Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Short Guide to Bad Oscar Hosts

Seth MacFarlane hosted a slow-motion catastrophe of an Oscars broadcast Sunday night. His terrible performance immediately sparked two internet conversations: one about what a terrible Oscars host Seth MacFarlane was, and a second about who had, if anyone, been an even more terrible Oscars host. Many people were insulted by MacFarlane's sexist hostility. And I was, too. But I was also insulted by MacFarlane's obvious laziness and lack of professionalism. MacFarlane's shtick is built on contempt, which is why he's so witlessly insulting. But it was his obvious lack of effort, his confidence that his bush-league material was good enough for the likes of us, that betrayed his total contempt for the audience.

Many of MacFarlane's apologists bring up the awful James Franco/Anne Hathaway show of two years ago. But that's a different question. Franco and Hathaway failed because they are not comedians (which is no more an insult than it is to point out that they are not acrobats). They simply do not have the skill set that hosting such a program requires; they could not have succeeded no matter how hard they tried. MacFarlane does have the requisite skills. It's clear that he has sufficiently effective comic delivery and he has a long track record as a head comedy writer. He knew his job. He just didn't bother to do it. That is insulting.

Don't get me wrong: hosting the Oscars is a nightmare gig. The host has to perform roughly 30 to 45 minutes of original and completely untested standup material, in front of both a national television audience and nearly every power broker in Hollywood. Most stand-up comedy that you see on TV has been tested and tweaked in dozens, or often hundreds, of live club performances. Any comedy bit that hasn't already been performed in front of a live crowd is at best a hit-or-miss proposition and at worst a bomb that can blow up in your face. (The few minutes of standup by the hosts on late-night shows are untested material of this kind, which is why those jokes are so uneven.) Doing half an hour or more of completely untested material in front of Steven Spielberg is terrifying.

Add to that the problem that you have two very different audiences to please, neither of them easy, and each with very different tastes: the room full of Hollywood luminaries in front of you and the vast TV audience somewhere beyond. To succeed, you need to bond with both audiences. Playing exclusively to one instead of the other is automatic death. And worse yet, the last ten or fifteen years have set up an expectation that the Oscar-night host will fail, which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Potential hosts know this: Queen Latifah was asked before the show if she would consider hosting, and replied that the organizers would have to both "back up the Brinks truck" and get her the world's best publicist to repair her image after the show.) So all in all, an ugly seven-headed monster of an assignment.

But if you're going to accept that terrible gig, there's no excuse for giving less than your best effort. Sometime after 11 Eastern, MacFarlane was waving off his own bits with excuses like "It's late." But that's a lie. The material was not weak because MacFarlane was tired (at something like 8:15 local time). That could only be true if MacFarlane were making up the material as he went. The material was weak because MacFarlane, given months to prepare, had prepared a script full of weak and threadbare material. "It's late," is really MacFarlane saying, "I did not bother to put together enough quality material for an entire show. So you're just going to have to take whatever I give you from here on out."

This particular expression of contempt for the audience went unnoticed among MacFarlane's more blatant expressions of disregard for women, gays, Jews, ethnic minorities and people with mild Spanish accents. But all of MacFarlane's contemptuous misbehavior is rooted in that basic act of contempt for the audience, his refusal to put in the effort required to create enough A-level material.

The boorish "I saw your boobs" song actually might have been funny if it had taken only ten seconds. A lightning-quick snippet of MacFarlane singing "I saw your boobs," would be a perfectly good joke, and harmless because it would come at MacFarlane's expense.  (The context for the I-saw-your-boobs song was a "warning from the future" that MacFarlane was going to be disastrously offensive. If the audience then saw and heard him singing the words "I saw your boobs," just once, they would get the point: MacFarlane is an ignorant churl. It didn't get funnier the second time.) Instead, MacFarlane stretched that single, weak joke into a couple of minutes of material, requiring him to actually be a boor and then double and triple down. He didn't need the routine to be so long; it was pre-taped, so he could show as much or as little as he liked. But MacFarlane was trying to fill time, getting three minutes from a premise that only had one joke. He did the same thing with his next bit, stretching out a sock-puppet re-enactment of Flight to excruciating lengths. MacFarlane consistently tried to milk single jokes into longer sequences, because otherwise he would have had to come up with more jokes.

What he did write was lazy. The offensive lines weren't just politically incorrect. They were comically incorrect. Several of them were badly constructed. All of them were based on cliches. (A female CIA operative didn't get over 9/11 because "women never give up on anything?" Really? That's all you've got?)

Saying that MacFarlane was too "edgy" is absurd. MacFarlane is not an edgy comic. That was not Pryor, Carlin, or Lenny Bruce up there. There are comedians who can get away with material far more transgressive, and subjects far more taboo, than anything MacFarlane dreamed about. MacFarlane wouldn't have the stomach to do any five minutes of Bill Hicks's act, or Sarah Silverman's. Even Robin Williams, who all-too-desperately wants the audience's love, is far more of a painful truth-teller than MacFarlane. But all of those comedians get around the audience's inhibitions by breaking down cliches. Listening to them is liberatory, not because the material is difficult but because the execution is original. MacFarlane, who is lazy, prefers to build his act on as many cliches as possible. Of course, that's easier. It just doesn't work.

If someone tells you MacFarlane's detractors are being uptight, remember that MacFarlane got major blowback from a joke about John Wilkes Booth. That is not cutting-edge material. People have been telling jokes about the Lincoln assassination for many decades. ("Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln ....") But MacFarlane actually managed to offend people with that moldy chestnut of a premise, because the joke he told was constructed so poorly. The punch line wasn't set up strongly enough to feel natural, so MacFarlane sounded like he was straining to drag in Lincoln's murder. It's the strain that made the joke off-putting. That's a spectacular failure of technique. He could have gotten away with a Booth joke, easily, if he had taken the effort to write a better joke. But then, that would have required work. And MacFarlane had clearly decided that none of us were worth that much effort.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Harvard's Cheating Scandal and the Failure of Mentoring

cross-posted from Dagblog

The Harvard cheating scandal has ground to something like its conclusion, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 students being suspended asked to withdraw. There's been a lot of discussion, from different perspectives, about student ethics, educational standards, and what the world is coming to. (Harry Lewis's blog provides some of the smartest inside perspective, shaped by a strong personal viewpoint.) There are those who claim the students are getting a raw deal, while others view those students as symptoms of an ethical collapse. But none of those opinions are based on full information since the school, rightly, will never release the specific details of individual students' misbehavior. College students should face appropriate consequences for their actions, but they should also be allowed to live their bad decisions down.

Some people. including very smart people, are calling on the university to be more open about exactly what went wrong in this particular course (whose design did have some genuine and documented flaws which contributed to the problems). But that will not and should not happen, not because Harvard is circling its institutional wagons (although it might be), but because it has chosen to protect the faculty member involved, a junior professor a few years out of graduate school. That is a sound ethical position for them to take. In fact, Harvard refuses even to name the course or the faculty member involved (although both, at this point, are widely known), and I will follow their lead by leaving him unnamed.

Does this mean the professor is getting off unpunished? No. He is finished at Harvard. They are not protecting a powerful faculty member from the consequences of his actions. They are behaving ethically toward a faculty member they are in the process of firing. His ability to find future employment has already been severely damaged. Nothing is served by damaging his career further with a public report detailing his mistakes. He slipped up out of normal carelessness, with hideous results; there is no question of malice or dishonesty. He should be allowed to try, at least, to rebuild his career. And the truth is, Harvard may have let this faculty member down.

When a junior faculty member messes up this badly, there has almost always been a failure of mentoring. The reason might be the junior faculty member. Not everyone accepts or acts upon the guidance they are offered, and not everyone interprets that guidance well or puts it into practice effectively. But some people are also given bad guidance, or no guidance at all. That is an abdication of professional responsibility.

New PhDs do not turn into fully professional members of the faculty overnight, or by themselves. It is the responsibility of a junior professor's senior colleagues to guide her or his professional development. Everyone at Harvard knows this. And most likely some members of this professor's department were specifically assigned to be this junior colleague's mentors, as an explicit component of their teaching and advising load. Mentoring junior colleagues is not simply part of an obligation to the colleagues themselves, but to the students. If you put students in a classroom with a relatively inexperienced teacher and you give that teacher no professional feedback or guidance, bad things can happen. In this case, bad things did. A large lecture class ended with at least a quarter of the students suspended and more on probation. The school has taken a beating in the press. And a promising young scholar's career has crashed and burned so badly that I can smell the smoke from here. My question is: where were this person's senior colleagues? Where was his department chair? What advice were these people giving him?

It's clear that the course where the cheating happened had a well-established relationship as a gut, whether it developed that reputation before this faculty member took it over or after. Many of the students had taken the class because of this reputation. It is also clear that during the semester when the cheating occurred, Spring 2012, this changed to some extent, and the exam questions became significantly more difficult than the students expected them to be. But the professor is alleged to have spoken about how easy the class was at the start of the semester, which if true suggests that there was some change of direction after the course had begun. It's also well-established that the course assignments were structured in ways that made collaboration, which was explicitly forbidden, fairly easy: four take-home exams which students were given more than a week to complete, during which time they were allowed to use their books, their notes, and the internet but forbidden to discuss the exam with one another. So the exam design created substantial opportunity for cheating (which does not excuse the students, but should still have been avoided).

The faculty member in question was coming to the end of his fourth year at Harvard, which meant he was also undergoing a year-long, make-or-break review. According to Harvard's faculty handbook (which they publish online), he would have undergone an earlier review, designed to give him feedback on his progress, during his second year. If he succeeded in his fourth-year review, he would have been given another four-year contract, a somewhat better job title, and a chance to earn tenure in year seven. If he did not succeed, he would be given a last year teaching at Harvard while he looked for another job. His job title seems not to have changed, which suggests that he did not pass his review and that he will be leaving Harvard after the spring 2013 semester. Whether he was in trouble before the cheating scandal, or whether the scandal itself sank its chances, is impossible to tell.

(That this person has presumably been looking for a new job this year, during the same months in which people have been calling for full public disclosure of his role in the scandal, makes it obvious why Harvard would not release any damaging or embarrassing information. Doing so while he was actively seeking a new job would have done him material harm.)

My question is what the junior professor was told before and during his personnel reviews. Certainly, he would have been advised, repeatedly and emphatically, to pay enough attention to publishing his research. Harvard's research expectations are extremely high, and the junior professor also needed a strong research record for the outside job market (since tenure at Harvard is often a long shot). He would have been told to compile a strong teaching record as well. But exactly what was said to him about teaching is an open question. He would almost certainly have been told both that his teaching should be good, whatever "good" means, but also that he should be careful not to spend so much time on teaching that his research suffered. Teach well, but budget the time you spend teaching. That's already a pretty complicated message for a brand-new professor who's working up all his courses from scratch and learning to teach completely new kinds of courses. (No graduate student oversees a course with hundreds of undergrads and a team of teaching assistants.) But then the really thorny question: what does the university mean when it says good teaching? What actual benchmarks does that imply?

Is the goal to keep your teaching evaluation numbers high? That goal could pretty easily lead a new faculty member to turn a large lecture course into popular gut for students seeking easy A's. And teaching such a course would also be less time-consuming, for someone being urged to protect his weekly research time, than teaching a class with more challenging assignments and tougher expectations. So a young teacher creating a popular if notoriously easy class might think he was acting on the advice he had been given. On the other hand, a young teacher developing a reputation as a soft grader might also get pushback from his colleagues, and be urged to shed that reputation. Even at a school where grade-inflation is the norm, standing out as an easier-than-normal grader is risky.

I'm curious about the timing of the apparent shift in the troubled course's difficulty, with the professor allegedly talking genially about how easy the class was at the beginning of the semester but the exam questions subsequently becoming harder than students expected. It's worth noting that the professor's department would have voted on his review case early in the semester, sometime in January or February, after which the professor would have gotten a formal letter containing professional feedback. If he'd been told, officially or not, that he needed to change his reputation for easy grading, he might have felt pressure to show signs of that change as soon as possible, even if that meant breaking with sound teaching practice by holding students to a standard they did not expect.

That is mere speculation, of course. And it will remain that way, because Harvard is not going to publicize details that might damage their students or their junior employees. Certainly, those individuals should be held responsible for their decisions, and they apparently have been. But the buck does not stop with the junior members of any university community. The responsibility ultimately lies with the people who hold the power within that institution, the administration and the senior faculty, who have been specifically charged with the responsibility to oversee the educational mission. Harvard needs to look hard at itself, as any school does after a scandal. But it is the senior faculty, the people responsible for setting the standards and guiding newer faculty to meet them, who need to look hardest at themselves.

Friday, February 01, 2013

David Mamet and the Tragedy of the Literary Tough Guy

cross-posted from Dagblog

So David Mamet decided that he had to weigh in on gun laws, and tell everyone that everyone should have lots of guns all the time. This has required him to publish various claims that are not true, or defy common sense, or are painfully obviously not true, such as his weird assertion that the Founding Fathers were "not politicians." Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan have efficiently excellent takedowns. But let me say a few words, without excusing him, about the difficult position Mamet is in.

David Mamet got famous as a tough-guy writer. They're a relatively rare breed, but they do better because of their very scarcity, and the literary establishment is always happy to make room for them. Writers aren't generally very tough or macho, spending hour after hour at your desk fine-tuning sentences doesn't make you seem any tougher, and writing of the highest quality is pretty scarce already. So when a writer turns up who is both doing original and powerful work (and Mamet has written some wonderful plays), and  also projecting an "authentic," streetwise masculinity, that combination is an extremely rare and valuable commodity. He becomes enormously marketable, and lots of other writers, who don't necessarily feel so streetwise or authentic themselves, are eager to embrace him. Hemingway basically invented this role for the 20th century, while Norman Mailer and others tried to play it. The early press coverage of James Frey, before he became exposed as a crude fraud, set him up for this special form of fame. And Mamet, writing compelling drama about con men and other street characters in persuasively authentic language, was embraced by a bookish establishment that is perennially afraid of losing touch with the real world. There's always a place of honor for writers like Mamet who can turn in great work while also Keeping It Real.

But in the long run, being the Literary Tough Guy almost always becomes a trap. If your job is to Keep Things Real for literary publishing types by being an Authentic Voice from the Street and whatnot, it's impossible to keep that job up after twenty or thirty years of success and acclaim. Nobody's an Authentic Voice from the Street after twenty-five years of paying capital gains taxes. It's just not an option. At a certain point, you're a guy who started out a tough newcomer decades back, and spent those decades in cushioned comfort. But Tough Guy persona, for whatever reason, doesn't have any clear exit path, no route to some other recognizable literary persona. There's no obvious second act except for has-been. So the Literary Tough Guy is forced, more and more as he ages, to continue asserting his toughness, to posture as the kind of person he started out by more or less being. It's not a fraud exactly, but it is a pose, and it becomes stiffer and more exaggerated the further the Tough Guy gets from the street.

Hemingway, who played the Literary Tough Guy role better than anyone, was also one of its biggest victims, who spent his last twenty years as a prisoner of his celebrity. He couldn't explain to his third wife, the great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, why he didn't want to go to Europe to cover World War II, because he couldn't admit he was scared. And he spent his last years in an increasing series of insistently macho poses that he could manage while keeping out of any personal danger. By the end he was simply an aging gentleman who enjoyed the company of bullfighters. And maybe two-thirds of Norman Mailer's weird behavior over the years comes down to his need to preserve his expired Tough-Guy cred.

And so Mamet is in a familiar position: the aging Tough-Guy writer who now needs to give a theatrical performance of his toughness and "authenticity." That position requires him to make gestures that communicate the idea of toughness without requiring him to exercise any. Speaking out angrily for "gun rights" is tailor-made for his needs. It allows him to play Tougher Than Thou, and do it on the cheap. David Mamet is not actually worried about crime. He can afford doormen and security systems and valet parking. He's not going to get mugged on the street because he hasn't been on the street in years. What David Mamet is worried about is losing his reputation, no matter how much he has to embarrass himself to keep it.

It must be embarrassing when the pose leads a Tough Guy to be one-upped on the realities of, say, urban crime by someone like Andrew Sullivan, who makes no pretense of toughness or machismo. But that's the truth: Sullivan is currently a better witness to what it's like to live in a city with a high crime rate, and a neighborhood with a high crime rate, than someone like Mamet is. We've reached the sorry point where David Mamet no longer has any idea what it's like to actually live in Chicago.