would never be a foolproof way to game the tenure process, to predetermine the outcome in any particular case. So, we didn't want to get stuck doing a research project for years and years simply (or mostly) because we thought it might land us a good job on the road to tenure.

But do folks have other ways of coping with this promotion paranoia that they would recommend? If so, I'll pass them on.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Either/Or Racial Analysis

On the train ride back from Washington to Philadelphia this morning, after catching the U.S. premiere of filmmaker Haile Gerima's new feature film, Teza, I read the David Brooks NYTs op-ed, "No, It's Not About Race." Brooks does a compelling job historically contextualizing the "populist backlash" against Obama's policies. The partisan media, on the Left and Right, is making racism the story, Brooks says, but the real causal truth lies elsewhere.

"[Obama] has fused federal power with Wall Street, the auto industry, the health-care industries, and the energy sector," Brooks writes, and there is a long history of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian resistance to "the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers." All this, coupled with the fact that the tea-party demonstrators mingled peacefully on September 12th with thousands of African Americans out that same day for a Black Family Reunion Celebration, gives Brooks confidence that racism has nothing to do with the anti-Obama protests, even at their most hostile and high-pitched (seemingly secessionist) levels.

I have already tried to argue, in my recent book on "racial paranoia" in contemporary America, for the substantive difference between, say, purchasing a hot dog on the street from someone of a different race, having an innocently fleeting conversation with a racial stranger, and forming substantive ties across racial lines. The former is the problem when it is not reinforced by the latter. Did members of these two groups (the Tea Partyers and the Black Family Reunioners), as a function of the happenstance of their unrelated public events, exchange phone numbers and start lasting relationships? Or did they simply perform the self-conscious dance of anxious racial politeness that our post civil-rights assumptions about public civility demand, especially across racial lines?

Indeed, I also want to push back a bit against this zero-sum-game kind of public analysis about race and racism, this all-or-nothing rhetoric that says either racism is the definitive cause of something (a smoking gun still hot to the touch and smelling of ash) or completely irrelevant, relegating anything more nuanced and realistic to the dustbin reserved for the politically useless: what can't be dismissed or demagogued in a single sound bite.

In some ways, Haile Gerima might offer a more compelling take on the issue than Brooks. Gerima's new film, Teza, is a powerful epic tale of an Ethiopian medical scientist and would-be revolutionary who returns from Germany, where he did his studies, to find an Ethiopia torn asunder by the socialist dogma that he once espoused. Gerima's most ambitious and powerful film to date, Teza is also a story about what do with race/racism as a factor in social life.

Without giving too much of the film away, Gerima decides on a both/and model. Just when you think that he's offering a view of Ethiopian politics that pivots exclusively on ostensibly nonracial ideological concerns, he tries to remind us that racism is always there, less a smoking gun than a smoldering fire that continues to burn, slowly and faintly, even after we think we've stamped it out. And if not carefully minded and fully doused, Gerima claims, it can always find a way to burst itself back into flame.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Where Is Your @$%!&*ing Final Paper?

I missed most of President Obama’s speech Wednesday night, but I’ve been getting tons of messages about S.C. Representative Joe Wilson heckling him during the address, screaming “You lie!” from a seat in the audience. Even though it does seem a little weird and disrespectful that a Congressman would decide to voice his objections in such a backalley way (and he’s since, of course, apologized), was this vulgar display all that qualitatively different from, say, Wilson going on FOX News later on that very evening and calling Obama a liar after the fact?

I actually don’t want to talk about the kind of rage that prompted Wilson to publicly yell at the standing President, but it reminded me of one of academe’s double standards around public displays of hostility.

What are we to make of the athletic coach who shouts at his or her players for making a bad play?

I’m not just talking about Bobby Knight-style tossing of chairs across basketball courts. He’s something like the King of Sports Rage. But so many coaches do it, even seemingly mild-mannered ones. And sometimes with four-letter expletives as rhetorical garnish. “What the @#&!$^% were you thinking on that play!? Sit the @!#$& down!!!!”

I spent four years at Duke University watching from the stands while two relatively even-keeled coaches (Coach K and Coach G) periodically hurled quite enraged charges at their undergraduate players. I remember thinking, what would people say if faculty treated those same students that way?

“Where’s your @&#!&!ing paper? This final paper is absolute @&#!!*!”

It would be absurd. Outrageous. But why do coaches get away with such abuse when these very students don their athletic uniforms? It seems like just the kind of arbitrary social convention that demonstrates a version of what anthropologist Mary Douglas once described as the central importance of culturally specific understandings of “matter out of place.” Things get deemed profane/dirty/obscene/vulgar as a function of “where” they are, not just “what” they are. For some reason, we think about the classroom as the wrong place for university employees to curse at their students. What makes basketball courts or football fields more appropriate? Does the presence of the crowd somehow matter? What is it?

Of course, just one of the many differences between a coach shouting at his/her players and Wilson snapping at Obama is that the coach and athlete consider themselves to be fighting for the same goal, literally on the same team. How many people in Congress really think about their colleagues “across the aisle” with a similarly inclusive attitude?

(Previously published on The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog and in the Durham Herald-Sun.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ode to Lingua Franca

In symbolic preparation for the start of another academic year, I ritualistically cleaned out one of the many file cabinets today, one of the several that I haven't opened in what seems like millennia. There are usually at least two or three pleasant surprises to be uncovered during such a process, and this time around I came across my old stash of Lingua Franca magazines. And I immediately had a dilemma. Do I throw them away or not?

The purported rationale for this annual late-summer exercise is just such purging. I'm a packrat, a trait I probably got from my mom, who tosses just about everything that comes across her kitchen table into a cardboard box (to be filed away and subsequently forgotten). Plus, I'm an ethnographer who considers just every bit of material culture ever manufactured potential "data" that might be deployable in some future attempt at cultural analysis, which means that I always have a "professional" rationalization for my hoarding.

Even still, I try to be strong during my September office purgings. But Lingua Franca has a special place in my heart. Maybe it should be granted some kind of special/prileged status amidst the other junk in need of immediate discarding. I mean, this magazine got me through the first couple years of graduate school at Columbia.

Something like The Chronicle of Higher Education meets The Nation (with a little National Enquirer thrown in for good measure), Lingua Franca was a not-so-guilty pleasure for my grad school cohort in the early 1990s. That's where we learned how academic/intellectual debates translated into institutional fault lines and interpersonal squabbles. It covered academe under the guise of in-depth investigative journalism, which meant that it didn't just dish the gossipy dirt (which was always in full supply); they also tried to breakdown complicated theoretical ideas and explain disputes within fields that had implications beyond them.

For the grad students I knew, this was like getting a cheat sheet on contemporary academic life and its conceptual/analytical conflagrations. Of course, the stories always had a slant, and they usually angered as many people as they excited. But this still seemed like a wonderful way to get at least one pretty well-researched (and popularly pitched) interpretation of academic issues with an impressive degree of institutional contextualization of things.

When I found out that the magazine was closing up shop in 2001, I was no longer a graduate student. And though I'd kept my subscription, I'd stopped doing the cover-to-cover readings that had given my years in grad school such delicious pleasure. Even still, I was crushed that future grad students would be denied the same opportunity to enjoy Lingua Franca. What a pity.

(For one take on the end of Lingua Franca, see "Who Killed Lingua Franca?")

Which brings me to my question: In the age of on-line publishing, could someone resurrect Lingua Franca and actually make it profitable? Or does The Chronicle pick up enough of the slack?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Second-Nature of Politics

So, the semester has finally started. It really has. And I've got a stack of half-written student recommendations (and more than one unfinished syllabus) to prove it. Classes don't begin at Penn until next week, and I have been trying to take a little break before the delicious storm that is the start of every new academic year pours down on my head.

I've also re-read many of the scathing comments to my last few Chronicle posts, trying to honestly consider their criticisms, including the idea that my Chronicle posts exemplify the kind of left-wing brainwashing that needs to be purged from the academy.

I don't see it, but I would also readily concede that that doesn't necessarily mean the criticisms are unfounded. Culture is powered by self-deluding blinders. It is a kind of second-nature that usually only gets harder to recognize the more you try to spot it. Culture wouldn't be culture if we spent most of our time second-guessing it, especially not the parts of it we take for granted. We do most of whatever it is we do everyday with a lack of explicit consciousness that rivals the potency of more ostensibly hard-wired and biological instincts. So, that is all to say that any ideologue is the last person to recognize his or her own subjective biases passing themselves off as objective truths in the public sphere, which means that I'd probably be one of the last people to see (or want to see) any truths in those aforementioned criticisms.

To make matters worse, other people's cultural practices are always easier for someone else to see, at least insofar as they differ from the cultural practices of the person doing the looking.

All that is simply a way of saying that I take all critiques seriously, if not as statements of objective fact about the world then at least as a different set of cultural assumptions about what "facts" actually mean, where the rubber hits the road on all this stuff anyway.

Even still, I want to state my distaste for a few common moves in the rhetorical/ideolgocal battle being mercilessly waged between so-called The Left and Right. First of all, there is this winner-take-all mentality that only tries to defeat the opposing team--at all costs, come hell or high water. That might work in the short term for people trying to win elections (even if not for the long-term good of those they represent), but it certainly doesn't work if the default team in quiestion is robustly inclusive. Economist Glenn Loury makes this us-them point quite clearly with respect to multiracial conflicts in his book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality. What if we all started with the assumption that we were playing for the same team? Would our rhetoric change? Our political endgame?

Point two: just because the Chronicle is about "higher education" doesn't mean that discussions of hip-hop artists being deployed to explain international politics or an invocation of "obamaphobia" in a discussion about our over-heated public debates are categorically out of order. One can talk politics without trying to brainwash people or push a partisan agenda. Of course, we live in a world where many people seem happy to reduce any talk of "the political" to one or both of those impoverished alternatives. I reject that claim, even if I sound like Pollyanna.

Do I tend to lean "left" on most things? That's probably true (most days), but I'm genuinely interested in listening to other people, from all sides of all issues, and challenging my own too-comfortable cultural assumptions about politics or anything else.

At the same time, I do get a little froggy and want to jump back at what I think are unproductive attacks. For example, when Michelle Malkin describes my aforementioned "Obamaphobobia" post as a "screed" on her website and declares that I have called her book "a hate crime," it takes all that I have not to cry "foul." What was she reading? Is this the kind of gloss on texts that informs the interpretations found in her bestselling book? Besides that, she's calling somebody else's work a screed? That seems like the pot signifyin(g) on the kettle, if you know what I mean. If only her mention of my post had gotten my Racial Paranoia book anywhere near the hemisphere of her book's sales figures. Maybe it would have all been worth it.