Drink re-think

The morning papers carried news today of an invitation to consider lowering the drinking age to 18 from presidents of the nation’s top colleges and universities:

College presidents from about 100 of the nation’s universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying that current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

The movement, called the Amethyst Initiative, began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.

“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, who started the organization. “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.”

All Things Considered had an interview tonight with McCardell, who sounds like a smart and genuinely concerned person.  You can see the Amethyst Inititive’s statement here–and I think it asks a great question:  do age-21 laws serve us well?  Although the quotation above frames this more as an equal rights issue, the real motivation for the Amethyst Initiative seems to be the epidemic of binge drinking.  While I think the raising of the drinking age in the 1980s was part of the problem, lowering the drinking age again is only part of the solution.  The Amethyst Initiative people are correct in noting that the binge drinking is happening off-campus, but the reason drinking moved off campus over the past twenty years also has to do with money–the money earned by unscrupulous realtors, and the money saved by financially strapped universities.

Drinking moved off campuses in the late 1980s because it was only legal for a minority of college students.  Kids wanted to drink, local realtors were happy to rent to them or sell houses to their parents so that they could drink without a nosy RA busting up all the fun, and universities found that they could increase enrollment dramatically without going to the trouble of building new dorms to house thousands of new students.  Everyone wins, right?  Well, everyone except anyone who lives in college towns, where instead of mowing lawns and playing bridge, homeowners and adult renters spend their weekends on broken-bottle and barf patrol in their lawns and gardens.  (Whoever wrote that book that recommended that parents defray the costs of their children’s college education by buying a house for the children to live in in college should be consigned to one of the lower rings of hell for all of the damage he did to neighborhoods surrounding universities.)  Historiann spent four years in a quaint Ohio college town whose stock of historic domestic architecture was destroyed by a generation of party animals, which made the “historic mile square” of the town all but uninhabitable by anyone over the age of 23.  Famille Historiann really liked that little town, but it made itself hard to love or raise a family near the town center because of the lack of law enforcement concerning the age-21 laws, public drunkenness, and the associated mess.

So, I say, sure, let’s talk about lowering the drinking age.  But, let’s also mull over these big questions, too:

  • Are colleges and universities prepared to offer housing to all of their undergraduate students?
  • Are colleges and universities truly ready and willing to serve in loco parentis once again?
  • Are local real estate interests prepared to give up the lucrative college student market?
  • Will parents and communities discuss raising the driving age to 21? 
  • And, will monkeys fly out of my butt and mix me up a Pisco Sour?

The roads to the White House

The roads to the White House are the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes (I-76 and I-80/90), from Philadelphia running west through Pittsburgh, Akron, Cleveland, and Toledo; and I-75, which runs through Michigan from Mackinaw City south through Detroit, then into Ohio and through Toledo, Lima, Dayton, and Cincinnati.  The man who really wants to win the election this fall will put himself on bus and drive east and west, north and south on those highways, getting to know the people of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan extremely well, and he’ll talk about the price of gas and the state of the U.S. economy constantly.  Paul “Cassandra” Krugman has a great column today (h/t TalkLeft) explaining why Barack Obama needs to up his economy talk, and fast.  (However, I disagree with Krugman that Obama is OK on the specifics; he needs to hammer those specifics into people’s heads and explain why his specifics are better than John McSame’s specifics.)

Obama is doing OK in Pennsylvania but he’s losing ground in Ohio:  PPP says the race in Ohio is tied, other polls show it very close, and that’s bad in a year when the GOP brand is mud, the Dems swept the 2006 elections in Ohio, and the people there are very open to regime change in the Oval Office (especially in the downtrodden Ohio Turnpike corridor and Democratic stronghold that runs through northern Ohio, from Akron and Cleveland through Toledo.)  Obama can win those states if he goes there to ask for their votes and explains how his policies will help them.  The people of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania remember the Clinton years fondly and are predisposed to trust Democrats more than Republicans with the economy–but they also need to hear from the candidate himself what he can do for them, and why his leadership matters.

I’ve always thought that Obama’s strategy of dissing and/or largely ignoring Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (except through ad buys) was foolish in the primary, but it’s suicidal in the general election.  Focusing on Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, even if Obama wins all three states, is risky.  (Colorado is looking dubious–he’s narrowly behind in Colorado and has lost a small but significant lead since July, and this state is wary of change even in places where it’s not politically right-wing).  Nevertheless, these western states won’t compensate for losing Michigan, Ohio, and possibly Pennsylvania.  Looking for new votes in new regions is a great idea, so long as you don’t ignore your natural constituencies in uncool, older, rust-belt states.  Guess what?  Older people vote, and their grandkids?  Not so much.  Remember how all of those college kids who weren’t being polled because they only had cell phones were going to save John Kerry four years ago?  How did that work out for us?

So, why doesn’t Obama get himself on a bus and get to know the people in the truck stops in Monroe, Maumee, Perrysburg, Findlay, Tipp City, Kettering, and Hamilton?  (Inquiring Democratic minds across the country want to know!)  Obama has shown a real antipathy to embracing anything having to do with Bill and Hillary Clinton or their records.  It wasn’t just a primary campaign thing, like when he wrote off Kentucky and West Virginia because he wasn’t going to win there, and Hillary Clinton was going to win big.  This has become a big theme of his summer campaign:  anyone or any state associated with Bill or Hillary Clinton is dead to him.  He has gone out of his way to punish her supporters like Charlie Rangel and Wes Clark by denying them any role in his convention, and–this is unbelievable–he has zero campaign offices in Arkansas.  (Yep–the place where the state Democratic Party chairman was murdered last week?  The one southern state that is run by Democrats now?)  And as Krugman points out, he’s so far shown himself uninterested in reminding people specifically which years in the 1990s were so good, and why. 

Imagine, if you will, that Hillary Clinton squeaked out a narrow win in the primary and didn’t immediately name Obama as her running mate.  Imagine that she refused to speak at all about her plans for getting out of Iraq, or that when she did, she spoke without passion or evident interest.  Imagine that she refused to open any campaign offices in Illinois, and refused speaking roles to prominent Obama supporters among Democratic party leaders like Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, and/or Bill Richardson.  Now, shut your eyes and try really hard to imagine the media coverage and “friendly advice” from the party she’d be getting if she did even one of these things, especially if she were flatlining in key state polls in mid-August.

One of the things that I really didn’t get about the Republican Party of the last fifteen years is that they were such sore winners.  They won–and won again–and yet they still seemed so angry, filled with ressentiment, and were so punitive towards their political enemies.  They seemed more interested in pursuing political grudges than in, you know, governing.  It’s disappointing to see the Obama machine go down the same road concerning fellow Democrats.  (D’ya think that you might need the Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee on your side down the line?  Do you want him making your life easier, or harder?  How about the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO when South Ossetia blows up again?  And just how many electoral votes do you think you can afford to lose?)  If the party isn’t united at the convention and through the fall, it will be Obama’s fault and his fault alone.  The Democratic Party wasn’t born yesterday, most of us in it weren’t either, and he isn’t running to be the first Democratic president of the United States.  We all get there together, or we’re not going anywhere.

Motherhood and the construction of women's athletic talent

Is anyone else struck by the way that men and women in both the print and broadcast media describe women athletes who happen to have children as (to paraphrase) “an Olympic athlete and a XX year-old mom!” in a tone that suggests they’re saying something like “an Olympic athlete and a XX year-old two-packs-a-day smoker!” or “an Olympic athlete and a XX year-old liver transplant patient!”  Why does anyone think that motherhood necessarily erodes or competes with athletic talent?  Of course, not every mother physically gives birth to her children, but even for those who do, childbirth and its aftermath doesn’t necessarily alter the body in ways that would affect athletic performance.  (And, if a woman is an Olympic-level competitor before she has children, her level of fitness means that she would be among the likliest candidates to snap back from pregnancy and childbirth extremely quickly.)

NPR did it again this morning in reporting on the women’s marathon gold medal winner, Romania’s Constantina Tomescu-Dita.  The reporter declared “she’s a 38 year-old mom who made it look easy!”  And U.S. women’s swim team member Dara Torres is almost always described as a “mom”in any reporting on her comeback efforts.  (With both Tomescu-Dita and Torres, the reporters seem equally amazed at their “advanced” ages, too, which are history-making but–do we really think of 40 as enfeebled any more?  U. S. Olympic weightlifter Melanie Roach’s motherhood is also heavily featured in the reporting on her, although she is still a relatively dewy 33.  The fact that reporters and the media are making such a big deal out of female parenthood suggests that culturally we’re still very invested in the notion of women’s bodies’ weakness and delicacy compared to men’s bodies.  I haven’t heard any male athletes being described in breathless terms as “dads,” although my study of this subject is admittedly accidental and anecdotal.

Finally, what’s with the word “mom,” instead of “mother?”  This seems to be an appropriation of the expression “stay-at-home mom,” or “full-time mom,” which are almost never rendered as “stay-at-home mother” or “full-time mother.”  To me, it sounds grating, because “mom” is a name, not a job, and not a word that should be used with the indefinite article (as in “a mom.”)

Mad men: cutting-edge TV, or an excuse to let racism and sexism run free?


Chez Historianndoesn’t have cable–at least, not beyond very, very basic cable, and only then because we couldn’t get a wi-fi connection without it.  So, we therefore don’t have HBO or any of the other cool channels we might actually like to watch (as opposed to re-runs of Full House and Saved By the Bell on our local WB CW affiliate.)

Since a member of the family is under the weather, and that weather is one of our twice-annual onslaughts of rain that lasts for days, I rented the first DVD of the first season of Mad Men, HBO’sAMC’s latestheavily-promoted and critically acclaimed series.  For those of you who missed the weeks-long promotion of the premiere of the show’s second season, it’s about Madison Avenue advertising executives in the 1950s 1960s and the women who serve them as girlfriends, wives, and secretaries.  The main characters are all white, and the few African American characters in the pilot episode appear only as elevator operators and waiters.  Aside from admiring the attention to detail of the costume and set designers, who have crafted a world that is full of mid-century modern design, I don’t really understand the popularity of this show.  (As usual though with historical dramas, the hair is all wrong.  Hair is something that’s much more particular to an era than just about anything else.)  Recent historical scholarship has revealed a 1950s 1950s and early 1960s that was much more varied, complex, and contested than Mad Men suggests, so it just seems too flat and simplistic.

Historical dramas are tricky, because either they run the risk of distorting race and sex relations in order to conform to modern notions of acceptable behavior (The Patriot, anyone?), or they run the risk of upsetting viewers by portraying historical truths too realistically.  (Remember all of the controversy about the supposedly upsetting realism of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List?)  But, some movies and TV shows get it right, and some don’t.  In my opinion, Mad Men was full of the offensive entitlement of wealthy, young- and young-ish white male advertising executives, without any redeeming social critique.  The only thing that signaled that we’re not supposed to like these guys very much is that the main character and his cronies are working on a cigarette account, and most of the main characters are smoking constantly and are shot through a scrim of smoke.  Ooohh–smoking!  Smoking is bad bad bad!  We get it.  We shut it off mid-way through the first episode.  We just didn’t care whether or not the main character came up with a brilliant idea to save the account or not.  His problems were too trivial to drive the drama.

As my fellow viewer said, “Roots was compelling and successful because it wasn’t about the masters,” and that about sums up my wariness of and boredom with Mad Men.  Those of you who have seen more of it, let me know what you think, and if you like it, why you like it.  Should we give it another chance?  (We’ve got 4 more days to see the next 2-1/2 episodes.)  Beyond that, how do you think TV and movies should deal with the prejudices and realities of the historical period they’re set in?  What are examples of shows you think got it right, and of those you think got it all tragically wrong?  (I’m considering giving Deadwood a try.)

UPDATED 8/18/08:  Last night, inspired by all of you who are fans and wrote so persuasively about how compelling you find the show, I watched another episode and a half.  (I think it was episode 8, when Don smokes pot with his girlfriend and her Beatnik pals, and has flashbacks to his Depression-era childhood.  I feel asleep during the next episode, which was about Don’s wife getting back into modeling while he was being courted by a big ad agency.)  For a TV show it’s above average, but I still found it very stiff, like a big 1960-themed dressup party with all of the stock characters performing lines that are more about the 2000s than about 1960.  (Sorry about the errors above in thinking that the show was set in the late 1950s–I saw several references to the 1960 Presidential campaign after writing that.  If Shaun is correct–see his informative comment below–and the show will end ca. 1972, it’s clearly meant to span the “long 1960s,” starting with the 1950s-ish early 1960s and ending with the late 1960s, which actually only ended in the 1970s.)  Finally, I found the writing (in these episodes) sounds like a David Mamet impersonation.  (The philosophical Hobo whose insights are more eloquent and profound than anybody?  Please.)  Don I suppose Mamet sounded edgy and cool in the 1980s, but twenty-five years on, not so much.

I may watch a few more episodes, to keep my ailing family member company.  (Ze’s the reason I was sent out yesterday to rent episodes 4-6 and 7-9, as ze’s becoming quite a fan!)  But so far, count me among the phillistines who doesn’t really get this one. 

Someone who does get the show, and who wrote an extremely interesting response to this post, is Clio Bluestocking–go read it.  I think she’s right that “writers [of historical fiction] are not so much trying to create a historically accurate world — although they must adhere to certain rules of history much as science fiction writers must adhere to rules of science — as they are trying to explore a contemporary subject,” although I still think that historians should evaluate historical TV, movies, and fiction as historians, with an eye to accuracy, period details, and overall mood.  (Again, The Patriot, anyone?)  Her post raises questions about the uses of contemporary movies and TV shows set in the past, and how we can use them responsibly in the classroom.  Although I don’t teach the 20th century any more, it seems like having students watch Desk Set (1957) rather than Mad Men would be a better assignment.  But, what are those of us who teach before motion pictures supposed to do?  Can period movies and TV shows play any role at all in our teaching, other than perhaps giving students a glimpse of how the past might have looked (albeit cleaner and with much better lighting and dental health), and to have discussions about how movies reflect more the world in which they were created than the world they purport to re-create?

Just what the doctor ordered roundup–shhh!

There’s just too much good news out there to report on this week!  So just lay down and relax.  You might feel a little pinch at first, so just take an extra-big swallow of that mason jar-sized Pisco Sour, and it will be all over before you wake up!  Just tell yourself that the nurse on the right is holding a swizzle stick.

  • Senator Hillary Clinton will not only be a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention, her name will be put in nomination so that her delegates can vote for her (h/t TalkLeft).  Senator Barack Obama said, “I am convinced that honoring Senator Clinton’s historic campaign in this way will help us celebrate this defining moment in our history and bring the party together in a strong united fashion.”  Right on, Senator.  Imagine, if you will, how it would have looked for the most successful second-place presidential primary finisher in recent Democratic Party history not to be on the first ballot, when every other also-ran and his delegates had the privilege of voting for him at least on the first round?  Not good.  This is how the game is played, boys:  with malice toward none, and with charity to all.  It’s Barack Obama’s party now, and it makes him look more confident and in command when he embraces his former opponents and can recognize their achievements appropriately. 
  • Here’s an article at Inside Higher Ed by a dean who is both thoughtful and savvy.  While there will be malcontents everywhere no matter what you do, I think fewer faculty would immediately assume bad faith on the part of an administrator who had entertained them in his own home and served them food he cooked himself.  As he writes, “[d]irect eye-contact, open mouths and exposed teeth also have defined a few faculty meetings over the course of my career. What better way to convey shared governance than by sharing food with the director serving colleagues a lunch that he prepared?”  (See the recipies he includes at the end of the article!)
  • Also via Inside Higher Ed, a federal judge has ruled that the University of California gets to set its own admissions standards.  Here’s why:  “In a history course the university rejected, the text instructed students that “divine providence” is the source of all of history and that historical figures needed to be evaluated based on their “religious motivations,” in contrast to university expectations of the range of analyses high school students should learn. A science course was rejected for using textbooks that characterized religious doctrine as science and for failing to teach the scientific method.”  While I understand the frustration of the Calvary Chapel Christian School, which initiated the lawsuit, and its allies at the Association of Christian Schools International, I don’t understand why they’d even permit their students to apply to godless, heathen institutions like the University of California anyway.  Who needs their secular humanist indoctrination?  But seriously folks, as one commenter sympathetic to UC said, “[t]his is about quality and comparability and making sure students aren’t set up for failure.” 
  • Oh, and the nurse instead of the usual cowgirl to illustrate our roundup today?  Historiann.com friend and commenter Fratguy is having surgery tomorrow, so this pinup nurse is for him.  Feel better soon, Fratguy! 
  • Et vous, mes amis?  What good news do you have to share with the old gang at historiann.com as we glide gracefully into the last weeks of summer?  Did you win an award?  Did you get a book contract?  Did you read a good book?  Did you have a great vacation?  Share it!

Maternity leave: a request for strategies and advice


pregnant-belly.jpgThis letter came in across the transom in the H-WOMEN digest Monday night:

I have a question that deals not so much with scholarship as with academic
life.  I would very much appreciate hearing how other women in higher
education — and their institutions — may have managed having a baby
during an academic term.  I am currently pregnant, due February 10, right
in the midst of Spring 2009 semester, which runs from mid-January to early
May.  I am entering my 5th year in a tenure-track position, and am in good
standing. However, the university where I am employed does not have an
official maternity leave policy for faculty members.  We all teach a 4/4
load, and the courses I will be teaching in the spring have already been
added to the registrar’s page, though I’m sure it would be possible to
change days and times.

I realize that I am of course entitled to 6 weeks unpaid leave via FMLA,
but my husband and I cannot go without my paycheck.  I will have to work
out the details with my dean and I am curious to know what others have
done in similar situations.  I would like to have a few good possible
plans in mind before I meet with the dean.

This is a real request for ideas to take to the Dean–although I’m sure the vast majority of us think it’s ridiculous that any university would still not have some kind of a maternity leave policy at this point, let’s keep the laments to a minimum and the helpful advice and suggestions to a maximum.  At Baa Ram U., at least in the Liberal Arts College, people giving birth or adopting a child are now entitled to a one course release from our 2-2 load, in addition to maxing out whatever accrued sick leave time one has.  (I believe that it’s typical even for newish Assistant Professors to have 6 weeks of paid sick leave for a vaginal birth, and 8 weeks total to recover from a C-section.)  This of course still doesn’t solve the problem of who might cover or teach your courses during your recovery–that is still unfortunately handled by the pregnant individuals themselves, who must rely on the kindness of colleagues–and that’s a terrible burden to put on an untenured person especially.  It’s one thing to ask a colleague and teaching assistants to sub for one or two classes–and quite another magnitude of annoyance to have to worry about covering four classes! 

Coincidentally, yesterday I ran into a male colleague in another department, and heard a tale of woe about his last academic year, which was marked by different surgeries followed by other surgeries meant to fix infections and other problems caused by the initial surgeries.  He told me that he wished he had taken the whole first semester off (he’s got a wad of accrued sick leave), because 1) he pushed himself too hard to get back to work because 2) he really disliked relying on the charity of his colleagues to cover his classes while he recovered.  (Why can’t the Dean keep a little pot of money to distribute to hire emergency adjuncts to take over and teach for a month, or two, or for the rest of the term, without forcing us to make decisions on the fly while ailing, and burdening our already overworked colleagues?)  Although we are hired for our minds, those minds are unfortunately embedded in human bodies, which are subject to traumatic injury, decay, and transformation.  Given that fact, my suggestions to this maternity leave question are, in no particular order:

  • Find out what paid sick leave you’re entitled to–it should be decent, given that you’ve been there 4 years.  That may help you decide what kind of relief you’ll need, and when.
  • Since you’re married, your husband should investigate what kind of parental leave his job offers, and how to go about taking advantage of it.
  • Suggest to the Dean that you be offered a one- or two course-release next spring.  (After all, it doesn’t cost 25% of your salary to pay an adjunct to cover a course–sadly, they can probably get that done for $3,000.)
  • If you’re not already signed up to teach a seminar course or two (or other such course that meets only once a week), see if you can change your schedule in that fashion.
  • Consider offering to teach some summer classes, in order to “pay back” courses, if they’re unwilling to grant you one or more course releases, and see if you can do it over the following two summers rather than just next summer. 

If you, dear readers, have dealt with this issue before, or if you have knowledge as to how this has been handled at your university (productively or otherwise), please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.  (I’m also picking up the Bat Phone to see if Ann Bartow and her coven of legal experts can help!)

UPDATED 8/14/08:  H-WOMEN has posted some interesting, angry, and helpful replies to the above query, although I don’t see too many strategies that haven’t been suggested here and in the comments below.  See here for a collection of replies, and see also Catherine Clinton’s thoughtful and sad commentary on the lack of progress for academics on this issue over the past twenty-five years.  Sigh.

UPDATED 8/15/08:  H-WOMEN has seven more responses–these range into more personal reflections, some of which are more useful than others.  See especially Susan Yohn’s post on the personal versus the political, and also her thoughts from the perspective of a department chair.  She offers both practical advice for now, as well as urges us to take political action on this issue.  Sounds like we’ve got an old-fashioned Consciousness Raising going on right here on the internets!

Reader, she nailed him!

Echidne nails Amitai Etzioni (not that way!) with this post on why communitarianism is about as popular with most feminists as yeast infections at a pool party.  She dispatches the unspoken assumptions of communitarians, most of whom assume that women will stay out of the paid labor force to look after the communibabies and see to the communicooking and communicleaning.  Feminism is low on the list of communitarian values, because of all of the free work that men used to get out of women before.  She explains:

[As communitarians argue, n]ow that many women work for money nobody is doing that important charity [work] and therefore the past might have been a better time for the community. Surprisingly, the chapter had nothing about charity being a task which men, too, could practice.

This whole treatment made me uncomfortable, because it appeared to construct “the community” as somehow not including the women whose free labor was perhaps semi-forced into charitable uses.

Interestingly, as she notes, “many communitarians want other people to have good unselfish values while they themselves continue working as professors or whatever they do for money. It’s a neat trick, that one, because the only way you can really be a selfish communitarian is by leading the movement.”  Some people are more equal than others, natch!

But there are other reasons to cast a skeptical eye at Etzioni and his ilk.  Communitarianism rests on the delusional belief that it’s “identity politics” that divide Americans from each other and not, you know, income inequality or other material measures that the have-nots are still very much among us.  As Etzioni argued in a recent article at The Huffington Post (h/t Echidne again),

Identity politics led to attempts to form a ‘rainbow’ coalition, composed of various groups who considered themselves victimized — against the declining white, male majority. Other forms of identity politics pitted citizens against immigrants. Some of the more radical versions of multiculturalism also contributed to this kind of divisive politics.

(Howd’ya like those quotation marks around “rainbow?”  “Bite me,” Professor!)  That’s right:  the problem is not that you have less than I, and worry about it constantly to the detriment of your health, and are discriminated against because of your lack of resources and outsider status every day–the problem is that you keep pointing it out!  So shut up and sing Kum-Bye-Yah a little louder for me, m’kay?