Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Anna Deavere Smith's Craft

(crossposted at The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Anna Deavere Smith describes her life-long project as an attempt to theorize the links between language and identity. She came to this realization about the fundamental nature of her actorly goals while still studying her craft (several decades ago) at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Last night, Smith presented excerpts from her most recent one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy, at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, and she tried to explain to a packed-house just how her creative process works.

For those who don't know Anna Deavere Smith, she is famous for what has been called "documentary theater," a genre that, for her, entails interviewing people from various walks of life (interviews organized around a particular theme or event) and staging those juxtaposed interviews as monologues in critical conversation with one another.

Fires in the Mirror dealt with 1991's Crown Heights riots (between Afro-Caribbeans and Orthodox Jews in that small section of Brooklyn) and included interviews with rioters, African-American activists (such as Al Sharpton), rabbis, city officials, local residents, and other interested parties with a spin on the conflagration. Twilight: Los Angeles dealt with that 1992 riot/uprising, bringing excerpts from her interviews to life on stage as a way to demonstrate the many angles from which Angelenos and others made sense of that public tragedy.

Let Me Down Easy is a commentary on death and dying in America, on the state of health care and on how the actions of health care providers are over-determined by cultural assumptions that get powerfully exposed when Smith places them on conspicuous theatrical display. Given the extent to which our current political conversation pivots on the "health care debate" and its political fallout (including the election of a Republican senator in MA), Smith's material is amazing, even uncanny, for its timeliness.

Smith's power stems from the fact that her performative skills allow her to conjure up her interviewees in all of their demographic and idiosyncratic specificity, seemingly out of thin air, using their words, speaking styles, and bodily gestures to plop these beings unto the stage with an almost occult-like immediacy. She also does a commendable job giving voice to many different swaths of the political spectrum, placing opposing viewpoints in conversation such that each side of the debate is rendered with nuanced humanity. Alas, if only our everyday political discourse followed a similar organizing principle. Indeed, one of her projects as a scholar-artists (she is, after all, an academic: University Professor at NYU) is to promote robust conversations across ideological divides. (She is the founding director of Harvard University's Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue.)

As someone who spent the last few month of 2009 beginning my own attempt to think about staging ethnographic data for theatrical presentation (first, this year, at academic conferences and then, much later down the line, in a full-fledged one-man show), it was encouraging and instructive to hear Smith describe her approach to such work. "Documentary theater" is a valuable example of what "ethnographic theater" could look like--and even of what anthropological theatricality might usefully define itself against. Several ethnographers have already begun to dabble in a version of what might be called "ethnographic theater," which is yet another way to continue ongoing discussions within anthropology about the political and poetic implications of ethnographic representation and cultural critique. It is also a different way to think about questions of observation, embodiment and intersubjectivity.

Anna Deavere Smith was an inspiration last night, and not just for scholars interested in harnessing the electrical powers of theatrical space for their own scholastic purposes.

Smith juggles her "documentary theater" work with stints on shows like NBC's The West Wing and HBO's Nurse Betty. That stuff pays the bills, she says, but documentary theater is really her passion. It is also a way for her to show that social identities only emerge as fully meaningful and culturally intelligible once we are willing to slip our feet into other people's shoes, to wrap our mouths and minds around other people's words.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What is Pat Robertson Really Saying About Haiti?

There are many reasonable people (and even some otherwise unreasonable ones) who would maintain that Pat Robertson's take on the recent earthquake in Haiti need not be dignified with a response. I understand that point, and I see where its adherents are coming from. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that Robertson represents an isolated quack. We ignore him at our own peril, especially since there are many people who accept his basic premises without question. So, I do feel like a few words are in order about the significance of his supernatural claims about divine justice.

One thing to note is that the political "fringe" is no longer as fringe as it might once have seemed. I got about 10 messages (via twitter, email, and facebook) regarding Robertson's comments within a few hours of him making them. I've also seen his thoughts discussed on several cable news programs on several different channels more than just a few times in the last day and a half. His comments have gone viral, and it means that "dignified" or not, they are circulating quite widely already.

If you are still one of the few people who haven't heard it, Robertson argues that 18th and early 19th century Haitians were able to throw off the chains of race-based slavery and colonial dependency by (literally!) making a pact with the devil. As a function of that Faustian bargain, they have been cursed by God, which explains their history of violence and their contemporary degree of poverty.

I got the surreal news (via text message) about the Haitian disaster on an Amtrak train from Washington DC to Philadelphia Tuesday evening (after attending the AAA symposium on race that I blogged about on Monday). And it just so happens that I was reading, in an almost eerie kind of irony, a small new book by Susan Buck-Morss during that ride, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History.

The book is an extrapolation on her Critical Inquiry article (from 2000) where she tried to argue that Hegel got his master-slave metaphor from the Haitian revolution, and that such a seemingly clear and self-evident historical fact has been sorely under-appreciated (in fact, missed just about entirely) by the best and brightest philosophers and historians who have worked on Hegel. She chalks these omissions up to a series of factors, including the narrowcast biases of disciplinization and academic specialization. Buck-Morss argues that the early Hegel was clearly influenced and inspired by the Haitian revolt (championing the psychic need for slaves to forcibly reclaim their full humanity by asserting it in the face of brutal reprisals), even if the later Hegel (of The Philosophy of History) ends up dismissing all of Africa as radically ahistorical, uncivilized and unprepared for full sovereignty.

In many ways, Robertson's pseudo-religious reading of the Haitian tragedy is a sensationalized version of the very logics that Buck-Morss critiques.

I call it "pseudo-religious" because I think of Robertson's comments as self-serving political claims hiding behind the cloak of religiosity. Of course, religion is inescapably political, but Robertson's own religious texts don't provide evidence for such wildly specific and offensive claims of satanic collusion. On what evidence, from what sacred book, does Robertson base his theory of Haitian history (or any of his past pronouncements, including the "argument" that 9/11 was divine retribution for America's legalization of abortion)? Is he merely performing a xenophobic reading of Voodoo's spiritual difference from his particular version of Christianity?

Instead of seeing 18th and 19th century Haitian freedom fighters as subjects of history, agents capable of throwing off the shackles of foreign oppression (in a manner similar to America's 18th-century revolutionists, a group that I've never heard him call lapdogs of Satan), Robertson removes them from the political and geopolitical playing field altogether, dismissing their post-revolutionary plight as comeuppance for a bad deal with the devil. About that theory, two last things:

First, I would recommend that Robertson read Randall Robinson's An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President, which shows, quite compellingly, that Haiti's current politico-economic predicament is a direct result of how Europe and the United States responded to the country's 1804 assertion of autonomy: by very purposefully isolating and exploiting Haiti (politically and economically) for the next two hundred years. Therein lies much of the answer, Robinson demonstrates, to Haiti's current woes. (The details he provides, mostly uncontested and unhidden facts of history, will be shocking to many readers).

Second, if the Satan-theory is accurate, I would just ask that Robertson finally let them out of their contract with him. As a function of the kinds of horrible and inhumane ideas he spews, Robertson must be the other contractual party of which he speaks. It would explain how he knows the details of such a secret compact.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


The career pipeline: Not leaking but pouring
By Katherine Sender

At a recent meeting of Penn faculty members from across the University, the provost spoke with concern about “the leaky pipeline,” where large numbers of women and minority faculty drop out of the career track as they move towards senior positions. Then followed our president announcing that Penn was moving from a position of Excellence to Eminence—in the twenty-first century university even Excellence isn’t good enough anymore. I was struck by the juxtaposition. Was there a relationship between this constant push to greater levels of distinction and the leaky pipeline?
What does this leaky pipeline look like at Penn? A Gender Equity Report in 2007 found that women made up 28 percent of all faculty. How this plays out across rank is striking: women made up 42 percent of assistant professors, 30 percent of associate professors, and only 18 percent of full professors. This is not a case of more women coming up through the ranks because the proportion of standing women faculty had increased by only four percent since 1999.

The leaky pipe for racial minorities is as dramatic. A Minority Equity Report of 2007 found that minorities made up 17 percent of Penn’s faculty. People of color made up 27 percent of assistant professors, 17 percent of associate professors, and only 9 percent of full professors. We may take heart that the proportion of minority faculty has almost doubled since 1999, but of the current 17 percent of minority faculty 11 percent are Asian, meaning that the proportions of African American and Latino/a faculty are very small indeed.

Reliable career track information on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender faculty is impossible to come by, but my sense is that the tenure and promotion process isn’t especially kind to this group either. Expressly queer faculty—politically irascible, non-heteronormative and even non-homonormative academics—are likely to have an especially hard time.

I’m using Penn’s figures as an example, but Penn isn’t especially bad—or good—compared with its peers. I also know that some people are leaving academic careers for good, self-chosen, life-affirming reasons. But it’s worrisome that these departures are differentially distributed across gender, race, and probably sexuality. The pipeline isn’t leaking, it’s pouring.

At a recent Gender Studies conference here at Penn the leaky pipeline was addressed as a family issue: the tenure clock is hostile to women who want to have children. Indeed, nationally, women with children are half as likely to get tenure as women without. But this is only part of the problem. If it were only a fertility issue, minority men would be doing just fine.

The tenure and promotion process isn’t only inhuman for women who want and have children, it’s inhuman for everyone. Jerry Jacobs, a sociologist here at Penn, found in 2004 that both women and men faculty work more than 50hrs per week irrespective of rank, and about a third of them work more than 60 hours per week. The expectation of increased working hours is only likely to grow. The MLA found in 2006 that not only research universities but all academic institutions have greatly increased their expectations of tenure track faculty to publish articles and books towards their tenure cases without reducing their teaching hours.

While expectations of productivity have increased, so too has the shift to employing more part-time faculty: in the US only a third of faculty are now full-time tenured or tenure track, down from 55 percent in 1970. This puts increasing pressure on those full timers to do additional service work. Work that more often falls to women, and work that gets little credit in terms of promotions and merit pay. As we are increasingly asked to account for our productivity, I wonder how much of the intellectual and pastoral labor more often done by female and minority faculty are recognized as productive?

These increased pressures are on everybody, but they are experienced unequally by women and minority faculty because of how resources are differently distributed:

Pay: In the US women faculty earn 85 cents to every male dollar, this rate goes down at the higher ranks. [Couldn’t find comparable figs for minority faculty.]

Time: Women faculty are much more likely to be partnered with another full-time worker and are more likely to be partnered with another academic—i.e. someone also working long hours. In heterosexual couples, women are much more likely to carry more responsibilities for childcare and domestic duties.

Emotional resources: Women and minority faculty are less likely to feel confident about their performance. Educational research suggests that girls consistently rank their sense of their own abilities much lower than do men, even though they perform better in assessments. Students of color constantly have to work against teachers’ expectations of low achievement.

Recognition: Who has a voice in the university and what are they allowed to say? Mark Anthony Neal has mentioned the chastisement of faculty who dare to “think while Black.” Tenure and promotion discourage speaking while Black, female, and gay.

The demands on all academics escalate, but different groups have varying access to resources that make those demands bearable. This is not only an issue of pressures on junior faculty to produce for their tenure file. Even those at the top of the ladder continue to work extraordinarily hard.

Senior faculty and administrators need to recognize that few of their group would have met the standards currently set for tenure and promotion. They need to publicly scale back on expectations of quantity and focus more on quality. This is not only for the wellbeing of their junior colleagues, it is also likely to foster more careful, intellectually rigorous research. They also need to think imaginatively about different kinds of productivity than written scholarship in a changing multimedia world where monograph contracts are harder to score.

But we also need to consider our own complicity. In my research I read a lot of scholarly concern about how reality television shows cultivate the ideal self-governing neoliberal citizen—someone who is adaptable, mobile, always a bit anxious, self-monitoring, and willing to work harder not only to get ahead but to stay in place. While we communication scholars worry about the effects of reality TV on its audiences, we need to look for the beam in our own eye: academics are the most obligingly self-governing citizens of all. We can work whenever we want as long as we work all the time.

Like many universities, corporations, and governments, Penn has adopted a strategy of “Sustainability.” I agree that huge communities like universities have a responsibility to environmental issues. But sustainability can’t only be a matter for nations and institutions, we also have to think about sustainability at a human level. The demand for constant growth means that we extract more and more energy from a limited resource. How do the developing nations in the university world—women, men of color, and part-timers—unequally bear the brunt of overtaxed resources? And looking forward, what kind of labor legacy are we leaving for the generation of scholars we are nurturing into the profession?

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. But I don’t want to do only my job. We need to model livable lives for our students. We need to do more than just work, and not only if we want a family. We need to consider the law of diminishing returns and the possibility that creativity comes from working less. We need to make space for political and community engagements that feed our intellectual work in other ways. We need to think about why universities matter not only for the world but for the people working within them.

Katherine Sender is the associate dean for graduate studies and an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Business, not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market and the forthcoming Makeover Television and its Audiences.

Monday, January 4, 2010

An Academic Recap of 2009

Given the media's current fixation on one golfer's rampant infidelities, it is hard to remember that anything else happened in 2009, especially before that failed suicide attack on a Detriot-bound airplane Christmas morning took over the headlines this holiday season.

Of course, much did happen last year, and most of the mass mediated, end-of-year lists captured the big stories, including those angry town hall meetings, the concomitant dulling of a "post-racial" president's post-election luster, our ongoing economic crisis, the passing of a Kennedy, America's war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, protests in Iranian streets, the King of Pop's unexpected death, and the panic about H1N1.

But academia also had its own big stories this year. Here's my top ten list (in no particular order):

1. Protests against cuts in the University of California system. New Yorker magazine just published a fascinating glimpse into Berkeley's branch of that movement, which has students, staff, faculty, and administrators waging a war over the future of public education in that state (with implications for the rest of us). There are even controversial proposals (published in places like the Washington Post) that pivot on a decoupling of Berkeley from the other UC campuses, of saving top-tier public universities across the country through selective privatization. For now, there are strikes (and threats of more strikes) on Berkeley's campus, and faculty must decide whether or not to cross those picket lines and teach their classes.

2. That bizarre and surreal "story" about an African-American professor at Columbia who allegedly got so upset about a white colleague's indifference/insensitivity to contemporary racism that he punched her in the face at a pub near campus. The story went viral in a day (back in early November) and disappeared just as fast. I can only hope (against hope) that that only means it was all some kind of sick joke/hoax. Indeed, if it wasn't, the dropped coverage on this confounding tale is troubling in and of itself.

3. The long wait for the National Research Council's national ranking of doctoral programs. They released a detailed guide to their methodology this past Fall, but not the actual rankings. This non-story is clearly a big story in its own right. And I'm sure that the plot will only thicken in 2010.

4. Lincoln University's attempt to impose a body-mass index requirement on its graduating seniors. The initiative was met with cheers from some (for addressing rampant obesity) and jeers from others (who labelled it a form of discrimination). The 'nays' won, and Lincoln rescinded the requirement.

5. The stimulis money that funneled into university-based research projects as part of the government's economic recovery package. I know quite a few colleagues (in several different fields) who were able to take advantage of this initiative, stimulating their own research projects, even and especially those that had already run out of funding.

6. Media stories about how the economic downturn potentially made a bad situation worse at Harvard University. Vanity Fair's expose on the matter is still one of the most startling, attempting to blame at least some of Harvard's current financial predicament on its previous investment strategies and the people who made them.

7. University responses to H1N1. Duke University took a particularly pro-active approach to thwarting the threat. We may not be out of the woods yet, but this summer's media coverage now seems somewhat overblown.

8. Ongoing stories about how universities across the nation are tightening their belts to weather the economic downturn. I first heard about massive budget cuts at the University of Washington in Seattle. Other institutions have followed suit. What university initiatives get put off and de-prioritized when annual budgets are slashed by 15% or more?

9. That controversial New York Times op-ed in early April (from Columbia University Professor Mark Taylor) pleading for us to "end academia as we know it." The piece began by describing graduate education as "the Detriot of higher education," a provocative opening salvo. There were many academics who quite publicly disagreed with Taylor's remedies, including his call to end tenure.

10. An anemic academic job market. Newly minted PhDs continue to lament the slim pickings. 2009 was probably a little bit better than 2008 (at least in some fields), but there are even bigger questions to debate about academia's increasing reliance on adjunct labor and its implications for the future of doctoral education.