Saturday, February 27, 2010

Against the Crocodile: Amy Bishop, Joseph Stack, and the Press

cross-posted at Dagblog

Reading some of the news coverage about the murderers Amy Bishop and Joe Stack over the last two weeks, and some of the responses to them by internet commenters, I've had the nauseating feeling that Bishop and Stack have gotten what they want. Not what they purport to want, of course, not a promotion or a revolution, but the things that their violence was actually aimed at getting them. I've had a hard time putting my objection into clear words, so I'm going to resort to a story from history:

The ancient Egyptians had a fundamental problem: they were dependent for survival upon the Nile's annual flood, which made the flooded soil extremely fertile, but on the other hand the Nile was also full of crocodiles, who tend to eat people. How did the Egyptians deal with their intensely conflicted feelings about their perilous, indispensable, monster-filled, life-sustaining river?

They worshiped the crocodile.

Crocodile-worship is an all-too-human response to uncontrollable violence. By worshiping the crocodile-god, praying to it and offering it sacrifices, the Egyptians told themselves that the uncontrollable danger was actually in control. They could reason with the crocodile; they just had to find out what the crocodile-god wanted, and give it to him. At the same time, they built the stupid predatory animals they had to live with into figures of supernatural importance. The crocodiles were something grand and holy and magical in the way that mere human beings were not. Of course, turning the crocodile into an idol doesn't get you anywhere. The crocodile isn't magical, and it will still eat you.

This kind of idolatry is a very human impulse; we instinctively apply it to all kinds of other dangers because it feels safer than accepting that those dangers are outside our control. We apply it especially to outbursts of unreasoning violence by other human beings. Victims of partner or family abuse apply this strategy to their abusers, looking for ways to keep the abuser from being angry, and giving the victimizer increased deference. It doesn't work, of course, because the abuser will always find some pretext to be angry. In This Boy's Life Tobias Wolff describes his stepfather attacking him because Wolff hasn't scraped every last gram of mustard out of a bottle. If it hadn't been the mustard it would have been something else; there are abusive and violent personalities, who, like crocodiles, cannot be kept happy.

A lot of the coverage of Bishop's and Stack's pointless, unthinking violence has been widely colored by the old crocodile-worship instincts, by the search for reasons and the impulse to offer the frightening figure respect. (Not all of the coverage, of course, but too much.) It's too scary to accept that an anti-social personality might kill other people for no good reason at all, because if that's true, then what's to keep some lunatic from randomly killing us? So we try to find some reason for the irrational bloodshed: what did she want? What set her off? How can we keep her happy so that she doesn't do it again? Some anonymous commenters on dagblog have assured me that there had to be some reason for Bishop to start shooting when she did. One actually scolded me for "judging" Bishop. There's a deep need to find some reason, any reason, because if we can figure out the reason we can keep ourselves safe.

Meanwhile, actual journalists persist in running stories about how brilliant Bishop was as a scientist. "Brilliant but troubled," sure, but that's the formula. I can't tell you how tired I am about reading how smart Amy Bishop is. Joe Stack, too, receives deference that he surely never earned in life and would have absolutely forfeited in death. One stranger from the internet came to Dagblog quoting Stack's addle-brained suicide note as if it were Locke's Third Treatise. And I'll admit, I've found myself growing thin-skinned with some of these folks, and not immediately understood quite why. What's bothering me is the implied deference to Bishop and Stack: the atavistic urge to treat the violent with precautionary respect, even when the violent people in question are now powerless to do any harm.

This is the respect that Bishop and Stack murdered to get, the disproportionate and undeserved deference that matches their own monstrously grandiose sense of their own deserts and importance. Bishop and Stack believed they were better than the rest of us, that they are important in ways that other human beings are not, and considered themselves entitled to kill anyone they liked simply in order to express their personal dissatisfaction. Bishop and Stack are crocodiles, supremely indifferent to the humanity of their victims, but (unlike the animals in the Nile) actively demanding to be treated like gods.

They should not get their wish. I believe that violent people should be treated deferentially, and their concerns given a respectful hearing, exactly as long as it takes to get the gun out of their hands and cuff them. After that, they and their opinions should be disregarded. Crocodiles should not be worshiped, and the violent should be seen as they really are.

It's important not to give Bishop or Stack any deference, precisely because their drive for respect and recognition cost better people their lives, and because their own actions have proved how utterly untenable their claims about themselves are. Bishop killed people because she wanted to be treated as the great scientist that she has never come close to being; she used a gun because she could not succeed in the lab. Stack killed someone in a pathetic attempt to cast himself as a revolutionary hero and a rational man, rather than the serial screw-up and the petty, venal cheat that he was.

Amy Bishop is not smart. Amy Bishop is an utter failure, an incompetent scientist, a person who, given six years and her own laboratory, eventually resorted to submitting her children's science-fair projects to vanity journals. Despite the newspapers' slant, every one of Bishop's victims was clearly a better scientist than she. If those three people had not been killed, they would have produced more useful science over the next five years than Bishop produced in her entire career to date. In fact, each of them was capable doing that unassisted. The Huntsville murders were not committed by a scientist. All of the science Bishop has ever done, or might ever do, could not balance the science that was lost to the world when she pulled that trigger.

Joe Stack was an addle-brained goofball, a chronic failure who once tried to declare his house a church in order to avoid paying his taxes, and who had the spectacular gall to complain about mistreatment when he was caught. The dense swamp of blame-shifting in his suicide note establishes how many things he failed at. Stack had some reason that he couldn't succeed (according to his own outsized sense of what he deserved) as a software engineer in California; it's California's fault. He had some reason that he couldn't succeed as a software engineer in Texas; it's Austin's fault. There's some reason that the IRS is responsible for Stack not turning in tax returns on his business, and for his personal home not being a Catholic basilica. It's always someone else's fault. Stack, like Bishop, was just a crocodile. He had stubby legs, and wallowed. He was dangerous to others, but only because he lacked the compassion and the conscience that restrain fully human beings.

It's bad enough that these failed, pathetic people took others' lives. It's too much to have to believe in their bullshit, too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Andrew Joseph Stack: Pauper with a Private Plane

cross-posted at Dagblog

So, Andrew Joseph Stack was angry at the IRS for his financial problems. So he got in his plane....

Stop. Stop it. Stop right there.

Do people in the media ever listen to themselves?

We have a person who, aside from being a murderer, feels he's being unjustly treated by the taxman. And that person, who considers his woes so unbearable that he's willing to take human life, has at least one personal aircraft. I know what you're thinking: The poor man. It's like something out of Steinbeck.

A little surfing around the internet suggests that one could buy a used Piper Cherokee plane, like Stack's, for something in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $170,000, depending on how old the plane is and some other factors. So Stack, persecuted victim of the IRS, owned a pleasure craft whose resale value was either two or three times the national median income. What has this country come to?

This is what our national discourse, our national sense of what's normal, has come to: a man so rich that he can spend two or three years of average-middle-class income on a toy still feels entitled to talk about himself as an economic victim, and that part actually seems normal to people. Republican Congressmen, people in elected office, can say, yes, it's wrong what he did but the IRS really is a problem.

It's laughable. Or it should be. But people actually base successful political campaigns and real policies and actual legislation on this nonsense. Because let's face it: a lot of the people complaining most bitterly about taxation in our public forums, the people screaming about Big Government even as the effective tax rate on the rich stays at rock-bottom lows: those are almost all Guys with Planes. Sometimes it's actually a plane. Sometimes it's a boat. Sometimes it's a summer house, or a ski lodge. Sometimes it's a boat and a ski lodge and a Jaguar and a Vicodin addiction and love nest somewhere. You know what these people call themselves?

Regular guys. Average joes. Victims. "The middle class."

It would be funny if it weren't so ugly and so mean. You know who the real privileged in America are, according to these people? Mothers receiving food stamps. Illegal immigrants busing tables for half of minimum wage. The unemployed. According to the Guys with Planes, these people are not being punished enough, so the thing to do is cut off the food stamps, kick penniless immigrants out of the emergency rooms, and cut the capital gains tax.

Conservatives have been complaining for years about the culture of victimhood. And they're right. It's ugly. Anytime they want to drop the victim act is good with me. You can put the sense of entitlement next to it.

I'm tired of being poor-mouthed by guys with their own planes. Suck it up, fellas. Things are tough all over.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Amy Bishop, Collegiality, and Debates About Tenure

cross-posted at Dagblog

Amy Bishop's murder of three colleagues, and attempt to murder three others, looks to be even less about tenure than I originally claimed ... but it's still university tenure that people want to talk about. It's become clear that Bishop would eventually have been fired under almost any conceivable system of review, and that Bishop would almost undoubtedly have responded violently to some other setback sooner or later. (University Diaries has been the blogger who's owned this story, and deserves kudos for it.) But plenty of people, inside and outside academia, clearly have passionate opinions on the topic, and won't pass up an excuse to discuss it at length. As one contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education puts it:

That Professor Amy Bishop is not a tragic heroine of the tenure process doesn't mean that she's not a good opportunity to discuss it.

But the inevitable discussion of academia is full of contradictions. I've read over the last week that the institution is all but dead, and that it is fundamentally unkillable, that it's a ridiculous luxury and a horrifying inhumane gauntlet, that it demands too much productivity ("quantity over quality") and that it demands too little productivity. Tenure means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, almost all of whom feel strongly about it. The key here is that almost no discussion of tenure is just about tenure; it's always bound up with a number of other issues. So it's worth it to walk through those issues and disentangle them from the tenure issue. Here's a partial list of the major questions.

1) The systematic importance placed on research rather than teaching.
Many people's disgruntlement with professors stems from this, in one way or another, often from encounters as an undergraduate. Why don't they fire such-and-such a professor, who seems (at least to the questioner) like such a lousy teacher? "They can't fire him, he has tenure," is an easy answer that seems like a complete explanation, but isn't. Generally, the school wouldn't fire that teacher if he didn't have tenure. The school simply values different things than the student does.

Academics are still rewarded most for the things that the general public sees least. Even though there have been real efforts (as well as cosmetic efforts) over the last decades to increase the value put on teaching, the expectations for faculty research have gotten higher and higher during the same period. Teaching remains harder to evaluate than research, and less valued on the employment market. It's much easier to sort the A+ researchers from the A researchers than it is to separate the superb teachers from the merely very good, and the academic world operates from the assumption that effective teaching is easier to find than cutting-edge research. Whether that's right or wrong (and it would be an unhappy world where good teachers were harder to find than ground-breaking researchers), it's the way universities operate.

Some disgruntlement about this issue take the form of complaints about "specialization" and about the lack of great generalists. That complaint is as older than the PhD itself; an active research plan largely necessitates specialization.

2) The shrinking faculty.
Although you wouldn't know it to hear the complaints about tenure, the tenure-line faculty in American universities has been shrinking drastically over the past years. Many departments are half or a third the size they were a generation ago. (This applies less to very rich and famous universities, although they have seen some shrinkage around the edges, too.) I teach in a department which had five tenured faculty in my specialized field, less than a decade before I was hired. Now there is only me.

A lot of the teaching load that tenured faculty used to do has been off-loaded to cheaper instructors, some of them graduate students but most of them part of a now-huge body of allegedly "part-time" adjunct faculty (almost all with PhDs, and most teaching "part-time" at multiple universities).Since these non-tenure-track teachers only teach, and aren't expected to produce research, they are valued extremely poorly by the universities that hire them, and have to cobble to together a living on wages of a few thousand dollars a course. This shift of labor to scandalously ill-paid teachers has taken place at the same time the price of tuition has risen faster than inflation.

Naturally, the adjunct faculty are alienated from the tenured and from the tenure-track, with their middle-class salaries and benefits. But at the same time the shrinking number of tenure-track jobs leads to intense competition and often harrowing multi-year job searches by PhDs trying to break in. Getting a PhD from Harvard hasn't been a guarantee of a job for a long time. A lot of the resentment you hear from younger (and youngish) academics about the grueling tenure process can be understood when you remember that those academics went through a fairly vicious market sorting before they began the tenure process at all, and that being turned down at one place when jobs are scarce has become potentially career-ending in ways that it was not in, say, 1970

3) The generation gap.
The vastly increased market pressure on entry-level professors has led to a drastic increase in the qualifications of newer faculty, especially in research (which remains the most easily measurable achievement) but also in areas like teaching and departmental service. And that has naturally increased the standards for tenure, too.

I teach in a department where the research expectations for tenure are now the same as the expectations were for promotion to full professors twenty-five years ago. And I know of a department which recently required applicants for an entry-level job to be at least as well published before even applying than full professors had once been in that department. They got the same enormous pile of applications that every hiring committee gets, because there are plenty of job applicants out there with those credentials. These are not exceptional stories. These are typical stories.

Where this gets ugly is when the people judging qualifications for tenure are the older faculty hired under the older market conditions, which weren't even remotely so demanding. Neither is the situation helped when some departments went fifteen or twenty years without hiring anybody (filling up the roster during the 60s and 70s, and not hiring again until the 90s or later). So in most average universities, you have 60-something professors judging the tenure case of 30-something professors, but the 30-somethings have vastly better resumes. You'd better believe this leads to resentments at certain places, and that's before you start factoring in cultural differences between the generations (as, for example, when a group of almost exclusively white men judge a younger faculty filled with women and minorities).

Female Science Professor approaches the generational question, in regards to qualifications, with a combination of realism and admirable even-handedness.

Questions of gender bias, especially, are problematic and stubbornly persistent. They get uglier when you realize that in many places (although clearly not Alabama/Huntsville) the woman who didn't "make the grade" was being graded in part by men who never had to make that kind of grade themselves.

4) The "collegiality question." One of the persistent questions inside universities has been the degree to which it's okay to judge colleagues for tenure based on the kind of academic citizens they are. Is it okay to turn down the confrontational and seemingly crazy colleague? Certainly, people would like to be free to turn down Amy Bishop. But what about people who are simply unpopular, or whose politics annoy the others, or who simply don't fit into the club? Academia is filled with stories of female scholars, and especially of female scientists, whose colleagues viewed them as "too aggressive" or "argumentative." A good deal of that comes from women behaving like, well, academics: it's hard to be demure and deferential and still land a big government grant, or to write a book that seriously overturns old ways of thinking. To my mind, the collegiality question has to be folded into the existing standards; if someone's interpersonal difficulties are actually interfering with the way they do their work, that's something very different from merely rubbing colleagues the wrong way.

Tenured Radical has a terrific and balanced discussion of this problem here.

5) Length of training.
One of the classic complaints about tenure is the burnt-out old professor who won't retire, and who remains deadwood. Even when we get past the age stereotypes (and I know plenty of vigorous and engaged septuagenarians), the problems go past tenure. On the one hand, mandatory retirement ages have now (justly) become illegal, and eliminating tenure won't change that. It would also be very hard, in fields that require years of specialized training before one can began making even a middle-class salary, to do without job security.

6) Faculty, administration, and trustees
. Tenure, of course, empowers university faculty to become maddeningly stubborn at times, and to resist the management innovations of university presidents, trustees, and state legislatures. This can of course be enormously frustrating, and I understand why the administrators and stakeholders long to wipe out tenure and make the faculty more tractable.

But not every faculty that resists its superiors is wrong (just as not every faculty that does so is right). And faculty are right to guard their prerogative to decide what the standards in their field are. That feels elitist and clubbish, but on the other hand, what better alternative could there be? When professional American historians decide what counts as solid history and what doesn't, that might feel arrogant, but would you let people who aren't specialists in history decide that? Should the trustees get to decide what counts as valid history, or science, or anthropology? The state legislature? The donors?

There's a reason that the Texas School Board can dictate what's in K-12 textbooks, but the Texas State Legislature can't do a thing about what's taught at U.T. There's a reason you don't hear about state universities being forced to teach "intelligent design." Maybe the geology department should be more polite when they say that the Earth is a lot more than 6,000 years old, but it isn't the university president's decision how old the Earth is, or the trustees'. Universities are difficult to manage because they're full of specialized experts who can sometimes get thin-skinned about their authority over their own subject matter. But the problem is, that authority is based on knowing things, within the limited sphere of their expertise, that other people don't know. And in the end, who are you going to believe?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Favorite Al Haig Story

cross-posted at Dagblog

My mother met Al Haig back in 1988, when he was under the impression that he was running for President. (Long before I was Doctor Cleveland I was the Granite State Kid, and in New Hampshire you can personally meet all the candidates, even the ones that other people won't remember were in the primaries.) Mom actually met nearly every primary candidate that year, Democratic and Republican, in a series of events sponsored by a local newspaper.

So Mom, who was a police lieutenant, asked General Haig (ret.) his opinion about women in the military. Haig responds with a story about a female war correspondent who was covering Vietnam (an irrelevant story, to Mom's mind, because it involves an unarmed woman with no military training). And Haig wound up his story with his big clincher: "As soon as the shooting started, my instinct was to throw that girl over my shoulder and run for the nearest helicopter."

Mom said, "I carry a weapon every day. Don't you call me girl."

And that's how they were quoted in the newspaper.

Rest in peace, general. I hope Saint Mary is carrying you over her shoulder to heaven.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Not About Tenure. Seriously.

Friday, at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, a biology professor named Amy Bishop murdered three of her colleagues and wounded three others. Two of the people she wounded are still in critical condition, and I offer my sincere hopes for their complete and swift recovery. The murderer had been denied tenure in the department, and media coverage has centered on the question of tenure. Tenure, that strange and exotic academic rite, is obviously the hook for this story, and the resulting coverage is appalling.

The New York Times headline for their story today (which doesn't deserve a link) is "At an Academic Pressure Cooker, a Setback Turns Deadly, Official Say." There's something appalling about the passive construction in that sentence, as if it's the "setback" that did the killing. But the story, with its emphasis on "the pressure-cooker world of academic startups" is worse. It also undermines its own angle: the killer's potentially lucrative biotech startup was going well. Meanwhile, Inside Higher Ed fatuously links to an old article about faculty who have minor breakdowns after being turned down for tenure, as if one could compare a shouting incident or a distraught person climbing up an ivy trellis with cold-blooded murder. (No link for you either, IHD.) The general thrust of the coverage is that the tenure process is so painful and stressful that an otherwise normal person might snap and become violent.

Let me just say, as someone going through the tenure process: bullshit.

On the other hand, the media has had no interest at all in the question of race, although Bishop shot almost every non-white faculty member in the department. (She also shot and wounded two white victims, a professor and a staff member.) She killed both African-American professors in the department (one of whom was too junior to have had anything to do with Bishop's tenure decision). She killed the department chair, who was ethnically South Asian. A Latino faculty member was wounded. There may only be two non-white faculty left in the department. Whether she intended it or not, Amy Bishop effected a racial purge of the Alabama Huntsville biology department. But the press isn't interested in asking whether or not she intended it. Perhaps the question isn't exotic enough.

These murders are not about tenure. They are about Amy Bishop's moral failings. Those failings might or might not include racism. But a person who responds to a career setback by cold-bloodedly murdering three people, and attempting to kill three more, is not the victim of a difficult process. Amy Bishop is a horribly defective human being. Whatever complaints she may have had a week ago, she has forfeited any right to make them.

I'm as conscious as anybody can be about how tense the tenure process can make a person. I've spent the last year going through it. And even the smoothest and most successful process has some moments that are absolutely infuriating. Sometimes over the last year, reading bureaucratic documents about myself, I've felt myself turning into a thin-skinned prima donna. (I've since reverted to my normal personality now, for better or worse.) Sometimes, one sentence or paragraph could becloud a whole day. My case is fairly close to the end, but there have certainly been moments when I've imagined myself being turned down, and considered game plans for denial. But you know what never crossed my mind? Doing anyone physical harm. Some of my friends have had disputed cases, been turned down, been forced to appeal the final decision. You know what I've never heard them talk about? Retaliating against anyone personally. You know why not? Because that would be insane. It never even crosses a healthy person's mind.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

What's Wrong with College Football Playoffs

cross-posted at

So a lot of people, including the President, have been talking lately about remedying the evils of college football. The chief evil that needs remedying is apparently the Bowl Championship System, which isn't enough of a "real" championship and needs to be replaced with a system of playoffs. That's a big surprise to me, because I can think of a lot of other problems with big-time college football, and instituting playoffs would probably make them worse.

Just to face some basic facts: there is only so much full-speed, seriously competitive football that the human body can take. If you want to play two-handed touch on your lawn every day, that will work. If you're practicing with a team, practice can happen most days (although the coaches will build in some lower-impact days, and some rest). But actually playing, in the big time, is another thing. The question of how much football one man can take is answered, more or less, by the NFL's schedule: 16 games in 17 weeks. 16 games a season is a pretty low number, and if that's all the owners schedule, it's not because tradition matters more to them than money. It's because that's all the competitive football even the best, most elite professional players can really take.

Professional baseball players can play ten times as many games a season than NFL players do, and NBA basketball players can play five times as many games, because those sports don't beat up the athletes' body in the same way. If the NFL season were longer, or the games were more frequent, you would eventually see too many players getting injured ("too many" meaning in this case too many for the game to be fun) or the quality of play weakened to help players survive. (If the NFL had to play three games a week, you'd see a much, much less physical game.) Football is the most physically demanding and punishing team sport. The only harsher sports are individual sports, like boxing and the marathon, where serious athletes can't even compete once a week.

Now, the Bowl Championship Division Series is already close to full professional length, between twelve and thirteen regular-season games compared to the NFL's sixteen. That makes sense, considering that BCS college football functions, basically, as a minor league for the NFL. Players get accustomed to a longer and more intense schedule than they did as high school players, but not as long or intense as the pro schedule. That's necessary, as the players build up their conditioning, strengthen their still-developing bodies, and learn to play the game at a newer, harder level. So the current system is probably a pretty decent level of intensity, and the Bowl system, where there's a one-game postseason for a lot of teams, isn't so terrible.

But if you add, say, a three-round playoff to the college schedule (and if a playoff system starts there will outraged demands for more than three rounds), you're looking at college players playing something pretty close to the full NFL schedule. And that's going to mean injuries: more injuries, and worse injuries, including some career-enders. A kid who's trying to compete for the big time at the same time he's making the adjustment from an 10- or 11-game high school season to what's basically a fifteen-game Div I season is going to get hurt. The question is how much. The extended postseason, where you've got a lot of young and inexperienced players who are worn down by the long season but trying to redouble their efforts for the "meaningful games," is pretty much a recipe for some serious, serious damage. Will every player get hurt badly? No. Some will be lucky, and get only the routine injuries that football players routinely conceal. But plenty of people will get hurt worse than that, needlessly, and players who could have gone on to big things will end up out of the game for good.

A full NCAA football season is about as much as you can ask. Really. A full season plus two or three playoff games is a lot more than you can ask of a kid who isn't being paid. If it's "wrong" to not have a "real" championship, it's also wrong to ask a kid to risk his body and his future for free, just to please ESPN and the Vegas lines. Yeah, yeah, the kids get paid with an education. Sure. But adding another three- or five-week playoff season, right into the spring semester, pretty much goes to show what a sorry pretense that is. If this were about educating kids for something beside football, we wouldn't be talking about playoffs at all. And yeah, kids play Div I ball for their shot at the NFL. But extending seasons for players who aren't ready for that punishment means risking those players' shot at making the NFL ever. They only make that pro money if they excel and stay healthy. If they get hurt (or need to play more cautiously to keep from getting hurt), they get nothing. And that's not just "wrong" the way an imperfectly-satisfying-television-spectacle is "wrong." It's simply wrong: a selfish, vicious, rotten-hearted thing to do to another person.