With “Why I Feel Bad For the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike,” Atlantic magazine senior editor Alexis Madrigal provides a useful discussion of the criminalization of protest and related militarization of police response. Madrigal is quite right that we’re missing the point if we pretend that Pike is an “independent bad actor” and “vilify” him as an individual without analyzing the flawed system of protest policing in which Pike operates. However, Madrigal makes a serious blunder in framing the piece.
Madrigal’s intention for the frame was to offer a provocative meditation on the way that the management of disorder dehumanizes police officers as well as the police–the sort of thing any reasonably well-read grad student should be able to churn out (cf Foucault, Fanon, etc):
I am sure that he is a man like me, and he didn’t become a cop to shoot history majors with pepper spray. But the current policing paradigm requires that students get shot in the eyes with a chemical weapon if they resist, however peaceably. Someone has to do it.
And while the kids may cough up blood and writhe in pain, what happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.
We get the point, as far it goes: Most victims of police brutality recover, but the policeman remains a brute. The ruling class doesn’t do its own dirty work; it pays the weakest of us very well to be its police (and university administrators, corporate lawyers, etc).
The last line of Madrigal’s piece is a direct homage to James Baldwin (who wrote those words about the moral ugliness of Alabama troopers using cattle prods on civil rights marchers). Channeling the novelist, Madrigal positions Pike in an educated liberal’s cartoon of the working class, a child-like Christ-figure and fool, a lumbering innocent “man like me” (except nowhere near as clever), dumbly shouldering the sins of his masters.
There are several problems with this glib, recycled framing observation. It neatly targets the magazine’s readership–the morally-conflicted members of the professional-managerial class and educators (inhabiting the upper and lower half of the top income quintile, respectively), which is to say, “us.”
It makes us feel feel better about our own complicities: I serve the system in some ways too but I’d never do what that guy does!
It produces smug condescension. We have a few moral scars ourselves, but overall we feel glad that we’re not morally deformed on Pike’s scale. We feel wise to have exchanged a degree of possible monetary rewards for affective compensation instead. The framing material is one step away from the consumable irony of the Colbert Report, which has a vast, enthusiastic viewership among those whose ideology it purportedly skewers. Like Colbert’s material, Madrigal’s frame makes it pretty easy to consume the piece in ways all too close to the one he claims to critique.
In short, Madrigal misses the point about the banality of Lt. John Pike. Hannah Arendt’s study of Eichmann (and scores of social psychologists and clinical researchers) have helped us to understand that everyday brutality (the “banality of evil”) is furthered by ordinary, unimaginative careerists obeying both orders and law out of a strong sense of duty. All Eichmanns are little Eichmanns; there’s no master villain to blame. Eichmann is responsible for his own sins and those sins are precisely his ordinariness, his obedience, and conventionality. Eichmann isn’t innocent in the system; he’s complicit.
We are Eichmann. Arendt wasn’t trying to get us to “feel bad for” Eichmann, but to see his evil in our ordinary selves, recoil, and change. The discovery that Lt. John Pike is a nice fellow to watch the game with and a good scratcher of puppy ears isn’t meant to lift his moral responsibility–or ours. His and our failure to refuse the system is the system.
Madrigal’s note erases personal, moral agency on both margins of his caricature. The lieutenant–and a few tens of million like him–have not resisted the inner Eichmann. They have chosen obedience and the warm praise of their masters, and the material rewards of their complicity.
By contrast the objects of Pike and his masters’ brutality have chosen the brave, difficult, path of refusal.
But by brave and difficult, I don’t mean exceptional. At most of the forks in our road, most of us choose the brave and difficult path. Every day, hundreds of millions of us refuse invitations to be Eichmann. We refuse to be exploiters and thugs, or their attorneys and lower managers. That’s why democracy works better than hierarchy, and that, among imperfect social organizations, more democratic generally works better than less democratic.
Of course, many of us having made many better choices than Pike doesn’t make us perfect. Far from it. We have accepted a whole lot of Eichmann in our own lives. We could choose a lot more democracy than at present–particularly in our workplaces and schools.
The lesson of Lt. Pike is not that he’s the victim of a lousy policy (“just the end point” of a system of which he “is a casualty too,”as Madrigal says). The lesson is that even within a flawed system he could and should have chosen better. So can we all.
So no, you don’t pretend that the legion of Eichmanns are master villains. But you don’t make excuses for them, either. You try them for their crimes–and you hunt down the little Eichmann in your own soul.
Update Sunday 7pm: Pike and one other UC-D officer have been suspended, and UC system president Yudof will conduct an immediate review of police protocols on the individual campuses.
If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and watch this incredible footage of a shocked and chagrined UC-Davis chancellor walking through a long, seated double file of silently reproachful students.
Also this interview with one of Pike’s victims in BoingBoing: “I received a lot of pepper spray in my throat. I vomited twice, right away, then spent the next hour or two dry heaving. Someone said they saw him spray down my throat intentionally. Another girl near me who has asthma had an attack triggered by the pepper spray, and she was taken to the hospital.”
By now, you’ve seen the video of UC-Davis police lieutenant John Pike pepper-spraying a peaceful sit-in. You’ve seen his strutting little-man-in-a-big-body sadism, giving his beefy little canister a nonchalant waggle before strolling down the line of nonviolent protesters, aiming the toxic stream into their faces from a few feet away. You might even have signed the petition urging the resignation of the thugs who authorized this performance. Now, courtesy of the always trenchant Vijay Prashad, you can learn what California taxpayers pay for this level of police professionalism: $110,000 a year. Yep. You heard me. Nearly twice what they pay a new assistant professor in the humanities, and three times what they pay many full-time nontenurable lecturers.
Since the Chronicle is a family paper, I’m biting my tongue so hard it’s bleeding but, honestly, only profanity really does this justice.
Look, people. I’ve been observing for years that RETIREMENT PAY for cops and military officers is commonly higher than the SALARIES paid to tenured liberal arts faculty:
I once shocked a colleague by responding to one of those newspaper stories about a prof “caught” mowing his lawn on a Wednesday afternoon by saying that many tenured faculty were morally entitled to think of their salaries after tenure as something similar to a pension. After all, in some fields, many folks will not receive tenure until they’ve been working for low wages for twenty years or more: a dozen years to get the degree, another three to four years serving contingently—and then, finally, a “probationary” appointment lasting seven years at wages commonly lower than those of a similarly-experienced bartender.
In the humanities, the journey to tenure is often a quarter of a century and rarely less than fifteen years: if you didn’t go to a top-five or top-ten graduate school in your field, you probably taught several classes a year as a graduate student, usually while researching, publishing, and doing substantial service to the profession—writing book reviews, supervising other faculty and students, serving on committees, etc. Call it, charitably, a mean of twenty years in some fields. Averaging the probationary years, contingent/post-doc years, and graduate student years together, you get an average annual take in contemporary dollars of $25,000 or less. The low wage is only the beginning of the story. There’s the structural racism of the wealth gap, to which I’ll return, and the heartbreak and structural sexism for families trying to negotiate childrearing during that brutal two decades. In most fields, most of those who begin doctoral study with the intention of an academic career fall away long before grasping the brass ring.
From We Work, appearing in Heather Steffen & Jeffrey J. Williams, Something to Declare: A Collection of Critical Credos, Columbia University Press, forthcoming.
November 9, 2011 may prove to have been another turning point in the relationships between the occupation movement and university campuses.
Students have played a leading role in the occupations at Wall Street and around the US, not to mention the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the Spanish indignado movement, plus the ongoing student struggles against austerity in the UK and Italy. In fact, the ‘occupy everything’ meme first gained purchase on this side of the Atlantic via building occupations at the New School and NYU in New York and across the UC and Cal State systems in 2008 and 2009.
However, Wednesday’s U.S. student actions are on a grander scale than earlier events. They may represent the first major sustained campus occupations in the post-Tahrir, Occupy Wall Street era.
California is Burning Again Some 3000-4000 occupiers were assembled at U.C. Berkeley’s storied Sproul Plaza when police began beating nonviolent protesters. The assault sent one English PhD student to the hospital.
Police detained 39 people, including a junior professor in the English department. Upon release, the professor reported that police told her the university chancellor had told university police to keep arrestees’ personal property – including her lecture notes – from them for 5 days.
The dichotomy between the degree of force in the police response to a nonviolent crowd of student occupiers at Berkeley and the complete lack of arrests during Wednesday night’s pro-Paterno riots at Penn State have already provoked some thoughtful commentary.
Tents up at Harvard
Though far smaller than the crowd at Berkeley, the successful occupation of Harvard Yard by a large group of students is also significant.
Harvard Yard is usually open to the public. Since the 9th, it has been closed to all but those with Harvard IDs. Even these have only been granted sporadic access, according to the vagaries of the counterinsurgency strategies of the university and the police.
A crowd of over three hundred took to the streets of Cambridge Wednesday night. The group comprised students, campus food service and custodial workers, and supporters for the Boston occupation in Dewey Square. Reaching consensus at a large impromptu general assembly (GA), they marched to the yard and circled it, trying to get through the gates.
Stymied, they held another GA, spilling into the busy thoroughfare of Massachusetts Avenue.
A small but rowdy group of hostile Harvard undergraduates stole a bullhorn from occupiers. From an elevated position and behind the ironwork fencing the campus, they tried to disrupt the GA process, hurling invectives and at least one projectile at those below.
Ultimately, a strategic decision was made by the GA to split into camps of those with and without Harvard IDs. The former camp were able to gain access to the yard and set up around 20 tents near a statue of university founder John Harvard. Those with no institutional relationship to Harvard continued to march until tents were up.
Both the actions at Berkeley and those in Cambridge come six years to the day after the beginning of the longest job action in the history of the academic labor movement in the US, the 2005-2006 strike by NYU teaching and research assistants.
Like the grad unionists, campus occupiere interrogate universities in a number of ways.
The statement released by Harvard occupiers raises concerns with professors’ conflicts of interest similar to the way the film Inside Job exposes the complicity of business school professors in the financial crisis of 2008. It connects the history of living wage campaigns on campus to the increasingly central question of debt as a universalized aspect of class formation within particular fractions of the middle and working classes.
Universities are never static or passive spaces under siege from outside capitalist aggressors but instead are themselves persistent sites of exploitation and super-exploitation, as Marc Bousquet has documented. Increasingly university labor turmoil is visible as part and parcel of what even mainstream liberal journalists are at last calling #classwar.
The Harvard Occupiers have foregrounded both the predicaments of campus service workers (members, mostly, of Unite HERE Local 26 and SEIU Local 615) and the impact Harvard’s investments have on workers beyond the university’s walls.
The Harvard occupiers’ commitment to these issues was in evidence Wednesday night in a manner that artfully linked both together by a former member of the Hyatt housekeeping staff. Together with all of her co-workers, she had been summarily fired in late 2009 and replaced with subcontracted workers making far less.
Now an organizer with the Boston hotel workers’ union, the fired staffer spoke in Spanish about a union-busting hotel investment corporation in which Harvard and many other universities have parked some of their endowment. (Harvard’s portfolio reached 32 billion dollars earlier this year, almost fully recovered from the significant losses it sustained during the financial crisis.)
Campus workers testify to the multiplicity of ways in which universities are implicated in the racialized and gendered political economy of service labor. Nothing symbolized this on Wednesday night more profoundly than when, early in the evening, the Harvard students and their service worker allies were fenced off from each other by the iron gates that surround the yard.
The movement overcame the fence, however. As janitors and cafeteria workers poured into the streets, chanting in Spanish, the whole mass of occupiers joined them, including the students. Occupy Harvard prioritizes service labor in the creation of a “university for the 99%”. The students recognize that recognizing the exploitation and marginalization of service work and workers is central to a broader liberatory project. By contrast, their opponents, the small group of vocal (sometimes violent) anti-occupation students, with their sense of privilege and entitlement, invite comparison to the pro-Paterno rioters at Penn State.
Cal students have called for a general strike on Tuesday, the 15th.
In New York, a formidable all-student assembly has arisen thanks in part to veterans of the GSOC campaign at NYU as well as the histories of student organizing and rebellion at CUNY campuses and the New School. They too will strike on Thursday, the 17th.
The pace of activity seems to be accelerating, and indeed, sitting in the GA by Harvard’s law school on Wednesday night I could not help but be struck by how much more radical the atmosphere seemed than at the height of the global justice movement a decade ago. For the first time I believe there is potential for real change, or something even greater that the clichéd term ‘real change’ is entirely insufficient to describe.
Zach Schwartz-Weinstein’s dissertation looks at service work and service workers at U.S. universities from the mid-20th century to the present. His broader interests include affective, immaterial, service, and emotional labor, cognitive capitalism, flexible accumulation and neoliberalism, knowledge production, migration, labor and working class history, and 20th-century U.S. cultural history. He organizes with GSOC-UAW, the union for graduate teaching and research assistants at NYU.
The day’s breaking occupation news is the New York City General Assembly’s statement, together with mass events developing in 66 cities over the next few days. How cool is it that the statement is bigger news than rumors of Radiohead joining them for an impromptu concert? Heck, it’s pushed the Amazon tablet and the Prez’s policy failures out of the headlines. Which reminds me to send the day’s Obama-gram:
Hello, Mr. President? Meet me at camera 2. History just sent you a Hail Mary pass. Hint: FDR was a failure too, until he grabbed the chance history gave him. This would be the chance to fire Arne Duncan, stop wanking around with LinkedIn, and spend a few trillion on the people, like you promised.
Want to help? First and best–show up at an event near you. Ninety-five percent of the population is within an hour of an occupation event in the next seven days. Bring the kids. Second best, all of the occupations need money, food, and warm clothes. A campaign to raise $12,000 to start a digital occupation media outlet (the Occupy Wall Street Journal) oversubscribed overnight–with 8 days to go, they already have 150% of their target, or $18,000–but they need money everywhere else.
On Saturday afternoon, using the illegal crowd-control tactic called kettling, police riot squads swept the sidewalks near Union Square with orange construction nets. In the same way that ocean trawlers capture indiscriminately, officers penned hundreds of peacefully marching Occupy Wall Street protesters together with bystanders, pedestrians, reporters, and neighborhood residents. Witnesses called police targeting of detainees “random.” Freelance photographers snapped this photo of a handcuffed PBS correspondent clearly displaying press credentials on a lanyard around his neck. At least eighty of those detained were eventually arrested. Large crowds joined the protesters Sunday as reports of the arrests circulated.
Detained Women Assaulted and Maced Citizen photographers captured graphic images of unprovoked police violence, including this disturbing 40-second clip of a police supervisor walking up to five captive women snapping photos and screaming “Oh my God,” pepper-spraying them in the eyes, and then darting away. The apparent justification? It seems the officer didn’t like them voicing their horror while the squad under his supervision tackled, beat, and dragged a pedestrian attempting to escape the net. One nonresisting woman, seated on the pavement, was yanked to her feet by the hair. Another woman was arrested for photographing the violence.
“I saw them take a woman by the neck and throw her to the concrete,” one witness told the ABC local affiliate, which broadcast graphic images of bloodied protesters shot with a smuggled cell phone inside a police van. “We are at One Police Plaza,” the detainee told ABC. “There’s sixteen of us in the back of a van and we’re sweating. There’s a man back here who needs medical attention. He’s bleeding from his head.”
Indiscriminate Detention; Arrests Without Charge Many detainees were simply on their way from the nearby farmer’s market or the Strand bookstore–or en route to one of the five subway lines intersecting in the area.
Eventually at least eighty of the kettled pedestrians–apparently those who really “looked like” protesters?–were held in sweltering police vans on into the evening. Others were charged with “obstructing government administration” for chanting “let them go.” Reports suggest most were kept for at least four hours without food, water, sanitation, ventilation, or medical treatment.
These events follow Friday’s hilariously inaccurate and biased reports by The New York Times. (Which as most readers know, I’ve found, ahem, unreliable on issues affecting young people other than Yale undergraduates).
For my money, in addition to the Guardian, you’ll find some of the very best reporting and analysis by freelancer Nathan Schneider of Waging Nonviolence. Also see decent television coverage by, naturally, Olbermann and Moore.
“Protest season began with a bang at UC Berkeley as hundreds of chanting, fist-pumping students angry about tuition hikes charged into Tolman Hall during a raucous protest and building occupation Thursday, ” reports Nanette Asimov for the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Wall Street occupiers end their first week with a vow to remain over the long term, disrupted an art auction in support of locked-out Sotheby’s workers, and were featured in a Stephen Colbert segment Thursday night. Stanley Aronowitz will speak to the protesters Friday at 5pm (EST). Previous speakers have included Michael Moore and Roseanne Barr.
Book Bloc March Sparks Occupation Last night’s occupation developed spontaneously out of a march led by the Book Bloc, pictured above, protesting draconian cuts and tuition hikes while “corporations and the wealthiest individuals — including many UC Regents — continue to rake in increasing bonuses and profits, partly by speculating on our indebtedness.”
After at least two altercations with police involving injuries and arrests, protesters dispersed about 10 pm Thursday, but promised to regroup Friday afternoon.
Apparently, police across California public campuses are gearing up for an intensified year of more determined student occupations, staging SWAT-style anti-occupation drills at UC-Irvine. Be sure to keep reading until you get to the police imitation of the protesters (“We want free stuff!”).
Chanting “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” the protesters occupying Wall Street are digging in for a fifth day and circulating graphic images and video of escalating police violence and harassment.
There are several reports of hospitalizations due to brutal arrest tactics, such as this one showing a protestor tossed headfirst to the pavement from atop a pile of equipment. Police were using the pretext of protesters’ having covered their media gear with a tarp to claim they’d illegally erected a tent on city sidewalks.
Never mind that it wasn’t a tent, wasn’t on a sidewalk, and that every media professional in New York covers their gear when it rains without the police uttering a word, much less arresting them.
Other images clearly show the police causing injury by dragging protesters through the street, using intentionally painful holds, grinding faces into the sidewalk, etc. Apparently the media team for the Anonymous hackers organization were targeted for this special treatment.
For at least 48 hours, Yahoo blocked communications involving the occupation, and police are barricading streets & blocking shipments of water and food to the protesters.
The NYC chapter of CodePink has joined the protest, and promptly got arrested for “defacing” the NYC sidewalks with chalk.
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, which has covered the story from the beginning, just published an op-ed, Why the Wall Street Occupation Makes Sense. She makes the right point about the mainstream media blackout: “If 2,000 Tea Party activists descended on Wall Street, you would probably have an equal number of reporters there covering them.”
Zuccotti Park in the Lower Manhattan financial district has been occupied by a politically diverse group for the last three days, with participation of up to several thousand at a time. Protesters have renamed the space “Liberty Park,” to brand it as an American counterpoint to Cairo’s Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square, and it has played host to general assemblies of thousands of people, hundreds of whom have slept in the park for the last two nights.
They hope to begin a sustained occupation to, in the words of two of the authors of the original call to action, “escalate the possibility of a full-fledged global uprising against business as usual.”
Taking cues not only from the so-called Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, and Syria, but also the Spanish indignados, and anti-cuts protestors in the UK, Greece, France, and Italy, as many as 5,000 protestors converged on Wall Street this past Saturday. A march Monday morning resulted in seven arrests.
That many of these protesters are or have been students should surprise few. Yet rather than dismiss their actions as youthful idealism, it’s important to understand the role students have played in the struggle against contemporary austerity politics.
Though the language of austerity measures is often promissory, gesturing towards an alternatingly apocalyptic future (which we must sacrifice now to avoid) or a bucolic future (which awaits us after austerity ‘rights the ship,’) many cuts have targeted youth, mortgaging that future or rendering it altogether absent.
The news last year that student debt has surpassed credit card debt as the largest source of consumer debt in the United States is a function of rising costs of attending higher education, cuts to state and federal financial aid, and the growth of for-profit private industry around the student loan bubble.
This summer’s debt-ceiling compromise included an end to subsidized loans for graduate students, and in a year, it will mean that graduate and professional students will have to pay back their undergraduate student loans while in grad school, a difficult proposition for many.
This occupation is not the first on U.S. soil in recent years, and it is unlikely to be the last.
Whether and how it can attract the levels of support and involvement that similar occupations have elsewhere is an open question, but even NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg sees in the present crisis the possibility of escalating student rebellions.
Zach Schwartz-Weinstein’s dissertation looks at service work and service workers at U.S. universities from the mid-twentieth century to the present. His broader interests include affective, immaterial, service, and emotional labor, cognitive capitalism, flexible accumulation and neoliberalism, knowledge production, migration, labor and working class history, and 20th century U.S. cultural history. He organizes with GSOC-UAW, the union for graduate teaching and research assistants at NYU.
On Saturday September 17th, movement organizers hope to funnel 20,000 protestors into Manhattan’s financial district, set up kitchens and tents, and occupy Wall Street for the next several months. Proclaiming we are the 99 percent, many of the 7,500 persons who have indicated an intention to participate are the highly educatedworking poor, under-employed with graduate degrees, or even fully-employed but unable to meet their education bills like this woman (see her blog and relatedstories),who writes, “I have a masters degree & a full-time job in my field—and I have started selling my body to pay off my debt.”After a Sept 1 test run resulted in nine arrests, Adbusters and Alexa O’Brien of US Day of Rage expect a vigorous police response, including intelligence gathering via the same social media tools that the organizers are employing, undercover participation in the event, provocation, and civil rights violations.
So I’m supposed to be finishing my entry, “Labor,” for the second edition of Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler’s widely adopted Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Yay, I’m in the volume, but also totally depressing.
I mean, it’s a class war out there and labor’s lost every battle since I started shaving. And by “labor,” I don’t mean some cartoon of a hard hat, broom pushing, or stoop labor. I mean the folks reading this column. Pretty much everybody, actually: If you work in order to live, or scrub the toilet/feed the appetites of a wage worker, you’re labor.
Then today I find out that Wilma Liebman, one of the few people in the academy or anywhere, to give a hoot about academic labor, is ending her long service to the National Labor Relations Board because an army of trolls in wingtips has been coming after her, as she puts it, “with a baseball bat.” One way to go with this is to dump some more on Obama, who always backs up the ballplaying buddy that represents his worst appointment, but consistently left dangling the principled, thoughtful woman that was by far his best.
Of course it isn’t just the president; it’s us, as the always-scathing Bill Maher points out in his brilliant assault on the magical thinking represented by our love affair with “reality” television shows in which “one of our richest 1% drops in on the wage slaves for a week and finds out that living on $185 a week in America really blows, and so then they anecdotally solve the wealth gap problem by showering everyone with cash.”
Sad, but true: It takes a comedian to tell the gut-wrenching truth about the dominance of the top 1% since Reagan’s inauguration:
Say 100 Americans get together and order a 100 slice pizza, the pizza arrives, they open the box, and the first guy takes 80 slices. And if someone suggests “Why don’t you just take 79 slices?” [He says] THAT’S SOCIALISM!
It’s just a “stupid idea,” Maher says, to believe that the rich would “share with us if only they got to walk a mile in our cheap plastic shoes.” Instead, he says, we’ve got to wrench the baseball bats out of their hands and use it on them:
We have this fantasy that our interests and the interests of the super rich are the same, like somehow the rich will eventually get so full that they’ll explode, and the candy will rain down on the rest of us, like they’re some sort of pinata of benevolence. But here’s the thing about a pinata, it doesn’t open on it’s own, you have to beat it with a stick.
Liebman and the apostles of greed who have driven her into retirement understand correctly that the National Labor Relations Act is one such stick. She said that her role as chair of the NLRB was to “further the policy of this statute, which is to further the practice of collective bargaining, obviously collective bargaining freely chosen.”
There’s convincing analysis that unionization substantially reduces inequality. And the many evils of skyrocketing inequality are addressed by Slate’s Timothy Noah and Michael Moore (includes a critical assessment that mostly supports him) and many others. Joseph Stiglitz points out that the quality of life and self-interest of the rich is harmed by the savage inequalities we see today. Even billionaires like Warren Buffett admit it’s time to stop coddling the super-rich.
“If you increase workers’ purchasing power, that can create a stronger, more sustainable economy,” Liebman told The New York Times. “Some say collective bargaining is antithetical to the economy. I don’t buy that at all. This was a statute that worked. It created the middle class. It created good jobs.”
Goodbye, Wilma. Most of us have no idea what it costs to stand up for workplace dignity in this brave new banana republic. Thanks for paying that price with dignity, passion, and intelligence.
Do yourself a favor and give five minutes of any of your 250 or so labor days this year to El Empleo (“Employment”), an extraordinary award-winning 2008 animation by Argentine illustrators Santiago Grasso and Patricio Gabriel Plaza.
You won’t need any help interpreting the film’s conceit, which makes visible the complex web of relationships in capitalist production: of workers to consumers, employers, and each other; between wage workers and those who transport, educate, and feed them, etc.
Enjoying that computer? A young Chinese woman poisoned herself and her future children while assembling it. Proud of your college degree? A male administrator got rich while degrading nontenurable women faculty to produce it, and a whole bunch of other folks who didn’t have your advantages have been labeled “failures” to legitimate your success.
The real scandal of Hershey’s exploitation of hundreds of international student workers is that it isn’t actually news.
Kudos to the students, who revolted en masse after paying a labor contractor $3,000 to $6,000 apiece to get $8.25/hour summer warehouse jobs in sweltering central Pennsylvania, and also to the U.S. labor associations to whom they appealed, Jobs With Justice and the National Guestworkers Alliance. Clearly, positive consumer associations with the Hershey brand helped students and their allies to package the sleazy arrangement as newsworthy (“It’s no Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” etc etc), but the only real news in the story is that this particular group of hyper-exploited students organized themselves. Which is great. However, since they’re guest workers and the slow-news, this chocolate-ain’t-sweet angle will grow stale in days, they’ll be out of the headlines long before the State Department deports them and slaps the wrist of the contractor who provided them.
Then we can all go back to pretending that this isn’t the norm for millions of “guest workers” and college students in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong: the Hershey’s arrangement stinks to high heaven, but it’s not the glaring exception to the way the U.S. treats its 50 million working poor of any description, guest workers and college students alike; it’s pretty much the rule.
Nor for that matter is it the biggest scandal in chocolate production. Far from it: Hershey’s and other major manufacturers are routinely complicit in sourcing cocoa from plantations that employ very young children, including victims of human trafficking. In fact, Hershey is currently the particular target of the International Labor Rights Forum campaign for fair trade in cocoa.
How “normal” is the Hershey deal? It seems to fall within the pretty shabby standard range for international students on J-1 visas (just one of the many visas through which the U.S. provides cheap guest workers to American employers). There are many global labor contractors vying to supply guest workers to U.S. employers on the various visas. In almost all cases, the often enormous fees paid to the contractor are borne entirely by the worker, not the employer—meaning they “pay to work” in violation of U.S. labor law (but that’s like pointing out that fighting is explicitly forbidden by the National Hockey League).
The J-1 covers several kinds of permission to work, including nanny labor, but the global “summer work and travel program,” run by the U.S. State Department under the cloying rhetoric of education and international friendship, is limited to persons who are enrolled in college in their home country. As with other forms of student labor, exploitative educational work experience, training/internship programs and the like, the J-1 has expanded explosively in the last decade, rising from around 20,000 in the mid-nineties to over 150,000 in recent years.
Even the “summer” part is misleading, since that means “summer” in the home country; the program actually supplies a year-round revolving pool of self-financing cheap workers to American employers. Employers actually receive tax breaks, though usually the real advantage is the highly compliant workforce—the Hershey revolt is, essentially, unheard of in a worker population that can be deported for complaining.
Most dishonest, however, is the rhetoric of “cultural exchange” and “education” associated with the program, which provide innocuous-sounding cover for the profiteering of skeevy labor contractors. Traditionally, the program appeals to American employers with dirty or unpleasant work with already-high employee turnover (Alaskan fish processing, housekeeping, dishwashing, laundry, table bussing, fast-food service, groundskeeping, warehouse and other general labor). Placing international students in these positions with a fixed employment term helps keep wages low; most of the students who have this “cultural exchange” end up feeling disillusioned. The reality of the experience is that there is no culture or education at all; the contractors acquire cheap workers and dump them in shabby housing near their employers (often collecting a second profit on extortionate rent), and that’s it. The “nonprofit” contractor in this case is tied to an international education and travel management group that has a web of revenue-producing education, exchange, and travel schemes, some specializing in English education for the hospitality industry.
Guest workers are vulnerable to bullying, extortion, human trafficking and wage theft. A 2010 Associated Press investigation made headlines with stories of international college students on J-1 visas forced to work in strip clubs and live 30 students to a 3-bedroom house. Interviewing 70 students from 16 countries, the report found most were disappointed and many were angry. A handful were angry at gangsterism, like the mobsters who pushed some women into stripping, or at Dickensian vileness, like the gift-shop owner who charged his employees room and board, but made them eat on the floor in his home.
Most of the students interviewed by AP, however, were not angry at these exceptional instances of maltreatment, but at the low wages, unpaid overtime, and the lack of leisure, educational and cultural opportunities for the working poor in the United States. Just like the single parents that they toiled alongside (such as those chronicled by Barbara Ehrenreich), they were enraged that they were forced into eating at soup kitchens or accepting charity while they were employed in the richest nation in the world.
In other words: the students who come on J-1 visas do get a cultural exchange, and an education, just not what they expected. They learned what it is like to be an American in the bottom quartile, or among the majority of American college students who can’t persist to a degree through the maze of debt, overwork, and underpayment that we bizarrely consider the “normal” lot of a student.
As I’ve written before, U.S. high schools and colleges are often deeply complicit in these sorts of arrangements, profiting directly from low-wage student labor and serving as a labor contractor, both directly and indirectly, to local employers. Usually with nary a detractor. Indeed, coverage of any labor arrangement with the word “education” attached to it, by any old excuse whatever, typically amounts to craven cheerleading.
Think I’m exaggerating? Read my 2008 account of the dropout-factory partnership between UPS, the University of Louisville, and the Teamsters that has put tens of thousands of Kentucky students in circumstances similar to the Hershey deal. Then use a search engine and see if you can find a single press report that is less than glowing about that sleazy deal. There are similar scams operated by shipping companies and campuses in every cargo hub in the country—has there been any improvement in even one?
Hey, Hershey’s workers: I’m sorry you got an education in the real America of working poverty. I hope you get a refund.
But beyond the propaganda and your individual struggle, what’s the lesson in this story?
It’s simple, really. First, we should stop treating students, international or domestic, like the working poor. Rather than exploit college students as cheap labor, an intelligent plan for the economy would, a la the G.I. Bill, pay students to stay out of the labor market.
When we added humorous chapter books (eg Roscoe Riley) to my three-year-old’s story time, we were appalled to find that one of them featured one of the cruder and, we thought, outmoded Asian stereotypes–the New Kid from the Black Lagoon, it turns out, is not the scary blue-skinned alien from Mars that the other kids imagined, but simply Xu Ping, whose family has flown all the way from Beijing to start–you guessed it, a Chinese restaurant. How reassuring.
When planning her own recent humorous chapter book, Brainstorm colleague Naomi Schaefer Riley (no relation to Roscoe) apparently didn’t get the memo that the “lazy professor” stereotype has been consigned to the cultural dustbin since, roughly, her own graduation from kindergarten. As you might surmise from the title (The Faculty Lounges–har har–And Other Reasons You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For), the book relies on silly, outmoded stereotypes, arguments from anecdote and bluster from the likes of John Silber instead of evidence.
At one time or another in what too often reads like an audition for Fox News higher education attack dog analyst, Riley deals every bromide in the deck, usually from the bottom: while accepting conservative foundation support for her own propaganda, she goes far out of her way to caricature Ford Foundation grants in support of academic freedom as a”gravy train” for left academics (would that it were so!)
Just like the beginning chapter books my son favors, Riley’s book features one cartoon illustration per chapter, usually reprinted from stock cartoon banks. None of them have anything to do with the issues; they just underscore the irrelevance of her stereotypes (“Your wife hasn’t broken the law, professor–she can leave you even if you do have tenure!”) Ha, ha, chuckle, zzzzzz.
That’s too bad, because Riley is bright and analytical, and sometimes grasps real problems with the tenure system, which is more than I can say of many contemporary observers on my own side of the political aisle.
She’s right, for instance, to note that the tenure system as we know it today is deeply flawed:
Supposed to produce courage and security, it breeds cowardice and anxiety, check. Supposed to unite the faculty, it now serves as a marker of apartheid between the academy’s minority “haves” and majority “have-nots,”check.
Supposed to encompass peer accountability for all professional activities it too often rewards those who neglect their students, family, and the profession, check.
Supposedly the pipeline for equality in the professions, the tenure system funnels academic and professional women into subordinate positions, check.
Supposed to guarantee reasonable economic return on education (you know, so that English professors can expect lifetime earnings not too much lower than good legal secretaries), tenure has become a generational lifeboat for greybeards selfishly uninterested in the crisis of young faculty, check.
All of these concerns, which plenty of tenure’s defenders are all too happy to gloss over, add up to an argument against tenure from the labor front.
Contingent-faculty activists like Joe Berry have long observed that tenure is reserved for a shrinking labor aristocracy–the group of persons who do front-line supervision of transient labor, and who provide the talent pool for upper administration. From the perspective of actual, informed unionists like Berry, tenure has frequently served as an engine of inequality.
Nor is it generally the goal of contingent-faculty unionists to win entrance into the stressful, irrational tenure crapshoot which is far from the gold standard of job security that most faculty imagine (ask anyone who’s had a department restructured or eliminated, or had an administrator declare a fake fiscal crisis).
Therefore, many contingent faculty, and left-labor faculty of any appointment type, share Riley’s sense that tenure should be abolished. (Either that, or like me and the AAUP, they feel that a reformed, teaching-centric tenure system should be the norm of faculty experience, as it was in 1972, when the professoriate was largely populated by well-off white men.)
Riley’s at her best and most revealing when she talks about how the tenured (like her father) treat contingent faculty, like her mother. At times the book is honestly reported–Riley admits that tenure isn’t the reason college is expensive–quite the contrary, it saves on salary–and that tenure is a minority experience.
I think if Riley’s analysis had taken the form of a long essay on the extremely important theme of how the tenure system marginalizes women teaching faculty, a topic scandalously under-addressed by liberals and academic feminists alike, it almost could have been one of those occasional offerings from the right that joins with the left in challenging some of the sacred cows of the liberal mainstream. (See chapter 4, “The Academic Underclass,” which appropriately excoriates “the hypocrisy of academics who claim concern for society’s marginalized while ignoring the [gendered and racialized] underclass in their midst.”)
If you subtract the ideological claptrap from Riley’s book, you have a perfectly reasonable call to invest in undergraduate teaching. However, in adding enough vitriol and borrowed observations to make a book, Riley goes awry in two basic ways, the scary and the lame.
Under the heading of scary, I have to point out that every once in a while, Riley’s mask of reasonability slips. In chapter 2, she wonders aloud, a la David Horowitz, Don’t some radical faculty members deserve to be run off campus?
A little later we learn the identities of the radicals to be run off, when she channels the radio talk shows for this sweeping non sequitur: “Whether it’s women’s studies or black studies or queer studies, the entire premise of the discipline often rests on a political agenda…. there [is] a growing sense that projects that are not strictly academic are not deserving of academic protections.”
The scary part is that we and her actual target audience know what she’s saying even though she isn’t saying anything–what is the meaning of the nonsense phrase “the entire premise of the discipline”? This is all too much like Limbaugh, rolling empty longish words off the tongue in order to manufacture a sense of cogitation and portent.
Under the heading of lame, I have to place the one argument she really makes with any vigor, that so much of higher education is “vocational” that there’s no controversy in those fields, hence no need for academic freedom. “These are all fields with fairly definitive answers,” Riley says in total ignorance of the fields she cites–like nutrition, family sciences, security, and sports history. “Faculty members don’t really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing them,” she says, with unearned confidence.
It’s hard to believe that someone with two academic parents made this argument or, having made it, kept it in the manuscript–as its great gotcha! centerpiece, no less. When Gary Rhoades pointed out to Riley that nutrition faculty, just for example, engaged in plenty of controversy, she amateurishly dismisses the point rather than checking to see whether, in fact, there aren’t some fairly intense controversies in the field. Hint: there are, as in every one of the other fields she names.
But what of the obviously roiling controversies in other “vocational” fields, like legal, business, and medical education? Riley has nothing to say.
Riley is similarly cavalier with the evidence regarding faculty and teaching. There are literally thousands of studies evaluating faculty teaching, but instead of addressing any of them, Riley uses a few administrators as quote farms in support of her preconceived thesis and dials up the Limbaugh: “Tenure means they can simply neglect their students!”
At other points the just-published work is already out of date, touting the Garcetti decision, which has been successfully challenged, or Stanley Fish’s positions since recanted.
Frequently it’s just juvenile, as with the cartoons or snarkily describing the academy as a “profession” only in skeptical quotation marks.
Sometimes it’s just inept, as when she relies on John Silber’s “analysis” of tenure to make her case that it isn’t necessary to protect academic freedom–when, notoriously, it was only tenure that protected the late, beloved and irreplaceable Howard Zinn from Silber’s relentless efforts to drive him from the campus.
Much of the rest is cribbed from usual suspects like ACTA and Richard Vedder, or retread David Horowitz–Oh my gosh, the Berkeley writing classes sometimes cover controversial content!
A couple of points under the heading of full disclosure: Riley interviewed me for this book, and I make several appearances in the one chapter I thought worthy of her talents. She treats me as far less of a caricature than she might have, and I wish I had kinder things to say about the project.
Additionally, my spouse and I are, like Riley’s parents, and as many as a third of all faculty, navigating the often-breathtaking challenges of a dual-career academic couple in a system that is particularly cruel to academic women.
I share Riley’s disquiet with academic hypocrisy. On top of still rampant sexism and sex discrimination in academic employment, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the viciousness with which many academic “feminists” with tenure treat some of their “sisters” off-track.
As I read Riley’s book–which I had to buy because her publisher declined to send me a review copy–I thought often of my son, and his sunny disposition. I hope that we can find a way to insulate his good nature and deeply, deeply inquiring mind from the academic shabbiness, hypocrisy and dishonesty that Riley chronicles best from her personal experience.
Nearly three years after his hitch began, Gary Rhoades leaves the AAUP much stronger than he found it. He forged strong relationships between the national elected leadership and the big collective bargaining chapters. He was an especially successful ambassador to AFT and NEA. He made a series of small but important spending reforms. He led several critical organizing drives.
As general secretary, the organization’s top staff position, Rhoades had a darned difficult job during a once-in-a-half-century crisis and organizational re-definition.
On his watch, AAUP’s own staff unionized (with the full support of the elected leadership). Rhoades successfully managed the transition into the period covered by that first contract.
The organization completed a complex three-way partition that clarified the relationships between its three roles as a foundation, professional association, and labor union. Perhaps most critical of all, AAUP replaced a disastrous membership accounting operation that routinely lost track of pretty much anyone who didn’t write in and demand that someone collect their dues.
Democracy Is Messy
Of course, Gary didn’t do any of these things alone. Most of them were projects under way by staff and elected leaders when he arrived, but any one of these challenges could have torpedoed a term in office for even the most brilliant administrator.
The best parallel for this kind of job is a deanship, but most deans I know couldn’t come within a hundred miles of handling it. Deans rely on blunt vertical power to get things done.
The AAUP is a grassroots democratic organization. The elected leadership is packed with smart folks richly endowed with ego. The staff are generally the same—most of them academics with a wise and catlike aversion to being led. And the representatives of the big collective bargaining chapters are rarely shy about their positions. Of course those are just the internal challenges—when everything is working well.
Add restructuring and the fact that perma-temping has driven the profession to the brink of collapse, and it quickly becomes clear that in the past three years the job needed some combination of Cesar Chavez, a tax attorney, and Karl Rove.
Forget about managing without ruffling feathers—I don’t know anyone who could have managed the job, period. It takes the skill set that most presidents and CEO’s hire publicists to pretend they have, when really they’re just thugs in suits.
So Gary’s job required him to rely on many others from the paid staff and elected leadership. This large cast of characters doesn’t always work as a dream team. They sometimes disagree quite sharply, but they always overcome ego and make the partnership work.
Most critical to this ongoing team effort is the leadership of Cary Nelson. As often as Gary took up some of the presidential duties of ambassadorship during times of unprecedented crisis for the profession, Cary stepped in to pick up slack in the home office during the organizational maze of restructuring. It wasn’t always what either expected from their jobs, or what they wanted as individuals. But it got AAUP through the roughest patch in its history since the early 1970s.
This week, AAUP’s governing council will vote on a measure that assigns some responsibilities to Martin Snyder, the next most senior staffer and himself a former university president, and some to Cary Nelson.
That will work really well while the organization debates whether to restructure the general-secretary position, which some feel has grown too challenging for one person to fill.
Personally I don’t think so. Sure, in the past three to six years I think it was an impossible job for a squadron of talented people. Without a lot of people throwing their careers and family time into the breach, AAUP might not have survived.
The job needs some clarification and support. But Martin Snyder can do most of it easily, and while Martin Snyders aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, I’m confident AAUP will find one to launch the organization out of repair mode.
The Next Decade
AAUP’s next general secretary and president will have opportunities beyond those that Gary Rhoades and Cary Nelson have had—to look beyond survival toward a renewed, activist agenda. (This is in no way to diminish all of the fierce activism Cary in particular has managed while piloting the mothership into safe harbor over the past six years!)
Looking to the future, though, what should AAUP ask from its next leaders?
I can think of five things, just for starters. OK, I can think of 50, but I’ll keep it to five.
1.Organize the majority faculty. AAUP can do a lot more to support the voices of the nearly 80 percent of faculty outside the tenure stream. Overlooked in the breathless coverage of the single-term tenures of the last two occupants of the general-secretary job is the fact that AAUP is hiring into several organizing positions, including the director of organizing and services. That represents a major opportunity for AAUP to move in the right direction.
2. Organize religious and for-profit campuses. There’s been some talk of targeting faculty at the for-profits, but let’s not forget that a Democratic president means a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that actually does its job. Meaning that thugs in clerical garb are finally getting spanked for their rampant hypocrisy (“social justice everywhere except on our campus!”). Heads up: I’ll be starting a series on hypocrisy on campuses affiliated with religious orders.
3. Continue restructuring. As a professional association, AAUP is burdened with an early-20th-century structure of face-to-face chapters and state conferences. The structure presumes behaviors, values, and communications practices not really in evidence in the contemporary professoriate. I’ve got nothing against having a campus chapter—I’m working to build ours right now—or against a state conference, for that matter. But the organization has to be lighter on its feet, less reliant on the health of local chapters, and have a greater ability to dart in quickly on urgent matters. With the help of social media and a more realistic attitude toward the faculty animal, AAUP needs to acknowledge that many members are more willing and able to send checks than attend a lot of meetings. We aren’t all eating two meals a day at the faculty club: we need to have membership models that accommodate our changing relationship to campus life.
4. Fully digitize communication and membership. It will not surprise some readers that I’m on the board at Academe, and have been asked to be a candidate for editor several times. Every time I say, “Not unless we can stop printing and mailing the damn thing!” No kidding: the amount of money saved would pay for four full-time organizers, or three full-time organizers and a brilliant content-management system, with, you know, social-media functions and stuff. As for membership, we’ve made huge strides. But we have farther to go: Maddeningly, while planning our fall organizing drive, I got sent a paper membership form to use. Why? Because we still can’t collect California conference dues and/or chapter dues electronically. Seriously, who really thinks you can maintain an organization that doesn’t permit fully clickable payment of membership? Again, I personally love our new staffer in charge of fixing this. She has the most thankless job in the organization, and no money to do what she knows needs to be done. But: argh!
5. Capture every graduate student as a free member. I’ve been in AAUP leadership for six or eight years, and one of the reasons I’m glad to be cycling out this year is that I’m tired of ranting about this every year. It’s not rocket science: Just give every new grad student a free membership. (“But our membership program doesn’t work!” “We can’t afford to send Academe to them all!” Again: argh, so stop printing Academe and spend the money on organizers and good membership software.) Why do it? Well, three full generations of scholars have cycled in since 1970 with the majority of them not seeing AAUP functioning on their campus or in connection with their kind of appointment since their own careers began. Most faculty don’t bother to join until they or a friend get into trouble, and then, after they pop in the first check of their lives, they imagine AAUP will send in a flight of black helicopters filled with employment lawyers to save their jobs. We need to acknowledge that the professoriate has not only been deprofessionalized (as Gary Rhoades made his career by observing), but that whole generations have stopped even trying to struggle against administrative dominance. Giving every grad student a free membership is giving them a chance to rebuild something that most of their “mentors” have cheerfully cannibalized.
One interesting note is the normalization of direct action across the education community and among contemporary activists, who have begun to endorse ever-bolder tactics. While we haven’t seen any massive events on the scale of Wisconsin or with the potential impact of blocking an interstate, educators, parents, and students everywhere are putting their bodies in the fray.
Another cheering point is a slow turning of the compass needle in the conversation, away from the vicious anti-teacher hate propaganda dominating the airwaves in the autumn.
Few civil rights activists and educators in 1954 could have imagined the country’s first African-American president hiring a money-changer and thug like Arne Duncan to privatize and militarize schools that are still effectively segregated in many communities across the country.
I expect that instead they probably imagined someone like Obama fighting poverty and investing massively in schools, day care, adult literacy, and public jobs creation–converting our schools into incubators of democracy, palaces of industry and the arts, and epicenters of hope.
They’d have been all the more confident if they had known he’d be the child of two professors, an adjunct law prof himself who rubbed elbows with the likes of Bill Ayers, and a cosmopolitan who attended radical activist sermons every Sunday.
So much for the myth of progress.
More prosaically: I’m curious how all of this angry teacher and parent energy will affect Obama’s choices as we move into the 2012 election season. Will he dump Duncan in an effort to consolidate the base?
Or will he keep Duncan on to demonstrate his liberal-Republican street cred among independents?
If the latter, will he exchange him for an actual educator and thinker after the election in an effort to buff a tarnished legacy? We can hope.
Yesterday’s U.S. launch of the ASUS Transformer tablet with a detachable clamshell keyboard sold out in minutes on every major online retailer (hours if you were clever and out-thought the tech crowd by actually showing up in the flesh).
Why so popular? ‘Cause Asus clued in to the fact that we produce content with our computers, not just consume it, and addressed that insight with a stable mobile-computing design that everyone else will scramble to imitate.
The Transformer is a $399 full-internet touch tablet, running Flash, and employs the sun-beating IPS (in-plane switching) screen technology. In seconds it “transforms” into a netbook, snapping onto a lightweight keyboard ($149).
Brag alert: last fall, I predicted this design would be the “industry standard in a couple of years.” Lenovo has a similar model coming out this summer, and it seems clear that most manufacturers will have to follow.
Especially clever is the extra eight hours offered by the second battery built into the keyboard. Early reviews offer some modest complaints, mostly about camera quality. For most Windows users or smartphone owners, the Android Honeycomb operating system will feel intuitive, do everything you expect from a Windows netbook, and produce content compatible with your desk machine.
With the events in Japan, current backorders may not get fulfilled until June. Which will be good for all of those manufacturers stuck with tablet-only configurations. Watch for prices of machines that can’t accept a clamshell keyboard to tumble into the sub $300 range, but students, teachers, and parents should resist the temptation to buy.
For the third year in a row, U.S. student direct action continues to rise. The year’s best-known action was the amazing occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol. The most important all-but-uncovered action was the continuing fierce struggle at the University of Puerto Rico, held by riot police for more than six weeks. Two weeks ago, California State University activists coordinated protests across the CSU system, ending in simultaneous occupations at as many as eleven of the 23 campuses. Last week, in an apparently coordinated action, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) affiliated students occupied presidents’ offices at Tulane and Emory, demanding ethical employment practices (targeting Sodexho and other subcontractors). Student-led occupations and sit-ins are spreading to high schools, Department of Education events, oil rigs, and consulates. It’s not, say, France or England, but it’s a start.
Administrations have taken note, particularly in the University of California (UC) system, which was the epicenter of last year’s wave of events. Administrators or public-records requests at Berkeley, Davis, Santa Cruz and Irvine have confirmed “monitoring” of student activists by campus police, freelance investigators, or staffers. In some cases, undercover police officers or staff in “casual attire” have mingled with students to gather information on movement leaders and plans.
One of the more distressing developments is the recruitment of other students into this “monitoring” effort. At UC Davis, according to documents obtained under public-records request by activists, staff reporting to Chancellor Linda Katehi recruited “student leaders” to participate in “Activism Response Teams” with police and administrators. In security speak, the role of the students recruited onto the “response teams” was to “accompany” protesters and “update staff” about the events.
Campus activists have responded by publishing names and photographs of the administrators, officers, freelancers and students involved. They are in essence answering back the administration’s Big Brother with a “little brother” deployment of social media for countersurveillance, solidarity-building, and awareness.
To a modest degree this mirrors the plot of Little Brother (2008) an award-winning “young adult” novel published by BoingBoing columnist Cory Doctorow. Essentially accepting the premise that much of Orwell’s vision has come to pass, Doctorow explores American schools as a vector for authoritarianism and rebellion. Positing an intense government security crackdown in the Bay area, Doctorow describes the rise of a youth-hacker resistance movement, communicating through gaming consoles and bypassing government surveillance and infiltration of high-school social media.
In the novel, though, the student resistance becomes effective when it connects with Bay area anarchist, punk and feminist activists, establishing a coalition across a broad front of movements.
Ultimately, the real success of Little Brother isn’t in countersurveillance–it’s in movement building. Along with the ACLU, I’m sympathetic with the concern to discover, expose and counter the administration’s surveillance. Nonetheless, I wonder if it isn’t consuming energies best devoted to building coalitions? The occupation movement hasn’t been too active at the UC campuses this year.
So far the kind of truly broad front necessary to victory has developed primarily in Wisconsin and Puerto Rico, mostly in connection with public employee trade unions and, to a lesser extent, in the K-12 movement against test-based school reform. For next year’s campus occupation movement to reach its potential, I suspect a) it’ll have to start at full speed in September and b) it will have to spend less energy on the Little Brother of “stop snitching” and more on the Little Brother of solidarity.
“If only the Department of Education could hear this guy Obama, boy, would they have to rethink their approach,” writes former Oakland science teacher Anthony Cody in the can’t-miss column of the month.
Despite the timing, this is not an April Fool’s post. During remarks at a heavily-promoted town hall on the Univision network intended to entice Hispanic voters, Obama careened wildly off-message, slamming the misuse of standardized tests and the culture of test preparation promoted by his own Secretary of Education, sitting nearby.
In response to Luis Ayala, a student who questioned the staggering quantity of frequently redundant standardized tests for which his teachers have to prepare him every year, Obama suggested that students in public schools should experience standardized testing in the way his daughters do at an exclusive Washington DC prep school:
[T]just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.
Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.
Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.
So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam.
Fortunately for Duncan, Obama pre-empted the news cycle with a speech on Libya, so these remarks received almost no coverage from the teacher-hating mass media. The parent-and-teacher blogosphere, however, has been picking up on this moment. One particularly astute commentary by Julianne Hing notes the extraordinary extent to which Obama contradicts himself:
Under Obama’s education policy proposals, an entire school’s teaching staff can be fired, schools can be shut down, and new charter schools brought in, if test scores don’t improve adequately. A number of recentscandals involving potential test tampering and impropriety suggest that the charter schools and traditional public schools alike are feeling immense pressure to show yearly gains in test scores.
Hing goes on to ask whether Obama is intentionally punking his own Ed Sec as part of routine politics:
Obama’s great at co-opting his critics’ arguments even if he doesn’t take to heart their policy suggestions. It’s an excellent strategy for cornering his critics and closing off the political space that critics of standardized tests have carved out for themselves in the often confounding education debate.
Just as pointedly, Cody asks whether Obama is a) trying to mislead voters or b) unfamiliar with his own Sec Ed’s policy. “Is President Obama aware,” Cody writes, that Race to the Top and Arne Duncan are rapidly multiplying the number and frequency of such tests, raising the stakes for both students and fauclty, and require states to tie teacher pay closely to test scores? “If ever there was a recipe for teaching to the test, this it!” he writes:
President Obama, I loved the way you described the role of assessment. It should be occasional, not punitive, and used to help diagnose where students need help. What Sasha and Malia are getting is wonderful. Is there a way we could get your Department of Education’s policies to align with your personal vision?
The Department of Education might easily have ignored the blogosphere, given the friendly silence on these remarks observed by the major news outlets.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, Duncan’s minions have swooped down on at least some of these opinionators, ham-handedly demanding a “correction” from Cody, claiming that he somehow “misinterpreted” the Prez. Cody peppered them with a few queries and awaits their reply–stay tuned!
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
–Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues
On March 22, a prominent group of education bloggers agreed to provide statements loosely organized on the theme of “why faculty like me support unions.” Unexpectedly Stanley Fish, a career-long opponent of faculty unionism, joined them. “I recently flipped,” he confessed,”and what flipped me, pure and simple, was Wisconsin.” In particular, it turns out, it was reading new Brainstorm colleague Naomi Schaefer’s Riley’s assault on faculty bargaining rights in that newspaper you find under your door in cheap motel rooms:
What Riley fears is that if colleges and universities were unionized, teachers with far out, discomforting ideas couldn’t be fired. It’s hard to imagine a better argument for unions (and also for tenure)…. Riley makes no bones about it. Letting the unions get a foothold “could . . . make the environment more left leaning.” The message is clear: keep those unions out so that we can more easily get rid of the lefties.
There are layers of irony in Fish’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but it’s hard to argue with his reasoning: one of the lessons of Wisconsin is that academic unionism is one of the few effective bulwarks against ideological cleansing.
Framed as a dialogue between Walter Benn Michaels and himself, the piece is particularly worth reading for Michaels’ withering replies to Riley’s psychic channeling of Ayn Rand. After circulating the usual unfounded canard of faculty laziness, Riley quotes the chief executive of SUNY Buffalo comparing unionization to “belonging to a herd.” In reply, Michaels observes that his own department is amidst a union card drive and ranked in the top 20 nationally:
It’s the hard-working ones who want the union most. Why? Because we think that the people who actually do the teaching and the research should have more of a say in how the teaching and the research gets done. [S]ince when does having a voice in what happens in your own workplace count as belonging to the herd? The president of Buffalo, despite the fact that Buffalo is itself unionized, apparently thinks that rugged individualism consists in shutting up and doing what management tells you to do.
As you’d expect from someone who describes his view as the product of a “flip,” Fish’s contributions to the dialogue lack nuance and context: it’s hard to imagine that Fish has suddenly discovered that most faculty are a lunch bucket crowd, some of whom qualified for food stamps on the wages he paid them while whacking down a monster salary as dean.
In Fish world, faculty unions used to wear a black hat; now they wear a white one, and his realization came about because of what he saw on tv: a dastardly governor twirling his mustaches and tieing a virginal faculty to the railroad tracks. Only the white-hatted union can save the innocent now!
The reality, as anyone who has actually spent any time in the academic labor movement can tell you, is very different: faculty unions have many flaws–and nearly all of them are the flaws of the membership themselves.
The lessons of Wisconsin and Ohio, at least in part, underscore just how seriously faculty and their unions have blundered–how we as a profession have been selfish, foolish, mean-spirited and short-sighted. All the ways, in short, that we haven’t been any better than Stanley Fish but rather, quite a bit like him, or at least striving to be like him, cheerfully shooting hoops and piloting his Jag down the freeway while the academy burned.
Our Unions Are Not Heroic (Because We Aren’t)
So why do I support faculty unions despite their many imperfections? You could say that I’m a critical supporter of American unions generally: they reflect our virtues–too often expressed at the eleventh hour–as well as our flaws. Our unions are often the final barrier against unsafe roads and hospitals, ersatz education and filth in our food. Unions represent all of us, not just those who pay dues into them. A democratic society cannot exist without vigorous democracy in the workplace.
On the other hand, union memberships have failed to live up to their own ideals for most of my adult life–thirty years now. Faced with the difficult challenges of a politically reactionary era–such as hostile regulation, outsourcing, forced volunteerism, and perma-temping–union memberships in every walk of American life have taken the path of least resistance, securing the benefits of older workers and selling out the young.
The members of education unions have been no exception. Faculty represented by the big education unions have turned a blind eye to the hyper-exploitation of student labor, the conversion of jobs to part-time and volunteer positions, the outsourcing of staff and the hostile regulation environment governing collective bargaining in private schools.
But blaming “unions” for the failings of their membership is like blaming the hammer for smashing your thumb. It’s not the hammer’s fault if it’s idle while you’re sitting in front of your television instead of helping mend your neighbor’s fence.
I support unionism the way a carpenter supports tool use. Unions can be misused or neglected by their members, but they’re indispensable to the job of democratizing and diversifying our workplaces, maintaining professional integrity and autonomy, and sustaining high standards in teaching and research.
The current crises in Wisconsin and Ohio have many lessons for faculty in higher education and their unions. I’ll just put forward five for now:
1. Tenure must unite the faculty, not divide it. The single most corrosive faculty myth to emerge since 1970 is the ludicrous notion that tenure is a merit badge for faculty with research-intensive appointments. The biggest reason higher education unions are powerless is that we’ve allowed administrations to cast the overwhelming majority of faculty on teaching-intensive appointments out of the tenure system: “Oh, they’re not real professors, they teach in a less prestigious university/just undergraduates/in the lower division/community colleges.”
Compare this pathetic, near-total collapse of professional identity, much less of solidarity, to the response of police and fire unions in Wisconsin, who defied the governor to support other public employees not even in their own professions–even when he exempted their unions from the axe.
2. Maximize the movement, not the revenue. Organizing graduate students and nontenurable educators would have made perfect sense in terms of sustaining a labor movement in education. But education union staff operating unapologetically under “revenue maximizing” principles have been slow to invest in the movement’s future, scoffing at the paltry “return on investment” of organizing folks already so poorly paid. (Which explains the inroads made by UAW, AFSCME, and SEIU among the nontenurable.)
Ditto for private schools affected by Yeshiva: the big unions have made a few challenges to this decision–all in all, a weak and sleazy piece of judicial activism that only passed 5-4 because of swing voter Stevens, who apparently hadn’t yet had enough of what he later called “on the job training.”
Today, Ohio public-campus faculty are facing Senate Bill 5, a bitter plateful of the fruit of the major unions’ failure to confront Yeshiva. Having shrugged off the decision when it applied only to private campuses, the unions are in a far weaker position to contest the application of its principles to public faculty in any U.S. state–ginning up already not just in Ohio and Wisconsin, but Alaska, Florida, and beyond.
Things could have been very different. Addressing the hostile regulation environment of private campuses is similar to the situation of organizing in right-to-work states: it would have required much more effort and involved much smaller economic returns, but it would have paid off in solidarity, sustaining a broad-based union culture in the academy, which in turn could have led to a legislative solution… which would have prevented the present specter, of a domino effect, with “monkey see, monkey do” application in one state legislature after another.
3. “It’s a great job if you can afford it” and “I don’t do it for the money” are racist, sexist sentiments. I’ve written about this many times before. Even in Wisconsin and Ohio, the police unions are more diverse than the faculty unions–because the extreme wage discount unfairly segments the academic workforce by race, class and gender. Only a small number of persons, disproportionately white, can afford the extreme economic irrationality of most forms of higher education teaching appointments. Defending irrational compensation schemes on the grounds that persons who start out on third base economically are “doing what they love” is really defending a system that denies everyone else a fair shot at doing something they love. The struggle to make academic compensation fair is a struggle to enormously enlarge the academic talent pool: way too many black and brown intellectuals are working at the DMV, fighting wars, and walking a beat instead of teaching at the state university. Too many teaching positions are filled by persons who can afford to work for the status compensation of saying “I work at the U.,” rather than the most qualified.
Every time someone with wealth, parental or spousal backing, and/or high household income brays about how they’d do the job for free, they put another brick in the wall in front of those who don’t have those advantages.
4. There is no democracy without active, embodied participation. Emma Goldman shocked the feminists of her day by saying that they shouldn’t prioritize winning the vote, that voting can provide the satisfying feeling of political participation without the substance. The struggle in Wisconsin has made clear to faculty that our politics can never be just teaching and writing, but has to be made real with boots on the ground and bodies in the street. If every professor’s coffee-shop oration and blog comment were instead a knock on the door in the effort to recall the power-grabbing state senators, the battle would already be won.
5. Leadership comes from below. It’s hardly accidental that Walter Benn Michaels’ grad students unionized a decade before he did. The cutting edge of education unionism always has been, and remains, the working-class intellectualism of ordinary schoolteachers and parents. In the far less accomplished sector of higher ed, the best thinking can often be found among graduate students and nontenurable faculty, who represent nearly eighty percent of the teaching force.
This Sunday a fellow member of the University of Illinois Graduate Employees Organization, Zach Poppel, and I traveled to Madison to support the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol. We went there in support not just of public workers in Wisconsin, but of the very idea of collective bargaining. Many of us also were there because we know graduate employees in Wisconsin, and know how higher education in Wisconsin will be decimated by these proposals. The University of Wisconsin would find it much harder to retain faculty if its professors have to surrender their hard-fought gains in collective bargaining (currently faculty on the Eau Claire and Superior campuses are unionized, and the LaCrosse campus recently voted for unionization as well). Similar proposals for gutting unions are being pursued elsewhere–Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky. Moreover, in an underreported proposal, Governor Walker is seeking to separate the Madison campus from the rest of the UW system, essentially privatizing the campus by raising tuition to private university levels.
We saw this as everyone’s fight. We had both been energized by the previous day’s experiences—Zach had organized the Springfield rally, which had several dozen GEO participants, and I had gone to Madison with several dozen other GEO members. In Urbana we had a simultaneous rally that drew about 150 people. From our union alone, over 100 people have traveled to Madison since the protests began. Zach and I both wanted to build on that energy.
By the time of the departure, we knew that it was uncertain whether we would be able to get into the building, and therefore we were ready to support our colleagues inside who may have faced potential arrest. GEO staffer Amy Livingston and History steward Anna Kurhajec had arrived last night, and Officer-at-Large Leighton Christiansen came with another labor group this morning.
By the time we parked, walked to the capitol, and got into the line for entrance, it was about 3:20, and the police had promised to close the doors promptly at 4:00. The line was moving slowly (police were allowing one person in for every two that left), but we knew that Leighton was inside. Sometime around 3:45 we resigned ourselves to the fact that we probably wouldn’t get in, though we stayed in line. Shortly before 4:00, we got word that Amy and Anna had been among the last people to make it in after waiting about two hours. When the doors closed at 4:00, the outside crowd chanted “Let Us In” for 15 more minutes.
You all can see what happened on the inside on TV feeds and on Youtube videos. On the outside, we saw an energetic protest that still had the spirit of Saturday’s rally. Despite the bitter cold, people were in good spirits. We kept hearing conflicting reports about the status of the people inside. Earlier in the day we had heard promises that there would be no arrests; later on it seemed like arrests were a likelihood. While still waiting in line, I had scrawled the GEO’s Kerry Pimblott’s telephone number on my arm with a permanent marker in case of arrest—a surreal experience for someone who’s never even had a speeding ticket. I had to explain what was going on to my parents, who couldn’t understand why I would “jeopardize” my future career as a scholar and educator. But to me, what we were doing in Madison was essential to secure the career I want to build, to protect the conditions for teaching and learning.
Once the doors were closed, of course we were worried about our people inside. We received a blessing from GEO headquarters to leave if we wanted, that other people could come up to bail them out, but Zach and I were both firmly resolved that we wanted to bail them out. It would get them out much faster than if someone new had to drive up from Champaign. And to be honest, I think both of us felt disappointed that we weren’t able to be in the Capitol, and we wanted to be there to help the people who were. The plan was for us to be their first phone call if they were arrested. There were ACLU representatives available to bail people out, but they would be responsible for all the protesters. The difference between us bailing them out and the ACLU bailing them out could have meant a difference of several hours or more in jail time for Amy and Anna. (The labor group Leighton had gone up with was prepared to post his bail if necessary).
The crowd was lively and many were in constant contact with people inside. At one point we formed a human chain around the building. Protesters made a commitment to stay until either everyone was out of the building (one way or another) or until the police had announced there woule be no arrests. Driveways, entrances, and exits were blocked. Some of the people inside chose to leave voluntarily upon police requests, and were cheered by the crowd outside as they left the building. Others (several hundred) stayed inside, understanding that they were risking their own liberty to do so.
As the temperatures dropped, people climbed up to the second floor to get a sight of the people inside. We also held a candlelight vigil. Chants and drumming continued. Of course, as basically an unplanned event, it was a much smaller crowd than the massive Saturday rally, but it still maintained tremendous energy. For me, the most thrilling part was hearing the car horns of supporters driving the streets around the capitol. Throughout the day there had been constant supportive car honks. At some point, though, they fell into a regular pattern: a call-and-response chorus version of the favorite union chant, “This is what democracy looks like,” which was surprisingly well-coordinated. This kept up for well more than an hour, as each successive wave of commuters picked up on the game and kept it going. This will be one of my favorite memories.
Though none of us could get in the building, we were heartened to see food and supplies go in, as well as additional press. By 7:00 we had received word that everyone inside had been guaranteed they would be able to spend the night peacefully and would not be arrested. Leighton, Amy, and Anna are still inside as I write, along with hundreds of other protesters.
Once the outside protest dispersed and we knew Leighton, Amy, and Anna would not need bail, we headed home. Stopping to warm up at a local bar, we overheard the news that Sen. Dale Schulz had switched his vote on the bill. We now need only two additional senators to kill Scott Walker’s budget bill and allow the Wisconsin 14 to come home. When this was announced in the bar, there were cheers throughout. Talking to our people inside, I was glad that they also had learned about Sen. Schultz’s switch and there was cheering inside.
One thing you notice in Madison is that just about every local business has a window sign supporting public sector union rights. Many of the people I saw both days had signs proclaiming that they were “private sector workers,” “small business owners,” “non-union members,” and “taxpayers”—the groups Walker claims to represent—who were coming out to support their union brothers’ and sisters’ rights.
Right now, Walker is thoroughly despised in Madison. Over both days I was there I saw one right-wing counter-protestor, against approximately 120,000-150,000 of us. What I did see was a massive group of people (and their dogs), diverse in their race, ethnicity, age, economic background, sexual identity, religion, and even in their professed politics (it was surprising how many “conservatives” believe in union rights). All of them have had enough of Gov. Walker, after he’s been in office less than two months. An incredible proliferation of clever signs lambastes Walker and his multi-billionaire benefactors, the Koch brothers—punning and the double entendre are very alive in the Badger state.
But there is a serious tone as well. People here profess their disgust for Walker’s willingness, caught on tape, to plant agents provocateur in the crowd to try to cause violence and discredit the movement. What kind of governor, the Madison Chief of Police asked, would consider risking the safety of law enforcement officers and protesters, including their children, for his political gain? http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/116828353.html. And Walker ultimately backed down from the idea only because he decided it would hurt him politically.
It was also a crowd that connected the dots to larger social issues, and demonstrated precisely the kind of critical self-awareness that Left intellectuals often claim to be unable to find in the American working and middle classes. These were not people marching, as the Right charges, just to protect their own benefits. The people marching understood the connections between war spending, corporate welfare, and tax cuts on the one hand, and cuts in education, health care, and social programs on the other. They understood the absurdity of a governor who claims to have to crush unions in order to plug a $140 million deficit, right after he signed $140 million in corporate giveaways and tax breaks. They understand that the divisions between skilled and unskilled, middle and working class, union and nonunion, and private and public sector, are meant to divide working people against one another. Many of their signs emphasized the value of education, and a number took shots at Governor Walker over his own lack of a college degree. Their signs made reference to both the good (LaFollette, Feingold) and bad (McCarthy) elements of Wisconsin political tradition. These were people who believe in the public good and the public sphere, and are trying in every way they can to recreate it.
However much he likes to talk about the silent majority who supports him, I have seen almost no evidence that anyone likes or supports Walker, let alone a majority. He literally cannot be seated in a restaurant in Madison. Walker went to one of Madison’s premier fine-dining restaurants, and the owners refused to serve him. Of course, his support is higher in more rural areas than in liberal enclaves like Madison and Milwaukee, but even outside the cities he is opposed by solid majorities. Statewide, his approval rating is below 50%, an astonishing number for a governor who only won his first term in November. The polls I’ve seen have shown supermajorities (over 60%) of both Wisconsin citizens and the American public as a whole against Walker’s proposals. And that’s after a steady drumbeat in both the right-wing and mainstream media, claiming that public workers’ wages and benefits are responsible for our economic situation. On the bus I took Saturday were people from Green Bay, Stoughton, and Beloit. The caricature of the protesters as mostly urban liberals would have been absurd to anyone who spent even five minutes among the crowd.
My overall impression, like the Saturday protest the day before, was of incredible peace and harmony. (Fox News, the only national media outlet that has maintained consistent coverage, has claimed to see “hate” and “vitriol” in the eyes of the protesters, and that our goal is to shut down and harass the media. Nothing I saw in any way comports with that absurd characterization.) I have never seen this many people assembled (for any reason—not just a political rally) without any unpleasantness or violence. People speak plainly and from the heart, in their posters and in their words, about how this bill will affect their lives, how it will take away things they’ve won, not only through their individual effort but through generations of workers who have sacrificed to build their unions.
The symbolism of reclaiming the Capitol for the people against the special interests and Gov. Walker’s attack on democratic union rights was very powerful. Wisconsin’s State Capitol is a beautiful, neo-classical white marble structure, the kind of architecture that was built, at the time of the U.S.’s founding, as a kind of living expression of the idea of the public good. From the outside, you can see signs in the windows of Democratic Assemblymen/women and Senators’ offices, cheering on the protesters. Sometimes these legislators or their aides would open up their windows and wave. From the inside, the spectacular Rotunda has taken on a new kind of beauty with the thousands of signs, fliers, and banners that have transformed it into a true site of civic engagement.
I was able to get in on Saturday, along with many other GEO members, and the reborn Capitol must to be seen to be believed. The cameras don’t do it justice. On Saturday a massive, loud yet somehow completely orderly crowd alternated between cheering and drumming passionately on the one hand, and on the other, listening carefully and attentively to a stream of dozens open-mic speakers who talked poignantly about how the bill would affect their lives. I had the chance to briefly speak to the thousands of people in the crowd and found it simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. The most rousing speech I heard was a passionate and eloquent appeal by a Wisconsin preschool teacher who wondered, “Why should I have to beg this man to build the life I’ve earned?” Periodically parades would march through the center of the crowd—I saw a firefighters’ parade, and a massive parade by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, a union with new, radicalized leadership and a strong commitment to progressive labor and educational policies.
The energy is tremendous. But they will need to keep it up in the next few days and weeks, in order to win over more Republican Senators and finally kill the bill. I hope to make it back up to Madison (my third trip this week) to spend a night with the brave workers of Wisconsin (spearheaded, I should say, by the unbelievable UW grad local, the Teaching Assistants’ Association). Others will as well. I will say, for those who haven’t yet been to Madison, it is an experience you will never forget.
Two weeks ago I remember telling someone that “Wisconsin is coming to all of America next.” At the time, this sounded ominous and threatening. Now, it has become transformed into something hopeful. I’d like to think that the energy, passion, selflessness, and civic engagement that Wisconsin has shown the world can become a model for all of us. Wisconsin is coming to all of America next, but not in the way Scott Walker intended.
Does anyone know how to get permanent marker writing off your skin?
Michael Verderame is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where he studies nineteenth-century British literature with a focus on literature and the environment. He is a member and activist in the Graduate Employees Organization, an AFT-affiliated union representing over 2000 teaching and graduate assistants at UIUC.
Monday afternoon update: We heard that the windows of the Capitol are being welded shut in an effort to force the protesters out. Law enforcement is not allowing new people in. There are claims that new protesters will not be allowed in unless protesters inside comply with certain (unspecified) law enforcement requests, although it’s unclear what those requests are. About 100 of the protesters remain. According to reports, Walker has shifted operational control from the Madison Police, who strongly support the protesters, to the State Troopers’ Office, whose superintendent is a political appointee of Governor Walker’s (and also, amazingly, the father of both the state Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader). A disappointed Democratic Assemblywoman Kelda Helen Roys tweeted that seven corporate lobbysists were let in even as protesters are being excluded. The ACLU has filed a suit to force the state to readmit protesters. We’ve also learned that over the night a number of people, including Anna and Amy, left overnight based on the promise they would be allowed back in at 8 a.m.) Anna and Amy are currently trying to get back in.
Nonetheless, spirits are high throughout the country. My own union, the Graduate Employees Organization, an affiliate of the AFT/IFT has been holding a 24-7 vigil ever since the protests began to support the public workers in Madison. We have hosted rallies, film screenings, lectures, teach-ins, and concerts. Members are spending every night in the basement of the YMCA, with sleeping bags and pillows. We have also hosted three local rallies in support of the 39 heroic Indiana Democratic legislators, who are staying in Urbana, just like the Wisconsin 14, in protest of anti-union and anti-education legislation. One of them came to the University to speak to undergraduate and graduate students about the issues in Indiana, and received rousing applause.
It is difficult, but we are winning. One Republican senator has already switched; as we keep the pressure up, I believe more will follow. And the lessons of Wisconsin will carry over into the rest of the country as this fight continues.
Most Chronicle readers probably aren’t among the 3 million or so that Neilsen can measure watching the Spartacus prequel miniseries Gods of the Arena, which premiered in January at the number one position among cable shows in its time slot. Episode 5 plays Friday, 2/18 (Starz, but the best way to catch up is in your Netflix streaming queue). I don’t particularly recommend that you watch the series–catch up onThe Wire, Nurse Jackie, or Breaking Bad first–but it’s worth trying to understand how it’s managed to hold its audience.
Certainly some of its viewers, as you might expect, tune in for the objectified porn-star bodies of the actors. But they stay because they identify with the characters in the story. I think it’s worth trying to understand this identification, in large part because it seems to be an identification with a mode of exploitation similar to our own.
With balletic violence, gorgeous CGI, and lovingly detailed mature sequences, this Sam Raimi production doesn’t at first seem calculated for the status-conscious intellectual (ie, the sort of person that exchanges prestige for salary). That said, one of the show’s persistent themes is the personal cost of pursuing psychic rewards–such as celebrity, or the esteem of one’s colleagues. The show invites identification with the gladiators on the supposition that the audience is also imprisoned by their own pursuit of affective compensation, of which our own teaching for love (and consequent super-discounted wage) is a leading example, not to mention our complicity in the super-discounting of the wages of others.
Dalton Trumbo, Meet Larry Flynt
Consistently winning its cable time slot in the 18-49 demographic, the show’s success suggests what even our friends at The New York Times (NYT) have to acknowledge appears to be a growing appetite for stories of class warfare. Of course this use of the term “class warfare” erroneously assigns it only to class struggle from below (as if the arduous labor of Palin, McCain, Boehner, Beck and O’Reilly to roll back medical care, education, and workplace rights isn’t the class war of the rich on the rest of us!) What the NYT reviewer means is to hint that recent trends in cultural consumption might indicate a growing will of the other 98% to fight back.
There are two paths into this version of Spartacus that any reasonably competent cultural-studies person might pursue: genealogical relationships, especially those with earlier versions of Spartacus, and transitive relationships with parallel iconography, like the masterless samurai of Kurosawa, Leone, Eastwood, etc.
The first approach would be largely a project of mourning–ie, exploring all the ways this latest iteration of Spartacus measures a retreat from the Left cultural imaginary tapped into by the blacklisted dream team of Dalton Trumbo and grand old Howard Fast. For decades a bestselling writer of openly anticapitalist fiction, Fast was imprisoned for resisting HUAC and forced to self-publish the 1951 novel on which the Kubrick/Douglas/Trumbo film is based. (Apparently Kirk Douglas produced the film largely out of pique after losing the title role in Ben Hur to Charlton Heston, but still deserves enormous credit for having the courage to employ these writers, and helping to break the blacklist.)
The contrast between the 1960 film and the present is especially obvious in the variant handling of the line, “I am Spartacus.” In the earlier production, the line comprised a climactic appeal to solidarity, shouted for Kubrick and Douglas’s sound crew by the crowd at a Michigan State vs Notre Dame football game.
In a nice turn, the contemporary version reimagines the line as a second-act complication, indicating submission: “I am Spartacus” in this version indicates the Thracian’s acceptance of his slave name, a la Kunta Kinte in the most famous scene in the mini-series Roots. Drawing this parallel to the more defiant and hopeful imagination of the mid-1970s (now thirty-five years in the past) is, however, similarly unflattering to the present.
The second analysis would recover part of the first–finding in this cynical Spartacus a free-ranging rebellion. He inhabits a modestly domesticated variant of the masterless samurai/Pale Rider trope, protesting “I burn for no cause but my own,” but grudgingly making an exception to that rule.
A figure for the salaryman who puts on the office costume–but rides his hog weekends– motivated by a goodfella’s desire to protect spouse and home turf, today’s Spartacus provisionally accepts the fraternity of the ludus and even more provisionally the dominion of Batiatus, an ambitious Capuan fight promoter reminiscent of Tony Soprano.
That the fight promoters are the next tv gangsters-as-lower-management is abundantly clear in Season 2, Episode 2, in which Batiatus is stomped in a butcher’s shop; the scene references a similarly-located assault in The Sopranos and attempts to top it with a long-running and full-frontal urination on the victim.
Both of these lines of analysis could be extended usefully, and doubtless will be, but I think they aren’t enough, not least because they bypass the repeated, clear references to gladiators as the adult film stars of their time.
The mapping of gladiation by way of the contemporary cultural space of porn is literal, with repeated scenes of gladiators sexually performing for an audience of citizens, who sometimes offer direction (a la interactive porn sites), zoom in for closeups of the action, etc. (I don’t bring up pornography in order to get into a moral debate. If I have a moral position on pornography, it’s probably something akin to class struggle: potentially the likeliest, best outcome of porn’s cultural victory is self-abolition: Can the universally explicit be visible as pornographic?) Certainly there are serious complaints to be made about the series in this department: for instance, it can legitimately be read as trivializing the contemporary traffic in women by its representation of male gladiators as sex toys for the Real Housewives of Capua. In any event, if you want to argue porn’s morality, take it up with the extremely thoughtful Jane Juffer or, say, the million-strong Netmums demographic–mostly British, mostly women under fifty, mostly with kids–75% of whom say they consume it.
The Grammar of Super-Exploitation
What interests me about Spartacus and the grammar of adult film is the question of delivering work without a wage, for an extreme wage discount, or over and above the requirements of a wage. In the technical sense, most wage work (excepting the hyper-compensated type) is simple exploitation: you produce more value than you receive back in wages, often a lot more, and that value goes to someone of the Real Housewives class, who buys jewels and a good conscience by making occasional donations to charity.
By contrast, working without a wage–or for a discounted wage–or for psychic compensation–or delivering additional work off the clock–generally involves some form of super-exploitation. The cutting edge of management practice is finding ways to maximize the employee’s donation above and beyond the wage: checking office email at 11 pm and 6am, taking calls on weekends and on vacation, working through lunch, etc. One of the vectors for this is making workplaces “creative” and “fun,” as Andrew Ross has analyzed; another is faux professionalism; another is providing elaborate nonwage recognitions, a la the military, church and education bureaucracies. Internships are both straight-up extortion (“can’t get a job without one”) and status awards (“I won the competition for the position!”)
Gladiators experience the most primitive forms of super-exploitation (direct enslavement, imprisonment and degradation). All of these “primitive” forms of super-exploitation are alive and well in today’s global economy, from prison labor to the traffic in women. And some aspects of gladiator labor are realized cinematically as the kind of locked-in dormitory workplace associated with Chinese manufacturing.
But the primitive forms of super-exploitation don’t explain the Starz/Netflix demographic’s identification with the characters and situation. The viewer identification has much more to do with fact that the gladiators also experience the most advanced or progressive forms of super-exploitation associated with Western workers employed in some of the most sought-after positions in the global economy: While gladiators do receive some material compensation (better food, occasional prize money, etc) they are ultimately paid in the coin of emotion. This is where the mapping of gladiation onto the porn industry delivers the most insight. The gladiators are almost exactly analogous to today’s porn “stars,” who support one of the most lucrative industries on the planet–but who can make as little as a hundred dollars per filmed sex act, might work on just a couple of films in a “career” that lasts a few months. The cost of plastic surgery, physical training and so on easily outweighs the earnings of many, a fact known perfectly well to most of the men and women struggling to get into the industry. The idea that all of these persons are delusionally trying to win a lottery of high adult-film paychecks misses the point. For the most part, they understand that they are also being paid in a kind of reputation that they have chosen to seek (perhaps mistakenly) even if they don’t get rich.
This is the heart of the series’ appeal–its insight into a core question of our time: “if the rewards are so slim, why do it?” And the series captures the complexity and honesty of the answer: that most of us are deeply pro-social in our motivations, that we strive most vigorously for nonwage compensation…. and that these generally pro-social preferences represent our vulnerability to the economic predators of our time.
Given the number of fronts on which its politics are fairly regressive, the largest contribution the series makes to consciousness-raising is its consistent representation of affective compensation as a form of Monopoly money printed up by a cynical management. Indeed, the central characters’ struggle to reject the psychic wage–and management’s effort to seduce them into accepting it– is the substance of the series’ story line. It is not that the series opposes honor, reputation-seeking, or loyalty per se: it’s that the series understands these and other emotions are vectors through which economic predators snare their victims.
In this version of Spartacus the successful “lanista” and “doctore” (manager and trainer) are, first and foremost, managers of the arena’s workplace culture, providing the gladiators with rewards calculated to trigger the investment of their whole selves in their work: a sense of fraternity, accomplishment, professional reputation and public recognition.
The whole of Season 1’s interior action comprises the complication-filled but steadily rising acceptance of this manufactured workplace culture by Spartacus, who swiftly wins the title of “champion of Capua.”
His arc of acceptance is matched by a parallel, gradual disaffection with that same workplace culture by his chief rival Crixus, the immediate past champion. Just when Spartacus’s growing acceptance of a bargain with management is burst, abruptly returning him to his original state of implacable avenger, the evolving emotional life of Crixus carries us forward.
For Crixus, the transformation from true believer to revolutionary means abandoning most of the psychic rewards on which he’s built his identity–the recognition of fellow professionals, public celebrity, etc. It also means a painful repudiation of the belief that gladiation offers a professional, democratic, meritocratic venue, in which ability is inevitably recognized.
As we cheer along Crixus’s workplace epiphany, we are invited to have one of our own–to cast a critical eye on our own workplaces, and the management-engineered workplace cultures that enmesh us.
You don’t know the name Elbert F. Tellem, but you will. Just last week, as the acting Director of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) District 2, Tellem issued a potentially historic decision green-lighting contingent-faculty unionization at Catholic-affiliated Manhattan College. In the process, he threaded his way through some of the most dishonest law in the country, throwing the NLRB’s support behind the human rights of faculty serving contingently at many religiously-affiliated institutions.
This is the front lines of academic labor struggle, pitting the moral force of the NLRB against a conservative, reactionary Federal court that refuses to enforce its rulings and the arrogant hypocrisy of wealthy, influential religiously-affiliated administrations.
Legal Fictions: Great Falls
The terrain of this struggle is far beyond the Yeshiva decision, which applies only to the minority of tenurable faculty (on the basis of the specious claim that they are managerial employees). Since ¾ of today’s faculty are graduate students or lecturers on casual appointment, they can hardly be described as managerial, and can’t be denied bargaining rights by way of Yeshiva.
Instead, today, private institutions with a religious affiliation rely on the claim that employees at “religious institutions” should be sweepingly excluded from National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protections. (As if being forced to bargain collectively with groundskeepers, secretaries and writing instructors might interfere with their “religious liberty,” an argument that could be made with the same merit about obeying traffic laws.)
While the NLRB has consistently distinguished between institutions with a substantial religious character and those with a religious affiliation, a 2002 D.C. Circuit Court opinion involving the University of Great Falls, a small Montana institution, radically undermined the Board’s authority, substituting a very loose religious-exemption test for the NLRB’s stricter standard.
Under Great Falls, courts may compel the NLRB to accept at face value the claims to a religious exemption of any institution that “presents itself to the public” as a religious institution.
Denying NLRB the power to distinguish between real and false claims to the exemption is a transparent assault on long-established employee rights and protections. Under the Great Falls ruling, essentially, any employer that claims the exemption may have it.
And unlike Yeshiva, the ruling applies comprehensively–to part-time faculty, students, and non-teaching staff.
This sweeping and radical new barrier to organizing came into being in much the same way that Yeshiva did, with the determination of a conservative activist Circuit Court judge. Backed by Jesse Helms and appointed by Ronald Reagan to fill the seat vacated by Antonin Scalia’s elevation to the Supreme Court, and at this writing the chief justice of the D.C. Circuit, David Sentelle has been described by The New York Times as “one of the federal judiciary’s most extreme conservatives.”*
Sentelle’s vote was instrumental in overturning the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter. He replaced the moderate Robert Fiske with the right-wing ideologue Kenneth Starr as independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. A long-term Republican party operative, even four years after his appointment to the federal bench, Sentelle was still publishing right-wing screeds against “leftist heretics” who he claimed sought to establish “a collectivist, egalitarian, materialistic, race-conscious, hyper-secular, and socially permissive state.”
Sentelle’s transparently activist opinion in Great Falls gutted the NLRB’s authority so far beyond reason that several attempts have been mounted as a test of the ruling.
The best of these before Manhattan College came forward in March 2009, during the first year of the Obama administration. Fully supported by the NLRB’s ruling that the school’s ties to the Presbyterian Church were too insubstantial to justify a religious exemption, the UAW-affiliated faculty of Carroll College, like the faculty of Yeshiva, simply came to Federal court seeking enforcement of the Board’s ruling in its case.
But who did the NLRB and the faculty union find waiting for them? A fellow named Thomas Griffith, who arrived at the D.C. Circuit Court directly from a five-year stint as general counsel and assistant to the president of Brigham Young University.
Unsurprisingly for the recent former general counsel of a religiously-affiliated university, Griffith’s 2009 opinion in the Carroll case bluntly applies the 2002 ruling advanced by his sitting chief: “Under Great Falls, Carroll is exempt from the NLRB’s jurisdiction. We thus need not address Carroll’s argument that its faculty members are managerial employees who fall outside the protection of the NLRA. We grant Carroll’s petition for review, vacate the decision and order of the NLRB, and deny the Board’s cross-petition for enforcement.”
*New York Times, August 17, 1994. Qtd in Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. The Hunting of the President. Macmillan, 2000, p131 (cited p 387).
Tellem’s Stand: Against the DC Circuit Court
With his decision in the Manhattan College case, Tellem is clear about the nature of the struggle: “The D.C. Circuit has refused to enforce Board cases asserting jurisdiction based on the Board’s test. Instead, the D.C. Circuit has set forth” its own test, which the NLRB “has not adopted.”
By highlighting the Circuit Court’s activist intervention and NLRB’s resistance–in a decision that will likely be contested in that same Circuit Court, with David Sentelle still sitting as its chief–Tellem is placing the court on notice that the NLRB will continue to affirm its constitutional right to jurisdiction.
Waiting for Tellem?
It’s not clear how the Manhattan College struggle will turn out.
What is clear is that decisions made by Tellem and the NLRB don’t make faculty self-organization possible.
It’s the other way around: Faculty self-organization makes it possible for Tellem to make decisions like this one. The Manhattan College faculty serving contingently have been fighting this battle for well over a decade and will keep fighting it.
When we face shabby rulings like Great Falls, does it make sense for us to assume that the decision proceeded from ultimately reasonable arguments advanced by truth-seekers? Are they arguments put forward in an adversarial system but refereed with a reasonable degree of impartiality and with the prospect of eventual accountability in higher courts?
Of course not. We need to see clearly that these are specious, intellectually dishonest arguments by activist reactionaries abusing the power of the bench to deny fundamental human rights.
We need to see clearly that these rulings are the product of a flawed, inherently political process that is likely to disadvantage both truth and justice for decades to come. Few observers would say, for instance, that the current Supreme Court is the place to test David Sentelle’s opinion in Great Falls.
But if the Supreme Court can’t help us, what should we do? If the United Auto Workers and American Federation of Teachers aren’t willing to spend any more of their resources fighting a reactionary judiciary, what should we do?
Ultimately what Yeshiva (1980), Great Falls (2002) and Carroll (2009) teach us is simple: what matters more than the law is the movement. The individuals who used (or abused) their power in these decisions were part of a social reaction to liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including workplace democracy, feminism, and civil rights.
They aren’t lone wolves; they’re conservative activists bound in a net of common culture, values, and mutual support. They didn’t have law, precedent, or reason on their side; they simply imposed their reactionary will and made new law out of the power represented by their movement.
It would be tremendously foolish if we permitted any of these rulings to constrain us.
We can build a movement with the students, nurses, young lawyers, schoolteachers, and countless others affected by exploitative and super-exploitative patterns of employment.
We can overcome this dense lattice of hostile law. We can and must imitate the 1960s movement of public employees whose self-organization was illegal and yet also an unstoppable force for writing new law reflecting truth, justice, fairness, and democracy.
From the perspective of our individual campuses: Is Yeshiva relevant? Are Great Falls and Carroll?
Not to a movement, no—no more so than any of the thousands of municipal statutes once theoretically constraining the movement of schoolteachers and sanitation workers. The tightest straps on those schoolteachers and sanitation workers were never the law; they were emotional and intellectual and habitual—habits of deference to, and trust in, authority.
They burst free. We can too.
Partly adapted from a recent contribution to Expositions
By my count of positions discussed on the essential Academic Jobs Wiki: Seven of forty-three positions in French with “interviews scheduled” were interviewing by Skype and bypassing the MLA convention in Los Angeles this week. (More fools them: The rains are ending and the forecast is lovely.) Five of the seven were tenure track positions. In German three of 27 tenure track and three of 18 nontenurable positions are bypassing MLA. Traditional English literature fields aren’t Skyping much as yet (just one or two in most fields), but among writing specialists at least seven tenure-track jobs of the 150 or so discussed are bypassing MLA.
Given that most MLA cities aren’t as desirable in early January as Los Angeles (Toronto, you know I’m talking about you!), will the cost savings of $5,000 to $10,000 per search lead to more Skyping and less flying of three to seven socially deficient individuals across the country to imprison them in their hotel rooms for most of three days? Um, yeah, duh.
The question is: How far will this trend go? It’s leading in writing and the foreign languages, where money is tightest and allegiance to the MLA is lowest. Let’s say most of the English literature and cultural studies fields follow suit—with spikes during years of conventions scheduled for, say, Philadelphia.
Remember that the profession’s hiring class is aging faster than a horse on crack, and try to imagine the fading appeal of long flights and long days listening to the young folks (“Wah wah wah Zizek blah blah blah three manuscripts under consideration”) followed by toddling over ice-filled sidewalks for stale cheddar soup and an oxidized chardonnay. So much more comfy to tune out in front of your video screen and read your email while pretending to listen.
Indeed: No need to interview at the lousy times chosen by MLA at all. Heck, why not interview at your own convenience? Not six interviews in a row, but three interviews every Friday afternoon in December. Or November. Or January.
So what’s the impact on MLA? With fields at the leading edge of adoption at 10 percent of interviews already, let’s pick a number for a near-term plateau, a conservative number like 25 percent of all interviews bypassing MLA—probably higher in writing and foreign languages. Let’s say in five years, roughly five hundred interviews might bypass the convention. That’s roughly two thousand interviewers who might not otherwise come, and at least a couple of hundred interviewees, those whose only interviews are Skyped.
MLA’s budget is several million a year, so losing a fraction of convention income isn’t going to bankrupt it. But let’s say conservatively they collect $200 a head per attendee. That’s a hit of almost a half-million a year right there. It’s probably more, because many folks renew their dues just to attend the convention, and there’s the rake from booksellers, some of whom might no longer come, hotel bookings, etc. And half a million pays five to seven staffers, without whom MLA can offer fewer services, thus diminishing the luster of the whole operation, making credible eventual future bypassings. Chances are excellent that 50 percent or more of writing jobs alone will bypass MLA, given the deservedly poor reputation of the organization in the field. If I were doing MLA resource allocation, I’d be thinking of a likely half-million dollar hit, and praying that it wasn’t a full million.
This question and others will be discussed at the panel “New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis.” This Thursday January 6, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 406A, L.A. Convention Center. A special session. Presiding: Meredith L. McGill, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick Speakers: Rosemary G. Feal, MLA, Marc Bousquet, Santa Clara Univ., Brian Croxall, Emory Univ., Christopher John Newfield, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, Marilee Lindemann, Univ. of Maryland, College Park. Format: eight-minute presentations, discussion.
6. Internal Stratifications. Jeffrey J. Williams, Carnegie Mellon Univ. As doctors farm out some tasks to nurses, practitioners and physicians’ assistants, the professoriate is shifting some tasks to sub- or tertiary professions.Remaking the University The System of Professions
Interested in joining Ohmann for a panel on working in commercialized higher ed? Drop him or Susan O’Malley a line by January 5, 2011. Have an article for Radical Teacher’s issue of the same theme? Send a proposal by May 15, 2011.
Fish Does It Again It happens roughly once a year, usually around the holidays: Just when you’re sure that you can safely ignore everything under his byline, Stanley Fish takes notice of something worthwhile and doesn’t entirely butcher it: Carvalho and Downing’s very important but absurdly priced Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era. (Yes, Virginia, full disclosure: I have a piece in it. OMG, so does Ward Churchill.) Unquestionably the must-have academic freedom book of the first decade of the millenium—ask your library to buy it.
Patrick J. Sullivan: “The people who control our schools … don’t send their own kids to these schools. They have one idea of education for our kids and an entirely different one for their own. The core principle of the Bloomberg administration … is condescension: … one idea for their children and a different idea … for everybody else.”
Nelson Rockefeller, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon. What would it take for the Republicans to send Obama home in 2012? The Republican party can steal Obama’s second term if party leadership has the nerve to put forward a liberal Republican willing to make and keep a single promise: No more than twelve students per class, in every public institution from kindergarten to graduate school.
We’ll invest in education until our public institutions have student-faculty ratios that exceed those of the boarding school that incoming New York City Schools Chancellor Cathie Black chose for her own kids.
The slogan “12 in 2012″ isn’t a one-stop fix for all that ails education. However as a game-changing simple promise, it could be a long-overdue intervention in a conversation that’s gone down a rat-hole of dishonesty and propaganda.
It’s a jobs creation bill. It transcends ethnicity, religion, and class. It targets Obama at his Achilles’ heel, delivering the largest bipartisan constituency in the country: educators, students, and parents.
Here’s your litmus test: Upper East Side parent Patrick J. Sullivan, active in Class Size Matters and NYC Public School Parents, who serves on the powerless New York City Panel for Education Policy (8 of the 13 members are directly appointed by the Mayor).
IMHO, any Republican that can honestly answer and satisfy Sullivan’s outrage below can steal Obama’s second term:
“I represent the borough of Manhattan on what the mayor calls the Panel for Educational Policy but what is in the law the Board of Education of the City of New York. I see here today parents and their elected leaders and I see teachers from every borough. I see them from every race and I see them from every income level and from every political party. Why is that?
“Because I’ve learned from talking to people is that every parent wants to the same thing for their kids: they want a rich curriculum, they want an experienced teacher, they want small classes, and they want room for their kids in their schools.
“But what have I learned from sitting on the Board of Educaiton for three years? I’ve learned that instead of schools, we’re going to build a billion dollar police academy. Instead of a rich curriculum, we get test prep and drilling in math and ELA. Instead of small classes, we get our kids packed 28, 30, 35, 40 in a class and that’s wrong.
“But the worst of all this is the people who control our schools, the people who run our schools, the Mayor, the Chancellor, the Regents, they don’t send their own kids to these schools. They have one idea of education for our kids and and an entirely different one for their own.
“Beyond autonomy, beyond accountability, beyond privatization, the core principle of the Bloomberg administration when it comes to education is condescension: the idea that there’s one idea of education for their children and a totally different idea of education for everybody else’s, and that’s what has to stop.”
You’ve probably been watching or reading about a remarkable event here in California–a group of parents at Compton’s McKinley Elementary using the nation’s first “trigger law” to transfer management of the school. It’s an important story, raising interesting questions about a potentially useful law that is already being imitated across the country.
The problem is that you are getting the for-profit and charter school industry’s script–word for word–by most major news outlets, print and broadcast. Here’s some of the story you didn’t get:
+ The Compton parents didn’t rise up on their own; they were among half a dozen communities targeted for door-to-door sales campaigning by Parent Revolution, an “Astroturf organization” (ie, fake grassroots) spun off by Green Dot, a charter group managing fifteen Los Angeles schools.
+ As calculated by Caroline Grannan: by Parent Revolution’s own standards, all but one of Green Dot’s schools are failing, and on average have a California Academic Performance Index of 632, well below the 670 average of the schools that Parent Revolution has targeted for “trigger law” applications.
+ The school will now be taken over by Celerity, a four-school charter operation infamous for firing two teachers who included “A Wreath for Emmett Till” in their 2007 seventh-grade Black History Month celebration.
+In response to the firings, Celerity director Vielka McFarlane said “We don’t want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered, but on how do we dress for success, walk proud and celebrate all the accomplishments we’ve made.”
+The California trigger law was written and proposed by the fake parent organization, a point well understood by state legislators. It passed by one vote, largely because of the ratchet on already-beyond-critical budget pressure imposed by Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top competition.
None of the major reports (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, ABC, even the California NPR affiliates) even mention the connection between Green Dot and Parent Revolution, much less explore the dubious record of charter schools generally or the even more unimpressive record of Green Dot in particular. Most quote Vielka McFarlane, but none critically examine the pedagogy, record, or curriculum of Celerity schools. None point out that one of the quirks of the California trigger law is that the parents’ options for new school management are laid out in four fairly rigid tracks, meaning that choosing to explore the charter track doesn’t initiate an open competition. Only the Los Angeles paper noted the imposition of Celerity without competition, and none of the major accounts pointed out that in recent large-scale open competition with teacher-run charter applications, the teacher-led charters won overwhelmingly.
In a word: thoughtfully. I think if written and used properly, versions of trigger laws can actually be used to facilitate democratic change from below, especially when parents and teachers work together. Similar to the heartening example of the overwhelming victory of teacher-led schools in the large-scale charter competition, I have tremendous faith in the radically-democratic partnership of teachers, parents and students.
I agree that the California law is flawed, and that some parents will be manipulated by the powerful alliance of politicians, corporate media and charter/for-profit management companies.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of potential good to forcing educator trade unions to get out there and organize their communities against the bad ideas of the powerful forces arrayed against the best interests of their kids.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow: Teachers who talk to parents generally find that parents get it; parents support teachers and teaching for the whole person, not the test-prep-and-dress-for-success pap of Duncan, Rhee, and the corporate-managed charters.
Unaccompanied by any actual proposals, much less commitments to funding, Obama’s latest rhetorical sally-forth has him touring the Hooverville of the south Atlantic states and promising the moon. Okay, not the moon–the race to the moon, which was our way of changing the rules on the space race (double or nothing, since with Sputnik we’d already lost round one).
Funny thing, though: the actual race to the moon was accompanied by massive mobilization and funding. You remember: trillions poured into education and research, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), the formation of NASA.
Not so the President’s made-for-tv version, which on the level of personal presidential narrative is just a way to distract the press from a growing interest in the U.S. presidents of the 1930s. As you read here among the first, Obama’s far more of a slick, charming, moderate, pro-business Hoover than a second FDR. With campaign season nigh, Obama’s unfunded, ad-hoc referencing of Sputnik is clearly in part a bid to head off the growing Hoover comparisons and get himself compared to any post-FDR prez whatsoever.
How empty is the Prez’s rhetoric? Not quite as empty as the hard vacuum of interstellar space, but not exactly full of promise either.
The “time for Sputnik” gambit’s been played over and over again: roughly every five years since we pulled out of Vietnam. Most recently, in January 2006 the Association of American Universities (AAU) and a bipartisan bunch of legislators proposed a National Defense Education and Innovation Initiative, or NDE II (cleverly referencing the 195os NDEA) and the Protect America’ Competive Edge (PACE) Act. Taking advantage of the fiftieth anniversary of Sputnik, these efforts resulted in the 2007 passage of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007, or America COMPETES Act, which most people found woefully inadequate, and an inappropriate comparison to space-race urgency. Up for reauthorization, even this modest initiative, a bipartisan project under Bush, is now being held up by Republicans.
Therefore the likeliest meaning of Obama’s Sputnik rhetoric is not visionary, launching a new initiative, or anything of the kind. Instead it appears defensive, tactical and political, signalling continued support for the long-delayed re-authorization.
Far from a promise for a brand new space race, Obama’s Sputnik reference is just a rhetorical ploy in a running battle to conserve the status quo.
Education: Running on Empty Rhetoric
That’s too bad because, as I’ve pointed out before, education is a splendid point for stimulus intervention. There are nearly five million educators in the country and roughly twenty million persons working while they study, from high-school seniors straight to graduate school.
Many of the educators are under-employed and overworked, teaching too many students with insufficient support. Lots of room for job creation there–call it a million jobs, minimum. And there are whole areas of educator employment that are underprofessionalized and unexplored, such as public-sector day care and early learning–there’s another million jobs right there.
Likewise, most of the twenty-million-plus persons working while they study are working too much–one of the major reasons for the nation’s execrable performance in graduation rates. Keeping students out of the workforce, or even regulating their hours down to a reasonable level/raising the wage in the workplaces they super-populate, would create millions of jobs.
What’s worse than a fat lip? How about a one-term presidency? The post-Thanksgiving White House news was all about Reynaldo Deceraga, whose elbow connected with the Presidential face during a basketball game. But those twelve stitches are nothing compared to the potentially career-ending injuries caused by another of Obama’s hoopsters, Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
There were plenty of reasons for Obama to get knocked sprawling in the midterm elections, most of them having to do with taking his base for granted. In a matter of months, the 2012 election cycle will begin in earnest, and the one certain thing about the Democratic presidential campaign is that Obama will have to repair his relationship with the party’s base.
One of the quickest fixes? Send Arne Duncan to the bench. There are three million schoolteachers in the United States, teaching sixty million young people–most of whose parents don’t agree with Duncan’s education policy, despite ceaselessly uncritical, biased coverage on network television and in the national newspapers.
The Lesson of Michelle Rhee
There are over 13,000 school districts in the US. The resignation of one district leader doesn’t usually rate much interest, but most schools chancellors don’t bring down a mayor or symbolize the education agenda of a sitting U.S. president. At the heart of interest in last month’s departure of District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is a far more serious set of questions about President Barack Obama and his all-too-similar prescriptions for improving public education. Can Obama learn the lesson of Rhee’s failure?
As the take-no-prisoners sheriff of urban education, Rhee demanded results, irrespective of circumstances and differences. Huge classes? Wretched facilities? Poor preparation? Substance abuse? Poverty, crime and domestic misery? Salary too low to recruit consistent competence? Rhee always had the same blunt answer: No excuses. She challenged teachers, students, parents and principals to overcome any and all obstacles. “Go hard or go home,” she liked to say, and she meant it.
Qualified education analysts usually questioned whether Rhee’s cowboy-slash-coach “challenge education” approach made for good teaching and learning. But it sure made great television. In the noonday glare projected by film crews, Chancellor Rhee painted black hats on the teachers, knocked back a sasparilla, and strode out to the O.K. corral. She fired, demoted and penalized a thousand faculty and administrators who, she said, failed to “get results.” No excuses, bang! Stop whining, bang! bang!
Cue tympani: the shy, grateful townsfolk slowly, wonderingly creep from doorways and haylofts to embrace Six-Gun Micky Rhee.
Funny thing, though. Rhee _didn’t_ win the gratitude and admiration of parents and students in her district. Instead, they fired their mayor just to get rid of her. Adrian Fenty, the D.C. mayor who bet his career on voters’ acceptance of Rhee, lost lopsidedly, and only won among voters that don’t have students in the district schools.
It turns out that good television and good politics (much less good policy) aren’t always the same thing.
One reason voters rejected Rhee is that she didn’t come within a country mile of living up to her own “no excuses” standard. Despite being given an unprecedented free hand, lavished with over $50 million in foundation support and featured in hour after hour of ceaselessly uncritical network coverage, Rhee accomplished little–even by the incredibly narrow standards she set herself, raising test scores. Even friendly observers called Rhee and Fenty’s claims for progress “overstated” and at least one member of the D.C. Board of education said it “came close to selling the public a bill of goods.”
No Excuses, Mister President
The lesson for the President is pretty clear: Listen to parents who actually have kids in public schools. The D.C. parents aren’t unusual in siding with their teachers against the billionaire foundations and education profiteers. Last spring in Los Angeles, given a choice between schools run by charter corporations or by district teachers, 87 percent of parents voted for schools run by unionized teachers.
That’s a number that surprises college faculty, but it shouldn’t. Schoolteachers and parents with kids in the public schools have been fighting junk education as job training for decades,
Obama and Duncan’s plans for higher education are evident in their attraction to community colleges. All of the features that most educators deplore about community colleges are what the current administration _likes_about them: top-down control of curriculum, disposable teachers, automated courseware, a training model of education, and management highly responsive to local employers. Their ambitions for publicly-funded higher education are closely parallel to their commitments in the schools: more automation, a standardized national curriculum, and centralization of control with an intensified assessment regime.
Higher education has been slow to pick up on these threats, but national polls show that most Americans already clearly understand the difference between raising test scores and actually improving education.
Most parents and taxpayers consistently share the beliefs of most teachers about what needs to be done to improve our schools. An August Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa survey showed respondents agreeing with teachers that the largest problem with schools is a shortfall in funding, that the major issue with teacher competence is support for retraining and keeping up to date, that the biggest problem with recruitment and retention is abysmal teacher pay.
A McKinsey & Co. report released last month noted that many nations with excellent schools attract 100 percent of their teaching force from the top third of their college graduates with salaries of up to $150,000. The United States, with some of the lowest salaries for teachers, attracts only 23 percent of its faculty from the top third.
The Gallup survey gave voters a chance to grade Obama’s Rhee-style education initiatives. The response was resoundingly negative, with just 34 percent giving the president a “B” or better, and 59% giving him a C, D, or F. These numbers are significantly lower than his overall approval rating (currently near his lowest, at 42% favorable, 51% unfavorable).
The American public that disagrees with Obama and Rhee isn’t stupid or misguided. Parents in L.A and D.C. aren’t the pawns of the American Federation of Teachers. On the contrary, their views–our views–are supported by the expertise of teachers, education researchers, and decades of evidence from other nations with effective schools.
We want better schools and colleges, Mr. President, and we know how to make them: smaller classes, support for faculty, salaries that will pull talent out of overcrowded law schools. We can build palaces of learning–education and social policy for the whole person, not just a mindless ratchet on test scores. But you have to have the courage to change course.
Just when you thought that everyone was going to buy a CB radio/pet rock/mood ring/Betamax/eight-track, you had the courage of your convictions and held off. Good for you.You probably also haven’t yet tied your mobile media consumption to either Apple or Amazon. Double good for you–waiting a year has paid off. Now you can buy a lightweight mobile media viewer/tablet PC that is also a full netbook computer.
I think the Dell product is close to a stable design for the notebook. In a couple of years the industry standard will have better batteries, more advanced docking and a detachable clamshell keyboard, but this version will work just as well for you completing your presentation on an airplane as entertaining your toddler in a car seat.
It’s also a far better choice for the college student writing papers, streaming lectures, and playing Halo on the go.
Leisure reading plus everyday computing
For the past year, I’ve done most of my leisure reading on a netbook, making use of a variety of different e-reader formats and sometimes using screen orientation software that turns the netbook screen into vertical orientation. I turn off the wireless connection, dim the screen to its lowest level, enlarge and customize the font, and often reverse the type (to white on black). Very soothing, and no need for a lamp when H. is trying to sleep.
The Dell tablet will handle the reading function nicely. It’s a touch heavier than either the Kindle or the Ipad, but lighter than either of the netbooks I already use for e-reading and occasional screening of missed episodes of Sons of Anarchy.
On my desk sits a large, heavy “media laptop,” but for all my other computing/media consumption at home, in the office, or on the road, I’ve long switched to the netbook, first a nice little Asus that I left on top of my car while latching my son into his car seat, then my current HP mini. Both run eight hours or longer on a single charge. Right now the Dell item runs about half as long, but I imagine the next iteration will offer more.
It’s true that currently that the Kindle and iPad beat this particular Dell offering in a few ways: they’re lighter, run longer on a charge and better adapt to extreme viewing angles.
But as a media creation device–anything requiring a keypad, from writing papers to editing a powerpoint–both are all but useless. What their purveyors fail to understand is that for most professionals and students reading and writing (media consumption and production, if you prefer) are intertwined at every level, from annotation to original or collaborative composition. That’s why netbooks have succeeded and most tablets have failed.
Furthermore: giving the Apple store so much prominence in your media consumption is plain foolhardy, especially when it comes to very young children.
Your toddler will want one too
As I’ve previously written, our son Emile has had his own touch-screen computer since he was fourteen months old, a large, expensive HP all-in-one which gives us access to the very large and important world of early learning activities such as poissonrouge and starfall.com.
We play these games together, as we would any other play-based learning activity, and for less than an hour a day (initially only fifteen minutes). They’ve been just one component of a broad spectrum of parent-intensive play-based learning, but a very important one. The touch screen makes a world of difference: children acquire the pointing reflex around ten months, and with the ability to point follows the capability of interacting with a screen and parent.
At some point I’ll write more about Emile’s “zero to three” learning experiences, which have been enormously successful by both traditional and progressive measures. He’s currently just two years and nine months, so maybe I’ll write when he turns three. You can read all of my caveats on the subject in the earlier pieces, but I’ll just reiterate here that we play with him: the learning is embedded in, and incidental to, play.
Based on our experience and the very substantial research about early learning, I’d recommend a Windows-based touch netbook to any toddler with a parent who understands the difference between play-based learning (as at poissonrouge or starfall) and the pointless mind-numbing drill of flashcards, “hooked on,” etc.
There’s no question in my mind that the feelings and good intentions that have led millions of parents to buy useless and perhaps harmful “Baby Einstein” videos would be far better served by parentally-involved play with a touch screen and the right kind of early learning.
Both drilling your child and using video as a babysitter are harmful. And neither of them bears any relation whatsoever to thoughtful, play-based, parentally-involved interactive learning facilitated by a touch screen.
Most of these early-learning games are flash-based applications that Apple does not support, primarily to maximize revenue to its media sales operation. While there are some early-learning apps written for the iPhone and iPad, they are far more limited. The arrival of the Dell and several other netbook tablets is a big boost for your toddler.
Buying for myself, I’ll wait until battery life meets the netbook standard of eight hours or more. But buying for Emile–I’ll buy what’s available when he needs it. His first summer in Quebec we left his thousand-dollar monster thirty-pound HP all-in-one behind, and regretted it; the next summer we packed it into a suitcase and brought it with us, and were glad we did.
Come May, we’re buying this Dell for him unless there’s a better option.
“Waiting For Superman (WFS) portrays our schools as undemanding; Race to Nowhere says the opposite — that we are killing our kids, figuratively and sometimes literally,” observes John Merrow of PBS. “Hours of homework produce unbearable stress; stress produces cheating, cramming to pass tests and then forgetting everything; that false learning then means remediation when they get to college; and, on rare occasions, students kill themselves.”
Filmmaker Vicki Abeles is no propagandist, so the film isn’t as slick as the glib, dishonest work of Davis Guggenheim.
It spends too much time on the issues of wealthy children competing for college admission and occasionally conflates those issues with those of other students, especially the much larger group of young people for whom “overscheduling” means wage labor pulling lattes and serving pizzas to her own children. It fails to fully capture the ways that lawmakers and for-profit education-management corporations drive education policy.
She pushes too hard on one (good) thesis–that students have too much homework from an early age–and the big picture into which it fits isn’t always crisp.
Nonetheless you should see this film, and anyone who sees WFS should be required to watch it. With just one email you can arrange to have it shown on your campus. Why not talk to your students about the film and the issues it raises? Just for starters: ritalin abuse, stress and cheating; cynical community service (and service as hyper-exploitation); the failure of content-driven pedagogy associated with high-stakes testing (and the reliably-documented “memory dump” two weeks later).
I saw the film in Cupertino, a community infamous for cramming, with tutorial services on every block, and talked with parents who, like the Oakland filmmaker, worried about their own children (up to two hours of homework a night in kindergarten).
Then I talked to someone I’ll call Terri N., one of our babysitters, who we pay fifteen to seventeen dollars an hour. She’s a pre-med biology student attending a local private university and works three jobs during the school year and as many hours she can get summers. She works at a sports bar, averaging twelve dollars an hour or less including her tips. She works as a science tutor and peer health educator for eleven bucks an hour. Summers she’ll work sixty hours a week; “more if I can get it.” There’s no time for partying, dating, seeing movies.
What is she spending the money on, besides tuition? To pay for what she sees as gilt-edged service learning, an immersion trip with a self-titled “global medical brigade.”
“I’m actually working to pay for volunteering,” she says. “It’s definitely good experience and probably a fun trip. But the truth is you have to do it. Everyone does it now. These are the things you have to do to get in. If you’re the one that doesn’t, you’re the one who’s not getting in.”
Turns out Terri went through the same thing in high school. Not from a wealthy family, she worked twenty-five hours a week in order to pay for her clothes, books and a similar immersion trip, gilding her college application.
And here’s the thing. Terri’s one of the “winners” in this crazy system. She’s not burned out. Her family is supportive, stable and just well enough off to pay a lot of her bills. She’ll make it in to a decent school, come close enough to the employment she imagines for herself, make a good salary, pay off her loans, probably manage to have kids if she wants them.
Most people don’t have Terri’s abilities, support, and emotional stability. A system that with tremendous sacrifice barely works for someone like Terri is failing most other young people–not because it demands too little of them, but because it demands way, way too much.
Fixing this problem is not rocket science. It just requires some honesty. We are exploiting and super-exploiting young people. We herd them into a system that manufactures desperation and then hand them hamster wheels with sickly hypocritical grins on our faces. The best of them tell us to piss off, find a better path or destroy themselves in the searching. The next best run in circles just to make our shopping, our research leaves, and our foreign policy as cheap as possible. Only a handful ever stop pacing the wheel.
Many things may get more expensive, from education to fast food. But we need to stop displacing adult wage labor with students and volunteers, especially volunteerism of the extorted variety.
This video is going around under the title of “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?” It probably has some relevance across the liberal arts, but the piece is more narrowly about the declining role of traditional literary scholarship in English studies, a topic I’ve written about before.
I’m particularly interested because I’m heading my (English) department’s curriculum committee this year and surveying student reaction to concentrations we’re considering. We haven’t even finished collecting responses, but it seems clear that many students from a wide variety of majors remain interested in at least some areas of traditional literary study for personal interest, or to fulfill a distribution requirement.
But when you ask what interests might lead students to make the larger commitment to a minor in English, or a major, the picture tilts. So far, science, business and other humanities majors say they are most likely to consider a minor in English in a diverse set of fields that I would characterize as either a) involving the production of texts, ie, writing or b) the intersection of disciplines.
I think we often miss the forest for the trees when we look at student interests: unless they’re an English major, we see our other students under labels that seem to clearly parcel them out into different camps: creative writer, business communications student, first-year student in composition.
But when we strand those various interests together under a single heading–writing or textual production, we start to see that these groups are often the same people–just with a writerly orientation to English, rather than a readerly one.
It’s actually quite common for non-majors, including business and science students, to take creative writing classes. But what offerings would lead them toward the further commitment of a minor in English?
As it turns out, these generally also involve textual production: writing in digital environments; business, scientific, legal, and medical writing; communication for advocacy, public discourse and social change.
Not surprisingly: students whose primary interests are science, business, or another humanities field are less likely to name literature and cultural studies concentrations as an incentive to consider an English minor or major.
When they do, however, so far in this limited study, the most popular seem to involve interdisciplinary subjects: film, women’s studies, spirituality and literature, digital culture.
I’m just starting to think through this particular survey and what it might mean for just one department.
One working hypothesis might be that we can count on a certain, slowly declining level of enrollments in individual classes and the major based on the love of literature. Students still find literature interesting, some passionately enough to major in it, pursue graduate study, etc–only fewer and fewer every year.
One strategy to build enrollments might be, as the MLA has–in my view, rather ridiculously–to sell literary studies as a nostrum for all that ails you. My guess would be that this approach won’t work (because it’s been tried, and usually fails, except where it serves as the justification for a set of requirements). In any event, it lacks intellectual credibility, at least in the form MLA has tried.
A better approach might begin by acknowledging that “literature” is an increasingly poor description of the interests of faculty and students in English.
Much of the most interesting faculty work for decades has been on writing that doesn’t easily fit within the traditional meaning of literary studies per se. As I wrote in the earlier piece, some of the most interesting work in my own department is being done on economic writers; Pacific revolutionary discourse; nineteenth-century elocution and reform; contemporary management theory; self-help, leadership, and spirituality; eighteenth-century sermons and other religious speech, and headmistress memoir—and evidently headmistresses with the souls of accountants, not poets.
In practical terms, this could mean that the figure of writing plays a larger role in the way we present and organize our curriculum, with less and less privileging of a specifically literary history.
Getting to the point where an English department can comfortably say “we’re all interested in writers and writing” might make a big difference in how we value each other, how we distribute resources, and in our reception on campus and beyond.
Jesus asked his followers to address the whacking huge piece of lumber in their own eyes before performing optical surgery on others. And I can’t think of a better case study of His wisdom than good old U.S. higher education, where the 5,000 nonprofits–many of them pushing what they perceive as Christian values–are engaging in high hypocrisy about for-profit education vendors.
Sure, the for-profits are just as bad as they say. They fail to graduate students and the students they graduate are often un-, under- and mis- educated. The students go into debt to pay outrageous tuition for the attention of under-qualified faculty, and then fail to find the employment for which they were putatively prepared. And from all of this under-regulated misery and failure, the shareholders are racking up massive capital accumulation.
The problem is that the for-profits did not invent any of this. All of these tactics–what I’ve called the tuition gold rush–were pioneered by the nonprofit sector.
1) We nonprofits have been teaching students with underqualified faculty, graduate students, and even undergraduates for the past forty years (all while braying inanely about an “oversupply” of persons with doctorates).
2) We charge outrageous tuition for degrees which will not lead to employment, while putting students to work at super-exploitative wage discounts.
3) By overcharging students and underpaying faculty, we have been accumulating capital–not in shareholders’ pockets, but capital nonetheless, in buildings and grounds, endowments, in tech infrastructure. We also spend down a lot of the dollars that an enterprise institution captures as profit and sends along to its shareholders. Sometimes those dollars are spent on valid public non-education goods. Just as often, though, they’re blown by the million on administrator initiatives like big-time sports, social engineering, business ventures, and the pet projects of influential campus or community actors.
The reason our administrator-dominated accreditation system couldn’t hold for-profits accountable between 1990 and the present is because between 1970 and 1990 it allowed the wholesale substitution of students and m.a. holders (willing to work for status and peanuts) for a largely tenurable workforce with terminal degrees as the preferred qualification. As I’ve been saying since the early 1990s: if one or two big education states restored the 1970 percentage of tenure-stream faculty with doctorates in teaching-intensive positions, there’d be a vast, sucking undersupply of persons with doctorates in many fields.
I agree, by the way, that a Ph.D. by itself is far from an ironclad guarantee that any individual is an effective teacher, researcher, or campus citizen. As we began to misconstrue tenure as a merit badge for research faculty the system of doctoral preparation grew increasingly flawed as a preparation for teaching-intensive faculty positions. But in fields where terminal-degree programs exist, they remain the right intervention point. Where employers at teaching-intensive institutions hire better-prepared faculty into teaching-intensive positions, programs have quickly begun to compete with each other to prepare faculty who are excellent teachers.
While employing more persons with doctorates is desirable, the point is to put them through the rigorous seven-year peer assessment of the tenure system. One of the biggest failures of the accreditation system is that it has permitted the development of slapdash, hare-brained systems of hiring and evaluation by administrators. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the toughest standards for faculty evaluation–by far–are still embodied in the arduous, long-term peer scrutiny of the tenure system.
Across the country, management-dominated hiring and evaluation of the majority of faculty and student instructors is capricious, ill-informed, and aimed at hiring the cheapest and most docile faculty, not the best. Fixing higher ed will inevitably mean either reinstating the rigors of peer assessment (the tenure system) or finding a credible substitute–which, so far, 40 years of management innovation has failed to provide.
You actually want to fix higher ed and stimulate the economy? It’s not rocket science.
2) Raise standards for the qualifications, training, and continuing professional development of all faculty. Many great researchers need incentives to learn to teach better. Great teachers should have opportunities and incentives for earning terminal degrees and remaining current. This doesn’t mean their job descriptions should be changed: the difference between a bad teaching-only appointments and a pedagogically appropriate teaching-intensive appointment is support for professional currency.
3) Put more people with doctorates in teaching-intensive tenure-track positions and prepare them better for teaching. Which for most would mean less teaching in graduate school but with far more training and supervision.
4) Remove undergraduate students from work-study positions unrelated to their course of study, and hire adult workers in their place.
5) Place limits on student labor outside of the education workforce, and provide incentives for the employers of “workers who study” to reduce their workload while engaged in learning.
The panic about for-profit practices has a basis in reality, but it’s a hypocritical and propagandistic misconstruction of history to claim that “they” influenced the nonprofit sector to adopt ruthless, shallow, exploitative practices–whether it’s passing off first-year grad students as teachers or promoting what Jeff Williams has reasonably argued is student debt as a form of indentured servitude.
No, fellow hypocrites. The for-profits didn’t teach us any of these sleazy innovations. We taught them.
A funny thing is happening in the United States. Across the country, headless schools are opening. One opens this fall in Detroit: the teachers’ terms of employment are still governed by their union’s contract with Detroit Public Schools, but they will administer themselves on a democratic, cooperative basis. In just the past couple of years, schools run by teacher cooperatives have opened in Madison, Denver, Chicago, Boston, and New York. Milwaukee has 13 teacher-run schools.
These aren’t universities. They are elementary schools, kindergartens, high schools of the arts and humanities, high schools for budding scientists and programmers, high schools for social justice. Sometimes four or five co-operatively run and publicly-funded schools share the same building and grounds. Few of them operate in wealthy neighborhoods. Nearly all of them serve students who are struggling because English isn’t their first language, or because their homes and neighborhoods are scarred by poverty, neglect, substance abuse and crime. They are generally successful by any measure, even the fatuous assessments of standardized testing. They are broadly popular with students, teachers, and parents.
Over the next few years, dozens–perhaps hundreds–of similar schools will open in Los Angeles: teachers will have control over curriculum, work rules and every facet of academic policy. In every school, councils of students, teachers, and parents provide active, intellectual leadership. Every school has a student-, community- and teacher- centered system of governance imagined from the ground up by faculty and citizen co-proposers. They will all have at least one principal administrator, so they have not amputated the head, only shrunken it. Nonetheless it is clear that community leaders, students and teachers will hire, evaluate and severely circumscribe the authority of their (usually) solitary administrator in a self-conscious, explicitly distributed system of leadership.
The remarkable Los Angeles situation is a startling victory for grass-roots democracy in education. Less surprising is the fact that you haven’t heard about it. This victory has been ignored and misrepresented by the US corporate media, many of whom also operate as for-profit education vendors. Leading national figures in both political parties, including the current Democratic administration, actively support the sectarian and profit-driven private management of public schooling.
One way to understand what’s happening in L.A. is as a crisis in teacher unionism, a subset of the near-collapse of unionism in the country after decades of hostile law created by politicians slavishly pursuing corporate interests. The immediate trigger for bold action by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) was the determination by Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) that as many as 300 “poorly performing” schools would be opened to bid by charter or for-profit management over the next few years, with a first round of community “advisory votes” on bids scheduled for February 2010.
The district was already the site of more privately managed public schools than any other in the country; three hundred more would essentially have broken the union.
Desperate for a new strategy and inspired by the usually union-supported headless schools springing up elsewhere, this time the behemoth UTLA declined to square off against giant LAUSD in the traditional all-or-nothing pitched battle.
Instead UTLA chose to throw its resources behind a series of grassroots actions, negotiating the right for teachers to submit their own bids. It sent money and personnel in active, energetic support of groups of teachers, parents and students, helping them to generate highly individual school visions.
Within weeks: in neighborhoods across the city, teachers and parents met to hammer out proposals–at least one for every school put out for bid, 36 in the first round.
The results of the February 2010 “advisory votes” conducted by the League of Women Voters were stunning. In every school up for bid, the grassroots and teacher-led proposal won decisively, averaging 87% over all alternatives, including rich politician- and media- backed national education-management chains already established in the city such as like Magnolia, Aspire, and Green Dot.
“Advisory” or not, the parents’ vote was so overwhelming that it produced tangible political fear of electoral backlash, leaving the schools supervisor and district board little choice but to award the majority of the bids to proposals featuring workplace and community democracy. Of the 36 schools up for grabs, four were awarded to the Los Angeles mayor’s nonprofit management corporation, three to private charters and management corporations; 29 went to teacher-parent proposals.
If the grass roots win the same percentage of all those offered to bid in the district over the next few years, 240 democratically-operated schools will open. There would be 60 operated by politically-connected nonprofits or profit-seeking corporations, though all of them would do so against the wishes of local parents.
What does it mean to “occupy” a school? A school occupation is not, as the corporate media like to portray it, a hostile takeover. A school occupation is an action by those who are already its inhabitants–students, faculty, and staff–and those for whom the school exists. (Which is to say for a public institution, the public itself. ) The actions termed “occupations” of a public institution, then, are really re-occupations, a renovation and reopening to the public of a space long captured and stolen by the private interests of wealth and privilege. The goal of this renovation and reopening is to inhabit school spaces as fully as possible, to make them truly habitable–to make the school a place fit for living.
Lessons From Schoolteachers: Permanent Occupation
It is hard to overstate the radicalism of this spreading front of action. Teachers, supported by their unions, in partnership with students and parents, are taking back the schools–literally hijacking mechanisms designed by politicians to hand schools to religious, ideological, and capitalist control. Their intention is clear: permanent occupation of the schools, a full, rich inhabitation.
In the United States, it is all too common for those of us who inhabit the university to lord it over the schoolteachers. Often we play a role in training and certifying them; we sometimes produce some of the knowledge they share, write the textbooks they use, or review their curricula. We sometimes come from wealthier, worldlier families. Those of us with terminal degrees and tenure like to think we have enjoyed greater cultural capital or more cosmopolitan experience; we tend to have stronger loyalties to our profession than to any one community or campus. In our own minds, at least, we are the avant-garde of knowledge production, the officer class: schoolteachers are in the trenches, education’s infantry, the grunts.
It’s not clear that our looking down on them does any harm to the schoolteachers–but it sure hurts us. Our sense of superiority keeps us from understanding basic things–that we work for a living, that we have to struggle with management to preserve the working conditions of a future faculty, that you can’t convert status capital into hot meals, hospital beds, or a pension.
Long before there was a movement to unionize college faculty, U.S. schoolteachers joined with sanitation workers and other public employees to democratize their workplaces.
They struggled against some of the most hostile law in any industrialized nation in a series of imaginative direct actions. They rewrote the constitutions of “professional associations” that had kept them docile for decades, turning them into vehicles of unionism. They battled in the streets for the right to self-organize, boldly compelling the rewriting of unjust law after the fact of their illegal self-organization. Martin Luther King was murdered while supporting a wildcat strike of sanitation workers, demanding recognition of their illegal union.
Only after long years of bold action by schoolteachers, including the defiance of unjust law–not to mention similar defiance by the undergraduates educated by these militants–did anything resembling militant self-organization erupt among college faculty. And when that movement hit a few bumps in the road, it retreated; in many places it collapsed. Even the strongest organizations of college faculty today have already sold out future generations in bargaining multiple tiers of employment into existence.
Is it possible that the schoolteachers once again have something to teach the university?
I think so.
During 09-10 we saw a remarkable series of campus occupations in Europe and the Americas, with especially sustained, militant and broadly inclusive efforts in Austria, Italy, and Germany–not to mention the month-long, eight-city, twenty-campus events in Croatia.
There were at least a hundred occupations or related protests that year in the United States, where they are extremely unusual. Some of the earliest uprisings took place the preceding spring in New York, led by students attuned to international student militance.
By far the most extensive, militant and successful occupation on U.S. territory was that at the University of Puerto Rico, which shut down the most important university in the Caribbean, involved tens of thousands of students for nearly three months, won the support of the full faculty of the 11-campus system as well as numerous trade unions, major artists and political figures.
The most influential U.S. protests, however, were those in California, which spread, as they say, virally, from an outbreak at UC Santa Cruz. It began with a small but diverse cadre of militants, many of them graduate students, but including tenured faculty, undergraduates, and unionized staff. Their manifestos and slogans were truly a shot heard round the world. Before the year was out, masses of students were joined in rallies and marches by the unions of schoolteachers and staff, as well as some faculty. Before it was over, California students’ ambitions for direct action had escalated to the blockade of a major highway.
It is already clear that the occupations and related events will continue through 2010-2011. As I write this, the school year has just begun in parts of the U.S., and the University of New Orleans has already seen one occupation (swiftly suppressed by riot police). A major international planning committee is bringing together large-scale events for early October, and there will certainly be at least one other such coalition effort in the spring.
The question all of these occupations raise for me is this: how to move from “occupation” as inspirational event or even regular protest practice to inhabitation? Is there a path to permanent occupation of the campus? Is victory to be measured in terms of a restoration of funding and/or the addition of student representation to bodies of administration?
I have already written in response to this question, suggesting that a permanent occupation of higher education would involve the militant inhabitation of all the organizations that comprise “the profession” of higher education, and those that intersect with it, such as metropolitan government:
A relatively small number of graduate students could begin a peaceful “occupation” of all the institutions of the profession—especially if they coordinated with students, staff, contingent faculty, and fellow travelers in the tenure stream. What would happen if the submerged 80 percent of the profession—graduate student employees and contingent faculty—occupied the governing positions of the AAUP and of disciplinary organizations like the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, and the American Psychological Association? What if they similarly occupied the governments of college towns—Ithaca, Bloomington, and Ann Arbor? What issues would they engage? Where would they direct the funds? How would they employ staff time? What improprieties would they commit in public? I, for one, would like to know.
The schoolteachers are showing us the way toward direct democratic control of education. If we can see, here in the U.S.–at the vain, dull epicenter of global inequality–bands of schoolteachers and parents in the most impoverished neighborhoods seizing control of their institutions and banishing the dead hand of administration: how can we not imagine the same for our universities? We can administer ourselves directly and democratically. And we must–if we are to make our colleges truly inhabitable.
An essay for the National Day of Action to Defend Public Education, October 7, 2010. Originally composed as the introduction to the forthcoming Occupation Cookbook.
I’d like you to imagine the following. Suppose we are going to have a national summit on health care. Do you not suppose that a substantial number of the voices included would be from professionals in health care, including doctors and nurses? Would you have 3 people with just the head of the AMA to represent doctors?
Or how about legal reform – would not lawyers scream if such a conference were organized without a substantial portion of the main participants being members of the profession representing the range of opinions within the legal field?
Why then is it when it comes to education that people think it is appropriate to have major discussions about education without fair inclusion of the voices of those who bear the greatest burden for the education of our children, the parents and the teachers? –Kenneth Bernstein, Cooperative Catalyst
Just as Obama’s pursued the Republican party line on education, NBC has taken a page from Fox News and Oprah. Their lineup on a two-day policy summit with a dozen conference panels –you know, the kind of panels usually filled with folks with credible expertise in the topic–features politicians, astronauts, tv anchors, musicians, corporate executives, and charter school entrepreneurs.
But somehow they completely failed to include practicing teachers, scholars of learning, or even recognized analysts of education policy. All day Monday and Tuesday, the only figure in the summit remotely acquainted with the scholarship of learning wasRandi Weingarten, AFT president. She had to do double and triple duty, since she was simultaneously the only voice for practicing teachers, or for any policy recommendation other than those endorsed by Duncan’s Race to the Top.
Burn the Witch!
Incredibly, Weingarten played the same role all day Sunday. On Meet the Press and other programs, she was consistently positioned as a solitary voice against a solid bloc of panelists and journalists pounding away at the Duncan-Rhee party line. NBC positioned her on the extreme edge of the outdoor panel, literally in the wind, with her hair flying sidewise like the Wicked Witch piloting a broomstick.
Later, she faced an even larger panel completely united against her, this time featuring the propagandists who scored her appearances in Waiting with Superman with ominous chords redolent of Darth Vader.
They can feature both the director and composer of the film who painted her as the captain of the Death Star but not one credible authority on the positions being pushed by the film?
Interestingly, despite the outrageous set-up, on both programs Weingarten spoke more than any other participant–nearly as much all of the other participants combined.
Seems the shows’ hosts had to ask her to talk to nearly every point precisely because she was the only person who could provide any other perspective.
Perhaps also because she was the only person who actually had anything to say?
A Failed Hit Job
The one place where NBC allowed teachers–not scholars of learning or credible policy analysts–to have a few words was in a carefully scripted “town hall” program, segregated from all of the marquee shows and policy conference.
They stacked the audience with school administrators and charter-school teachers, all primed to spout their propaganda: “Teachers are under attack and we should be!” shouted one, on cue. “We young teachers don’t need tenure to do our jobs,” said another.
Even in the complete absence of journalistic scrutiny, the stories of these plants didn’t stand up to their own telling.
One charter-school hero stood up to mouth the no-excuses “challenge education” mantra that anybody can overcome any learning obstacle if they are confronted with sufficiently absurd expectations.
As an example, he cited his willingness to offer free day care to one of his students’ siblings in his classroom from 7am to 7pm, freeing the student from family-care responsibilities and allowing her to do her homework.
While laudable, his willingness to address the poverty of the student’s family in this way is however not, as they say, a scalable solution to the problem. Um, duh, most teachers have families of their own that they can’t and shouldn’t neglect to offer twelve hours of day care to others.
Right on the surface of this vignette is the cruel hypocritical absurdity–that those who are already sacrificing (the half of teachers who don’t quit in despair in the first five years) are not just asked but are really being forced to sacrifice more.
For instance, we could solve a lot of poverty-related issues if physicians or tv journalists or Wall Street banks turned their facililties into day-care centers and staffed them after hours.
Hey, let’s just say that everyone should work twelve hours a day for a teacher’s wage!
Any takers? I didn’t think so.
Nose Ring vs Soul Patch
NBC made the mistake of letting a few actual veteran teachers in the room (actually a tent on Rockefeller plaza). And the atmosphere was apparently charged: anchor Brian Williams called the room “a beehive, a cauldron of activity and emotion,” and joked about being in “physical danger.” (He also called one reporter “honey,” and flirted with one of the teachers on stage. Patronizing and chauvinist much? Guess we really are heading back to the Eisenhower era.)
Because NBC failed to make sure everyone in the room was an administrator or a twentysomething working-slash-volunteering before law school at a charter, we saw a couple of flashes of honest teacher feeling and insight.
These included thoughtful defenses of tenure as due process and analyses of the real issues (funding, poverty, support for professional development, workload, retention).
You could have heard a pin drop on Fifth Avenue when one California principal described her guilt at hiring a new teacher on the salary she was allowed to offer: “I basically condemned her to never owning her own home,” she said.
Astonishingly, one teacher that made it onto the show because she was acquainted with the anchor actually compared Davis Guggenheim to Hitler’s most brilliant propagandist, calling him “the Leni Riefenstahl of 2010.”
Personally I think that kind of comparison isn’t worth the backlash, but I think it could prove the most telling moment of the week.
In my experience, persons reaching for the Nazi comparison are intellectually or emotionally stunted, or else desperate. Since this apparently kind and thoughtful, intellectual person was evidently not the former, I think she was struggling to communicate–in the few seconds she was permitted -the stifled frustration and outrage of the tens of millions of parents, teachers, scholars and students who are being hurtled toward yet more schoolroom misery by this tsunami of pro-Duncan propaganda.
If you want to capture the essence of the tension that kept erupting through this scripted event, just fast forward to the middle of program, the second featured panel.
Comprising a charter-school reading teacher in blond dreadlocks and nose ring, and a public-school science teacher of the year sporting a soul patch, the panel was intended to talk about teaching technique.
Asked to describe how she succeeded as a teacher, Nose Ring was unable to manage a syllable describing or defending her teaching practice. She floundered helplessly (“well, you just show them how far behind they are in the world”) until the moderator let her off the hook, summarizing her philosophy: “Just teach ’em hard, huh?”
Invited to share his own teaching tips, Soul Patch, a public school teacher of the year, gently rebutted much of the propaganda previously circulated. American top students, he pointed out, perform at the same level as the top students anywhere in the world. The problem is inequality and unfairness, he observed.
Asked to celebrate the Duncan-Obama grim focus on STEM fields, science teacher of the year Soul Patch demurred, pointing out that his own practice and education research showed the importance of “right brain” creativity, of “movement and music right in the science classroom.”
Up until a firestorm of complaint forced them to open the forum, NBC aggressively censored the one place where teachers and parents were mainly allowed to participate–on a Facebook page promoting the event. Even established columnists for national mainstream education journals like Education Week were repeatedly “unfriended” or had their comments removed.
Obama’s Today Show interview
This was only about twenty minutes on education before Lauer moved on, but kudos to Lauer for acting more like a journalist than anyone else NBC has put forward.
To his credit, Lauer only gave the administration props for the one initiative (pre-K schooling) actually supported by research, and showed that research in the video package. He challenged the president on the unfair demonizing of teachers and teacher unions in Waiting for Superman. He pointed out that most charter schools underperform union schools.
Above all, he kept the focus on funding and support, quoting Clinton: “It’s not just a money thing, but it _is_ a money thing.” Obama tried to counter with the Republican bromide that it “isn’t a problem we can spend our way out of,” and began mouthing accountability and competition cliches.
But Lauer kept at it finally getting the President to concede that there is no problem recruiting teachers into the profession–just a massive problem retaining them.
Most young teachers find they “can’t afford to stay” in the profession, Obama confessed, “especially when it comes to having families of their own.”
President Obama’s 2010 back-to-school address is notable largely for lack of controversy. Apparently, by now most Republican pols have gotten the word: psst, on education, he’s on our side! The message–if you can call it that–(noses to the grindstone, kiddies!) was deliberately free of any content that could be directly related to the upcoming midterm elections. In stark contrast to last year’s hoopla, this year’s talk wasn’t even covered by many major newspapers.
The speech didn’t just steer clear of the midterms–it downplayed Obama’s own education initiatives, and his controversial Education Secretary, present at the speech, was only mentioned in the introduction. Anything about policy or funding–the unpopular “signature” program, Race to the Top? Not a word. It’s usual for the location for these sorts of things to signal a reference to the pol’s accomplishments, but this time nothing about the chosen location resonates with any Obama-Duncan initiative.
For another: Beltway observers point to the same-day defeat of DC mayor Adrian Fenty, who tied his political fortunes to teacher-bashing schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. No one watching the DC mayoral contest can deny that Fenty bet his reelection on Rhee, and that Rhee’s policies are indistinguishable from Obama and Duncan’s.
The fact is, as the recent Gallup poll I discussed in my last entry made crystal clear: across the country, public-school parents like their schools. Parents like their kids’ teachers–and trust them, not Arne Duncan, and not corporate education profiteers, with their futures.
In one of the most under-reported education stories last spring, in the poorest areas of Los Angeles, parents were given the chance to vote for Duncan-style charter schools under tough management with non-union faculty. Guess what?
Don’t misunderstand: the district wanted to give management of the schools to the charters, but the parents’ vote was so overwhelming that they didn’t dare.
Conclusion? Parents aren’t stupid, and they haven’t fallen for cheap empire-on-the- decline theatrics– you know, Duncan and Obama playing Caligula of the schools, howling “fire them all!” Nor are they sold on the xenophobic “keeping up with furriners’ test scores” fear-mongering.
Most parents don’t know much about other people’s schools–so worry about them, given the tripe they hear from pols and the newspapers-slash-education-corporations.
But they’ve informed themselves about the schools their own children attend, and the teachers who work there. They like their kids’ schools and teachers. They prefer teachers in charge of curriculum–even in charge of the schools themselves.
According to a recent Time poll backing up the Gallup results, they think teachers are deeply underpaid, underappreciated, and undersupported. Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes to recruit & retain talent in the teaching profession. And they’re voting with the teachers, against management. (Interestingly Time didn’t publish most of the poll’s results.)
So what does that mean for secretary Duncan?
The activists for the next national day of action, October 7th, have drawn a target on his back, demanding “Fire Duncan!” on their promotional materials.
And it’s kinda interesting that the administration is trying out Jill Biden as the new face of its education initiatives.
Even so, I wouldn’t bet on a departure before the midterms. That would just draw attention to two years of failed policy. But perhaps a nice, quiet, spring 2011 exit? With a new appointee named in time for the Obama high school commencement address in June? Hmm… any thoughts for a Duncan replacement?
When the president named Arne Duncan as his first Secretary of Education, he was doing a lot more, and a lot worse, than just naming a Chicago crony and basketball buddy to a critical Cabinet position. He was adopting one of the most aggressive, least tested, top-down, pro-corporate philosophies toward education administration ever promoted in this country.
Despite clear evidence that Duncan’s methods had failed to improve Chicago Public Schools by the only measure he overwhelmingly targeted (test scores), reporters from the corporate media tripped all over themselves to lavish friendly coverage on Duncan’s efforts to bring the same tactics to bear on a national scale. Taking advantage of state revenue shortages, Duncan took command of a massive fiscal war chest and turned it into a reality legislation show called Race to the Top.
“Want a piece of my billions?” Duncan asked the states, shaking his money bag. “Fight for it, winners take all! Whichever five or ten state legislatures enact law coming closest to my cruel, unproven vision of test-driven education, well, you folks can ride out the money storm in relative comfort. The rest of you, with your pie-in-the-sky ideas from John Dewey, you can rot in fiscal hell–no cash for the disobedient!”
Poll: Parents Won’t Be Fooled Again
Despite 18 months of press love, yesterday’s Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll shows Americans completing a resoundingly negative report card on Obama’s education initiatives, with a mere 34 percent giving the president a “B” or better, and 59% giving him a C, D, or F.
These numbers are significantly lower than his overall approval rating (currently near his lowest, at 42% favorable, 51% unfavorable). They represent consistent, bipartisan drops from the previous year, and come after sweeping legislative “victories” by the administration in dozens of states.
With similar clarity, the public overwhelming rejected point by point the aggressive, market-ideological thuggery comprising Duncan’s arsenal of “school reform” tactics: paying students for grades, mass firings, using punitive funding schemes, etc.
So far the main result of Obama and Duncan’s adventures in school reform is that now a startling 80% of respondents believe the federal government should play no role in school accountability.
In stark contradiction of the administration’s views, respondents shared the beliefs of most teachers and their unions, that the largest problem with schools is a shortfall in funding, that the major issue with teacher competence is support for retraining and keeping up to date, and that the primary purpose of evaluating teachers is helping them to improve teaching (rather than assessing eligibility for merit pay or providing evidence for dismissal). Only a small number of Americans (19%, down from 25% in 2000) agree with the administration that teaching pay should be “very closely tied” to students’ academic achievement (though a clear and growing majority feel that it should be “somewhat” closely tied, whatever that means).
It turns out that most Americans like the public schools they know most about, the ones their children attend–and they like those schools a lot.
Seventy-seven percent of public school parents give an A or B to the school their oldest child attends, the highest such figure since Gallup first posed the question, in 1985.
However, respondents rate other schools in their area–the ones they only read press reports about–lower, or just over half favorably.
Most interestingly: respondents rated public schools in the nation as a whole–schools they only know about from national corporate media–very poorly, with just 18% giving an A or a B.
Even in this context–with widespread concern about the schools for other people’s children–respondents actively rejected the draconian close-the-school, fire-them-all approach. Gallup’s discussion of the poll concludes: Overwhelmingly, Americans favor keeping a poorly performing school in their community open with existing teachers and principals, while providing comprehensive outside support. This finding is consistent across political affiliation, age, level of education, region of the country, and other demographics.
From the point of view of actual electoral politics: well, I’d watch out if I was Arne Duncan. The teachers’ unions may not be able to hold out on Obama in the next national elections, but they can sure choose to let a few Democrats dangle in the cool breeze of public disapproval. Especially in those forty or so states dubbed “losers” by Duncan’s Race to the Top chicanery.
And how better to signal a change of direction than to ask Duncan to fall on his basketball? In fact, displeased Dems have already trimmed a few hundred million from Duncan’s war chest, a legislative shot across the executive bow.
I’d say Duncan’s days of spanking the states are soon over–either that, or he’ll spend a lot of time eating love-the-teacher crow through the next national election campaign.
All the news fit for education corporations?
Closer to home, I guess I’d like to see a few more of us start to question the objectivity of The New York Times and Washington Post, both corporations with increasingly large hopes that profits from their education ventures will prop up sagging journalism revenues. The Post, which owns Kaplan and shocked readers by blatantly pushing Kaplan’s legislative agenda in print and in person is already an education corporation that owns a newspaper as a sideline.
The Times is only aspiring to that level, but as they say of the number-two organization in any field, that just means they’re trying harder.
An interesting piece in last week’s Chronicle, Goodbye to those Overpaid Professors in their Cushy Jobs, attempts a possibly premature farewell to a stereotype, the enduring myth that “college professors lead easy lives.” According to reporter Ben Gose, once-rampant complaints about the imaginary prof on a three-day workweek are now hard to find.
Nonetheless he notes an interesting source for some doozy “last gasps” of lazy-prof stereotypes–faculty themselves. Gose speculates that the prof-on-prof stereotypers are trying to do the profession a favor, in the front line of faculty “policing their own” and targeting “perceived slackers,” etc.
The photograph and first third of the article are devoted to the emotional and contradictory views of Prof. John Hare, chair of English at Montgomery College, Maryland. According to Gose, Hare “became furious” at a distinguished scholar he doesn’t know, Florence Babb, the Vada Allen Yeomans Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Florida and former president of the Association for Feminist Anthropology, then serving as graduate coordinator for the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research. Recruited with the named professorship to Florida from the University of Iowa in 2005, her scholarship and service to the profession has been massive: multiple stints as department or program chair, numerous editorial boards, etc.
The trigger for Hare’s rage? Prof. Babb contested the university’s attempt to violate the contractual terms of its appointment letter in recruiting her and unilaterally downgrade the 2-course release associated with her service obligation in the Center to zero. Arbitrators eventually settled on reducing it to a one-course release, citing the figleaf of fiscal exigency.
One way of parsing Hare’s emotion is to see him as the chair of a teaching-intensive department himself trading in stereotypes about faculty with research-intensive appointments. Babb, by any reasonable estimation, works pretty hard, so Gose allows Hare to qualify his position pretty carefully.
It seems that Hare’s problem with Babb doesn’t depend on the factual question of whether she’s actually a slacker or not. It’s that she’s willing to look like one, fueling “public perceptions” that he claims harm all of us.
But the article itself says that these public perceptions are way down, so Hare’s own account of his rage just doesn’t make much sense.
What does? Is it the resentment of someone on a teaching-intensive appointment?
I wonder, but I don’t think so. By his own frequently contradictory account, Hare–like most folks with his kind of appointment–loves his job. Most of the folks I know on teaching-intensive appointment feel fortunate, like Hare, not to be subjected to the constant pressure of publishing, and to be paid for spending a lot of time with students on topics that interest them.
And as many irate commenters on the piece substantiated, it’s a fact that many jobs “in industry” are far easier than faculty appointments, especially research jobs, which tend to be radically underpaid for the difficulty of the work–it’s not the “ease” of the position, but the challenges and the self-directedness that accounts for the willingness of many to work twice as hard for half the pay.
Given what the most successful people in other fields earn these days and the kind of accomplishment it takes to earn the rank, it’s fairly hard to argue that distinguished research faculty in Babb’s bracket– earning $90,000 to $100,000 a year–are either overpaid or underworked.
In fact, as I’ve written before: plenty of undistinguished civil servants, firefighters and military officers have retirement compensationhigher than the salaries earned for 60-hour weeks by extremely accomplished teachers and/or researchers in the humanities!
So what explains Hare’s irrational, data-free anger at Babb? Especially when the supposedly benighted “public” is increasingly able to do the relevant math?
The Gendering of Professional Service
One dimension of Babb’s situation that didn’t factor into Hare’s position or come out in Gose’s otherwise well-reported piece is the role of gender in who the University of Florida demanded “pitch in” and make “sacrifices” during the fiscal crisis.
It appears that Babb is the only female distinguished professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the only one actually forced to teach more. According to one source and multiple commenters on press reports of the case, of the many male faculty with her load and rank, many earning more, only one man was even asked to teach additional courses and, being eligible to do so–apparently as expected–chose to retire instead.
I was happy to see the comments on the Chronicle article overflowing with faculty, including the intrepid Bill Pannapacker, hastening to question Hare’s suitability as “our” spokesperson. Pannapacker targets Hare’s implication in the ideology of teaching for love, a topic I’ve written about several times before.
It’s too often assumed that “teaching for love” is a win-win situation: some people are happy with psychic rewards instead of pay, which saves a few bucks that institutions or legislators can then spend on other important projects. What’s the harm?
But a labor market arranged around working for love–rather than fair compensation–is actually one of the most sexist, racist and economically discriminatory arrangements possible. From a class point of view, as I emphasize in Gose’s piece and elsewhere: by making the professoriate an economically irrational choice, you stop sorting for the most talented people and begin to sort for the people who can afford to discount their wages. That cuts out most people, period, making the best jobs in the academy largely a preserve for persons with fortunate economic backgrounds or circumstances. And via the wealth gap, that primary economic discrimination has direct consequences for the racial composition of the faculty. By making it too hard to get a job, too arduous an apprenticeship, too poor of a return on education investment: only the wealthier among us are able to “irrationally choose” to accept psychic wages–and the wealthier among us are disproportionately white, just for starters. All of this has tremendous, documented consequences for the achievement and persistence of students from less advantaged economic circumstances and ethnicities poorly represented among the faculty.
As for gender, the rendering of faculty positions to the extreme of economic irrationality (six courses a year for $15,000, eg) assigns them disproportionately to women, especially persons–whether male or female–married to professionals and managers. The other, primary wage earner supports the economically irrational partner, a person teaching for what used to be called pin money. This structural feminizing of the job was traditionally associated with converting the positions formerly held by men (such as secretarial positions, once a high-status job) to those held increasingly by women, as Michelle Masse explains in a 2008 interview and is just one of the ways that she says higher ed forms a “pyramid scheme” especially for women faculty.
Broadly speaking across many disciplines and institution types women still tend to disproportionately hold low-paying, low-status, insecure teaching-only or teaching-intensive jobs while men continue to disproportionately hold high-paying, high-status, secure research-intensive and top administrative positions.
The book surveys the complexity of academic service, from the manifold senses of a calling (ranging from communitarian, sociable, and professional impulses to an opportunity to rebel or transform the academy) to close connections with the rise of a service economy, to specifically feminized forms of exploitation–ie, doing the university’s “housework,” or an undercompensated labor of care that in many circumstances falls harder on women. Women faculty face larger career penalties for not seeming to “care sufficiently” for the institution, and their research contributions are correspondingly discounted–I think analysis of the comments on Babb’s case at the Chron and other media outlets strongly supports this view!
Among the countless insights that Masse and Hogan develop in the collection is the emergence of a complex and contradictory “service unconscious” among feminized faculty, male and female (ie, such as the angry and confused John Hare):
We know that our [willingness to serve] sometimes damages us and supports organizational structures we don’t want to reinforce. And yet we nonetheless persevere in these behaviors and articulate their value for the best of all possible reasons: the ways in which ‘helping’ and ‘serving’ please us and fulfill our deepest-held beliefs about the importance of existence in a community and the need to achieve change and support for our colleagues and students. We know that service and sacrifice are often necessary to bring about more just workplaces, but much of the service we are pressed into is not about creating just and fair workplaces…
Hogan’s analysis alone is worth the price of the book. She contends that academic women, and men in feminized sectors, are expected to be “superserviceable,” ie to williingly do labor not recognized as such. Across vast swathes of the academy, faculty have service-intensive appointments (especially involving labor of care for students or the institution) in which the nature of their service is not even recognized.
Using data from significant assessments of the labor performed by women in both nontenurable and tenured positions, Hogan documents the unspoken demands of the academic service economy. In a final twist, she argues that the same is true for the intellectual output of persons in feminized positions, especially feminism itself–ie, that feminist research and teaching is meant to be especially “serviceable” as well.
Should The New York Times (NYT) exist? Ha–you’re thinking, “What an unfair question!” Or “You’ve framed the debate in an obviously unfair or careless way.”
And right you are. But since I’m a rich and powerful chunk of media capital with a stake in the answer, I don’t care what you think, and I’m free to compound the injury by holding a false “debate” on a question that unfairly asks one side to argue for its existence.
Enter The New York Times and its latest bungled attempt at analyzing higher ed, which just riffs on a piece reported by Robin Wilson for the Chronicle. As if framing a loaded question weren’t enough, they stack the deck, a couple of different ways. In the more obvious manipulation of the lineup, opponents of tenure outnumber proponents 3-2.
More importantly: in a debate about the “demise” of tenure,” the debate’s framers don’t include any voices of persons who are living the circumstances they purport to examine: the life of career faculty, full time or part time, with a teaching-intensive load and a nontenurable contract. One participant is on a nontenurable research contract–for a Harvard outfit that does management consulting for higher-ed administration, natch. But that’s like dressing up the testimony of someone who’s always driven a Rolls as the honest voice of straphangers–the near-volunteer faculty on freaking food stamps, like Monica, Andy, and many others.
As it turns out, 95% of the sense made in this debate is contained in the 40% assigned to the pro-tenure folks. AAUP president Cary Nelson patiently explains the centrality of tenure for academic freedom, and USC’s Adrianna Kezar, points to the real debate we should be having–about the high cost of nontenurable hiring in higher education, especially for the majority of faculty whose appointments are teaching-intensive, and the students they try to serve in the unsavory conditions management has created.
In the Opinion of L. Ron Hubbard…
Excepting a couple of minor points by the nontenurable researcher/management consultant, the anti-tenure side had little to offer beyond witless praise for The Market. Remember the the Planet of the Apes sequel where the surviving mutant humans live in a cave and worship the Holy Bomb that destroyed them?
It’s like that, including the gallows flavor to the campy humor, once you rip off the masks of the robed ritualistas:
Batting first for the NYT education-capitalist home team is Richard Vedder, perennial flack for the neo-cons at the American Enterprise Institute. His line here, that tenure “reduces intellectual diversity,” is just warmed-over David Horowitz, long debunked by any serious study. The fact is that more academics fear for their academic freedom today than in the McCarthy era–because they lack access to tenure, not the other way around.
Playing new kid in the lineup is Mark C. Taylor, a distance education entrepreneur with books and interests ranging from religion and organization theory to management and–I am not making this up–stealing dirt from the graves of famous persons.
Taylor’s data-free ruminations bear as much connection to the actual world of higher education as Scientology does to particle physics. He’s the fellow that bemoaned per-course salaries “as low as” five grand (!) and basically acts as if you could still arm-chair analyze the academic labor system, which is nearly 80% contingent, as if it were a “market” in tenure-track jobs.
Taylor’s retread analysis is straight outta 1972: “If you were a CEO,” he begins, and races downhill from there. Dunno, Mark: If I was the CEO of my neighborhood… If I was the CEO of my marriage… If I was the CEO of this poker game… If I was the CEO of your church… If I was the CEO of the planet… If my dad were my CEO… If I were the CEO of this one-night stand… If I was the CEO of this classroom… If I was the CEO of this audience at this Green Day concert…
Gosh, Mark. Seems like some social organizations and relationships shouldn’t have CEOs at all.
Wait, there’s more. Taylor goes on to, like, use math and stuff because it sounds good when you’re talking about money. He figures out the lifetime cost of paying tenured faculty and boggles, claiming that funding this commitment “would require” four million in endowment now and thirty million thirty years from now. Et voila! Clearly, then, paying faculty anything at all is impossible! QE freaking D, lads and ladies.
Of course the fact that most faculty aren’t paid out of endowments at all but, like, from tuition and appropriations and grants and stuff, does create some stumbles among the seraphim in Taylor’s elegant pin-top choreography.
I did say that the anti-tenure side contributed 5% of the sense out of the 60% of the space allotted to them.
That modicum goes to Cathy Trower of Harvard’s COACHE, like the handbag, with an elegant E for education.
Her project is like a higher-ed stepchild version, less mean and less well-funded, of Harvard’s toxic b-school/ed-school partnership–you know, the folks that brought you Arne Duncan.
Unlike her comrades, Trower actually thinks about tenure and correctly advocates for a less rigid understanding of it. Somewhat overdramatically, she proposes blowing up the tenure system and starting over with a new constitutional convention:
Some features of a newly imagined faculty workplace might include variable probationary periods, with extensions for parenthood, rather than a fixed seven-year up-or-out provision for tenure; a tenure track for faculty members focused on teaching; a non-tenure track that affords a meaningful role in shared governance; interdisciplinary centers with authority to be the locus of tenure; broader definitions of scholarship and acceptable outlets and media to “publish” research….
Most of these notions, of course, are very sensible, and versions of them are in place all over the country. No need to lug jerrycans of petrol to the bonfire. It’s not until we get to Trower’s stealthy last two suggestions (“tenure for a defined period of time; and the option to earn salary premiums while forgoing tenure entirely”) that we see that the NYT was perfectly fair to run her piece under the headlines “How to Start Over” and “Get Rid of (Tenure).” Trower conveniently left these out of the version she published two years ago in AAUP’s Academe.
Most Tenured Faculty ARE on a Teaching Track
If Trower were better informed about what’s actually going on, she’d be aware that all of her reasonable suggestions have distinguished histories as well as plenty of contemporary reality. Rendered most invisible by Trower’s crowing from the business-administration battlements is the suggestion that we need to invent a “tenure track for faculty members focused on teaching.”
In 1970, the overwhelming majority of tenured faculty were on teaching-intensive appointments. Even today, after four decades of hiring teaching-intensive appointments nontenurably (full-time and part-time), tenured teaching-intensive faculty out-number tenured research-intensive faculty as much as two to one.
The idea that “tenured” equates to teaching 6 hours a week or fewer is just silly propaganda. And I for one am sick of liberal bastions like Harvard and the NYT passing off propaganda as scholarship.
Including propaganda that has numbers in it: for crying out loud, my math-avoidant friends, the whole meaning of the expression that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics” is that any paid mouthpiece, windbag or liar can claim to be “data-driven.”
I mean, Cathy, let’s be real here.
MANAGEMENT has spent the last four decades actively dismantling a long-existing “tenure track for faculty members focussed on teaching.” Now you lean out from the windows of your Lear jet to shout that we need to hold a constitutional convention to invent it?
You folks at Harvard oughta know that “data-driven” should mean something more than running a bunch of surveys. It should mean some reasonable attempt at a connection with the facts.
Regular readers know I’ve been pointing out the epic badness of the New York Times’ reporting on higher education for some time now. For what it’s worth, I have it on good authority that more than one academic journal is interested in taking a closer look at media bias in higher education coverage.
Of course this is a little like saying I know several clever Davids prepared to flip the bird at slow-witted Goliath. On the other hand, one of them might prove to own a slingshot.
Joe Ramsey is a talented young scholar of the radical writing that often characterized the American cultural landscape in the first half of the last century (and which the cultural criticism of the second half largely ignored). He writes politically-relevant poetry under the name J. Gallant Ramsey. This piece on Haiti is presented here with his permission. Over one and a half million Haitians are still homeless, many of them the children of the quarter-million dead.
Fault Lines–Six Months After, July 12
The Earth has traveled half way round the Sun
Since the day it shook and sucked them down.
Shacks and hovels smashed through sewers;
Palace collapsed like an empty egg shell.
Three hundred thousand, maybe fewer
Thousands buried, never found.
A nation of souls, searching, searing
Buried in a human hell.
La Terre Tremble.
Have we forgotten what that shaking ground
Revealed for all to see, who cared to look?:
The way the streets filled up with bloated bodies;
The way the troops drove on, and let them cook.
The ‘aid’ delayed,
as if for fear of zombies
Rising from their rubble graves to run–
White eyes blazing bloody memories
of how white masters came and took by gun.
But—as we know—poor Haitians did not riot;
worked to pull their brothers from the ruins.
Carried those who died, and those who wouldn’t
for a while,
And those who lived.
Gave until they had no more to give.
A hundred miles of broken blister
oozing, live on your TV,
draped in pathos and then charity:
For about a week. But even then,
If I may ask:
Did they let the Haitians speak?
What did the people have to say?
When they look at us what do they see?
Do you dare to take a peek with me today?
Caught in the sun, the pocked eye turns away.
How much can the blinded stand to see? :
Band-aids slap where barricades should be.
They say there are a dozen cities
With at least a million people each
Lying, waiting, sleeping on a fault line;
Slum-dweller flesh to feed the breach.
For every year the Earth, it shivers
In the endless cold of space;
Quakes and quivers, like a bull whose skin
must knock flies from its face.
The fault is not the moving earth’s
–We know that quakes will come, and even where–
The problem: a crooked scheming class
That crams the poor into the cracks
And stitches them into the seams
Breaking their backs
Letting them choke
Gasping for air–
Stripping them down to their dreams,
There is no plan
No care for the people
except for the juice
that can be squeezed
from their bones
to quench the schemers’ thirst:
and hearts burst.
(The heads of state remain aloof:
Crisis equals opportunity, after all
give the world a roof.
And there’s plenty of sweat to catch, as they fall.)
Only way to please me
turn around and leave
and walk away
–Alabama Getaway, lyrics by Robert Hunter
Many who learn that the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) amputated a $650,000 state appropriation, not to mention a flow of grant money, just to rid itself of a labor center (and Glenn Feldman, the accomplished historian who directed it) will focus on regional differences. One early commenter to Peter Schmidt’s report for the Chronicle blamed “Dixie” culture, saying that this is what happens to someone who “bucks the system in that part of the country. The more the South changes, the more it remain the same.”
As a veteran of the Southern-gothic, All-The-Kings-Men style politics of one right-to-work state university with close administrator connections to UAB, I guess my first impulse was at least similar: I can still remember the liberation I felt when I left my tenured position at the scandal-ridden University of Louisville (UL), where concerned faculty were run out of town for questioning the wall-to-wall administrative solidarity that protected a dean embezzling his federal grants, a scheme of extreme work-study that has turned thousands of students into the serfs of UPS, and claims of “research-1″ status for a campus with a six-year graduation rate hovering around 30 percent.
As just one small instance of my own experience: the aforementioned embezzling dean tried to shut down the academic labor journal I founded (then being edited by one of my graduate students and my friend and colleague Wayne Ross, one of the many who left UL– in his case moving on to Canada’s answer to Cal-Berkeley, the University of British Columbia). That little act of nastiness wasn’t even one of the 30+ official faculty complaints about that one individual that the UL administrative Borg was covering up. But what drove us away was in most cases not one act; there were dozens of acts that each dissenter experienced, some raising to the level of grievable offenses, others just making life hard.
‘Sweet Home USA’ for Business
But despite that temptation, my second impulse is more analytical. The point isn’t any minor differences (even differences of degree) displayed by scandal-plagued politicos and jet-setting higher ed “leadership” in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee over the past decade. The real point, as commenter Ellen Schrecker points out, is the similarities–that labor and labor scholarship continue to be under assault across the country.
I’d go further than Ellen with the similarities–it’s a question of the turn toward steadily more anti-democratic practices of education administration more broadly. Not to mention the related notion that politicians are, effectively, the “managers” of the public sphere that we can trace to Democrats Clinton and Gore, right on down to their intellectual heir and Wal-mart admirer currently occupying the White House.
It’s a pretty big picture, and one that clearly doesn’t yield to partisan analysis: the scary stuff is what Democrats and Republicans agree on. Obama’s ed secretary Arne Duncan made Tennessee sole winner of the reviled Race to the Top competition because of the state’s willingness to do to both K-12 and higher ed what he’d already done in Chicago: turn schools over to private and for-profit managers; silence teachers, students, and parents; strip down the curriculum; increase the direct voice of commercial interests in administration at every level.
Likewise, the UAB business school dean (Klock) responsible for pushing first practiced his hatcheting ways here in California. It’s not a regional issue at all or even restricted to higher education workplaces.
The many things that should concern us about Feldman’s experience in Alabama are all things happening in schools at every level across the country:
+ Administrator pro-business bias
+ Consolidation of administrator power
+ Declining faculty power and declining faculty solidarity
+ Abuse of credentialing (UAB has demanded that full-professor Feldman go back to school and earn a year’s worth of credits to retain his tenure)
+ Ever-closer ties between corporations, politics and the campus
+ Business influence on curriculum
+ The culture-struggle practice of administration, designed to produce compliant subjectivities and expel dissenters
+ The abuse of standards of civility and collegiality to paint an understandably upset victim as unreasonable, a tendency in which I have to say that Peter Schmidt’s reporting unfortunately participates (though to be fair to Schmidt I haven’t seen the documents he characterizes).
In general, though, on this subject I agree with the complaints of commenter “thomasjefferson”:
“Let’s see. He was a tenured, full professor at UAB for 14 years. They shut down the labor center of which he was director and then they tried to set him up for termination by trying to get him to take 18 grad hours in a subject in which they’re planning to shut down the department. And he’s not happy about that. I wonder why?”
And with commenter “mchag12″:
“The relationship with the faculty at public universities is just becoming untenable as faculty are treated as line items to be dispensed with at will by high paid administrators. What would you do, azprof, if your department was slated for demolition and your university actually asked the state legislature to defund it? Back out of the room shuffling and bowing and repeating thank you, thank you? If you think you are safe, you’re not.”
Just last year, Stanley Fish was playing Clint Eastwood with his manifesto: Do Your Job, Punk! (or, My Tinfoil Hat Keeps Politics Out of My Teaching–Get Yours Today!) In that widely panned book, he argued that the role of the faculty was to produce and distribute knowledge magically apart from the mundane and political.
Earlier this week he more convincingly took on the student evaluation of teaching and specifically, a Texas proposal to hold tenured faculty “more accountable” by giving faculty bonuses of up to $10,000 for earning high customer assessments of specified learning outcomes.
Fish makes two arguments against the proposal. He squanders pixels bolstering his weaker point, that students aren’t necessarily in a position to judge whether Fish-as-teacher-phallus has, ugh, “planted seeds that later grew into mighty trees of understanding.”
Far better is his second point:
Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers. But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed….
Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure. Student evaluations, by their very nature, can only recognize, and by recognizing encourage, assembly-line teaching that delivers a nicely packaged product that can be assessed as easily and immediately as one assesses the quality of a hamburger.
This part rings mostly true for me. No question, Fish is clearly wrong to generalize so broadly about students and evaluation instruments. As students enter majors and graduate programs, they are of course far more likely to welcome the sort of intellectual adventure that he describes.
And it’s just plain out of touch with the subject he is purporting to address to claim that all kinds of student evaluation are “by their very nature” (huh? philosopher much?) of the sort that can “only recognize” teaching-as-information-delivery. Nonetheless, that’s the kind administrators mostly impose so his point is valid despite the unwarranted generalization.
That said, I personally like getting student evaluations of my teaching, even the lame sort that predominate and which Fish is critiquing here. I learn things even from bad instruments poorly used by persons with little knowledge of the field or who display imperfect judgement, and so on.
My concern is with the way these instruments are misused–by activist administrators and politicians, aided and abetted by paid policy flacks. The managerial literature cheerfully describes all this as the “assessment movement” to consolidate their control of “institutional mission.”
Faculty themselves, even with tenure, learn all too quickly to teach to the instrument.
Example: long after receiving tenure (twice!) I once got mid-range scores in response to a question asking students to assess whether their capacity for critical thought improved. The next term I included a twenty-minute exercise studying different definitions of critical thought the week before they took the survey: my scores jumped to the top of the range, with no other change in the syllabus.
I use that example because it’s double-sided. On the one hand, it shows how a modest change can essentially manipulate the results or, more to the point, manipulate the students providing the results.
On the other hand this modest change, motivated by a base consideration, was also a real one: it marked a moment where I took seriously the importance of reflection in the learning process.
By asking students to reflect on what had happened to their thinking in the class, they were not only more likely to appreciate the teaching, they were more likely to appreciate, value–and retain–the change itself.
So the stupid instrument, my vanity, and a modest change resulted in better learning.
While that instance of teaching to the instrument worked out more or less fine, most responsible studies are pretty clear that teaching to the instrument is generally harmful.
For instance, one Fish commenter quoted a reliably-constructed study that concluded “professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement teach in ways that improve their student evaluations but harm the follow-on achievement of their students in more advanced classes.”
In other words: teaching to get high customer assessments produces intellectual junk food: the focus group says “yum!” but it’s all bad news after that. This is consistent with study after study on “teaching to the test” in K-12: the more tightly that management and politicians grip the handful of sand that is teaching and learning, the less they grasp.
Most of the commenters don’t address the motivation for the Texas proposal, which is to standardize and marketize the curriculum along the lines supported by the current administration. An easily assessable form of learning-as-information-download is an easily commodified form of learning: “Log in to Pixel University, where you get the exact same education as Yalies!” It’s also more easily controlled by a political bureaucracy, along the lines of K-12. Both Republicans and Democrats are actively supporting for-profit “education providers,” and the leading edge of their contribution is redefining knowledge as information delivery.
So what’s best about Fish’s effort here is the emphasis upon the nature of learning itself, which is easily distinguishable from information download.
The most difficult lesson for my first-year students to learn–the most frustrating, the one with the longest-term impact–is the construction of a review of scholarly literature, toward posing a research question unanswered by that literature. I ask them to zero in on a “bright spot” in the literature, where conflicting views are unresolved, or a “blank spot,” a question that hasn’t been posed. I try to help them to think of a modest but original way that they might advance the conversation.
The lesson takes them on a journey of the sort that Fish describes, full of frustrations and ventures into the failings of academic prose, dead ends and discombobulations. What they learn is that any act of knowledge origination emerges from a vast multivocal conversation and is framed by the professional modesty of the actual researcher. They are often amazed by the narrow frame of actual research questions, the extent of qualifications and hesitations, and the ways that knowledge is produced by error. They are often confused by the extent of collaboration, the fact that questions aren’t constructed in binary terms, the fact that questions are constructed, and by the amount of time spent acknowledging the diverse views and paths explored by one’s professional colleagues.
As Fish points out, students come to us trained to see “the master perspective” (of history-as-objective-fact, eg, rather than history-as-historiography, the writing of Helen Keller, Jack London and Einstein’s socialism into, or out of, the conversation). Or at most they see two perspectives, the binary the either/or of right and wrong, or for and against, good and evil, etc. I tell them that easy clarifications–such as “are you for or against” such and such a proposition– are usually trick questions, that making knowledge and the act of learning entail entering into a hive of confusion, ambiguity, and error.
They don’t always like this lesson, which is deeply experiential: they have to try to read difficult things, ask for help, wait in line to get journals delivered to them. But they are always glad to have had it, and it clearly yields real results in subsequent classes.
Can this sort of lesson and journey be assessed? Yes, but not so easily by the sort of instruments we use for the purpose. We do need better instruments. For instance, measurement per se is not intrinsically useful: you might say losing 20 lbs at Pixel U is the same as losing 20 lbs at Swankfield–until you learn that at one school you lost the weight by exercising, and at the other they amputated a limb.
More than better instruments, though, we need better attitudes toward these instruments. We could start with a critical understanding of why administrations and politicians support the kind of assessments they do, and not the many better alternatives.
Above all: we need to be able to offer a clear, cogent justification of education as learning and distinguish between learning and download.
Let’s say you teach at an M.A.-granting state school with 2,000 new first-year undergraduates entering annually. Let’s further say they take half their load with faculty on part-time appointments. Controlling for other variables, one new multi-campus study suggests that this degree of contingency in faculty appointment could play a significant part in 600 students dropping out before their sophomore year.
The latest chapter (pdf) in the cautious series by Audrey Jaeger and Kevin Eagan focuses on the critical first year in four-year institutions, following up previous efforts on community colleges and the lower division more broadly. Their conclusion: a merely “average” degree of contingency in faculty appointments and working conditions at four-year institutions affects year-to-year student retention by as much as 30 percent:
Students with average levels of exposure to full-time, nontenure-track, “other” contingent, and graduate assistant faculty may be as much as 30 percent less likely to persist, compared to their peers who have only full-time faculty.
Noting that at all of the institutions they studied but one, “more than 50 percent of the credits taken by students during their first year were led by a contingent faculty member,” Jaeger and Eagan dryly conclude, “given these findings, employment status of faculty deserves further discussion.”
Studying several years of data from a state system, they carefully document a close correlation with the degree of contingency in faculty appointment and retention.
In the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral-extensive institutions studied, they found consistent decreases in the likelihood of sophomore-year retention ranging from 2 to 7 percent for every 10-percent increase in contact hours with faculty on contingent appointment.
Disaggregating appointment categories, they found that the more contingent the appointment, the stronger the association with negative student outcomes.
Credit hours led by faculty on full-time nontenurable appointment outperformed those led by graduate student instructors and both outperformed sections led by faculty on part-time appointment.
But “greater levels of contingent faculty instruction, despite whether these faculty
are working full time or part time, typically have a negative effect on student persistence,” they emphasize.
Working Conditions Matter
At the two doctoral-intensive institutions they studied, Jaeger and Eagan found modest positive correlation between retention and exposure to graduate student and faculty on contingent appointments. This finding contradicted what they learned at the other institution in this study and in their own previous work.
This unusual finding led them to examine the working conditions of faculty serving contingently at those two institutions. Finding greater support, funding for faculty development and integration, they hypothesize that supporting part-time faculty better might have an impact.
As in their other published studies, Jaeger and Eagan interpret their results to mean that the conditions of contingency are the culprit, not the faculty. They observe that there may well be less harm in appointing faculty on a part-time basis in upper division and graduate study.
Research-Intensive Faculty Share the Blame
The shrinking minority of research faculty have developed a culture of contempt for general education. Regular readers know that AAUP conspicuously declined to sign on the latest report by the “Coalition on the Academic Workforce” in large part because this report, scripted by the staff at disciplinary associations, essentially abandoned the first two years of college instruction.
Disciplinary associations are dominated by research-intensive faculty who have been making this bargain with administrators for the past 40 years: “Keep our tenure lines in the major and grad program, and we’ll supervise students and lecturers teaching gen ed.”
Probably the number-one reason AAUP declined to sign the CAW report is the disciplinary associations’ insistence on recommending that “tenure lines should be sufficient to cover courses in the upper-division undergraduate and graduate curricula and to ensure an appropriate presence of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the lower division.”
As my committee at AAUP analyzed it, CAW’s waffle regarding “an appropriate presence” in the lower division aimed to serve the self-interest of a tiny fraction of the faculty at the expense of students and most other faculty.
The CAW report and the minority faculty it represents flies in the face of research by Paul Umbach, Jaeger and Eagan, and many others. The recommendations are exactly the reverse of Jaeger and Eagan’s, who find great impact from contingency in the early years and less in the upper division and graduate study.
So long as privilege continues to flow to the disciplines, the CAW is cheerfully willing to underwrite the steady casualization of the majority faculty teaching the majority of students, i.e. community colleges and the first two years everywhere.
Responsible policy makers, researchers like Jaeger and Eagan, and many administrators, however, acknowledge that the lower division and general ed are the area where the US system of higher education already is the most dysfunctional by most measures of student success.
The Buck Stops With Administrators
Administrators ultimately make resource allocation decisions that shape first-year teaching.
Many administrators would willingly see more experienced tenure-stream faculty in the first-year classroom and grumpily point to the unwillingness of research-intensive faculty to appear there.
However, administrators are the ones who have steadily whittled away at a career path that this research suggests is one of the most important in the academy: the teaching-intensive tenure track.
While no faculty appointments should be teaching only—it is the teaching-only nature of most contingent appointments that accounts for much of the negative impact—appointments that are teaching intensive should be an important component of every faculty.
Much reduced from their high point in 1970, appointments to the teaching-intensive tenure track nonetheless remain widespread, especially at the M.A. and B.A.-granting institutions where the difference between their student outcomes and those of faculty on contingent appointments are most obvious.
At 9-plus teaching hours per week, with full campus citizenship and full obligations to professional development—which might include appropriately modest expectations for research activity—faculty on these appointments work hard for bartenders’ wages, but deliver real results for students.
Over the decades, administrations have lost literally millions of students by replacing appointments that enable teaching-intensive campus citizens with those that give faculty little choice except to be teaching-only freeway flyers.
As I and many others have noted, administrators have actively chosen to disinvest in faculty, spending instead on sports, infrastructure, and venture capitalism.
Even in naked business terms: were the gains they achieved with these allocations really worth the loss of millions of “education customers”?
Considering the role tuition plays in most budgets, I doubt it.
Across the planet for the past two years, university management has been opportunistically putting the screws to faculty, staff and students with bogus claims that “the economy made us do it.” Professor of accounting and AAUP Secretary-Treasurer Howard Bunsis has made a second career of flying around North America debunking these hilariously dishonest claims, a reason Bunsis is one of my top picks for next AAUP prez.
One of the more sinister categories of administrator opportunism is program closure, and winner of 2010 Most Egregious Sleaze in that category has to be the UK’s Middlesex University, which in a burst of vocationalist enthusiasm closed an active, successful philosophy program. The department was by far the top research producer in the school, according to the national Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), and ranked thirteenth nationally among philosophy programs measured by the RAE. (For purposes of thought provocation only, the irksome Philosophical Gourmet ranks the following at around 13th among public philosophy programs in the U.S.: IU-Bloomington, UC-Irvine, and UW-Madison, UC Boulder, and U Mass-Amherst.)
The excuse for this travesty? A temporary 2% shortfall in the percentage of income from the department. British universities are required to pay a 55% pimping-and-moneychangers’ share of their income to central administration. Supporters like John Protevi note that Middlesex will contribute 59% in 2010, but contributed only 53% in 2009–an amount that appears to be well within normal fluctuations, especially considering global financial turbulence. The grant monies pouring into Middlesex’s coffers due to the philosophers’ research amounts to several hundred thousand dollars annually.
The harms to the university’s reputation have been mounting quickly. Already Middlesex’s administration has been widely reviled during occupations and protests. Other institutions have quickly cherrypicked its top talent, petitions of protest have garnered a thousand signatures a day, and mass outrage has forced reversals of draconian suspensions of protesting faculty and students.
The Dollar Cost is High Too
This week gives us yet another example of the mounting dollar costs of the Al Haig (“I’m in charge here!)” school of administration. At Temple, a sleazy management team felt that “the economy” carte blanche to bully the nurses’ union into rolling back tuition benefits and giving up First Amendment rights in the workplace. Outraged staff walked out and management blew through $4 million a week on hotel rooms and airfare for scab labor in its doomed, month-long effort to show dominance.
A Pennsylvania compensation board just delivered the coup de grace, ruling that the administration had acted so high-handedly prior to the 4-week strike that its actions amounted to unilaterally changing the terms of employment–with the result that, for purposes of eligibility for unemployment compensation, the strike was to be treated as a lockout by the hospital… adding another $1.5 million to Temple’s bill.
Global Resistance Rising
Obviously, from the broader perspective of professionalism in the public service, of course one wants nurses, staff and faculty in a position to criticize the reckless incompetence of management. I mean, do you really want to be cared for by professionals whose speech is controlled by someone with an MBA?
Of course even from the narrowest administrative point of view this kind of high-spending thuggery is bad management.
In addition to the bad publicity, lost work time, and direct costs, this sort of humiliating failure thoroughly emboldens other unions, like the surging campaign to organize the 1,585 Temple faculty who are on contingent appointment.
It seems pretty clear that this kind of administrative bullying is generating a shock wave of global resistance, creating new opportunities to organize and make democratic change.
The day to watch this fall will be October 7th as, already, dozens of groups have committed to it as a global day of action.
More on that, and on the massive student occupation at the University of Puerto Rico, in my next post.
After that, I’ll have lots of exciting news from the AAUP annual gathering and national Council session, including new reports on how to fight administrator efforts to gag faculty (a la Garcetti), sharp reductions in dues for faculty serving contingently and graduate students, changes in election structure, and, from the committee I co-chair, a sneak peek at an important report on tenure and teaching-intensive faculty (over 80% of the faculty are teaching intensive).
I’ll also have follow-up on the iPad as e-reader story, focussing on early learning issues (or, How Apple the Money-Hungry Flash Grinch Deprives Children of Early Learning Opportunities in Favor of Mind-Numbing Game Apps.)
So when I heard Anya Kamenetz, once the passionate shoot-from-the-hip spokesperson against student debt, was reinventing herself as the passionate shoot-from-the-hip analyst of new media in education, I was prepared to give her a listen. I thought, well, at least she has enough dignity and intelligence not to turn herself into a pimpette for learn-while-you-sleep audiocassettes.
Whoa, was I wrong. She turned out a book that stays relentlessly on its Twitter-sized message: OMG! OMG! The internetz a library! (Speaking of Twitter, you can relieve your boredom with the book by following Kamenetz’s real-time feed about her visits to the dentist.)
Kamenetz turns out to be an adherent of the most shopworn education fantasy in history: education without educators! Like untold generations of blatherers before her, she opines that information technology will deliver education without an education workforce–therefore saving untold bazillions of dollars that would otherwise go to faculty salary. These savings will inevitably result in a “free or marginal-cost” education! At least for savvy “edu-punks” and “edu-preneurs.”
Right you are, Anya, and monkeys are flying through the webbing of my chair seat as we speak.
This fantasy didn’t work with prior revolutionary education technologies (like, hm, the book, the library, the pony express, the radio, or the tee-vee, where free education of the sort that Kamenetz envisions for non-Yalies can still be had for the asking.)
All those technologies have been accompanied, not only by more teachers and teaching, but also by massive growth in non-educator education employees (to tend to the technology, administer the credits, cash the checks, etc).
So–as I’ve already (pdf) pointed out, like, I dunno–centuries ago in texting years?–in The Informal Economy of the ‘Information University’–ditching the faculty (even the modest minority of them who actually earn wages higher than bartenders!) isn’t going to magically reduce costs:
…The concern with technology represents the faculty’s idea that students are willing to accept a disembodied educational experience in a future virtual university of informatic instruction. On the other hand, the student concerns are overwhelmingly attentive to the embodied character of their experience-where to park, what to eat and so on. Why do the faculty envision students willing to give up the embodied experience of the campus, when the students are in fact increasingly attentive to embodied experience?
Campus administrators continue to build new stadiums, restaurants, fitness facilities, media rooms, libraries, laboratories, gardens, dormitories and hotels: are these huge new building projects, funded by thirty years of faculty downsizing, really about to be turned into ghost towns?
In my view, the claim that (future) students will generally accept a disembodied education experience is at least a partial displacement of the underlying recognition, not that future students will accept an “education experience divorced from the body,” but the extent to which present students have already accepted an embodied experience divorced from “education.”
While the dystopic image of distance education captures the central strategy of the information university (substituting information delivery for education), that dystopia erroneously maps that strategy onto the future, as if informationalization were something “about to happen” that could be headed off at the pass, if we just cut all the fiber-optic cables…
Close readers will know that this piece, substantially rewritten and expanded, became ch 2 of HTUW. For a more fun, blistering and relentlessly scatological skewering of Kamenetz, you can’t do better than the anonymous purveyor of ginandtacos.com (h/t to Bill Benzon of The Valve).
Over at the Atlantic, business editor Megan McArdle lit up the Beltway blab-o-sphere by posing an interesting question: If “almost every” tenured professor she knows has a “left-wing vision” of workplace issues, why do they accept the “shockingly brutal” treatment of faculty with contingent appointments?
Her perception of leftism among the faculty leads her to think that our values “should result in something much more egalitarian.” So, she asks, how is it that higher ed sustains “one of the most abusive labor markets in the world”?
Good question. One answer, of course, is that the faculty aren’t “leftists” at all, but American liberals, whose commitments to equality are relatively clear in matters of ethnicity and gender, but hopelessly confused when it comes to class and workplace issues generally.
Arguably most of the policy failures by contemporary liberals in matters of ethnicity and gender can be traced back to their blind spot regarding issues of class, labor, and the workplace.
As I’ve noted before, to produce crashing silence in a lecture hall packed with doctorates, all you have to do is ask, “Why are police departments more diverse than English departments?”
Super-Exploitation and the Myth of Faculty Leftism
McArdle speculates that the material condition of the contingent faculty (“some of the worst-paid high-school graduates in the country”) has caused the “leftward drift” of academic politics: ie, that working in a tiered workplace has made typical academics adopt egalitarian values. She’s completely wrong about that, since it was exactly the other way around: the faculty’s non-leftism (their liberal comfort with inegalitarianism in economic and workplace matters) helped bring about the system of majority contingent appointments.
Nevertheless she makes a couple of very helpful observations.
She’s especially good at pointing out that the tenured are also victims of this system. She notes that even the fortunate ones on the tenure track are “virtual prisoners” of their administration until tenure (a point now reached for humanities faculty roughly two decades after entering grad school, or in one’s forties!):
And that’s before we start talking about the marriages strained, the personal lives stunted, because those lucky enough to get a tenure-track job have to move to a random location, often one not particularly suited to their spouses’ work ambitions or their own personal preferences . . . a location which, barring another job offer, they will have to spend the rest of their life in.
This leads to the best observation in McArdle’s piece: that many faculty are clueless about worker rights and experiences in nonacademic workplaces. In faculty lore, nonacademic workplaces represent “an endless well of exploitation where employees are virtual prisoners with no recourse in the face of horrific abuses.”
McArdle believes that most academics translate their own experiences and those of their colleagues enduring contingent appointment–of super-exploitation and “monolithic employer power”–and “naturally assume it must be even worse on the outside.”(emph. original)
She’s right on both of these points. Contrary to the assumptions of most observers, faculty in the tenure stream have seriously harmed themselves and the profession by their lazy complicity with the two-tiered system of majority contingent employment. And they foolishly excuse their complicity by assigning blame to any cause but their own failure of responsibility to the profession.
This insight–of professional laziness by the tenured, who are working hard on many things, but not at defending the profession–leads to one of the obvious, clear answers to the crisis of the professoriate.
We’re experiencing a failure of professional control over the terms of professional work, what actual labor economists call a “failed monopoly of professional labor.”
Traditional professions exchange strong (even “monopoly”) control over their terms of work for a public-service mission, an arrangement that has been undermined and all but abandoned under neoliberalism and its ideologies, including the bogus analytical lens of “job market theory.” Sadly, the most common response to McArdle’s piece was the triumphant crowing of the half-smart, sprinting forward with their cliched faux analysis featuring–you guessed it–an oversupply of persons with doctorates, etc etc: “It’s simple! Too few jobs, too many PhDs! It’s simple! It’s simple! Ha-ha! I win! Shut up, whiny girls with your whiny degrees that nobody sees on Sports Center! It’s simple!”
Of course I’ve debunked the inanity of the “overproduction of PhDs” thesis many times before. There is zero such “overproduction,” since what has happened is a restructuring of demand. Regular readers know that structured demand means that work formerly done by persons with doctorates is now done by persons with an m.a. or less. This revolutionary shift was accomplished intentionally, by university management, all without much opposition by the guild of tenured faculty. Like most other senior workers after 1970, the tenured collaborated in the creation of multi-tier workplaces… trading away the future of the young for their own comfort.
The persistence of “job market theory” despite its obvious inanity is partly due to its narcotizing effect on the guilty consciences of the tenured: “Oh, it’s not my failure to defend the profession, it’s The Market.”
This doped-up intellectual response carries through the whole standard hamster wheel of the conversation about academic employment: “Gollleeee, cousin Jim-Bob, I wonder if we should put down our jugs of corn liquor and issue one of them caveat emptors to the young folks? Wouldn’t want them messing up their graduate-education purchasing decisions! Don’t want to get offen my porch, though. Guess I’ll just share my wisdom regarding this here tough job market with any young folks who happen to stop by and ask.”
So American faculty aren’t leftists; they’re liberals, deeply influenced by market ideology and fantasies about meritocratic education outcomes (wonderfully unencumbered by data). They work in institutions that manufacture and legitimate steep economic inequalities that hamper the progress of other egalitarian commitments in ethnicity and gender.
But even liberals can run a profession–when they put their minds to it.
Maybe it’s about time we stopped gassing on fatuously with outdated Fordist analogies, as if we could capture professional responsibilities and realities by pretending graduate schools are factories. Or that professional working conditions and standards are set by “markets” rather than by managers.
Maybe we should ask ourselves, “What obligations do professionals have to the profession, to other professionals, and the society we serve?”
And: “Where are we obliged to act collectively and draw the line with management on these issues? Did we cross that line about thirty years ago?”
It certainly wouldn’t hurt if we asked our professional associations to think this way as well.
As usual, your friends at the New York Times let higher education employers off the hook. After finally picking up on the nationwide scandal of unemployment claims denial, a story that Joe Berry broke years ago specifically in connection with higher ed employers, the Times mentions the complicity of just about every kind of employer except higher ed.
Here’s how it works. Because employers fund unemployment insurance (UI) in this country, generally in some relation to how many of their employees receive UI, they are highly motivated to contest claims. The system was designed, of course, to penalize employers who try to dump the costs of their workforce on the public by making those who aggressively churned their staff pay more.
As Jason De Parle’s piece makes clear, this incentive to fight the claims of the unemployed has created a boom industry for niche sleazebags like the Talx Corporation, to which million-dollar-a-year pimps in management outsource the dirty business of denying a few hundred a month to the serfs they’ve laid off.
They operate on the same “quality” principle as arduous phone trees–Talx employees simply gum up the works for state agencies and applicants, understanding exactly how much delay is required to make a sufficient percentage of claimants to just give up and go away. In many states, including California, state law specifically entitles contingent faculty to unemployment pay over the summer and other periods of unemployment, but state universities will fight the claims vigorously.
Over on adj-l (join), a discussion of Talx revealed prominent universities on their client list, including the unionized Cal State system. According to Jonathan Karpf:
TALX has handled all UI claims for the California State University system (CSU) for a number of years.
I and the other CFA EDD expert, Dan Bratten at CSU-Stanislaus, have noticed an upsurge of denials in the past 4 months or so. At first I attributed this to the number of new hires that EDD had to make to handle the highest unemployment rate since the great depression. Now I suspect it’s a self-conscious strategy on the part of TALX to deny legitimate claims on the hope that a certain percentage of Lecturers will not avail themselves of the appeal process.
I have guided several dozen Lecturers denied UI benefits in the past few months through the appeal process and 100% have won on appeal before an administrative law judge. All of these folks had been to one of my Lecturer Unemployment Rights workshops that I give throughout the 23 campus CSU, so with a bit of guidance they were all able to successfully handle their own appeals. That said, I agree with Jack that in the absence of knowledgeable contingent faculty, it would be ideal to have someone well-versed in that state’s EDD statutes and case law available to accompany the contingent faculty to their appeal.
For those planning on attending COCAL IX in Quebec City August 13-15, I will be part of a workshop panel on unemployment rights for contingent faculty. (used with Jonathan Karpf’s permission)
So, hey, why not make the sleazeballs pay you an extra couple thousand bucks this summer–download Joe Berry’s indispensable free pamphlet on how to succeed in filing for UI.
In the Chicago area? Join one of Joe’s filing parties being held at various campuses May 10-15!
On a related note, please join me in THANKING Joe Berry for his brilliant work (buy his wonderful book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower) and his generous service to the movement over the decades. He is losing his job at UIUC. Predictably his employers found that the financial crisis is an “opportunity” to cut back on labor centers employing scholars criticizing the labor practice of higher ed. He’s moving back to the Bay area with his retiring spouse, Helena Worthen, so hurray for the Bay area. Joe will remain active and join the AAUP committee on contingent employment that I co-chair.
Finally, I don’t usually mention my appearances here, but I’m trying to cut back on them for the next couple of years, and want to note that I won’t be at COCAL this summer as advertised. But you can still catch me at UCLA on Monday, May 3, and at Simon Fraser on June 10.
Think you enjoy academic freedom? Think again. In July 2007, the American Sociological Association reported that 1/3 of its members felt that their academic freedoms were threatened, a significantly higher figure than the 1/5 recorded during the McCarthy years. What this suggests is that witch-hunts haven’t gone away; they just don’t attract as many headlines. (Just last month, Bill Ayers was disinvited from another lecture: ho-hum.) Today, even tenured faculty at top research schools can legally be disciplined and harassed for questioning the administration in a department meeting.
How are we to understand this moment? How did we get here? Academic Repression,a blistering volume by Nocella, Best, and McLaren, offers some desperately needed history and analysis.
The history alone is worth the price of admission. If you’ve let your AAUP membership lapse–and have been getting your ideas about the state of the academy from cable news or the business and lifestyle reporters at the New York Times–you might still retain fantasies about the unassailable security of tenure.
This book will change that, with a series of eye-opening stories showcasing the extreme vulnerability of individuals with unpopular views.
As Michael Parenti makes clear in the excerpt that follows, the current wave of repression conceals its agenda behind a mask of proceduralism, backed by a tightening net of repressive law.
As in the case of Ward Churchill, the McCarthyism of today bends over backward to pretend that politics isn’t the reason for the attack on the individual–it is generally some other, often pretended offense that provides the pretext. Ironically, the contemporary war on academic freedom usually employs the very procedures and norms that are supposed to protect it:
On some campuses, administrative officials have monitored classes, questioned the political content of books and films, and screened the lists of guest speakers—all in the name of scholarly objectivity and balance.
In some places, however, trustees and administrators readily pay out huge sums for guest lectures by committed, highly partisan, rightwing ideologues.
The guardians of academic orthodoxy never admit that some of their decisions about hiring and firing faculty might be politically motivated. Instead they will say the candidate has not published enough articles. Or if enough, the articles are not in conventionally acceptable academic journals. Or if in acceptable journals, they are still wanting in quality and originality, or show too narrow or too diffuse a development. Seemingly objective criteria can be applied in endlessly elastic ways….
Mainstream academics treat their politically safe brands of teaching and research as the only ones that qualify as genuine scholarship. Such was the notion used to deny Samuel Bowles tenure at Harvard. Since Marxist economics is not really scholarly, it was argued, Bowles was neither a real scholar nor an authentic economist. Thus centrists ideologues have purged scholarly dissidents under the guise of protecting rather than violating academic standards. The decision seriously split the economics department and caused Nobel Prize winner Wassily Leontif to quit Harvard in disgust.
Radical academics have been rejected because their political commitments supposedly disallow them from objective scholarship. In fact much of the best scholarship comes from politically committed scholars.
One goal of any teacher should be to introduce students to bodies of information and analysis that have been systematically ignored or suppressed–a task that usually is better performed by iconoclasts than by those who accept existing institutional and class arrangements as the finished order of things. So it has been feminists and African-American researchers who, in their partisan urgency, have revealed the previously unexamined sexist and racist presumptions and gaps of conventional scholarship.
Likewise, it is leftist intellectuals (including some who are female or nonwhite) who have produced the challenging scholarship about popular struggle, political economy, and class power, subjects remaining largely untouched by centrists and conservatives.16 In sum, a dissenting ideology can awaken us to things regularly overlooked by conventional scholarship.
Orthodox ideological strictures are applied also to a teacher’s outside political activity. At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, an instructor of political science, Ted Hayes, an anti-capitalist, was denied a contract renewal because he was judged to have “outside political commitments” that made it impossible for him to be objective. Two of the senior faculty who voted against him were state committee members of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.17 There was no question as to whether their outside political commitments interfered with their objectivity as teachers or with the judgments they made about colleagues.
–Michael Parenti, “Academic Repression, Past and Present”
In a nine-page report, the ACLU just slammed the Berkeley administration for trampling on the rights of two student protesters. And: is the Minneapolis conference about this year’s campus unrest the last act, or a prelude to even bolder action? Watch the live broadcast to find out. There was a police confrontation at a sit-in yesterday and the Oakland schoolteachers are striking later this month. Stay tuned for the events of May 1 through May 4.
The ACLU report relentlessly portrays an administration that over-reacted and over-reached its authority, laying ludicrous charges (such as “attempting arson”) for which the university had literally no evidence (nor could have, because no “arson” was attempted, duh), imposing punishment without due process (like, uh, being heard), devising strictures it had no right to impose, etc. Read all blistering nine pages here and sign the petition, if you like.
Since there are dozens of student protesters’ cases still to be considered, ACLU’s swift response is a modest but real blow to the gangster theory of higher education administration: “Call ’em arsonists in the press and then kick ’em out without a hearing! That’ll teach the rest of ’em!”.
I wouldn’t buy the iPad for me, but I’d certainly consider buying something like it for my son. Infants acquire the ability to point around ten months of age. With touch-screen interfaces, shortly thereafter most can interact with literacy programs designed for much older children.
About this time last year, when Emile was fourteen months old, we evaluated for his use the best options then available, the touch-screen netbook and the large HP TouchSmart 600, choosing the latter for screen size and interface quality. If the iPad had been available, we’d have given it a close look.
When I last wrote about electronic reading devices, I concluded that e-reading was here to stay–but so far none of the currently available e-reading options had pushed beyond travel & leisure use. Neither Kindle-type dedicated devices nor netbook apps had demonstrated their readiness for the prime time of workday academic, business and professional reading.
The arrival of the overhyped iPad doesn’t change that. Heavier than a Kindle, more awkward to type on than a netbook, the iPad is more of a toy than a tool. It’s basically a Kindle plus–a really good device for media consumption on the go–rather than a device for professional reading and writing. Which explains what David Pogue calls the device’s uniquely polarizing effect: working techie insiders like Cory Doctorow despise it, and folks who passively consume a lot of media love it.
Since e-reading is here to stay, the likeliest future for reading on the go will be something like an iPad/netbook hybrid, with a detachable clamshell keyboard/dock, so that you can take either just the tablet or the tablet and a keyboard. Devices of this type are already on the market, and my guess is that the iPad and Kindle will converge on this design configuration. The iPad has an optional keyboard dock, but it’s for your desktop. Doubtless a later iteration or a competitor will have a detachable netbook-style keyboard.
If you are interested in how you can help your toddler or pre-schooler to learn using a touch screen, I’d suggest you take them into an Apple store and a computer store stocking the HP device and go to starfall.com for starters. Also try: jacksonpollock.org, lecielestbleu, poissonrouge, Peep ‘n Quack, and Literactive, among many others. You might be surprised by your child’s abilities in playing memory games and puzzles. The best online jigsaw puzzles for very young users are the 12-piece images at Jigzone: there’s a decent snap-to effect and the pieces remain in the correct orientation to each other (no rotation necessary). For many games you may want to set the monitor resolution lower.
I’ll write about Emile’s early learning experiences another time, and possibly in another forum: there’s just too much to say in this space. In brief, though:
Yes, it’s been a big success by several different measures.
No, we don’t endorse phonics.
No, we don’t think the computer replaces any other traditional learning or interaction.
No, we don’t leave him in front of the computer and yes, we have only gradually increased his time from 15 to 30 minutes a day.
Yes, we agree that soccer, gym, art, music, and play dates and reading aloud are more important for two- year olds.
Yes, there is a great deal of dangerous mind-numbing “educational software” out there, and it vastly outnumbers the useful stuff.
No, you cannot make your toddler smarter by having them watch any kind of video whatsoever.
Yes, you can do any and all of these learning activities without a computer, and yes, most of our reading time is with the several hundred real books he owns, including picture books. Last night, for example, we talked for an hour over his latest, Audobon’s Complete Birds and Mammals.
No, you can’t trust PBS to teach your kids online either.
Yes, it’s one of the few good things about Obama’s education policy that he supports pre-school and zero to three learning.
No, reading and literacy are not the same thing. Reading is a symptom of literacy, not the other way around.
The point is to accommodate your child’s burgeoning literacy–the already existing thirst to communicate, know, learn, and interact.
I once read of a parent bragging that they’d taught a very young child to read by reading the same book over and over again. How sad: I cannot imagine a better illustration of mistaking the sign of a thing for the thing itself. In the context of very young learners, eventually reading is the sign of a rich literacy.
Any activity that seeks to develop early reading per se–at the expense of that rich literacy–is a huge disservice to the child.
All in all, we’re ecumenical rather than evangelical on the question of early learning: it’s all too easy to do the wrong thing in this area, I suppose. But I also think that many people mistakenly deprive their children’s hungry brains of the chance to learn–and then, not knowing what else to do–plunk them in front of an “educational video.”