The incentivized university

By mid-April, I’m urged to turn in my book orders for classes that begin in August.  Why?  Because the university is just dying to see what new book titles and pedagogical innovations I’ve got up my sleeve for the fall term?  No.  Because book buy-back programs want to know which books will be used again and which won’t be, so that they can offer students a few dollars for their books that will appear on someone’s syllabus in the next semester.  Leaving aside the fact that I never teach the same course two semesters in a row (with a 2-2 load, they just don’t come around that often), my incentive–if I’m going to make this artificial deadline–is to teach the same damn syllabus over and over again.  Don’t think about revising your course over the summer.  Add no new books.  Don’t add new lectures or even revise old ones.  Standardize the product, and keep it coming, like a MacDonald’s franchise. 

My special correspondent Indyannna took this snapshot of a poster advertising book buy-back dates at his university before exams have started.  Yes, that’s a great plan:  sell your books before you study for the final exam or write your final papers.  The incentive for students is to slight their grades and learning in favor of the chance for a few dollars per book.  (Is it too much to ask that book buyback schemes start only during finals week?)  I know that books are expensive–but I’m not apologizing for asking students to borrow from a library or purchase five $20 monographs, when science, economics, and business courses routinely ask students to buy $150 textbooks, plus additional books and materials.  Besides, spending money on books isn’t “extra,” it’s part of the expense of college that students should budget for.  (I consider University parking passes and beer money “extras,” but I’m afraid they’re things that get budgeted in before books.)

(Note to textbook companies:  By the way–haven’t you noticed yet that I never assign your books?  If so, why do you keep sending me six to eight free samples per semester?  You’re like a spurned suitor who thinks ze’s being charmingly persistent, when really it’s just stalkerish and creepy.  Your books irritate me, because I know the cost of your “gift” is just handed on down to the students who buy your books.  I give my freebies away to students, especially those studying to be history teachers, so they find good homes where they’re appreciated, but would you please re-examine this wasteful policy of yours?)

Historiann has been criticized in her course evaluations by students complaining that they can’t sell as many books back as they had expected to.  How disappointing–I’m sure they were in mint condition.  I suppose I should assign only best-sellers by David McCullough or Joseph Ellis, or boring textbooks, because students might get something back for them, instead of assigning the best books in my field–the ones with innovative arguments and evidence that, you know, might make you think.  (And, until my next book is published, there just aren’t a whole lot of bestsellers on women’s history, strangely enough.  Going with the bestsellers only approach would pretty much bump all women and people of color off the syllabus.)  Naively, Historiann had supposed that college students buy books because they’re sort of interested in the ideas inside them, not for their possible resale value.  Does anyone else think it’s strange that students would want to try to scrub their bookshelves (and brains?) entirely of course content?

Clinton locks up the keystone state


Well, that was interesting.  Senatorella rides again–despite being outspent 3:1, despite her high negatives, despite the fact that Obama really worked hard for votes in Pennsylvania, and despite the cheerleading of the mass media.  As of my press deadline, she’s sitting on a 10-point win, 55-45, with 90% of the vote reported.  Cue the screams for her to drop out for the good of the party.  Cue the shouts that the primary is divisive and must end now.  (H/t to commenter David for pointing me to this New York Times editorial published tonight that begins, “The Pennsylvania campaign, which produced yet another inconclusive result on Tuesday, was even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering than the mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it.”)  Cue the demands to “take her boobs and go home.”  She only beat him by ten points!  The math!  The math!  Thhhheee mmaaattthhh!

UPDATE, 4/23/08:  Well, that didn’t take long.  Check out this hateful commentary at The Nation by Tom Hayden.  (He calls it “Why Hillary Makes My Wife Scream,” compares her to Lady MacBeth, and claims that “Going negative doesn’t begin to describe what has happened. Hillary is going over the edge.”  Shorter Tom Hayden:  “Women hate her too, so it’s not like I’m a misogynist.  I tried to like her, but she’s just such a bitch!  Waaaaaaaahhhhh!”)  Or, try this new math for competing against girls, where a 10% margin of victory for a girl is really only about 8%, which is really kind of a tie, so it’s not like Hillary actually won, and we’re back where we started.  And take the New York Times–pleaseLe Somerby explains it all so I don’t have to:  “Those million-plus Democrats [in Pennsylvania] don’t exist in [Maureen] Dowd’s world. In Dowd’s world, Dowd wants Clinton to quit. And so, by the laws of childish dreams, ‘the Democrats” must want that too.'”  Maureen Dowd actually published these sentences at the end of her column today:  “The time has come. The time has come. The time is now. Just go. … I don’t care how. You can go by foot. You can go by cow. Hillary R. Clinton, will you please go now! You can go on skates. You can go on skis. … You can go in an old blue shoe.  Just go, go, GO!”

All teasing aside:  if he’s the clear front-runner and the presumtive nominee, why can’t he just win a big, juicy state and wrap this puppy up for the history books?  All of the money he’s raised, the estimable enthusiasm of his voters, and the undeniable media bias in his favor, and he can only play it to a draw?  Even if he pulls out the nomination in the end, he’s got to face John McCain, who is beloved by the Washington press corps (and who doesn’t have the high negatives that Clinton has.)

Clinton looked radiant in turquoise tonight, eloquent, confident, and energized–and her audience was pumped up and ready to fight along with her.  (Even the toads on MSNBC gave her that.)  Her victory speech was long–it reminded me of Amy Poehler’s impersonation of Clinton on Saturday Night Live from a few months ago, mocking her relentlessness and determination.  (It was funny because it’s true!)  I had a phone call less than halfway through and so missed most of the speech, but I did catch this nice comment:  Tonight was for all the people “who lift their little girls on their shoulders and whisper in their ears, ‘See, you can be anything you want.'”

Yeah, well, we’ll see.  There’s still a long way to go for both campaigns.

Smile-a-while: Howler stomps the "smelly old coots"

Here’s a free laugh, from Bob Somerby.  Today’s example of Baby Boomer ressentiment?  It’s the always stupid and always wrong Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.  You have to laugh about Somerby’s analysis, to keep back the tears you’d otherwise shed on behalf of Cohen’s depraved view of his professional responsibility.  (By the way, that’s a photo of Somerby, not Cohen.  I googled a photo of Richard Cohen, and decided that I didn’t want his smelly old coot mug on my blog.  Somerby is devilishly handsome, no?)

Cohen’s Sermon on the Mount today:  “It is hard to think of anyone who has worked longer or sacrificed more for the presidency [than Hillary Clinton]. She is indomitable, steadfast, gutsy and all those other things we know — smart, for instance. She also can be, in private and sometimes in public, charming and awfully good company.”  And yet, despite these sterling qualifications, “she has gone too far.”  She makes Richard Cohen uncomfortable with her competence and ambition, so for trivial reasons–her comments on the muslim rumor on 60 Minutes, and her Bosnia sniper story–Cohen decrees that she must never be President.  Close your eyes and imagine a male pol being held to the same standard.

Well, it’s certainly not happening in Cohen’s disturbed and tiny little mind.  He admits that McCain and Obama lie too–Cohen writes that McCain has “fudged and ducked and swallowed the truth on occasion — about the acceptability of the Confederate flag, for instance — but always, I think, for understandable although not necessarily admirable reasons.”  Always for understandable reasons, like propping up the flag of racist nationalism.  And Obama?  “[H]e, too, can do the F’s — fudge, fib or forget. I don’t believe him on the Second Amendment — and he says one thing on NAFTA in Ohio and a campaign adviser whispers another to Canada by way of reassurance.”  Lying about policy is A-OK in Cohen’s book, because “these are minor matters, the ‘You look beautiful tonight, dear’ fibs of marriage that have their functional equivalent in politics. They are necessary. They lubricate life itself.”  Lying about policy and pandering to racism?  That’s just politics.  Misremembering something that happened 12 years ago?  She must be stopped.

Somerby’s command of recent history schools the historians (and Historianns).  I especially like the way the Howler suggests that Cohen’s (and John McCain’s) objectification of subordinate young women (and trashing of accomplished, uncompliant women like Naomi Wolf) is somehow connected to his discomfort with Clinton as a presidential candidate.  Watch out, Bob–you’re going to get branded as The Daily Feminazi if you keep commiting thought crimes like that!

All the best marriages are queer

Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Profs points us to a new article by Marc R. Poirier offering an innovative argument against the opponents of same-sex marriage.  Called “The Cultural Property Claim Within the Same-Sex Marriage Controversy,” Poirier argues that “traditionalist” opponents of same-sex marriage rights are in effect making an illegitamate cultural property claim on the definition and performance of marriage.  From the abstract:  “The protection of shared cultural symbols, rituals and traditions can be approached doctrinally and understood culturally in several ways in addition to a cultural property claim, including trademark dilution (especially trademark tarnishment), intellectual property rights that protect against unauthorized performance, laws against blasphemy and desecration, and environmental prohibitions of pollution and contagion. The article examines each of these, shedding light on the unexplored mechanics of the signal congestion that often lies at the heart of the traditionalist concern.”  And in a nice Judith Butlerian way, the article “focuses not only on the name and status of marriage, but also on the daily performances of gender roles that marriage authorizes and facilitates, and that same sex marriage apparently threatens to dilute or disrupt. The article thus applies both property concepts and gender performance theory to the same sex marriage controversy.”  See especially his discussion of “Marriage as Ongoing Gender Performance” on p. 38, the headline of section IV of his essay.  (Download it here.  Poirier loves him some cultural studies–you’ll find Mary Douglas in his footnotes too.)

Poirier’s analysis offers several fruitful ways to beat the argument about the so-called “threat to traditional marriage” posed by same-sex marriage.  Historiann wishes we would return to traditional marriage, American-style, and define it the way that John Winthrop and Cotton Mather did:  as a civil contract because marriage is a human invention.  (Adam and Eve were merely “shacking up,” in Dr. Laura’s inestimable formulation.)  Remember, folks, desacralizing marriage was one of the indisputably great things to come out of the Protestant Reformation.  This is probably the one area of agreement between John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and Historiann.  Americans have redefined marriage throughout history–for example, revising marriage in the mid-19th century so that it didn’t rob women of their property rights; first prohibiting interracial marriage (ca. 1660-1720 in most English colonies), then permitting interracial marriage (in 1967, in Loving v. Virginia); and of course, the no-fault divorce revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, just to name a few of the major revolutions in American marriage history.  On p. 14 of his essay, Poirier indicates too how the legal definition of marriage varies not just across time, but across jurisdictional lines, from state-to-state.  So, including same-sexers in the fun seems like only a minimal revision of the potpourri of rules that we’re already re-writing constantly anyway. 

Poirier gets at the truth of people’s discomfort with same-sex marriage–at least the truth as I’ve always seen it, and explains why gay marriage is seen as a “threat” to “traditional marriage.”  He writes on p. 50, “[T]he injury traditionalists percieve, whether or not they would themselves describe it this way, comes in significant part from the fact that the gender binary is reaffirmed or challenged in the microperformance of couples everywhere, day in, day out. . . . When many people engage in similar gender performance, the normative components of their lived experience around gender, sex roles, and heterosexual components, are reinforced; indeed, they come to seem quite natural and unperformed.”  In other words, without a narrow, state-enforced definition of marriage, how will we know who wears the pants?  How will we know who’s supposed to mow the lawn and who’s supposed to keep the kitchen tidy?  How will we know whose last name the children will have, and who should be paid more for the same work?  (Freedom!  Horrible, horrible freedom!)   Queering marriage means not just permitting same-sexers to motor on down to any Las Vegas wedding chapel, but it also necessarily shatters the illusion that heterosexual marriage is a stable and natural institution.  It doesn’t threaten any marriage in particular, but it does threaten to expose “traditionalist” marriage as something that’s just as constructed and artificial as any other kind of marriage.

I’ve got all kinds of opinions about straight marriages and where they go wrong and where they’re hopelessly screwed up, and I’m sure you do, too.  I probably wouldn’t approve of your ongoing gender performance of marriage (straight or gay), and you probably wouldn’t approve of Historiann’s performance or marriage, if she is married.  So let’s agree to just bitch and gossip about each other privately like we always have, deal with our own happy and/or screwed-up (or happily screwed-up) marriages, and get out of the way of other people’s civil rights–the way adults do in a free society.  M’kay? 

Feminist Art, Feminist History, and Public History: Friction in the Archives?

While on vacation last week, I had a chance to visit the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco with a friend who’s a student at the San Francisco Art Institute.  (Sorry–no photos available!)  I had been mulling over a post on the exhibition we saw, which is called The Way That We Rhyme:  Women, Art, & PoliticsMy friend has a Ph.D. and taught feminist philosophy for several years, and our shared interest in feminist issues (historically and in the world today) is how we met and bonded.  Now today, Tenured Radical has a post raving about a similar-sounding exhibition in New York called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at P.S. 1.  So, thanks to TR’s initiative (also cross-posted at her new location, Cliopatria), it seems like a good opportunity to draw some attention to these efforts to engage both feminist art and the history of feminist activism that seems to be the raison d’être of both of these exhibitions.

Oh, and have you heard about that senior Aliza Shvarts’s “Abortion Art” thesis at Yale that everyone was frothing about late last week?  Yale claims that the supposed abortions were a “creative fiction” in the service of her performance art, but the student has stuck to her story and published this explanation of the ideas behind her repeated self-insemination and medical abortion.  From her statement, I get what she’s doing politically, but I really don’t see the artistry in her political expression.

This was my reaction to The Way That We Rhyme, too.  It was interesting and it documented some important moments in the history of “second-wave” feminism, but I was unclear where exactly the art was.  (Just to be clear:  I know a little art history but I’m no art critic, and I live at a distance from contemporary art galleries and museums, so my friend had to fill me in on some of the new trends in art.  So, it’s quite possible that my reaction is a result of me being untutored and unsophisticated.  Heck, I just recently took down the “Big Eye” pictures in my bedroom–example on the right.)  From what my friend said, the trends on display here were that art is now anti-aesthetic and seem to fetishize “outsider”-style art.  So, much of The Way That We Rhyme was either video, installations that involved found objects, and needlecrafts (knitting in particular), and usually two out of three.  There were no paintings and no drawings, although I think some paint and drawn images were used in some of the installations. 

Most interestingly, many of the installations were explicitly historical, and it made me wonder how exactly a reasonably creative contemporary public historian’s approach to the materials and subject matter would differ, if at all, from the artists’ installations.  One of the featured installations was literally of an archive of the art of two second-wave generation artists.  The archive boxes were stacked up on steel shelves right on the gallery wall, and interspersed between the boxes were about a dozen video screens (with headphones attached for your listening pleasure) showing different interviews with Gen-X and Gen-Y women artists leafing through and commenting on various items they found in the said archives.  Another display was simply some old issues of a feminist ‘zine from the 1980s laid out on a wooden table and secured by chains to the table so that they didn’t walk away.  Aside from the hatchet prankishly stuck in the tabletop, it was your basic method of display at even the sleepiest small-town historical society, a “featured publications from our collections”-type display.  Another installation was based on an archive of letters written in the 1960s and early 1970s by women seeking information about how to procure a safe abortion.  It featured inartful photocopies of the letters arranged on the walls of the installation, and a TV set showing videos of actresses reading the same letters.  Where, exactly, was the artist’s intervention in presenting these archival sources?  I was much more engaged as a historian than I was impressed by the artistry of it all.  Many of the installations were clever–but I didn’t necessarily think they were art.

Based on the Radical’s description of the WACK! exhibition, that show sounds much more like an exploration of the art of second-wave feminism, based as it is on art by women artists who achieved reknown back in the day, whereas The Way That We Rhyme is more of an exploration of second- and third-wave feminism by contemporary artists.  I’m not entirely sure of what to make of Aliza Shvarts’s “Abortion Art” project, other than to say that it’s irrelevant to me whether or not the blood she used included aborted embryos or not–the project itself sounds pretty silly and derivative.  But, the spectacle she created was a brilliant exercise in the art of drawing attention to oneself as a so-called artist.  Was the whole thing a meta-meta commentary on the abortion outrage machine that happily ginned itself up when the story broke, or on the world of contemporary art, or both?  Again, I get (and share) the politics.  But is it art…?

We all know what works–but who will pay for it?

The Denver Post has a curious and lengthy front-page article today on the failure of higher ed in Colorado to serve and graduate Latino/a students.  This is a serious concern, because more and more of our college-age population are Latino/a.  To wit,      “[s]tatistics show Latino students are less likely than any other group to graduate from high school, and at most Colorado four-year and community colleges, they are more likely to leave before finishing a degree than their white counterparts.”  David Longanecker, the “executive director for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and former assistant education secretary under President Clinton, said the higher education system has to change.  ‘In many respects, it’s provided a sieve to differentiate the able from the less-able students,’ he said. ‘We need to take students and teach them what they need to know rather than weed out the wheat from the chaff.'”

The curious part of the article is in the discussion of possible solutions to the problem.  For the most part, universities tout special mentoring programs, but however well intended, we all know that those are “solutions” run on the cheap and that they have more PR value than actual value.  (The effective pre-college mentoring programs the article discusses look good–but the people who run them admit that they can’t serve the tremendous need in the state.)  The article claims–without any documentation, and apparently, without any actual research–that “[g]one are the days of 250-person lecture halls.”  Oh really?  Historiann’s lower-level surveys are capped at 123, and she has to make-do with only one graduate TA (and that, friends, is a very new development.  Most of our survey courses have been taught by people without TAs or graders, and most often by adjuncts or “special faculty” who teach two or three sections of their surveys per semester, in addition perhaps to one or two upper-level courses for a total of 300-400 students per semester.)  Does that sound much more hands-on and student-centered than 250-person lectures?

We all know what works, but I’m quite confident the people of my good state won’t want to pay for it.  What works is what Amherst College and other elite liberal arts colleges have done for 200+ years–small classes where faculty and students can hold each other accountable for their work.  Capping all classes at 30, especially lower-level introductory classes, centering courses more on reading, writing, and disucssion rather than on passive listening to lectures, and asking faculty to teach no more than 2 classes per semester, will ensure that students at all levels of the curriculum will get the attention and mentoring they need and deserve.  No responsible faculty member ever said, “I think teaching works best when I’m in an auditorium on a stage where I can’t see past the third row of students, and where students are very confident that I don’t know them and won’t notice that they’re not attending class.”  In my career, I’ve never heard someone make the argument that that style of teaching was their pedagogical ideal.

Education at large state universities is higher education on the cheap, and quite frankly, you get what you pay for.  This system works acceptably well for middle-class and upper-class students who went to good high schools and whose parents attended college, because they have an educational background and parental expectations and resources to help them get through Freshman and Sophomore years when they’re in the large, impersonal General Education classes.  (The system certainly isn’t ideal for them either, but they’ve got a cultural and material cushion that most first-generation college students don’t have.)  And by the way–paying faculty a living wage for teaching two classes capped at 30 students each also means that universities would have to wean themselves of adjunct and “special” faculty who teach four or five classes per semester, plus the equivalent load over the summer.  It goes without saying that faculty teaching four or five classes of thirty students each will be stretched too thin to offer the kind of support that their students need.  Reading, thinking, writing, and discussing should be at the center of higher education, and they are activities that technology can enhance sometimes, but can never replace.  And there’s no way to do it on the cheap unless you’re satisfied with Wal-Mart results.

The fact is that our current regime of higher education works for the wealthy, who can always pay $40,000-$50,000 a year for private colleges and elite universities for their children.  In fact, by refusing to allow state universities to offer a comparable education and forcing them to operate on the cheap, the system enhances the value attached to a private college or university education.  The privilege they’re paying for, in part, is the exclusivity of their degrees.  Why should state governments enhance the caché of Amherst College or of Stanford University, instead of trying to offer the students at their state universities a comparable experience?  Enough of this welfare for the wealthy!  Enough!

What would you do for $5 million a year? (Or, are you using that last shred of dignity, Chris?)


Chris Matthews is obviously a total buffoon, his ratings stink, and he has absolutely zero credibility as a journalist because he says things like this on his TV show:  “Hillary Clinton bugs a lot of guys, I mean, really bugs people like maybe me on occasion. I’m not going to take a firm position here, because the election is not coming up yet. But let me just say this, she drives some of us absolutely nuts.”  (Wow–it’s a good thing that sober objectivity kicked in!  “She drives some of us absolutely nuts” is obviously just the facts.)

Why is this man pulling down five million a year from NBC?  Eric Bohlert explains:  “Matthews is hot because he dumps all over Hillary Clinton, saying rude, sexist, and demeaning things about her week after week, and the Beltway media crowd thinks its edgy and insightful and loves to watch.”  (H/t Melissa McEwan at Shakesville.)  But, if you point this out, you’re the problem!  In fact, you might be one of the Worst Persons in the World if you call out this vile Hillary hatefest for what it is.

Oh, and for a real laugh, you’ll be interested to hear that according to Mark Leibovitch, the author of the New York Times Magazine piece linked to above, that “Matthews fashions himself a blend of big-think historian and little-guy populist.”  I don’t know which is funnier–that Matthews thinks he’s a historian of any sort at all (big-think, little-think, whatever), or that Matthews seriously believes he’s a $5 million a year populist.  But it must be true–at least the historian part–because according to Leibovitch, Matthews “also mentioned — more than once — that he has heard that the historian David McCullough watches ‘Hardball’ every night and that ‘Arthur Schlesinger watched ‘Hardball’’ and that sometimes ‘Joan Didion watched ‘Hardball’ with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, before he died.'”  Wow–that would have been amazing if Dunne had arranged to watch “Hardball” with Didion after he died, so that he could enjoy Matthews’ vicious brand of misogyny in the afterlife!  (By the way, that was a joke about how stupid Chris Matthews is, not a joke about Dunne’s supposed enjoyment of misogyny or enjoyment of Matthews, of which Historiann knows nothing, one way or the other.)  And David McCullough–wowee!  I guess Matthews thinks he must be a pretty important historian because he’s seen him on TV, and that’s where everyone who’s anyone is.

Historiann is a big fan of Reno 911–does that make Dangle, Junior, Rayneesha, Garcia, Jonesey, Clemmy, and Weigel all historians?  Just wondering.

UPDATE, this afternoonCheck out this funny (and yet totally unsurprising) story via Digby about Maureen Dowd, in which the punchline is, “And to make the horror complete, Chris Matthews was also at this dinner.”  The story about Dowd sheds some light on her hatred of Hillary Clinton, in any case:  jealous much, Maureen?

UPDATE, 4/20/08:  Over at Corrente, VastLeft has a rundown of Matthews’s appearance on Bill Maher’s show this week.  In response to Maher’s comment that he’s been accused of sexism in his campaign coverage, Matthews counters that “She (Clinton) has a problem with a lot of us. . . . She’s been tough on the media.”  Kind of like those violent men who beat up their wives and girlfriends, and then claim that they’re the ones being abused when the cops show up?