Friday, June 19, 2015

Why Not Say It's Racism? The Charleston Massacre

The murder of nine people in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston has left me sick and stunned, as it has left many of you. And what I needed badly, over the last two days, was national unity. But I didn't get it. Apparently, we're too divided as a nation to band together after a terrorist attack. We're so divided that some of us won't admit that the terrorist had the motives that he clearly proclaimed. Apparently, there are sides to take in everything, even this.

Some people - not just twits and trolls on the Internet but prominent public figures - refuse to admit that the Charleston murder was motivated by race. Or they admit it only reluctantly, after previous evasions. That includes people running for President of the United States. I find that outrageous. And I find it menacing. Why give a terrorist political cover?

The Charleston killer isn't some garden-variety, sends-around-racist-e-mail racist. He's a full-on white supremacist. He publicly displayed a photo of himself wearing the flags of two white-supremacist governments, Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, suggesting he's so racist that he resents blacks being allowed to vote in Africa. He told his roommate he believed in "segregation." He selected a historic black church that had been a center of both the anti-slavery and civil rights movements, and he attacked it on the anniversary of a failed slave uprising led by one of the church's founders. Apparently he wasn't forgiven Mother Emanuel AME for the abolition of slavery. He stood up and made a racist rant before he started shooting. But today, Jeb Bush -- Jeb Bush! -- says that he doesn't know if the killer was racially motivated.

Yes, you do, Jeb. You know. Just like everyone on Fox News knows. Just like Nikki Haley and Lindsay Graham knew yesterday, before they could bring themselves to say the words "hate crime" today, when Haley was talking about how we would "never know" the killer's motivations. You know. Why can't you say it?

Do you need hard-core racists' votes (or hard-core racist viewers) so badly that you're afraid of speaking out any racism, no matter how extreme?

Do you see race in America as an us-vs-them game, in which any acknowledgement of black suffering somehow takes something away from whites?

Do you actually think this murderer is so close to you ideologically that his crimes discredit you? How ideologically close to him ARE you?

Are you actually afraid that taking action against racist violence will mean losing something you want to keep, or that your supporters want to keep?

Are there steps law enforcement could take against this kind of violence that you don't want them to take? Why the hell not?

If those questions seem tough, well, you had a simple question with an obvious answer and you blew it.  When you couldn't or wouldn't admit what was in front of your face, it made me wonder why not. When an extremist commits a crime for obvious racist reasons, refusing to admit that racism was the motive means letting racism itself off the hook. And excusing the ideology means leaving the door open for the next act of ideological terrorism. What I hear you saying is that this crime was awful but that you don't want to prevent the next one. And that scares the bejesus out of me.

cross-posted from and comments welcome at dagblog


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and the De-Professionalized University

Rachel Dolezal, currently this week's Object of Public Shame on the Internet, has apparently been fired from her job teaching at Eastern Washington State. Or rather, I learn from today's New York Times, they didn't have to bother firing her. You see, Dolezal was what's called an "adjunct instructor," someone who teaches on a course-by-course basis for low pay without any security for the next semester. There are more adjunct teachers than normal salaried professors in American universities today. So, EWU didn't have to fire her. She's just not hired for any classes for next fall. And they can tell the newspapers that she is "no longer employed" by Eastern Washington. Not fired, mind you. Just no longer employed. It was harder to take her off the Department web page (which happened sometime in the last four days) than it was to end her employment.

Now, you may think Dolezal deserved to be fired. I'm not going to argue the general Rachel Dolezal Situation, because frankly I don't think it gets us anywhere. Singling out one person's weird behavior  is not useful, and it's already very clear that no one is going to learn anything of from l'affaire Dolezal, because nothing about the case is changing anyone's mind.

But whether Dolezal had given EWU just cause to fire her or not doesn't matter, because EWU doesn't need just cause. And that I do want to talk about.

If you think Dolezal had it coming, ask yourself this: how did Dolezal get hired to an Africana Studies department in the first place? How did she get on that department web page? Didn't anybody check this person out? Probably not, actually, because of the terms of her employment. When you're hiring someone for zero job security and next to zero money, the search process is a lot more laissez-faire. And after all, the whole point of replacing permanent, full-time faculty jobs with short-term, allegedly part-time jobs is to save money.  There isn't money or time to do extensive vetting. So Eastern Washington had someone they didn't know much about in their classrooms. But they aren't the only ones. Most universities are employing a large number of teachers whom the school knows relatively little about.

Adjunct faculty and full-time faculty aren't necessarily different in terms of talent or skills. But the two hiring processes are incredibly different. The decision to hire a full-time, salaried college teacher, tenure-track or not, is typically made a year and a half before that new employee starts the job; many college administrations decided in March or April 2015 which job openings they would announce for a fall 2016 starting date. The job application process will take most of the 2015-16 school year, from official advertisements in the early fall to final decisions sometime in the spring, and then the lucky job-seekers will move to their new jobs in new towns over next summer.

That search process involves multiple rounds of interviews with several different interviewers; several letters of recommendation; a number of elaborate professional documents, typically including statements of teaching philosophy and one or more scholarly writing samples; and day-long visits to campus by the finalists for formal presentations, more interviews, and often a teaching demonstration, sometimes guest-teaching a class. Each of these job searches costs the deans thousands of dollars just to fly two-to-four people to campus and put them up in hotels. And of course all of the finalists' references get double-checked with phone calls from the hiring institution. Someone like Dolezal, who's not being entirely straightforward about parts of her background, might slip through that process anyway. But it would be much harder and rarer to do.

Adjunct hiring decisions are much less elaborate. The jobs aren't necessarily posted at all, and a department chair or program director might be hiring people to fill gaps a week or two before the semester starts. It's a local search, and not a national one. There's a resume and an interview with the program director or chair. There aren't necessarily letters of reference, certainly not in the numbers and detail that full-time jobs require. And that's about it; anything else is often up to the person doing the hiring. Certainly, references don't always get called. The most likely reason no one from Howard University told Eastern Washington about Rachel Dolezal's earlier self-presentations is that no one from Eastern Washington called anyone from Howard.

This difference between the two application processes is only getting sharper, as the pressure of the terrible job market for full-time jobs keeps raising the bar higher and higher. In an insanely competitive environment, applicants keep trying to get an edge by doing more (I've started to see job ads stipulate a maximum number of letters of recommendation, at least three but no more than five or six) and universities keep adding hoops because they can (one of the current debates at places like the Chronicle of Higher Ed is whether it's ethical to call references whom applicants didn't list). And the more adjuncts a department hires, the simpler that process has to be.

This two-track application process does a disservice to the people being hired on the low-paying track. Many adjuncts don't need to be educated about the tenure-track job search; they're fully qualified applicants for those jobs who have simply been crowded out because there are so few jobs to go around. Some adjuncts aren't interested in the qualifications for tenure-line work, because they have MAs instead of PhDs or because they aren't interested in doing research. But there are a number of people on the adjunct track who are interested in switching to the tenure track but aren't entirely clear how. Those people are not at all served when the process for picking up some classes for the semester bears almost no resemblance to the process for getting the full-time job they crave.

And in some places, sorry to say, there is little in the way of supervision or training for adjunct faculty. There is a mind-set, not everywhere but in too many places, that says that people being paid so little should be just left alone to do whatever they like in the classroom, because how much can you ask of someone you're paying two hundred bucks a week?

Many adjunct professors are wonderful and admirable professionals. But from the university's point of view, that's just luck. The universities themselves didn't do anything to foster that professionalism. They didn't seek it out, and they certainly don't reward it. When you de-professionalize an occupation, when you take away the salary, the benefits, and the job stability that go with being a middle-class professional, you undermine the professionalism of your own workplace. Most adjunct faculty do the right things the right way, because those things are right and not because they get any reward. But if you don't reward good behavior, you have to expect pockets of unprofessionalism or weirdness.

Eastern Washington University has a flood of publicity it doesn't want this week, because one of its many casual employees, whom it has only casually overseen, turns out to be fairly weird. But the real truth is that could have happened to almost any school in the country, and they would never see it coming.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Two-Body Problem: What I Learned

A few weekends ago I came home from commencement, hung up my silly robe for another year, cleaned my fridge, packed my car, and left town for the city where I live with my spouse. I won't be back until later in the summer. I've been making that five-hundred-mile round trip nearly every weekend for three of the last four years, with breaks for summers or sabbaticals. But this was the last time. Next time I drive to Cleveland it will be with a moving van and my spouse.  We have been lucky enough to solve the infamous two-body problem, the long-term, long-distance relationships that bedevil so many academic couples.

There was no fanfare. There was no parade. And there are plenty of logistical hassles left, such selling a house and moving our main household. But that phase of my life came to a quiet end. I will simply not do that commute anymore, and gradually I will lose the habit of doing it and the habits that came with it. But, before the perspective of the last few years fades from memory, I'd like to jot down what the experience taught me.

Some things should be obvious. A long-distance domestic partnership or marriage makes demands on your time, your energy, your organizational skills, your finances, and your relationship itself. Some of those things can be traded for one another to a limited degree; spending more money might mean shorter commutes, or ease organizational challenges by allowing you to duplicate, rather than endlessly pack and unpack, more possessions. Or your superior organizing may streamline things enough to buy you a couple extra hours of weekly rest. But the trade-offs only go so far.

The rise of internet and cell phones have made some aspects easier to cope with; there are no more massive long-distance phone bills. And some things are idiosyncratic to each situation. I had an enormously difficult time trying to manage two separate kitchens and keep both properly stocked. Not everyone will have that problem, just as not everyone has the same travel patterns or domestic pressures. And yes, there are first-world problems. But they're widely shared problems in my profession.

1. You will be tired and can't afford to be.

The first part of this is obvious. Travel takes time. Travel takes energy. But just because it's obvious doesn't mean that it won't affect you nearly every day. And it doesn't mean that you will expect how tired you will be. A commuter marriage taxes the time and energy of both partners, even if one doesn't usually do the traveling. My 4+ hour drive was manageable; I always had the energy to do it. But doing it twice a week for weeks on end wore me down more than I was willing to admit to myself. And at a certain point, not admitting to yourself that you're tired is the biggest problem.

But you can't afford to relax and save your energy, which would be my usual advice. Your careers run on that time and energy, and you can only get two jobs in one place by making yourself as employable, and thus working as hard, as you possibly can. The two-body problem takes away exactly the time and energy you need to invest in solving the two-body problem. And you also need to leave some time and energy for, you know, the relationship itself.

My weekly travel was much easier than many people's. I could drive, rather than fly. And it only demanded between eight and nine travel hours on a typical week. But eight or nine hours is most of a workday taken out of your week somewhere. And those are hours when you're awake and alert; below a certain limit of fatigue, you're not safe to drive. If you're trying to set aside one workday a week for your writing, as many people do, that day can get gobbled up by travel time and by tasks that travel pushes into other days.

(If you're flying or taking the train, you might be able to sleep or work as you travel. But you're still not going to use that time efficiently; it's going to be broken up and full of distractions.)

I found that I could drive to Job City from Marriage City at the beginning of the week and jump right into the week's tasks, although I wasn't going to get much done Sunday night after the drive. But one way or another, the drive back to Marriage City extracted a productivity toll. If I drove on Friday, most of that day got burned. If I kept Friday clear of courses and meetings and drove home after my night class on Thursdays, I would typically arrive home sometime between 1 and 3 AM. Then, mysteriously, I would have trouble getting much done the next day. Either way, my Friday-as-writing-day was cooked.

What I began to learn, but never fully mastered, was the art of using partially-fatigued time for tasks that required less concentration. If I tried to write part of an article on Friday, most of that time was going to get wasted. But I could use that time to prepare the next week's classes, rereading the assigned texts and writing classroom handouts. I couldn't write elaborate feedback on student papers just after I got home from teaching my night class, but I could proofread those papers and mark mechanical errors. And then those tasks would not end up taking up hours when my mind was sharper and I could do more complicated things.

You can't always devote your best working hours to the most demanding tasks. Sometimes a pile of meetings eat up some of your most productive time, and compressing the time you spend in the office - which you have to do to commute - means that lots of those meetings get stacked up in the middle of the week. But you can try to husband the less-productive time carefully to get through less-demanding tasks, and salvage as much of your high-productivity time as you can. Even more importantly, you have to learn when even low-level work is counterproductive, and make yourself rest when you can't work. If it's midnight, or even 10:30, and you've just driven two or three hundred miles, you should go right to bed.

2. You cannot divide the challenges evenly, but you can be fair.

Any couple with the two-body problem is concerned with equity; that's why one partner doesn't just sacrifice his or her career for the other. But there is almost no practical way for most couples to divide all of the different kinds of work that two-location marriage or domestic partnership requires equally. It doesn't even make sense to do it that way.

Even if you each do half the traveling during the semester, which is almost never efficient or practical, you aren't going to split summer break or winter holidays evenly between both locations. You probably can't afford to buy permanent homes in both places, but you might have good financial reasons to buy a home in one place. If you have children, they have to go to school somewhere. Inevitably, one location will become home base, and the partner who works in the other location will do more of the traveling.

What this means is that, one way or another, the practical challenges of the two-body relationship get distributed asymmetrically. This doesn't have to be unfair. But you can't split every task down the middle. You can share the hardships, but you're each going to cope with a different set of hardships.

Even when you think that you're taking on the tougher job, you are inevitably leaving other difficulties to your partner. I chose to be the primary commuter (although my spouse gave me a break once or twice a semester by coming to Job City for a weekend), thinking that I was taking a major burden from my spouse's shoulders. And to some degree, I was. But I was also, without realizing it, sticking my spouse with the responsibility for upkeep and repair of our 90-year-old house. After all, she was there, and I couldn't be around on most weekdays. Trying to relieve her of one burden, I saddled her with another. But that's how long-distance partnerships work; each partner ends up taking on different roles.

(The one part of the main household I did oversee was the kitchen, because I'm the primary family cook and therefore the primary grocery shopper. Before I left for the week, I would stock up the home-front kitchen with low-maintenance meals that I knew my spouse enjoyed. That particular division of labor was idiosyncratic, driven by our particular skill sets. Every long-distance partnership will have odd details like that.)

The thing you need to remember, for your relationship's sake, is that both of you have taken on the harder half of the job. Each one of you wrestles with problems the other doesn't have to deal with, and both can legitimately say they have it tougher than the other. Always remember in moments of stress that your spouse or partner is dealing with many challenges that s/he has taken on alone.

3. You must really live in both places.

One of your two locations will inevitably end up being primary, but you can't psychologically disconnect from the second place. It may be secondary in practical terms, because you can only handle one mortgage and because you leave during summer break. But you can't treat it as simply a place where you show up, do your job, and leave. You can't treat your home in the secondary location as a motel. One of you is going to spend the lion's share of every work week in that place; if it doesn't feel like home at all, you're going to be miserable.

The dumbest smart thing I ever did in the commuter phase of my marriage was to downsize my apartment in Work City to a smaller, fairly anonymous bachelor pad close to my office. On paper, it was a perfectly sensible idea; it was cheaper and more efficient. But over time it wore on me terribly, and I eventually came to hate being there, not because the place itself was so bad but because I had never managed to make it feel like home. Worse, I thought of it as Not-Home, as an extension of my workplace. And that meant that psychologically I never came home from the office at all unless I got in a car and crossed two state lines.

The only time that apartment felt like home was when my spouse visited for the weekend. Those weekends often became extended date nights, as we got to enjoy Job City's amenities. (If you spend your time in two places, you will discover unique pleasures in each place. Try to enjoy both when you can.) And when she visited, even my grimly convenient apartment became a place where I found comfort. Later, when my spouse moved to Job City for a sabbatical year, we found a more home-like apartment in my old residential neighborhood, and I began to reconnect more fully with the city around me.

You can't afford to be alienated from a place where you spend at least twenty days a month. And you can't let your social life wither in either place, no matter how easy that is to do. You need to bond with both places. You need friends in both places. And you need to keep working on those things.

4. Mood. 

A commuter marriage is, by its nature, something you're not happy doing, and it fills your daily life with things that aren't especially happy-making. Most of us don't get married so we can wake up alone. You have to spend a lot of your time putting on your happy face and powering through. Everyone learns to do that getting through grad school, just like you learn to power through a lot of work when you're tired. But, just as pushing on with work after you're tired eventually becomes counter-productive, ignoring your mood will eventually burn you. You need to monitor your frame of mind just as you monitor your energy level, and plan around your own low points.

Most of my problems with mood were cumulative: things that weren't so difficult in themselves but, through repetition, slowly eroded my inner resources. I don't fall apart if I spend a day or two without my spouse. Waking up alone for a day or two is not a problem. But as the number of days spent apart from her stacked up, week after week, I eventually had to admit that I was finding it increasingly hard to stay positive, becoming frustrated more quickly, having a harder time shaking off minor problems. In my case this was complicated, and temporarily masked, by the fact that while I was adjusting to the weekly commute I was also taking on a number of new quasi-administrative responsibilities at work, so there were genuinely new workplace headaches. But it's harder to roll with the punches on the sixtieth or eightieth work day you wake up without your spouse. I eventually accepted that my mood declined over the course of each week, and that every week's low point got a little lower.

Driving at night was another cumulative problem. I find driving at night relaxing. But when you're driving 250 miles twice a week, almost always after dark,  you are basically spending eight or nine hours a week sitting alone in the darkness. That turns out to affect your mood. Driving through the night for four hours won't meaningfully affect you. Sitting in your darkened car, mile by mile, for more than 100 hours a semester will gradually start to darken your outlook. I eventually had to take active steps to ensure that I did at least some of each week's driving in the sunlight, and noticed an immediate improvement.

Mood is obviously related to energy level and fatigue, and the same problems with academic culture apply. We're all trained to suck it up and grind it out. That's how you get through orals, that's how you finish your diss, that's how you do all the end-of-term grading in four days, that's how you got through the gauntlet of the job market. It's the right thing to do, up to a point. But after that point, or when the thing your pushing past stretches beyond weeks and months and becomes indefinite, it becomes very much the wrong thing to do. It's like distance running: you need to run through some discomfort and fatigue. That's the normal state of things. But if you push it beyond a certain point, you will hurt yourself. Sometimes the pain is warning you that you will injure yourself if you keep running; the fatigue is telling you that you are dehydrated, and getting worse with every step. If you keep pushing after that point, you will put yourself far, far behind.

I learned, or began to learn, two basic strategies for coping with my declining mood. One, as with the drive-in-the-sunshine trick, was to look for small things to build into my schedule that improved the day: lunch at a favorite place instead of at my desk, coffee with a friend. The big things, like not seeing your spouse every day, are part of the problem, and big attempts at compensation are often dysfunctional, but you can get some decent mileage out of small things.

The second trick is to be aware of your moods and step back a little from what you're feeling in the moment. For the first year of weekly commuting, it seemed that every Thursday afternoon between 4 and 6 something outrageous and messed-up would happen at work, usually involving some quasi-administrative stuff. Then I would teach my night class, which put whatever it was out of my mind for two hours but left it waiting for me when I got out of class, and then I'd pack my car and drive four and a half  hours through the night, chewing over whatever that week's Thursday Afternoon Outrage was. That was a pretty ugly experience. Eventually I learned to adjust to that, partly because I learned which kinds of nonsense I should expect in my inbox, but mostly because I learned that I was at the absolute lowest trough of the week at 5:30 on Thursday afternoon, and that I should learn to hold all my Thursday-afternoon reactions at arm's length. I learned that things tended to look especially bleak or dysfunctional by that time (and of course, almost every Friday afternoon meeting seemed to be about something utterly insane) and that I should presume that any problems that came to my notice late on Thursday would seem less awful the next day. I couldn't make myself a resilient optimist by the last days of the week, but I could plan around my weekly lack of optimism or resilience and keep my temporarily lowered mood from affecting my actions.

Anyway, that's what is was like for me. Your mileage may vary.

cross-posted from Dagblog



Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Do We Have a Constitution, Officer?

A country is only as democratic as its police, and Constitutional rights are only as real as its police treat them. The fight over police work in America is ultimately a fight over whether or not the United States Constitution is real.

The Constitution plainly states that no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." It could not be clearer. It could not be more essential. But in 2015 we hear apologists for police misconduct, across our country, loudly advocating a civil order where the police can punish any citizen who does not comply swiftly enough to please the police officer, where police can arrest citizens without cause, where police officers can kill unarmed citizens with impunity to guard against hypothetical and thoroughly imaginary dangers. There is no due process of law. You have no rights.

Officer Michael Brelo, recently acquitted of manslaughter in Cleveland, stood on the hood of two unarmed citizens' car and shot fifteen bullets into their windshield. Brelo had already shot 32 other bullets at that car. In fact, Brelo and his fellow officers, who shot 137 bullets at those two unarmed citizens, were also shooting at each other, because they had surrounded the car and were shooting into a circle. Brelo, the only one prosecuted for shooting, was standing on the hood of the victims' car because, even if they had had a gun, Brelo knew they were no longer in condition to return fire.

Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams's lives were taken, by paid agents of the state, without due process. There was no trial. There was no judicial process, and there are no consequences. Nor was there ever any danger to any police officer except from other police officers. The chase (which involved more than a hundred cops) began because Russell and Williams's car had backfired and a jumpy police officer, hearing an engine backfire, decided that he was being shot at.

The police can take two citizens' life in response to their own fantasies. They go free after doing it. The Constitution is not in force. We do not live in the country we say we do.

In Baltimore, Freddie Gray was arrested for no reason that the police themselves can explain. He was arrested without committing a crime; he had looked at a police officer, and then he had run. Baltimore police officers punished these non-crimes by arresting Gray, and by beating him; he was limping on his way into the police van. He was dead when he came out. But other citizens put into Baltimore police vans have come out with broken bones, concussions, and spinal damage: the Baltimore cops' way of dispensing "justice" without any judge, without any chance for the citizen to defend or explain himself, without any law needing to be broken at all.

Did they mean to kill Freddie Gray? Or did they just mean to punish him by doing him bodily harm, without due process of law? Either way, there is no Constitution in Baltimore. This is not the America we talk about.

Police officers in Cleveland, in Baltimore, and across the country, consider themselves entitled to beat citizens who don't cooperate as the police officers see fit, to beat citizens who say something a police officer doesn't like, to beat citizens who make the police officers run. They see this as their right and their privilege. They don't ask a judge. They don't bother with the law. Your rights in the Constitution are not your rights, because the police don't bother with them.

People who excuse or encourage this behavior, who say that you're in no danger if you obey a police officer, should be up front about what they believe. They believe in abolishing the Constitution. They trust the police, any specific police officer on any given day, more than they trust the Founders. If your Constitutional rights can be voided whenever a cop, any cop, in any mood, decides to give you an order, then you have no Constitutional rights. The Founders deliberately decided that no one in our system, not even George Washington himself, could be trusted with unchecked power. Allowing police to dole out any punishment they see fit to anyone who disobeys any order, even unlawful orders, is a mockery and misunderstanding of everything our system was meant to be.

I am from a family of police officers. I grew up around police officers, including many, many officers I love and admire. I know lots of good cops. But I have never known a cop who was not a human being, with human failings. I have never met a police officer who should be allowed to do anything he or she wants without accountability. Thomas Jefferson mocked the idea of "angels sent as kings," by divine right; certainly, a system that requires all police to be angels, because they are empowered to do whatever they want, is even worse.

Yesterday Cleveland agreed to Justice Department oversight for the Cleveland Police. That oversight includes things like not beating suspects who are already in custody and in handcuffs. But that is not a new rule. That was always the rule. The Cleveland police knew that rule and disobeyed it. That Cleveland police officers did that, time and again, shows that they have routinely ignored the law, that they consider themselves above the law and can not be held accountable. The New York Police Department forbids its officers to use chokeholds on suspects, and has forbidden that for years, but for years its officers routinely did it anyway. The six Baltimore police officers who took Freddie Gray on his fatal ride all told their superiors the same story, a story that did not match video evidence. Lying and falsifying reports has become routine. Standing orders are routinely ignored. It is clear that in many police departments, the rules that are written down are not actually obeyed, and the focus is on protecting one's fellow officers from oversight.

Every cop is not bad. But when police are not properly supervised and held accountable, then the bad cops are put in charge and the good ones have to follow their lead. When the police avoid the authority of the laws, then there are no laws but the police.

If the police are not answerable for what they do, then nothing else matters. If they are beyond the law, then none of us are safe from them. If the police need not answer for what they do to us, then the police become, in the most literal way, irresponsible. And then the Constitution is just some words on paper, no more real or meaningful than the beautiful and high-minded constitutions of every other police state.

Michael Brelo was acquitted because the judge said no one could prove that Michael Brelo's shots killed the two unarmed people who had committed no crime. After all, by the time Brelo was standing on the hood of the car, both of those victims were probably already dead. But that means Brelo was standing there, pouring fifteen more bullets into two defenseless human bodies, to make sure that neither of them survived. Think about that when you go to sleep tonight, and try to pretend that you have any rights.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Friday, April 24, 2015

No, Colleges Still Teach Shakespeare

You may have seen news stories, timed for Shakespeare's more-or-less birthday, claiming that top American colleges have stopped requiring Shakespeare. This is not news (nothing about college requirements has changed lately), and not really true. The study uses a very specific and misleading definition which allows it not to count most of the ways that Shakespeare is actually taught in college English departments. The study refuses to accept anything but a required stand-alone Shakespeare-only course as a "Shakespeare requirement." If Shakespeare is only part of required courses, that doesn't count. And if a department has a requirement that drives most of its students into Shakespeare courses, that doesn't count either. This is misleading.

Worse, the study then rants about the various things that can be "substituted for Shakespeare" at various schools, cherry-picking various electives with titles like "Detective Fiction," "Digital Game Theory," or "Creatures, Aliens, and Cyborgs" and fulminating that these trendy classes are replacing Shakespeare. This isn't just misleading. It's outright dishonest. The authors of the study, having read the requirements for the fifty-two schools they're discussing, know full well that these courses don't fulfill the requirements that would otherwise demand Shakespeare. The schools offering the three courses I just named require courses in earlier literature, and those courses do NOT fulfill them. The authors of the study know this. They just pretend not to.

Now, I myself could only benefit from more Shakespeare requirements. I'm a professor of Shakespeare, after all. And I certainly value Shakespeare at least as much as the folks who wrote this study did. But this report is a big nothing. When you take out the dishonesty and spin, it's less than nothing.

A little background: this study is from ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is a conservative organization dedicated to having trustees and donors micromanage academic decisions that have traditionally been left to faculty. (ACTA says it's for "Academic Freedom & Excellence," but in practice it seems upset that academics have too much freedom to make academic judgements.) And ACTA, for its own reasons, limited its study to the fifty-two highest-ranked colleges and universities in the US, according to the US News & World Report rankings. (They got fifty-two by taking the top 25 "National Universities" and top 25 "Liberal Arts Colleges"; because of ties in the rankings, that's a bit more than 50). So they didn't bother looking at the schools the vast majority of students actually attend, which might or might not say something about ACTA's own biases.

What is notable is that the focus on "Top 25" schools means that ACTA included three schools that do not have English majors. West Point, Harvey Mudd, and MIT have "literature" majors instead. MIT's literature major has two tracks, one of which looks like a traditional English major (and thus tracks its students toward studying Shakespeare) and one of which doesn't. The others have more general literature requirements that aren't necessarily focused on literature in English at all, which makes the lack of a Shakespeare requirement not terribly newsworthy. French and Classics majors mostly aren't required to take Shakespeare either. That didn't stop ACTA from listing these schools without English departments as schools where the "English major" doesn't include Shakespeare.

Now, of the 52 schools that ACTA deigned to examine, it's true that only only 4 require a stand-alone course in Shakespeare-and-nothing-else. But there are three things that ACTA isn't telling you about:

1. Historical period requirements. Nearly every school that ACTA surveyed, 47 of 52, requires English majors to take at least one course, and sometimes three or even four courses, in literature written before a certain date. For more than 40 of those schools, that date is 1800 or earlier; for another half-dozen or so, it is before 1900, 1850, or 1830.

What does this mean? It means that to "get out" of taking Shakespeare you have to take something else from a similar time period, or earlier. There are about six schools on ACTA's list where you can hypothetically get off soft by reading Bleak House, Moby-Dick, or Wordsworth. (But to be fair, it would be pretty hard to fulfill all of Swarthmore's three required pre-1830 courses with writers from 1800-1830.)

At the rest of the schools, the vast majority that ACTA looked at, the choice isn't between Shakespeare or Lady Gaga. It's between Shakespeare or Milton, Shakespeare or Chaucer, or - at some places - Shakespeare or enormous quantities of Alexander Pope.

In practice, most students fulfill these requirements either with a Shakespeare course or with a thematic course that include a hefty amount of Shakespeare. (I once taught a course called "Love and Sex in Renaissance Literature" that included his sonnets, two of his plays, and his long poem Venus and Adonis, but also Sidney's sonnets, Spenser's sonnets, a chunk of The Faerie Queene, Marlowe's Hero and Leander, and healthy servings of poems by Donne, Herrick, Wyatt, Surrey, Petrarch, etc. This, by ACTA's lights, is "not a course focused on Shakespeare." And the word "sex" was in the title! Gadzooks!)

If students don't fulfill these requirements with Shakespeare, they're often taking a course in early literature that's harder, less popular, or both. Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, and Donne are all more difficult for undergraduates to read, and more challenging on a line-by-line level, than Shakespeare is. And here's an insider's tip: the 18th century, although wonderful, is the least popular literary period for English majors. It's much easier to get students to read King Lear than Clarissa.

This is not dumbing down the curriculum. Not by any means.  English majors graduating having "only" read Paradise Lost and not Hamlet is not a big crisis. But ACTA doesn't want to count these schools as "requiring Shakespeare." Smith College makes its students take TWO of three single-author courses: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. Those who avoid Shakespeare by reading Chaucer and Milton aren't going to be especially ill-educated. And in practice, almost all of the students will take Shakespeare and one of the other two. What does ACTA say about this requirement? "No course focused on the study of Shakespeare is required." Oh no, the sky is falling!

2. Survey Courses. These are less popular than they once were, but several schools on ACTA's list still require students to take survey courses that include Shakespeare. Those courses have titles like "Major Poets," "Literary History," or "British Literature to 1700."

Most of the few actual English departments that don't require courses before 1700, 1800, or 1850 require a survey instead. Some schools require a number of courses before 1800 AND the survey. So students do get taught Shakespeare, in a way that's required for all majors.

This doesn't count for ACTA, either. So, for example, Yale University requires its majors to take THREE courses before 1800 AND two survey courses: "Major British Poets from Chaucer to Donne" (the semester that includes Shakespeare) and "Major British Poets from Milton to T.S. Eliot." But students can get out of the surveys by taking four advanced courses on the poets on the survey, two from each semester. So you could theoretically get a B.A. in English from Yale by reading The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, and Paradise Lost instead of Macbeth. But it would be a pretty rare student who does. Yale actually has a fairly conservative curriculum. But ACTA's verdict? "No course focused on the study of Shakespeare is required."

With requirements like that, does it have to be?

3. Limits to the number of Shakespeare classes.

Since the whole point of ACTA's polemic is that Shakespeare is being done wrong and pushed out of the curriculum, you'd think that they would point out that FIVE of the schools on their list limit the number of Shakespeare courses that can count toward requirements. (When we throw out the schools without English majors, that's 10% of ACTA's total.) At Bates, Bowdoin, Columbia, Princeton, and Rice students can only use ONE Shakespeare course to fulfill the pre-1800 requirements.

This doesn't mean that students at those schools aren't allowed to take more than one Shakespeare class. It means that the second, third, and so on Shakespeare courses are just electives. More importantly, it means that those schools require their students to read challenging early literature besides Shakespeare. The problem isn't that students at these schools are avoiding Shakespeare. The problem is that they use Shakespeare to avoid Chaucer, Marlowe, Spenser, Sidney, Donne, and Milton. So students have to be steered to reading more widely in early periods.

These schools don't require Shakespeare because Shakespeare is doing just fine on his own. Also, the dining halls at these schools do not require dessert. That's not some liberal War on Pudding. That's because the requirement isn't necessary in the first place.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog