Wednesday, February 25, 2015

National Adjunct Walkout Day (and Why It Matters to You)

Today, February 25, is National Adjunct Walkout Day. The majority of college teachers in America today are not full-time instructors with salaries, benefits, or job security, but allegedly "part time" adjunct faculty members paid a few thousand dollars per course. Today, across our country, those adjunct faculty members will be walking out of their classes and holding events to raise awareness.

I support them, and so should you. It is in everyone's best interest.

I have written before that placing so much of colleges' teaching load on adjuncts damages students' education. It makes teachers overly dependent on student evaluations, so that nationwide standards inevitably get lowered. It keeps courses from working together in an effective sequence, because the teachers of each class are cut off from the rest of the program. And it leads to gross overwork, which burns adjuncts out, spreads their labor too thin, and demands less and less attention to each student. Most adjunct professors are gifted teachers. We throw their gifts away. The abusive work conditions they face damage the education students get. Working harder won't fix that. Overwork is part of the problem.

And this is a systematic problem. It's not one or two colleges doing this, and one or two colleges can't stop doing it on their own. Adjunctification, the move to a majority-adjunct teaching force, has become systematic, and the decision-makers don't feel that they can afford to stop relying on it. If they did, their budgets would fall apart, and competing schools would gain advantages over them. This problem can only be stopped by pressure nationwide. The people who run universities believe that they can't afford to stop using adjuncts. They have to reach the point where they can't afford NOT to stop, where the price of adjunctification becomes too high. And that pressure can't just be applied to one or two schools. It has to be system-wide.

This should matter to you if you're a student. Adjunctification, the switch to a majority-adjunct teaching force, is a way for colleges to spend your tuition on things other than your education. It matters if you're the parent of a student. It matters if you're one of the shrinking number of full-time tenure-unit faculty; the reliance on adjuncts also means fewer full-time professors. They too get overworked (because a smaller number have to share the work that adjuncts aren't allowed to do), and they too have their teaching effectiveness undermined. If all of the basic intro classes are taught by overworked teachers without the time or resources to be thorough, the students aren't going to come into more advanced classes with a thorough grasp of the basics. And then those advanced courses aren't what they should be, either. It's that simple. 

And it matters to you if you live in America. The burden on America's adjunct professors damages our entire system of higher education. And a shakily-educated populace is not good for us: not economically, not globally, and not in terms of protecting our democracy. It makes us less prepared as workers, less competitive in international trade, and less informed as citizens. What's bad for adjunct teachers is bad for all teachers, for all students, and for all Americans. Please support National Adjunct Walkout Day.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Mr. D: The Unwritten Rules of Romance Fiction

Hollywood is making some big Valentine's Day cash off Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie adapted from the first book of E. L. James's mommy-porn trilogy. Let me say right up front that I have not read these books, because life is too short for that. But, like every living human in the industrialized world, I've been bludgeoned with so much unrelenting chatter about these books that I can recap the general plot: buff young billionaire punishes and dominates sweet young virgin in his sex dungeon, but also everywhere else. Which part of that plot bothers you most probably depends on who you usually roll with. In most of my social circles, the sex-dungeon part is not at all the problem because, hey, consenting adults. On the other hand, the punishing/dominating/stalking/abusing outside the dungeon part is very, very much the problem because Which part of "consenting" did you not understand, fool? 

The idea that a bondage-and-domination couple act out the same exaggerated roles outside the bedroom is shaky as psychology and lousy as storytelling. (My understanding is that domineering Masters-of-the-Universe types who are into BDSM are more likely to be the ones getting tied up; that dissonance between someone's behavior in bed and his behavior outside it is a potentially interesting story hook.) But that domination outside the bedroom is downright ugly as politics. Kinky sex may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the person doing the "submitting" is actually making some of the decisions and has a safe word so that she or he can bail out. (If that's not the case, as in the ugly story of disgraced CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, it's not BDSM. It's just beating people up.) So in Fifty Shades of Grey, the hijinks with whips and restraints may disgust or bore you, but it's the rest of the story -- the boyfriend chasing the heroine around in helicopters and hacking her cell phone and so on -- that's really morally unacceptable. That's not a romantic guy; that's a stalker who might kill you.

I can't help comparing Fifty Shades to that perennial favorite, Pride and Prejudice. The comparison is obviously lopsided, because Jane Austen is one of the best novelists who's ever written in English and E. L. James is nowhere close. Austen is basically putting on a master-class in writing on the sentence-by-sentence level; reviewers have fun with James by picking out some of her clumsy, amateur-hour sentences for quotation. But Pride and Prejudice is one of the distant models on which Fifty Shades is built, because its influence (like the Bronte sisters' influence) is shot through all of romance fiction. Even if E. L. James has never read any Austen, all of the writers she imitates (such as the writer of the Twilight series) imitate Pride and Prejudice in various ways. And Christian Grey has distant but obvious resemblances to Austen's Mr. Darcy; both are aloof, emotionally-stunted but fabulously-wealthy guys deeply invested in their alpha-male status. (Grey also owes debts to characters like Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, of course.) Darcy is part of romance fiction's DNA.

Every genre of storytelling has its own unwritten rules, which might never get articulated and which storytellers and listeners are sometimes not even consciously aware of, but which they stick to carefully. Even if no one has ever explained a rule, even if no one can explain a rule, the story will "feel wrong" to audiences if you break it. (The pioneering work on this was done long ago by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale.) This applies both to high and low art, including to self-consciously high art. And sometimes it's those underlying unwritten rules that are most interesting.

Now, if a central element of the Fifty Shades plot is "heroine tries to get away from love interest, who follows her around," it looks like Pride and Prejudice works in exactly the opposite way. It is Austen's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, who ends up more or less following Mr. Darcy around England, eventually showing up in his actual house. Although people will tell you Pride and Prejudice is about manners, Lizzy's actual behavior is totally outrageous: after turning down the D-man's proposal of marriage, and taking his inventory at fairly insulting length, she then turns up uninvited in his home -- one of the classic "Oh, hi!" moments in world literature.

Austen gets away with this, and lets her protagonist off the hook, by contriving to make it seem that none of this is Elizabeth's idea. Although the main structure of Austen's plot is "Elizabeth goes to places where Darcy is," Austen crafts the story so that it always appears that Elizabeth is going to those places for some non-Darcy-related reason, often without knowing that Darcy will be there. "Oh, hi" is actually a fundamental narrative principle of Austen's novel. It is crucial that Elizabeth always be thrown together with Darcy "by chance." But "accidents" in a novel are never actually accidents. They are always the result of deliberate design, and Austen, especially, is a meticulous designer.

Austen carefully arranges all of these "accidents" because she is following a major unwritten rule of "romance" narratives: the heroine may not get the male character's affection by deliberately pursuing him. This rule is not officially articulated anywhere. But everyone follows it. If you downloaded twenty new romance e-books tonight, I am willing to bet you that none of those twenty involve our heroine seeing a man she likes, deciding to go after him, going after him, and getting him. That plot is excluded from the list of possibilities. This rule is most absolute in fiction aimed primarily at female readers.

This is not because it is impossible for a woman to attract a man's romantic attention deliberately. In the actual world, a heterosexual woman has ways to get a heterosexual man to notice her, and most straight adolescent girls have already mastered a list of these techniques: laugh at his jokes (especially the bad ones), hold extra eye contact, wear a nice dress, etc., etc., etc. While you can't win 'em all, you can bat a pretty good average. But if you are the heroine in a romance narrative, none of that will work.  It cannot work. The core rule is deliberate attempts to get the man will fail.

There are stories about women going after the man, but in those stories the women are villains (see: Gone Girl) or cautionary tales. And this seems connected to a wider set of cultural ideas about romantic relationships; as Phoebe wrote in a recent blog post: "For whatever reason, it's seen as insulting to a woman to speak of her relationship as having emerged from mutual attraction." It's likely even more insulting to imply that she did the chasing. Women who aren't imagined as having been pursued by men are imagined as being less valued.

There is an entire subset of narratives (Austen's Emma/Clueless; Gone with the Wind; Legally Blonde; etc.) where the heroine sets out on a deliberate campaign to win the wrong man, inevitably 1. failing to get the boy and 2. realizing that she is actually in love with another boy. (In Scarlett O'Hara's case, this ending is punitive: she spends the whole damn novel/movie chasing the unsexy one before realizing she'll never get him and that she's already blown it with the sexy one she does love. I'd feel bad for Scarlett, but she's a Confederate, so tough cookies.) Not only can you not get the one you want on your own, you can't even figure out which one you want on your own. The only narrative I can think of that comes close to breaking this rule is Sleepless in Seattle, where Meg Ryan spends the whole movie trying to get to the oh-so-romantically-bereft man she heard once on the radio, but even that film actually sticks to the rule; as soon as the Tom Hanks character sees her, he falls in love at first sight, so that the Ryan character never has to try to get him to like her, which never works in a story.

On the other hand, a straight male hero pursuing a female character (even, or especially, a reluctant female character) and getting her is clearly not against our rules of narrative. We tell that story All. The. Time. But a straight female heroine pursuing a male character and getting him is effectively impossible. No one is officially forbidden to tell that story, but we may as well be. Try it and you will hear that something is "wrong" with the story, that it doesn't "work."

Obviously, this unwritten rule forbids women from going after what they want, but it is strongly present in romantic fantasies aimed at women, even (especially) romantic narratives written by women for other women. These stories are about women's desires on a very basic level, but the rules require that those desires be officially disowned. You can get what you want. You just can't get it yourself. You have to get someone else to give it to you, and you have to do that unwittingly.

Both Pride and Prejudice and Fifty Shades follow this basic rule, as do the whole vast number of similar romantic narratives. Fifty Shades does it using the crudest and most obvious narrative solution possible: since she can't take the initiative, he will take it all. He'll follow her around, etc., etc., etc. One explanation for Fifty Shades's retrograde politics may simply be that E. L. James couldn't think of a less obvious way to move her story forward.

Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, is cunningly designed so that neither Elizabeth nor Darcy seem to be doing the pursuing. The heroine-cannot-pursue rule is rigorously observed; indeed, there are a number of female characters, most glaringly Elizabeth's mother, who function to discredit outright or obvious pursuit of a husband. But Darcy is also usually not pursuing. The narrative logic of Pride and Prejudice is that once Darcy shows up at Elizabeth's house, the story is over; they're engaged. If Darcy approaches Elizabeth on any neutral ground, there is always a complicated advance and retreat; although each of these encounters is superficially different, the structure is always Darcy advances, a major plot revelation occurs, and Darcy scrams. (The given reason for retreat is always different; the structural effect on the narrative is always the same.) Austen is dedicated to creating the illusion that neither main character is seeking out the other.

Austen, of course, is not the only one who does this. Virtually every Hollywood romantic comedy is built on the "meet cute," whereby the male and female leads are introduced to one another by chance. He's not trying to meet her; she's not trying to meet him. It's always just, Oops! Just must be their lucky day. Disowning deliberate intentions turns out to be an essential part of the romance narrative.

What allows Austen to get away with this so smoothly is that she is enormously inventive in disguising her narrative moves and in creating plausible excuses for them. Austen is a great architect, and her novel is laid out in regular, symmetrical patterns. Readers respond to the book's soothing structural repetition, but if you consciously noticed how repetitive it was it would feel artificial and boring. Austen is wonderful at disguising those repetitions so that it seems like something new and different is happening; she camouflages the artfully-plotted symmetries and creates the illusion that a bunch of semi-random events are unfolding.

The novel has three parts, and in each of those three parts, right on schedule, Elizabeth visits a grand country house where Darcy happens to be. (Each of those houses is progressively more Darcy's own turf, until it's actually his own house.) The real reason Elizabeth goes to these places, the novel's reason, is that she has to be put in the same place as Darcy. But Elizabeth cannot be presented as deliberately doing that. So Austen contrives different narrative excuses; interestingly, they always involve Elizabeth going to whichever house for another woman, a close female friend or relative. This is dressed up in different guises:

1. Elizabeth's sister Jane falls dangerously ill at the country house where Mr. D. is staying with friends; Lizzy rushes to nurse her, and has to stay for several days
2. Elizabeth's best friend Charlotte has left home to marry the parson attached to a distant country house owned by D's aunt; Charlotte, homesick, invites Lizzy to visit, and Mr. D. turns out to be visiting his aunt
3. Elizabeth is touring Derbyshire with her own aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, who really wants to visit Darcy's house (which is on the Stately Homes of Derbyshire tour), so Elizabeth goes along, having heard that D. was away on business, and so ...

And so on. These are all superficially different. They are all the same move at the bottom. And Elizabeth is always nominally showing up near Darcy is in order to please a woman she already has a relationship with, rather than to start a relationship with Mr. D. The character has to have motivations that are not about Darcy. But these are just excuses for the the narrative to put her together with Darcy.

(All of these narrative excuses have their own excuses; Jane allegedly got sick because she walked to Netherfield Hall in the rain. But actually, it rained so that Jane would get sick, and Jane got sick so Elizabeth could go to Netherfield, where the novel needed her to be. And Charlotte's husband works for Darcy's aunt because Austen needs a second act here.)

The novel also needs to repeat the "third party gives Elizabeth information about Darcy" move over and over again, but Austen is always finding new ways to disguise it. Someone who dislikes Elizabeth tells her some news in order to hurt her; someone who loves Elizabeth writes a gossipy letter, assuming that Elizabeth already knows some news that she doesn't; someone randomly mentions some news without understanding its relevance to Elizabeth; it keeps on going. But it's always the same transaction: Elizabeth gets some information about Mr. D without Elizabeth asking or D. telling.

There are lots of go-betweens passing this plot information along. If Elizabeth can't go after Darcy, and if Darcy can almost never go after Elizabeth, there needs to be at least one go-between to relay information and also to move the plot forward. Austen manages this by having lots of go-betweens, in varied guises, almost none of whom are intending to move the Elizabeth-and-Darcy plot along but all of whom function to do so. Austen is ingenious enough to disguise many of these go-betweens as people trying to oppose the match. Heroine about to give up hope? Need to give her the news that she still stands a chance? Have someone show up and try to warn the heroine off. ("Why is this person suddenly so worried that Darcy is going to propose? What?") Then have that character double as the messenger who tells the D Man that he's still in the running. ("You told her not to marry me, and she said what? Huh.") It would look cheesy if a helpful friend did those tasks at the end of the story: too obviously convenient. But if an alleged "enemy" performs those tasks, it feels earned. That character is only opposed to the marriage inside the imaginary world of the story. In the deep machinery that makes the story run, that character is a crucial enabler of the marriage.

None of this makes Austen a feminist. I mean, she was writing in Regency England. And I would really, really love a great 21st-century storyteller to find a way to defeat the women-can't-pursue rule. But the differences between Austen at the dawn of the 19th century and James at the outset of the 21st are enormous, in ways that aren't to James's credit. Both Austen and James are stuck with the unwritten rule, bigger than either of them, that women can't just go out and get the men. James deals with that by having the man chase the woman even when the woman says no and isn't it all so sex-ay? Austen, on the other hand, deploys her nearly inexhaustible storytelling cunning in order to create the illusion that neither character is the main pursuer. And Austen, with artful indirection, lays out a subtle strategy that intertwines a prescription for playing the "good girl" with a prescription for playing a member of the upper classes. What permits Elizabeth to become Mrs. Darcy, i.e. to get the boy, is appearing never to strive for what she wants. But what qualifies Elizabeth to be a good Mrs. Darcy, i.e., a successful aristocrat, is also the ability to disown any striving or ambition, to get exactly what you want without appearing to try. That's a limited and equivocal kind of liberty, to be sure. But it's centuries ahead of Fifty Shades.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Story from the Crusades

Apparently, some people are very upset that President Obama suggested that some Christians did bad things during the Crusades. Where does he get off saying something like that? Let me tell you a little story from the Third Crusade.

in 1191, King Richard the Lionhearted (or rather, Richard Coeur de Lion, Roi de l'Angleterre; Richard didn't speak any English) was besieging the city of Acre. The siege had been going on since before Richard had arrived in the Holy Land, and capturing Acre would be his most important victory during the Crusade. And eventually the defenders of Acre offered to surrender. 

Richard accepted their surrender and promised to spare their lives. He gave them his promise as a king that they would be spared.

And then, naturally, Richard began negotiating a ransom deal with the Muslim Sultan, Saladin (Salah ad-Din). They made a deal that Richard would turn over his 2700 Muslim prisoners in exchange for 1500 Christian prisoners, a ransom payment in cash, and a piece of the True Cross (an object everyone involved considered a fragment of the actual cross on which Jesus had been crucified). Richard set a one-month deadline for payment. So far, so good.

When the deadline rolled around, however, Saladin was caught short and didn't have the full ransom together. When Richard and Saladin tried to work out an alternate payment plan, things got testy. Richard's idea, for what it's worth, was that Saladin hand over the money and captives he had, Richard hold onto all the Muslim prisoners, and Saladin take Richard's promise as a king that Richard would turn the hostages loose when he got the final payment. Richard figured his promise as a king should be good enough. Actually, the implication that it wasn't was fairly insulting.

Then, with negotiations stalled, Richard got angry about waiting. So he took out all 2700 prisoners and had them killed.

He did it on a hilltop outside Acre where Saladin and his army could see the executions happening. That would teach them. The fairly small Muslim army on the scene tried to rescue the prisoners, but the larger Christian army held them at bay until all the hostages were dead.

A few follow-up questions: hadn't Richard given those prisoners his promise that he would spare their lives? Why yes. Yes, he did.

And wasn't the original plan part of a prisoner exchange? What about the 1500 Christian prisoners that were supposed to be swapped for the 2700 Muslims who got killed?

I think you know what happened. Those 1500 people got executed as a reprisal. Saladin didn't really have a choice. His troops had been made to watch their fellow-Muslims executed in cold blood, and after that they weren't ready to deal with Richard, or any of the other Crusaders, at all. The whole war got bloodier and more ruthless.Once you kill your prisoners, the new rule of war becomes No prisoners.

Is there an upside to this story? Why yes. The good news is that in the Fourth Crusade, Christians did not commit any atrocities like this against Muslims.

You see, the Fourth Crusade never got to the Near East at all. It only got as far as Constantinople, the capital of Orthodox Christianity, which the Crusaders promptly sacked. Then they went back to Western Europe. The Fourth Crusade didn't do anything despicable to Muslims because the Crusaders decided to do despicable things to other Christians instead. Happy ending, right? Deus vult and all that.

This has been a brief message from History Everyone Has Known for a Long Time. Thanks.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Monday, February 02, 2015

Against Rock Stars

This summer, I went to a Cleveland Indians game which involved a pregame celebration for Johnny "Johnny Football" Manziel. [Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Boston sports fan living in Cleveland. Although I sometimes go to the Jake just to watch the Indians, I was there that night because my Red Sox were in town.] Everybody in the building seemed to be deliriously excited about Johnny Football. Everybody was making his little money-fingers gesture. Between the Browns drafting Manziel in the first round and Lebron James returning to the Cavaliers, Cleveland sports fans were feeling that suddenly the wheel had turned in their favor. I heard people say, without irony, "Cleveland is looking like the place to be." I heard people say, completely seriously, that this would "turn Cleveland's economy around."

Yesterday was the Superbowl. The Browns came nowhere near it. The new-look Lebron Cavaliers are in the middle of the playoff pack, not doing as well as the old-look Lebron Cavs used to do. While Johnny Football self-destructed (and helped take the end of the Browns' season with him), the Superbowl featured a quarterback drafted in the 3rd round and one drafted in the 6th round. It was won in the last minute by a rookie who hadn't been drafted at all. Today Johnny Football's handlers announced that he was going into rehab.

I don't want to pile onto poor Manziel just when he's decided to get help. In fact, the news of his alcoholism makes a lot of his frustrating behavior this season understandable. The poor preparation, the lack of discipline, the inability to learn the playbook, all turn out to have come from a bottle, which is sad. And there's a strong argument to be made that Manziel doesn't have the necessary skills to start in the NFL anyway, that he's one of those college standouts who aren't cut out for the pros. What's more interesting is Cleveland's desperately eager embrace of him before it all fell apart. That includes the Browns front office, who seem to have pressured the coaching staff to play Johnny, and the star-struck Cleveland fans, who explicitly pride themselves on their down-to-earth blue-collar values.

The starting quarterback for most of the Browns' season (because Johnny didn't work hard enough to win the starting job in camp and never really learned the playbook), was a guy named Brian Hoyer -- possibly the most Cleveland pro quarterback humanly possible. Not only is Hoyer a Cleveland native (who once played for local high school powerhouse St. Ignatius), but he embodies all of the virtues that Cleveland holds dear. He's an unflashy but hard-working and dependable player, all careful preparation and team effort. And, not for nothing, he won the Cleveland Browns every single game they won this year.

But to hell with that, apparently. Johnny Football is a rock star. He has endorsement deals. He has a Heisman Trophy. He hangs out with celebrities. And he was treated, by fans and Browns executives alike, as a person who could turn the entire franchise around with his star power. He has yet to throw a single touchdown in the pros. But he has been intercepted twice.

What the Johnny Football story illustrates is the danger of believing in rock stars. There's a deep need to believe in a single exciting individual who will turn an entire complicated enterprise - a company, a sports franchise, a political party, a Rust Belt city - around single-handedly through his (almost always his) personal charisma and specialness. But that's a fantasy. The heroes we look up to, whether as quarterbacks or CEOS, are leaders of talented, hard-working, and highly focused teams. The rock stars who believe their own hype and go it alone, thinking they can make things happen by sheer force of will, become disastrous failures. That's ugly on an athletic field. It's much uglier when a company or a city are on the line.

The Johnny Football experiment has set the Browns back as an organization, costing them their offensive coordinator and making it hard to see how the Browns can hire a talented replacement. They have been set back by at least two or three years. Talent does matter, but never simply one person's talent. Letting one star or self-described genius drive off the rest of your good people is a disaster. Tom Brady is a talented quarterback, but he only got his fourth Superbowl ring because an undrafted rookie from a Division II college diligently watched a lot of Seahawks game film and then made an inspired play.

Meanwhile LeBron James, who is certainly a tested and reliable NBA star, turns out not to be able to will the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship through his sheer personal gifts. This is treated as a surprise. But why? Lebron James could not will the Cavaliers to a championship by himself last time. Why would this time be different? Lebron originally left for Miami because he knew he needed to join with other stars in order to win it all, and this turned out to be correct. Lebron in his second solo career turns out to be exactly like the old version of Lebron, but less so.

(And Cleveland's downtown is struggling toward a revival, but that struggle began well before Lebron came back and is about complicated, unsexy things like tax credits for rehabilitating historic buildings. The last time Lebron was here downtown was in decline and his magical influence didn't do a damn thing about that. It turns out having a future basketball Hall of Famer playing at the Q isn't a big deal for your urban revival. Finally getting a supermarket on East Ninth Street is a much bigger deal.)

The belief in rock stars is ultimately about avoiding thinking about complicated problems. It allows you to put all your faith and hope in a person rather than thinking through a plan. We see it in sports, but also in politics and business and the arts. It's pervasive, but fundamentally childish, because it's about abdicating your own responsibilities and putting all your faith in the Dear Leader. There seems to be a deep and widespread human need to believe that someone else is fundamentally superior to us. If that were only neurotic, it would be bad enough. But it's worse because it's inaccurate. Those fundamentally superior people, better than ordinary mortals, aren't really out there.

People love rock stars. People long to find a rock star to lead them. But leader who actually believes himself to be a rock star is the worst thing that can happen to an organization. The only thing you can really count on a rock star to do is trash the place.

cross-posted, and comments welcome at, Dagblog