Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Run, Donald, Run!

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, Barack Obama has given in to the birther lunatics -- or rather, to their enablers in the national press -- and released his long-form birth certificate. Which of course, won't stop the lunatic birthers. But it's not clear that Obama actually intends it to. This is in many ways a classic Obama move. Obama does seem justly and genuinely exasperated with the press corps, but he also likes to position himself as the reasonable alternative to unreasonable opponents.

More vexingly, at least on the surface, the timing of the release gives aid and comfort to Donal Trump, who is already taking credit for the release. That's very annoying, in that it feeds the national media's silly obsession with Trump and prolongs The Donald's free-media "campaign" for the presidency. It even makes it more likely that Trump will actually put his big money where is bigger mouth is, and attempt to get on primary ballots. He's riding high, and the media is stoking his already-formidable self-regard. If Trump's grandiosity is sufficiently cultivated, he may decide that the White House is his for the spending, and start staffing up.

That result, as I say, would very annoying. But that doesn't mean Obama would be displeased. If the White House just released a document that seems to validate Donald Trump's candidacy, we might consider that the Obama people want to validate Donald Trump's candidacy.

There's a saying that Obama's been extremely lucky in his opponents. And that's true. But it hasn't always been luck. He's shown a talent for attracting such opponents, and for subtly goading them into self-immolation. And he's certainly developed an appreciation for the pleasures of campaigning against a turbulent freakshow of an opponent.

Donald Trump is the media freakshow personified. He's been doing reality TV since before reality TV was invented. He's spent decades making himself ridiculous on camera, and his special gift as a media star is his utter inability to realize how silly he is. The joke is on Donald, and the funny part is that he isn't in on it. He is not a serious candidate. He's not a serious anything. And if someone decided to run negative ads on Trump, the sheer wealth of material boggles of mind. Only another narcissistic buffoon could believe, even for a second, that people would vote for someone like Trump. That any media figures floated the idea only shows that they are doing entertainment and not news.

Trump would be a dream opponent for Obama, a kind of white Alan Keyes. But more interestingly, he could be a monumental headache for Republican hopefuls in the primaries. If he actually took even a half-serious run in the primaries, he could make advertising in the earlier states crazy expensive. He's certainly capable of wasting a hundred million dollars, even if he doesn't actually have that much money to waste. And even if he doesn't run, he sucks up media oxygen that other candidates need, and he makes it even harder to placate the crazy part of the base by pandering to them so shamelessly. (Maybe you could say that The Donald is giving cover to the other Republicans by keeping them from press scrutiny. But the press doesn't do serious scrutiny any more. And if they do find a mini-scandal about a candidate not named Trump, the later it breaks the more it hurts.) Good luck trying to build name recognition when the TV is obsessing about Trump like he's a royal bride. And good luck trying to get past the crazy conspiracy theories in the primaries when Trump and the cable news hover over them like flies on a horse apple.

Obama's deepest political instinct is to pose as the reasonable centrist, so that the other side has to either make a deal with him or risk looking crazy. This can be frustrating because it leads him to make deals again, and again, in order to perform his "reasonableness," even when the question should be out of doubt. Releasing yet another form of his birth certificate is like his various compromises over health care and the budget: splitting a difference that he long ago split. But where this should pay dividends is when the other side refuses to take the deal. Barack Obama didn't release his long-form birth certificate to prove that he was born in Hawaii. He released it to prove that the doubters are too insane to care about proof.

What messes with this strategy is a press corps which is fundamentally unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality any more, a group that takes both reasonable and insane positions as equally valid, and presents them as equivalent. They can't tell a serious budget position from a cooked one. They can't bring themselves to cover national news instead of conspiracy theories. Almost nine percent of the country is out of work, at a minimum, and they want to talk about birth certificates. They have absolutely no idea how crazy they sound. Obama isn't just fighting the Republicans. He's fighting the press. What he needs to do is communicate past them to the American people, who actually care about actual things.

The question for the next two years is this. Will the real world pop the media bubble at last? Or will they manage to distort the debate so much that the voters lose touch with reality?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Codes of Silence

cross-posted from Dagblog

There's sad news from Princeton where a lecturer who was apparently in danger of losing his job has taken his own life. That's a terrible thing.

A number of his students (and other supporters) are campaigning to make Princeton explain more about the events preceding his death, and especially about the danger that he was about to lose his job. That is a very understandable desire. On the other hand, Princeton is very unlikely to do any such thing unless it's in response to a subpoena, and they're right. That will make Princeton look secretive and authoritarian and inhumane, but Princeton will just have to take it.

Nothing could be less humane than Princeton defending itself at the dead man's expense. If Princeton did wrong here, it's not going to fix that by smearing the man in the newspapers. And if they were in the process of firing poor Antonio Calvo for some legitimate cause, they won't comfort his mourners by announcing that cause at his funeral. Whatever the facts, he deserves a better elegy than that.

When I was a doctoral student, a brilliant and well-liked assistant professor was turned down for tenure in the department. (Actually, that happened more than once, but this time was particularly unfortunate and surprising.) So the graduate students asked for a meeting with the department chair and graduate chair, to get an explanation. Why did N not get tenure?

That was an awkward meeting, of course, and also a frustrating one, because the department chair and graduate chair could not tell us. And I, like many of my classmates, saw pretty quickly that they really couldn't. What were they going to say? Were they going to run N down to the grad students, adding insult to injury? Were they going to publicize the reasons for denial while N was trying to find another job, and thereby add real injury to injury? That's the kind of thing that gets you sued, because it's unnecessary and wrong. Whether the department had been right or wrong about the tenure case, N deserved at least a fair shot at a continued career, which definitely couldn't happen if the old school was talking about N's shortcomings in public. And there was no good to be achieved by trying to talk graduate students out of their respect and affection for N. Who would stoop so low?

Now, it's easy to view closed deliberations as secretive and opaque. Some people call for greater transparency in things like the tenure process, arguing that confidentiality leads to abuses without accountability. It's definitely true that there have been some injustices done behind closed doors in the academy (some of which, although done in secret, became notorious), and decisions without any accountability at all really would invite abuses. But there is a crucial distinction between transparency and publicity. The reason behind N's tenure decision was not a secret. It was confidential. The difference is that N knew the reasons, and knew who had made the decision; the process was transparent to the party concerned. The general public did not need to know the grisly details. Making everything public, including every slighting word said during the process, would have left N without any protection of confidentiality at all and caused material damage to N's subsequent career.

(For the record, N swiftly got an excellent new job, published a new book, and won a big prize for it. So I still hold that we were right about N and that the people who made that tenure decision blew it. But then, I didn't read N's file.)

The one thing the department and grad chair were never, ever going to do, although some of us might have been hoping for this deep in our hearts, was to say that they had done him wrong. They weren't going to sit there with their graduate students and say, "We confess! We railroaded N out of the job! We did it because we're evil!" Of course not. They didn't think that they had railroaded him, and certainly didn't consider their own motives wicked. (And if they had, would they confess?) "Tell us why N did not get tenure," is not just one unanswerable question, but two. It asks for reasons that cannot be shared (in part for N's sake), and it also asks for consolation and validation. When we asked that question, part of what we meant was absolutely, "We want you to admit that N has been done wrong." We were upset, and we wanted to hear someone sufficiently powerful tell us that what had happened was not right.

Something similar, I think, is behind the insistence that Dr. Calvo's death be "explained." His friends and students need to hear a valediction for him, to hear that he was done wrong. That Calvo lost his life, rather than merely suffering a brief career setback like N's, makes his friends' and students' needs much greater. On some level, I suspect many of them want to hear a public statement that says, "Princeton treated Antonio Calvo unfairly, and we hounded him to his death." And Princeton will never say that. No one would.

Something clearly went very, very wrong, although I'm not eager to know what it was. Calvo was undergoing a routine reappointment review, but it seems clear that Dr. Calvo was removed from his duties with a few weeks left in the semester, in a way that suggests that Princeton had not adequately prepared for someone to take over his courses. That is very peculiar. Clearly, that was not the outcome of the performance review. No matter whether Calvo was getting a new contract or not, he wasn't going to be fired two weeks before classes ended, with all of his final grading left to do. No one at a college gets fired two weeks before exams if anyone can possibly help it.

So something very unfortunate happened. If the sudden relief from duty was a result of Calvo's behavior, or perhaps his health, then there are excellent reasons for Princeton to offer him all the tactful decency they can manage. If such a sudden suspension was unwarranted, it was outrageous, since the step was so extreme and since it came at a clear cost to students' education. But if someone actually committed any misconduct, no lobbying campaign will reveal it. If someone was trying to terminate Dr. Calvo wrongly, the only way to discover that will be through the discovery process in a lawsuit. Universities don't become "accountable" for their misdeeds by voluntarily admitting them; they are actively held accountable through due process. And if the truth of Dr. Calvo's untimely death does not reflect badly on anyone else, it should be forgotten with his burial. The evil that men do lives after them, and the good is oft interred with their bones, but shouldn't it be the other way?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dedicated Teachers Hurting American Education

cross-posted from

Tenured Radical links to Nick Parker's Boston Globe piece about the life of adjunct college faculty, and adds some advice of her own to people entering the adjunct life. Both pieces are worth a read.

The two most important changes in American higher education over the last twenty years (neither of which rate much mention in the endless media jeremiads about higher education) are the gutting of funding for public universities (which now get only a fraction of their funding from public sources) and the switch (by every college, public and private, rich and poor) to a reliance on badly-paid part-time adjunct teachers for most basic instruction. Tenured and tenure-line faculty are now less than a quarter of all college teachers; fifteen percent are non-tenure-track but full-time, and twenty percent are grad students. The largest group of college teachers, at more than forty percent, are part-time adjuncts, with no tenure, no benefits, and no job security. They typically make between two and four thousand dollars per class; many scrape a living together by teaching at two, three, or even four schools at a time. As Parker points out, the number of adjuncts has more than tripled over the past thirty years. Everywhere in American colleges and universities, the full-time faculty is shrinking, and the number of adjuncts is growing.

(For those of you doing the math: the cost of a college education keeps growing well in excess of inflation, the salaries of tenure-line faculty grow at just above or sometimes just below the inflation rate, and the tenure-line faculty keep being replaced with cheaper part-timers who make a pittance. That result may be puzzling, but the arithmetic isn't.)

Now, if you favor Values and Character as an approach to complex social problems, and feel what higher education needs most is more dedicated professors who Truly Love Teaching, then all of these adjuncts are the answers to your prayers. Nearly half the college teachers in our country love teaching so much that they do it for poverty wages. That's not to say that tenured faculty don't love teaching (although the Values and Character crowd do sometimes imply that anyone getting dental benefits must be a burnt-out mercenary), but adjunct teachers' dedication and love of teaching is beyond question. The sacrifices they make to keep teaching are astounding.

Yet we keep hearing that higher education is in crisis and that students don't learn anything in college. But most students are being taught elementary and even mid-level classes by the most selfless and dedicated teachers you could hope for. How could this be?

It's not because the adjuncts, or part-timers, or contingent faculty are bad teachers. Most adjuncts are very, very good. It's extremely common to find adjuncts who are better classroom teachers than many of the full-time faculty: better at holding students' attention in class, better at managing time in the classroom, better at generating enthusiasm. Sure, many of my tenured colleagues are terrific at these things, too, and yes, not every single adjunct is a gifted teacher. But lots of them are.

So, dedicated good teachers, working cheap, and focused on nothing but teaching. If you're in the camp that says that higher education needs to be reformed by abolishing tenure, controlling costs, giving management more "flexibility," and keeping faculty from wasting their time on research, then replacing half the faculty with adjuncts should already have us well on the road to Paradise. They have no tenure, they are not paid or rewarded for research, they cost very very little, and they can be fired so easily it's not even officially firing them. A school can simply stop giving them classes one semester, because they don't even have a year-long contract. All of the reforms that the anti-tenure crowd say will fix everything have already happened to a large extent. So why aren't things fixed?

It turns out that having a large contingent of overworked and poorly paid teachers undertake a huge chunk of university teaching does not help students learn. (There have been studies done that prove this, but do you really need them?)

Most of those teachers are excellent; all of them are dedicated. Individually, each of them is an enormous asset. One or two of them in every department would be a godsend. But in large numbers, through no fault of their own, they become part of the problem. It doesn't matter how good they are, either as professionals or as people, because lack of individual virtue is not the problem. The problems of American higher education are the problems of a badly-designed system. That system not only abuses adjunct teachers but wastes their considerable talent and labor. Sacrificing so many gifted teachers' working lives to make undergraduate education better would be a crime. Sacrificing those people's working lives to make undergraduate education worse is unforgivable.

Here are just a few of the major problems that you get when so much teaching is done by part-timers, no matter how talented those part-timers are:

Disconnection from the curriculum
. A good college education means classes that meaningfully build on each other, especially within a major. Students learn certain intellectual tools in introductory classes, build on that base and add new skills in intermediate classes, and start doing more advanced work in the advanced courses. Some departments structure the learning experience better than others, but there has to be some kind of structure. It works best when the faculty in a department have ongoing conversations about what's supposed to be happening in which class, even if a lot of those conversations feel like arguments.

When one group of faculty teaches all the courses, up and down the line, those teachers develop a natural feel for what's supposed to happen when and for how well it's happening. If you teach both the advanced classes and the intro classes and a bunch of things in between, you're going to know what your intro students need to learn before they move on to the next class, and you're going to know what your advanced students have learned before they get to you. And if the sequence doesn't work, you're going to know that, too, and be able to do something about it.

But when a department is basically split into two faculties, with one group doing the advanced work and another, less powerful, group doing all of the basics and some of the intermediate classes, the course sequence will naturally tend to break up and be less effective. The people who are teaching the basics don't know how their students do later on; the people teaching the advanced stuff often feel that they can't actually teach it, because they have to catch their students up on the basics.

This problem looks different from each side of the tenure/adjunct divide. The permanent faculty often feel that students aren't learning enough in the introductory courses, and sometimes even feel that the students have been steered in an unproductive direction. (If you're a history professor who expects students to come to your class knowing how to use primary historical documents, but a lot of the intro teachers haven't been teaching them to do that, there's going to be trouble.) But there's little way to communicate that to the adjunct faculty, except as unproductive hostility. Getting hostile with badly overworked and underpaid teachers doesn't exactly get them in line with shared teaching goals. From the part-timers' perspective, the full-time faculty often seem to have unreasonable expectations about what the students should be doing in 100- and 200-level courses, and about entering students' preparation to do that work. It's a very natural thing to quietly pocket-veto the "unreasonable" parts of the curriculum, and teach the students as much as you feel they can absorb in a semester. But even if the expectations are really unreasonable, the faculty who set those expectations don't hear about it, so problems in the course sequence don't get fixed. Students just get passed along to courses they aren't quite ready for.

Dependence on student evaluations. When you teach semester to semester with no security, you need the department to view you as a good teacher. And most departments using large numbers of adjuncts don't have the resources to evaluate them except through the end-of-semester student evaluations.

Those evaluations are notoriously unreliable, especially as a measure of student learning. (If students learn a lot more or less than they would in a similar class elsewhere, how would the students know?)Evaluations are much more closely correlated with the easiness of a course's workload and grading.

It's much more useful to combine student feedback with other forms of teacher evaluation, such as classroom observations. None of the existing teacher-evaluation methods are perfect, but combining a few of them helps create at least a good-enough sense of what's going on. But observing dozens of part-timers is expensive and time consuming, and most places that are using a lot of part-timers are trying to save both on money and full-time employees. And student evaluation forms may be inaccurate, but they're dirt cheap.

This shifts an enormous amount of power to the students, who turn out to be interested (as a group) in easier workloads and higher grades. It's a basic fact of human nature that you feel smarter when you get an A than when you get a B-; if you get better grades, you feel like you've learned more, even if your class only covered two-thirds of the material it was supposed to. But part-timers don't get rewarded for how well prepared their students are in the next class; no one tracks that. They get rewarded for how happy the students are in the current class. If you're worried about getting another class next semester, you might feel like you need to have evaluation scores at least as high as the other part-timers'. And no matter how conscientious any particular teacher is about keeping standards high, that creates a general and powerful pressure to make standards increasingly easier.

Overwork. Introductory classes are especially labor-intensive. They squeeze as many students as possible considering the amount of grading that will be required for each student, and usually push the envelope of the possible. Full-time faculty, if they teach intro classes at all, generally have a balanced load of introductory and more advanced classes, which make different kinds of demands. But adjuncts teach a full and more than full load of intro courses, each of which maximizes the sheer amount of heavy lifting the teacher does. Teaching five of those at once doesn't magically create more hours in the week to do all that grading and preparation.

Most adjuncts deal with this by working insanely hard. But even so, it's impossible to grade 150 papers a week as well as you would grade 50 papers a week. Something has to give. The teacher can become more, ah, efficient in grading, and give each student a bit less, or the teacher can make a heroic effort to comment on each of those 150 papers as thoroughly as s/he would comment on twelve advanced seminar papers, have a physical breakdown in the middle of the semester, and have no energy left for student feedback for the rest of the term. Either way, the students are going to get less attention than they might, although they will almost always get more than the university is actually paying for. (Part-timers often make somewhere between $100 and $150 dollars per student per semester in the most demanding classes.)

The courses in which part-time teachers get spread thinnest, of course, are the building-block courses which are supposed to provide the foundation for later work. It's exactly in the foundational courses that schools try to save money, and teachers' working conditions make it hardest for them to teach effectively.

So these three major problems combine to reinforce each other. Part-time professors are charged with teaching the building blocks for later courses, but they are given insufficient resources to teach those basic skills, are cut off from feedback about how their students do later on in college, and face constant pressure to loosen standards in order to keep their student evaluations high. This is a system designed to produce bad results, no matter how good the individual teachers in the system are. Our current adjunct system is much like hiring a bunch of expert drivers for a fleet of buses with bad transmissions and suspect brakes. You can put great people behind the wheel, but the passengers still won't all get where they should.

Research (and common sense) suggests that most of these problems go away when you convert adjuncts to full-time faculty, even without tenure. You can do fine if part of the faculty are full-time teachers who don't do research, and who take on more of the lower-level courses. But they need to be people with full-time jobs, with a real salary and benefits, working at one college.

If you're working non-tenure track for only one school, and being paid a living wage, you will have a course load that allows you to actually give each student the effort that they need. You will be part of the department's conversation about what students need to learn in which class and how students are doing. (And if you're at the same place every semester for a few years, you'll be able to see how well your old students do.) And you won't be dependent upon your popularity in student evaluations for next semester's rent money; most likely, you'll be able to have teaching observations and feedback from peers and supervisors in your department. You may even be given a chance for ongoing training and professional development. You'll have a chance to be exactly as effective as tenure-track full-timers are, or more, because your working conditions will support your teaching effectiveness instead of undermining it.

That's a good solution, but too expensive for most colleges to actually follow, if by "too expensive" we mean only 20% or 30% cheaper than tenure-line faculty. Full-time salaries and benefits cost money, and the point of hiring adjuncts is to spend as little money as humanly possible, reducing costs to something in the low three figures for every three credit hours a student pays for. Every college and university could effectively assemble a very good pool of steady non-tenure-track teachers who would make something like 80% of what new assistant professors make. But they don't feel able or willing to spend that money. Those are the hard facts.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Local Scrip and Hard Currency: The Academic Life

cross-posted from Dagblog

I spent last weekend at the major annual conference in my field -- a national, nay international nerdapalooza of the highest order, and one of the major events on my yearly work calendar. Sunday night I caught a red-eye home and went straight from the airport to work. (This means that I have now grown up to be like Clark Kent in the sense that I have changed my clothes at the workplace.) After teaching, prepping, and meeting with students for five hours or so, I had a long department meeting and then a little committee work to take care of. It pretty much defined the split that runs down the middle of the typical professor's career. Between the beginning and end of my teaching day, I had moved from one group of colleagues to another (with no overlap, since like many academics today I am my university's only professor in my field), and at the same time moved between two different sets of ongoing conversations, two different sets of professional demands, and two different sets of professional rewards.

One of the evergreen questions for academics and academic bloggers is how to balance research and writing with service obligations like committee work. The question can only be answered by recognizing that service and research are rewarded very differently. It is not simply that one activity is rewarded more than the other. The rewards are of fundamentally different kinds. In either case, professors are rewarded down the line for their track records instead of immediately for single acts, but the kinds of reward given for a record of strong research are very different than those given for a strong record of university service.

Successful research is the easiest part of a professor's record to evaluate from the outside. Books, articles, grants, and awards are fairly easy things to point to, and the nature of peer-reviewed scholarship means that professors bring those things to their universities from outside. The faculty member's research abilities are constantly being judged and confirmed by third-party experts: federal grant agencies, editorial boards, academic presses, professional associations, and the outside reviewers who are asked to evaluate a professor's research in tenure or promotion cases. There is a measure of subjectivity in all of this, but it still involves multiple evaluations from independent experts. That gives the deans something that feels solid and reliable when it's time to make personnel decisions. And because your scholarly record and reputation are judged from outside, they are things that you can take to other universities; another dean will see pretty much the same things your dean sees and your scholarship goes with you if you take another job. If you have an NSF grant, you can take it to another school. If you've published a book, anyone can read it. This means that your reputation and track record as a researcher constitute a kind of professional hard currency. It has a value that can be independently confirmed and that stays relatively stable from place to place.

On the other hand, the labor that professors put in making their departments and universities run better can not be transferred to another employer; all that work you did to reorganize the undergraduate curriculum is only valuable to the school where you did it. Moreover, those efforts are not evaluated or confirmed by any neutral observers, so no one at another college will ever feel as certain about your skills as an organizer or conciliator or departmental advocate as they feel certain about your research productivity. People will say what a great colleague you are, sure, but people at another school would be fools to bank too much on that. They won't really know how you are to work with until they're working with you. Therefore, the reputation and goodwill you build up within your college or university through your efforts to make it run more smoothly is a kind of local scrip, a currency that can only be spent in the place where it was issued; it's like having an account at the company store.

(Now, the obvious thing that I've been leaving out is teaching, which needs at least one post of its own. Teaching is at once the most important part of a professor's work and the hardest to measure. The best existing measurements can do is suggest whether a teacher is generally succeeding in the classroom or not; you can tell struggling teachers from popular teachers, but not pretty good teachers from very good ones, or the merely unpopular from the genuinely incompetent. This has profound effects on academia works, but for now I'll stick to three points. 1) Everyone is expected to teach well; 2) contrary to popular mythology, teachers who cannot demonstrate competence (wherever their school sets that bar) get denied tenure or blocked from promotion: and 3) teaching excellence by itself can't advance your career. You're in trouble if you can't teach, but to get ahead you need to teach well and show strength in another area.)

The obvious conclusion that some people draw from the hard currency/local scrip distinction, although it's seldom expressed in the terms I'm using, is that you should amass all the research-based bullion you can and not bother with the local store credit. Weasel out of all the committees and meetings you can so you can spend more time in your lab or study and at high-profile conferences in your field. Certainly, there are plenty of people who have taken that advice to heart. Every faculty member knows them. But it's more complicated, because it's very hard to do your job without at least a little local scrip to spend.

Local scrip and hard currency buy different things, at different rates. Big things take hard currency, and sometimes lots of it. If you want to get tenure, you need research in the bank. If you want a promotion, or a year of research leave, or a job somewhere else, you need to be publishing. But hard currency won't buy a lot of the little everyday things you need, or will only buy it at a drastic discount and anger the barista who you've just forced to accept your out-of-town check. Want to get a new class approved by the curriculum committee? Need a teaching schedule that works around your child's day care? Hoping to recommend an excellent student for a departmental prize? A little local scrip buys those things much more cheaply than hard currency will, and sometimes to use your hard currency at all you have to be a huge jerk, making demands because you're a star who has this grant and that honor and blah blah blah. You need hard currency to buy the equivalent of a house or a car, and certainly to move to another town, but you need local scrip at the dry cleaner and the corner store. It's hard to get much done without it, and if you move to another town you'll just have to start piling up the new local scrip there.

I spent last weekend banking all the hard currency I could, which is what national conferences are for. But in the meeting Monday afternoon, that counted for the grand sum of diddly plus squat. How much I had impressed this and that scholar in my field with whatever piece of evidence didn't matter. When I wanted to win a point in discussion, what mattered (beside the persuasiveness of my point itself) was the amount of local scrip I've saved up at my workplace: my reputation for being reasonable, the work I've put in on the department's behalf in various ways, and the degree to which my home-team colleagues have come to trust my professional judgment.

By the same token, none of those things mattered in the least the day before; the fact that I do a lot of committee work back home doesn't change how other people in my field respond to my scholarship. And how those colleagues from other universities think about my work will eventually matter for me back home. The next time I go up for promotion, my university will ask outside referees about my reputation and the quality of my work.

I got a semester's research leave, about a year ago, which was especially important because it allowed me to live with my partner (who works elsewhere) for that semester. That took hard currency: evidence that I had been a productive researcher and would use the leave to keep producing. But then I had to ask, at the last minute, to change which semester I would be on leave, because my partner had also gotten a semester's leave and we were now hoping to put together a whole year of full-time close-distance relationship. Making that switch inconvenienced various people and required switching around my teaching assignments pretty thoroughly. But people were very helpful, and my chair cobbled together the best and sanest new schedule he could for me. My chair and the deans were being very reasonable, but it didn't hurt that I'd been saving up my local scrip for a while; it's a lot easier to do favors for people who put effort into making the place run. It's also easier for my chair to accommodate my long-distance partnership, and help me make that manageable, because he trusts me to put in a good amount of service work.

Hard currency without local scrip makes life much harder. But local scrip without hard currency doesn't get you anywhere. There's only so much of it you can spend, and some things simply aren't for sale in that currency. Local scrip might help you get a piece of lab equipment sooner rather than later, or give you more influence over what books in your field the library orders. But if there's no budget for equipment or library purchases, there isn't. Local scrip might increase your say in which job candidate gets hired during your next search, but if your school doesn't have the money to hire anyone, that's that. Local scrip might help your campaign to become department chair, if that's what you want, but if what you want is an endowed chair as the [Donor's Name] Professor of [Your Discipline], with the salary and perks that brings, it's all about hard currency.

And, in the final analysis, local scrip only has as much value as the other locals give it. It can be arbitrarily devalued by new leadership. People can decide not to honor it, especially if one of you has been around much longer than the other. And it really never gains interest. You don't have to use it immediately, but you can't save it for long. You always need to be earning more through one service or another, or you won't have much left. Hard currency also loses value if you don't keep at it, but at a much slower rate. A patent is a patent. A book that's out of print stays in university libraries and keeps getting cited. And every once in a while, you might be lucky enough to produce a piece of research that actually gains in value over the years, something that influences the next generation of scholars and continues adding to your reputation. That kind of success isn't everything. It isn't even everything you need to get through Wednesday afternoon at work. But they can't take it away from you.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ever Notice That The Birthers ...

never talk about Biden becoming President?

If you really didn't believe that Barack Obama was Consitutionally eligible for office, wouldn't that make Biden (who shared Obama's fat majority in the Electoral College) President? Yet that never comes up.

Even if you were magical thinker enough to believe that Biden, by running on an ineligible man's ticket were ALSO somehow disqualified from office, wouldn't that make the Speaker of the House President? I can see how that notion might be unpalatable to Republican activists when Pelosi was Speaker, but now that there's a Republican Speaker you hear exactly the same amount of nothing about it.

Where's the Birther movement demanding that Boehner be sworn in as President?

Even the Birthers aren't interested in their own theory as something that might be real. They're interested in it as a tool to reject reality completely.

Let me translate the demand to "see the birth certificate":

Obama shouldn't have been President, so none of this should happen! I will not eat my peas! No laws that I don't want can ever ever ever ever pass! And it is NOT bedtime, Mommy! Not not not!

Birtherism is not an attempt to follow a legal or Constitutional principle. It shows no interest in what the Constitutional ramification of an ineligible POTUS might be. It's simply a way of shutting out cognitive dissonance, and refusing to believe that more than half the country voted for Obama.

cross-posted from Dagblog