My Reading at the 2015 International Conference on Masculinities

ETA: There were some problems with the original version of the video. This one should be better. As well, the text of the poems, which contain explicit descriptions of sex and sexual violence, appear below the fold.

On March 5th of this year, I was privileged to perform some of my work, along with a group of other men—including Ben Atherton-Zeman, Bill Bowers, Geof Morgan, and David Linton—as part of the first International Conference on Men and Masculinities. (If you’re interested in the kinds of panels that were presented, you can download the full program here.) Sponsored by Stony Brook’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, which is directed by Michael Kimmel, the conference’s tag line was “Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality.” It was an energizing experience. The overall goal of the conference was to create a space where activists and researchers could come together and discuss their needs, concerns, goals, ideas for collaboration, and more. I am very glad, though, that the organizers also made room for the arts throughout the conference—not just at the session where I read, but at the conference banquet, at the opening plenary and more. I hope they will make some of that video, if there is any, available publicly, because it is worth seeing. Meanwhile, thank you for allowing me to share my small part in the conference with you.

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Posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Men and masculinity, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues, Sex | Leave a comment  

Terry Pratchett Has Died

terry-pratchett

Science fiction and fantasy humor writer Terry Pratchett has died. This is not unexpected as he has been ill for some time, but it’s still sad to see the end.

As I said on my livejournal: I don’t believe in an afterlife, though I wish I did sometimes. I don’t believe in reincarnation, although I’d love for Terry Pratchett to get to come back as something ridiculous and awesome and wonderful. But I do believe in legacies, and he left wonderful books and humor, and I’m so glad to have them.

Some of my favorites:

Night Watch

Going Postal

Small Gods

Lords and Ladies

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments  

TV and Movies I’ve Watched Lately: The Slap, Dear White People, Time Lapse, Tinker Bell And The Legend Of The NeverBeast, Sarah Conner Chronicles, The Hobbit

neverbeast

The Slap. The first episode of the American TV show made me recall something Gore Vidal once wrote: “Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.”

But actually, Gore Vidal didn’t say that, Joe Haldeman did. So much for the accuracy of my memory.

Anyhow, the first episode of The Slap is about Hector, a well-off liberal white guy with a great wife and kids and a 40th birthday party which he spends contemplating having an affair with his kid’s 16-year-old babysitter. But I knew that the premise of The Slap is that a guy slap’s someone else’s child in the first episode. So the only thing that made Hector interesting, to me, was that by the end of the episode he would do something completely uncharacteristic for someone of his personality and class position, and slap another person’s child.

But then it turned out that the slap wasn’t delivered by him; it was delivered by his boorish right-wing stereotype cousin Harry. (I warned you there’d be spoilers.) So, in fact, there is absolutely nothing interesting about this dude in whose tedious P.O.V. I’ve just spent forty minutes trapped.

Anyhow, boorish right-wing stereotype Harry slaps the bratty, undisciplined child of self-righteous left-wing stereotypes Gary and Rosie.

I’d bet money the writers of the American The Slap are middle-of-the-road liberal Democrats, much like Hector. And it’s just… boring and annoying that their slapper is such a cartoon of right-wingers, and Gary and Rosie are such cartoons of social-justice types. This is the sort of Aaron Sorkinesque crap that makes me sympathize with Conservatives who call liberals smug condescending assholes.

But I kept on watching, because a friend told me that the series features shifting points of view and seeing how different characters view the same events, and I love that kind of stuff. So I watched the second and third episodes, and they were better, largely because they weren’t in Hector’s perspective.

But then I found out that the Austrialian The Slap, on which the American The Slap is based, is available on Netflix. And I starting watching it, and you know what? It’s MUCH better. In the Aussie version, Hector from the start is narcissistic and a bit of dick towards his family, which makes his interest in screwing the babysitter less out of the blue. Harry, while still arrogant, is apolitical rather than right-wing. Every female character is more three-dimensional and distinct than on the US version, and the relationship between lifelong friends Anouk, Aisha (Hector’s wife), and Rosie is shown as being as central to this group of characters as that between cousins Hector and Harry.

One notable difference is that everyone seems less friggin’ rich in the Aussie version. It’s as if American TV producers just can’t imagine a story being interesting if it’s not about rich people.

Conclusion: If you like extended multi-protagonist narratives about how one bad decision can lead to a bunch of bad repercussions for a group of fairly lousy people, check out the Australian version of The Slap.

* * *

Charles and I watched Dear White People, a crowdfunded indie movie, tonight. I enjoyed it; for a political movie about anti-black racism, it was surprisingly UN-idealogical, as all the main characters ended up having to shift away from pat ideologies at one point or another. In fact, if there’s an underlying ideology in this film, it’s the director’s beliefs that Black people’s stories are interesting and worth telling. The actors were fine (lead actress Tessa Thompson, from Veronica Mars, was especially good). The story wasn’t the greatest; the script was sometimes self-indulgent (the movie theater bit was out of character and felt like sketch comedy), and the supporting characters felt more like plot drivers than characters. But the central four characters were all fun to watch, and the film’s refusal to accept simple answers to anything was refreshing.

Passes the Bechdel test by a hair – there are two lead female characters, and they talk at least once about something other than a man. But although two of the four lead characters are female, there’s a default-male trap that the director falls into; every significant supporting character in this movie is male.

* * *

I love low-budget sci-fi that has to rely more on a clever script than on special effects. I also love time travel movies. So no surprise I watched Time Lapse, a low-budget suspense movie about three roommates who discover that a camera pointed at their living room window takes pictures of what will be going on in their apartment 24 hours in the future.

The writers are clearly Hitchcock fans; the characters try to use the camera to take control of their lives (by getting wealthy by betting on sports, for example), but very quickly it seems as if the camera might be controlling them instead, and things spiral out of control. The plot gets enjoyably convoluted, seemingly irrelevant details from early in the film turn out to be crucial, and disaster looms. I enjoyed it.

The comparison to Hitchcock doesn’t do Time Lapse any favors. No one can expect first-time filmmakers on a tiny budget to be able to approach Hitchcock’s stunning cinematography, but watching this made me appreciate how expert Hitchcock was at making characters distinct and full of blood and nuance, even when they’re just there to drive the plot along. That doesn’t happen here. And sure, these actors aren’t Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, but neither the script or direction gives the actors a chance to play full characters.

Also, from a feminist perspective, this movie isn’t offensive, but it sure ain’t great – the one major female character’s participation in the plot is mostly kissing one boy or the other, and her love life seems to be her only interest.

So: A fun time-travel thriller, but one that is probably too flat to be memorable. I liked it, but I bet their next movie will be better.

I’m pretty sure this fails the Bechdel test. There are only two female characters (one very minor), and they’re never on screen together.

* * *

I watched Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast with the girls (Maddox and Sydney, now aged 9 and 11).

First of all, gotta say this for the Tinker Bell series of movies – a Disney powerhouse that mostly stays below the radar but is hugely profitable – every Tinker Bell movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. But this newest installment in the franchise is definitely tenser, darker and more gut-wrenching than the previous Tinker Bell movies (not a very high bar to clear, admittedly).

It was really good! The animation was good enough to be expressive and enjoyable, and to bring in some good visuals (but very basic! Don’t expect any million-dollar “Brave” hair animation here), and grown-ups will find the story familiar. But sometimes it’s fun to watch a well-done version of a familiar tale! And the character design of the NeverBeast – borrowing from both Where The While Things Are and Studio Ghibli, I think – is gorgeous (the spiral patterns on its fur work really well when animated).

I’d recommend that anyone with a 7-12 year old friend sit down and watch this with them. Especially animal lovers. But if your friend (or you) is susceptible to tear-jerkers, you’d best have tissues handy for the ending.

Trivia: Tink’s voice actor, Mae Whitman, was also the voice of Katara in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and played Ann Veal on “Arrested Development”, so if her choice of roles say anything about her she must be a neat person.

* * *

Speaking of time travel narratives, I’ve been rewatching the two seasons of Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles. A very underrated show that started out well and got smarter and deeper as it went along; I wish it had lasted longer, although at least the second season ends at a decent story-ending point.

Another easy Bechdel-test passer, although I wish there had been more than two significant non-white characters.

* * *

I saw the most recent Hobbit movie. Helped, perhaps, by my ultra-low expectations, I had fun. It was pretty, the landscapes were very pretty, the special effects were nice, a great group of actors, some of the fight scenes were well done in American blockbuster style. It didn’t feel as bloated and annoying as the second Hobbit movie.

It was all very… competent. If you enjoy seeing expert setbuilding and makeup and costuming, there’s a lot to enjoy here. But what a steep decline from how good the Lord of the Rings movies were (and those were far from perfect).

It did pass the Bechdel test, perhaps, but only barely – the Elf lady may have spoken to the little human girls about fleeing the burning city while they were, well, fleeing the burning city. Lots of “oh, the cowardly male character is wearing a dress, how hilarious” humor that stopped being funny sometime in the 1990s, I think.

* * *

So what have you watched lately?

Posted in Popular (and unpopular) culture | 10 Comments  

I Find Myself Hoping That The Email Scandal Takes Clinton Down Early

…In time for the Democrats to go through a primary and pick a different nominee.

Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that Clinton will be hurt at all by the email scandal. (Vox summary here, for anyone who needs the scandal explained in a nutshell.)

I don’t like Hillary Clinton; she’s a hawk, and in the conflict within the Democratic party between the banks and the rest of us, there’s no question what side Clinton is on. As for the email scandal, while she may not have technically broken any laws, she has certainly gone out of her way to thumb her nose at the very idea of transparency1 and public oversight – and she did so in the midst of an ongoing scandal about the Bush administration hiding their emails from the public. It’s hard to believe that Democrats can’t field someone better.

In fact, Clinton is so awful that the only way to get me to vote for her is to have her run against a Republican. Because as bad as Clinton is, anyone the Republican party would nominate would be much worse (for instance, it would be the end of US funding for UNFPA, leading to thousands of preventable deaths.)

Furthermore, the last time she ran for office – in the 2008 primary – Clinton was lousy at running a campaign, losing despite starting the primary with enormous advantages. Which is a problem, because the number one thing any Democratic nominee needs to be able to do is run a good campaign and beat the Republican. If they can’t do that, then any other advantages they have – good policy positions, good governance skills – become irrelevant.

Contested, hard-fought primaries are the best way we have of testing for that skill. When we have a contested primary election, we can at least be assured that we’ll wind up with a candidate with a proven ability to run and win a nationwide campaign. With Clinton, we won’t have that. Nor will we have the democracy that – imperfect as it is – having a seriously contested primary provides.

Bah, I say. Bah!

  1. Although there’s an argument that Clinton’s real problem is that she didn’t follow the conventions of what Ezra Klein calls Transparency Theater. But “she’s no more corrupt than any other high official in her position” isn’t a stirring argument in her favor, really. []
Posted in Elections and politics | 41 Comments  

The Right To Vote Amendment

jeff-parker-voting-rights-cartoon

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s disgusting Shelby decision, Representatives Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) have proposed a new Congressional Constitutional Amendment, which has been endorsed by the Democratic National Committee. The text of their proposed amendment:

Section 1. Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.

Although many Americans don’t realize this (although I think most “Alas” readers do), the Constitution does not explicitly protect a right to vote.

There’s no chance of the Right to Vote Amendment (RIVA?) passing Congress (let alone two thirds of Congress) anytime soon, because virtually all elected Republicans oppose it.

In Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Democrats should fight for a constitutional right-to-vote amendment.

…the Constitution allows voter suppression as long as it doesn’t trip any of its race or gender wires.

The goal of a right-to-vote amendment is to change the dynamic and place the burden on restrictionists. In a sense, it would make the pre–Holder v. Shelby Voting Rights Act a standard for the entire country. States and localities would have to make voting as accessible as possible, with a high standard for new barriers.

And while the odds of winning a right-to-vote amendment are low—one reason Democrats should invest more effort in state elections—there’s tremendous value in mobilizing around the issue. A movement for a right-to-vote amendment could encourage laws and norms that expand participation irrespective of an amendment in that direction.

Scott Lemieux argues that such a Constitutional Amendment wouldn’t do much good:

The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment… thought that bad judges were a much bigger problem than textual lacunae, and there’s a great deal of truth in this. It’s very likely that the Roberts Court would uphold most contemporary vote-suppression laws even if a right-to-vote amendment was passed.

Moreover, in all likelihood these vote-suppression techniques already violate the existing text of the Constitution. A federal district judge, for example, found that Texas’ draconian voter ID law was racially discriminatory in both effect and purpose, and also functions as a poll tax. If these findings are accurate, the Texas law already violates the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments.

None of this is to deny that changes in textual language could matter at the margin. I can imagine certain judges, particularly moderate Democratic nominees, who would uphold voter ID requirements under the current constitution, but not under an amended one. However, the track record of textual protections for the right to vote is generally poor.

Derek Muller, a law professor at Pepperdine, raises some interesting issues, including:

1. Can felons and ex-felons convicted of election-related crimes be prohibited from voting? The proposed amendment would probably extend the right to vote to all felons imprisoned (currently disenfranchised in 48 states) and all those paroled, on probation, or ex-felons (currently disenfranchised to varying degrees in many states), extending the right to vote to five or six million new voters. […]

2. Could the state prevent the mentally handicapped from voting? Most states have some kind of rule preventing the mentally handicapped from voting. Once voting is deemed a “fundamental right,” will these laws, as they presently exist, stand? What kind of rewriting or retailoring would be necessary?

A couple of thoughts:

1) How infuriating is it that one of the two major parties will not support a Constitutional Right to Vote?

2) Even though the Amendment can’t pass in the immediate future – and that’s a shame, I’d love to see felon disenfranchisement ended – it is still worth fighting for, as a mobilization tool to help build support for state-level voting-rights laws.

Posted in Elections and politics | 26 Comments  

“Tribes” by Nina Raine

tribes

(Spoilers ahoy!)

I saw a performance of “Tribes,” the award-winning play by British playwright Nina Raine, today. It was good, but… is there a word in English for “something so good that it becomes actively frustrating that it wasn’t better“?

“Tribes” is about Billy, a young man whose deafness has left him feeling isolated from his hypereducated, extremely vocal family. Billy doesn’t know Sign Language, but when he meets Sylvia, a vibrant woman who is a fluent signer, he learns Sign in a hurry. And he begins to see the Deaf community, rather than his family, as his “tribe.” (You can see a video made to advertise the show here.)

But “Tribes” is mainly about communication; about the act of speaking (vocally or with hands or otherwise), and about being heard. Billy’s brother Daniel is writing a thesis about the impossibility of true communication, and has auditory hallucinations (i.e, hears voices); Billy’s sister is a wannabe opera singer fascinated by music’s ability to convey emotion apart from words, and whose ability to sing is dependent on her inability to hear what she actually sounds like singing. Sylvia – fluent in ASL because she was raised by Deaf parents, but only recently going deaf herself – is torn between a hearing community she can’t remain part of and a Deaf community that she considers provincial and stifling. Billy’s father is a blowhard who pontificates constantly but seems almost pathologically incapable of listening. At times in the play Billy and his brother are able to communicate wordlessly – but these language-less exchanges are, startlingly, translated on monitors just like the sign language dialog.

I really like this sort of play structure, that attacks a central idea from many vantages. Unfortunately, the end of the play seemed to stumble. In a very effective scene, Billy signed to his family (through Sylvia’s translations) that he will no longer speak to them; if they want him in his life they have to learn to sign. But although the scene was effective, it didn’t feel new – in fact, it reminded me a lot of the climatic scene of “Torch Song Trilogy,” the 1983 gay-rights play by Harvey Fierstein, in which the main character throws his mother out of his apartment because she refuses to give him – gayness and all – respect.

“Tribes” seems torn between two identities – a sort of “Deaf culture 101″ entertainment aimed primarily at hearing audiences, and a meditation on how communication happens and fails to happen. In the end, the “Deaf Culture 101″ aspect of the show seems to have taken over – Billy’s brother Daniel asks to be taught the Sign for “love” and then Billy and Daniel embrace – and the other theme has failed to be wrapped up. And the theme implied by the title – the tribe we are born into versus the tribes we join – barely got touched on.

For me, the most frustrating underdeveloped thread was Daniel’s voices. Like Billy, Daniel is stifled by his family. And like Billy, Daniel could have been helped a lot by becoming part of a larger community, but doing so might have required him to grow a bit apart from his family. There are a lot of potentially interesting links and contrasts between deafness and disability that could have been explored there, but weren’t.

Coda: The night we attended, there was a question-and-answer after the show. There were a number of Deaf people in the audience, and the ASL interpreters who had interpreted the play were on hand to facilitate communication during the Q&A. One woman in the audience, speaking in ASL, said that glancing back and forth between the actors and the interpreters was distracting. She suggested instead that some modern Deaf theaters do translation by what she called “shadowing,” in which each character who speaks vocally is “shadowed” throughout the play by an interpreter who stands directly behind the character, and moves around on stage with the play to always remain behind the character they are translating.

The actor who took the question said that they had considered going with shadowing, but (paraphrased) were worried that hearing audiences might find that alienating. And so it goes.

Posted in Popular (and unpopular) culture | 6 Comments  

Being a Survivor of Sexual Violence is a Way of Knowing The World

In a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I talked about how and when I choose to reveal to my classes the fact that I am a survivor of sexual violence. I have not written much, however, about how people other than my students, who have been unanimously supportive and even grateful, have responded to that revelation. I’ve been thinking about this over the past couple of months because choosing to be as public as I have been since receiving a grant from the Queens Council on the Arts inevitably raises the question of the necessity, timing, propriety, and even wisdom of identifying myself as a survivor. Just last week, for example, a friend invited me to a small gathering at her apartment. The other people there were mostly artists and filmmakers, only one of whom I already knew, and so I found myself thinking twice about how and whether to say more than that I am working on my second book of poems and that I have received a grant in support of that effort. I wasn’t worried about what anyone else might think or how they might react. I just didn’t feel like dealing with the other-than-simply-supportive kinds of attention—from well-meaning but ignorant questions to uncomfortable silence—that revealing I’m a survivor could have brought. In the end, I told only one other person at the party, and that was because she and I started talking about the value of doing work that is rooted in your lived experience, and so not to say anything would have been dishonest.

My point is that the choice about whether or not to say anything was mine and no one else’s, which is how it should be. It was and is up to me, and me alone, to decide when and whether it is necessay and/or appropriate to assert publicly my identity as a survivor of sexual violence and to lay public claim to the knowledge and wisdom that being a survivor has given me. It may sound strange to talk about being a survivor in terms of knowledge and wisdom, but being a survivor of sexual violence is a way of knowing the world, one that is too often relegated to—or, perhaps more accurately, circumscribed by—therapy, survivors’ groups, fundraising pitches and other activities that tend (not unreasonably) to highlight survivors as a group apart. It’s not that we aren’t a group apart; in very important ways we are. It’s that the knowledge, experience, and wisdom we have earned in the process of becoming survivors is, or should be, relevant to everyone, even those who have never been sexually vioated.

I am thinking of one incident in particular–or, rather, one part of a larger story–which I wrote about briefly in a post I have linked to a couple of times already. At the heart of that post is the transformative experience I had doing an independent study with two women, each of whom wanted to be a writer and who wanted specifically to write about her experience as a survivor of childhood sexual violence. In order to receive credit for the work they did with me, the women were required to present the results of that work at the end-of-semester honors colloquium, which is usually attended by the college president, the vice president for academic affairs, other members of the administration, honors faculty, the student presenters, their friends and families. It is, in other words, an event that the college takes quite seriously, and, as the date of the colloquium drew near, my students were concerned that the pieces of writing they were going to read—which were personal, confrontational, and sexually explicit—would be considered inappropriate and even insulting when placed next to the more traditionally academic projects the other presenters were going to talk about. This was not an unreasonable fear, so I said I introduce them by identifying myself as a survivor and talking a little bit about what it had meant for me to be able to work with them. This way, anyone who had a problem with the content of their essays would have to come through me first.

If you want to know the full story of that experience, or to read the introduction I gave, please check out that earlier post. Here, I want to talk about something I did not really deal with there: the responses of my colleagues, two in particular. The first one, whose student had presented on some very interesting mathematics research she’d done, came up to me after the colloquium was over and said, “You’ve turned what was supposed to be a celebration of our students’ scholarship and intellectual achievement into a cheap group therapy session.” The standing ovation my students had recevied, he suggested, had less to do with the quality of their work (which was significant) than with the day-time-talk-show nature of their narratives. “How could we not applaud?” he asked. “How could their fellow students, especially the women, not stand up in sympathy and solidarity?” The second colleague whose response I want to tell you about did not speak to me directly. Instead, in her capacity as coordinator of the Honors Program, she approached one of my students a day or two after the colloquium and asked, “Whose idea was it for you to write those essays in the first place?” On the surface, they seem like two very different responses, but I think they have a common root.

The student who told me what the Honors Coordinator asked her was insulted by the question, since it implied that a very conscious choice she had made was in fact the result of kind of sleazy manipulation on my part. For me, I told her when we discussed it, the issue was not the question itself, but rather its timing. Academia is filled with stories of male professors who sexually manipulate and exploit the women who are their students, and so it did not seem unreasonable to me that my colleague would ask such a question. The problem, I thought, and still think, was that she only expressed this concern after hearing the content of my students’ essays. She could have wondered about how the independent study came to be at the very beginning, when my students explained to her what they had in mind (which they had to do since, as the Honors Coordinator, she was responsible for initially approving the project); and she could have asked after reading their proposals, which very plainly stated that the end product of the independent study would be at least one substantive personal essay, along with working drafts of a couple of others, about their experiences as survivors of child sexual abuse. Continue reading

Posted in Rape, intimate violence, & related issues | 5 Comments  

Cartoon: People Grow Old, Excuses Live Forever

excuses-live-forever

This cartoon was created in collaboration with the wonderful Becky Hawkins.

Transcript:

Panel 1
A young man (20s or 30s) is talking with cheerful optimism to a woman who is about 60 years old. In the background a female secretary works on a laptop.
MAN: The reason most executives are male isn’t sexism. It just takes time for women to get promoted! In thirty years lots of top executives will be women!
WOMAN: Do you ever get deja vu?

Panel 2
A caption says TEN YEARS EARLIER. The same woman, who looks about 50, is listening to a different cheerful man talk. In the background, a different female secretary works on a computer with a flatscreen monitor.
MAN: The reason most executives are male isn’t sexism.

Panel 3
A caption says TWENTY YEARS EARLIER. The same woman, now about 40, is listening to a different cheerful man. In the background, a female secretary works on a computer with a huge boxy monitor.
MAN: It just takes time for women to get promoted!

Panel 4
A caption says THIRTY YEARS EARLIER. The same woman, now about 30, is being talked out by a cheerful man with a big mustache. But the woman has turned and is listening to the secretary in the background, an older woman working on an electric typewriter.
MAN: In thirty years, lots of top executives will be women.
SECRETARY: Do you ever get deja vu?

CAPTION FOR ENTIRE CARTOON: People grow old, excuses live forever.

Further reading: Fact Sheet: The Women’s Leadership Gap | Center for American Progress

Posted in Cartooning & comics | 71 Comments  

From Guernica: “The Teaching Class,” by Rachel Riederer

This is a really interesting and thought-provoking essay that I think anyone concerned about the state of higher education should read. Riederer makes a complex argument. Here are some excerpts:

The rise of adjunct labor in universities is also a student issue. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And when the average graduate of the class of 2014 leaves school with over $30,000 of debt (nearly twice what the average was twenty years ago, adjusted for inflation), it’s an important consumer issue, too. Students deserve to know how their universities are spending their money, and how they’re contracting with their teachers, especially those teachers who have the most student contact. Courses like composition—a universal requirement at most colleges, and given in small groups—are taught almost exclusively by adjuncts. For such courses, many colleges employ “small armies of adjuncts,” and at large universities where large classes are divided into smaller discussion sections, those are often taught by grad students. Yet students are often unaware of the way their colleges contract with their teachers—after all, who would tell them?

When Andrew Scott, a composition instructor in Indianapolis, explained adjuncting to some of his students, he wound up being called into his supervisor’s office for a scolding. A group of his students at the private university where he was adjuncting (he also had a full-time position at Ball State) had arrived early for class, and were talking in the hallway. When one student mentioned a history teacher who seemed eager to get the students to like her, and whose class didn’t have a lot of work, Scott explained how her work situation was involved: “I knew the instructor was an adjunct, and that she taught at several places to cobble together a living. I told the students that she was an adjunct, and that the class was easy because she was afraid of losing her job.” Adjuncts are often evaluated solely based on student evaluations. As Rebecca Schuman put it in her Slate article “Confessions of a Grade Inflator,” “popularity is the only thing keeping them employed.”

Scott had this conversation with his students outside of class, because the students had brought it up, and because he considered it “a teachable moment.” But it still got him into trouble, probably because of this comparison: “I said that the university pays the janitor who scrapes the gum off their desks more per year than me and most of the people who teach their first-year classes. My private university students couldn’t believe that, but it was true. Even a low estimate shows how that’s true. Ten bucks per hour for forty hours a week equals an annual salary of $20,800.” One year Scott taught seven courses at that college, and made under $15,000 for that work.

Ten days later, Scott’s supervisor called him into her office because she’d heard about a “classroom incident” in which he had “ranted” about adjunct faculty pay and working conditions. “The director was especially worked up about my janitor comparison. She wanted to know if I’d really said that, and how I could possibly say that,” Scott recalls. The situation worked out for Scott—his other job made it possible for him to leave Marian, and he told his supervisor during the meeting that it would be his last semester. But not all adjuncts would be in such a position. And this dynamic is one of the reasons that adjunct conditions remain obscured from students: for workers without job security, the line between scolded and fired is uncomfortably thin.

***

Last fall, Karen Gregory was teaching a labor studies course in the City University of New York system when she found herself the object of media scrutiny because she included in her syllabus a short text describing the adjunctification of CUNY, and what it means for students:

“To ensure that we remain conscious of the adjunctification of CUNY, we ask that you do not call us ‘Professor.’ We are hired as adjunct lecturers and it is important that you remember that. You deserve to be taught by properly compensated professors whose full attention is to teaching and scholarship.”

The text, which was developed by the CUNY Adjunct Project and distributed for teachers to include in their syllabi, briefly describes the history of CUNY’s increased reliance on adjuncts. It explains how adjuncts are paid and what that means for students:

“Adjuncts are not regular members of the faculty; we are paid an hourly rate for time spent in the classroom. We are not paid to advise students, grade papers, or prepare materials or lectures for class. We are paid for one office hour per week for all of the classes we teach. We are not paid to communicate with students outside of class or write letters of recommendation. Out of dedication to our students, adjuncts regularly perform such tasks, but it is essentially volunteer labor.”

***

Another exchange in the IHE comment thread handily brought up a problematic rhetorical strategy that arises often in the discussion of the adjunct bubble: the comparison to fast-food workers. One commenter wrote, “You know what’s demeaning? Earning a PhD and making less money than a manager at McDonald’s.” And another replied, “You know what’s demeaning? A PhD who thinks she’s better than a manager at McDonald’s.” This exemplifies a serious problem in the ways that advocates for better working conditions for adjuncts make their argument. (A related problem is that adjunct advocates sometimes dramatize their argument by using phrases like “slave wages,” “slave labor”). Yes, college-level teachers should make more than cashiers at McDonald’s. Not because they hold advanced degrees—to pay someone for merely holding a degree is naked credentialism; to believe you deserve more money because of your credential itself rather than what you do with it is to misunderstand the value of work—but because as a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers. Or at least we say we do.

***

American universities are on a dangerous trajectory of “corporatization,” operating from the view that students are consumers and instructors are just one more cost of doing business. It used to be common for administrators to be professors who took a break from teaching to perform administrative duties for a short period of time, or took on admin duties in addition to their classes; they were people whose first commitment was to research or teaching. In his book The Fall of the Faculty, Johns Hopkins professor of political science Benjamin Ginsburg writes that “Forty years ago, America’s colleges actually employed more professors than administrators.” But while the faculty-to-student ratios have remained constant (with both groups growing at around the same rate), the administrator-to-student ratio has increased dramatically. And Ginsburg notes that though administrators often extol the virtues of using part-time contingent labor for teaching, “they fail to apply the same logic to their own ranks.” In 2005, 48 percent of college faculty were part time, compared to only 3 percent of administrators.

But to talk about these structural issues is to deviate from the idea that work is sacred, and that—especially in this economy—to have a job at all is a gift. Advocating for better pay and conditions is not just impolite, it’s ungrateful. This dynamic applies to any group of workers that speaks out on its own behalf, but there’s a special factor at work in the way that people critique adjuncts who want better conditions. Teaching college is a white-collar job. It is not dangerous or degrading; it happens on college campuses, which often are pleasant and have trees and sometimes inspirational phrases about learning carved into stone buildings; it is—except for the low pay and lack of benefits and constant uncertainty about the future—a good job. Gregory calls this a “cruel double standard: you’ve made this choice to go into a bad career that has high social status.” Many of the comments directed at her, and others who raise the adjunct issue, are concerned with protecting the sanctity of teaching. A professor should not be so vulgar as to talk about the material reality of her life.

***

When I was adjuncting at Columbia, I remember calculating the maximum number of hours I could spend on my class before I reduced my pay rate to under $15/hour. It was less time than I would have liked to spend, but I couldn’t work for less than that. So I taught differently: I assigned fewer drafts, I held shorter and less frequent conferences, I read student essays faster and homework assignments hardly at all. When I realized I was not going to be able to do right by my students, I stopped classroom teaching. In part, this anecdote is just that—a little story about me. It depends on the particulars of my financial situation and personality. I didn’t want to have a job in which my time was so undervalued that I felt I was either doing a poor job or giving my time away as a gift. But it’s also not just about me. Others have written about how the circumstances of adjuncting force them into grade inflation, or into designing easier courses so that they’ll get better student evaluations.

***

Will you forgive me a moment of English-teacher pedantry? I may not be a professor but I am certainly an English teacher. Throughout this piece I’ve been taking the liberty of using adjunct as a job title and even as a verb. The term actually means “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” If teaching is a supplementary rather than essential part of college [remember, we’re talking about the people who do most of the teaching on college campuses across the nation], why go?

Go read the whole thing.

Cross-posted.

Posted in Education | 59 Comments  

Reading Journal: Verses of Forgiveness, by Myriam Antaki – 1

I started a new novel not too long ago, Verses of Forgiveness, by Myriam Antaki and translated from the French by Marjolin de Jager. Antaki is a Syrian novelist who writes in French. Verses of Forgiveness, which is narrated in a lyrical, dream-like prose by Ahmed, a Palestinian suicide bomber preparing his attack, is her first book to be translated into English.

I’ve read the first 30 or so pages of Verses and I am fascinated. The first section of the book is Ahmed’s lyrical evocation of his own identity. “I am,” he begins, “a terrorist, a dreamer. I have removed my mask of bliss for that of fear and sweat. I have lost.” He hints at his first loss, that of his parents, on the very first page, pointing out that they did not name him, but the loss he spends the most time talking about in this section is of Iman, “the most beautiful girl in the Baalbek brothel.” He loves her, or at least thinks he does, despite the fact that he has shared her “with so many others,” and he seems to regret the fact that his feelings for her, rooted in the sex they’ve had, are not strong enough to sway him from his course.

Forgive me, I cannot change my way of thinking despite your body and your pleasure. Do not forget me, it is easier to remember someone who is dead than someone alive who loves another. I am taking our night cries with me. (4)

It’s interesting that Antaki chooses to begin Ahmed’s meditation with this farewell not just to a woman, but to the pleasures of sex and the human connection sex creates, or, perhaps more accurately, the humanizing effect of sex on him. In this way, Antaki both reveals and begins to critique the hypermasculinity of terrorism, while at the same time, because Ahmed’s voice is so lyrical and poetic, rendering the beauty terrorism has, the allure and inevitability it has because of that beauty, for those who choose to enter into its ideology.

It would be easy to deny Ahmed’s meditation as mere, if nonetheless dangerous sentimentality, except that doing so would mean failing to read his words in the context of the similarly hypermasculine Israeli occupation. He is, in other words, his ideology is, a product of his time and place. Both he and it, therefore, need to be taken seriously, not just because terrorists kill innocent people—so do the Israelis in pursuing and maintaining their occupation (and it does not matter for my purposes here whether you think this pursuit is justified in the name of self-defense or not); we need to take Ahmed seriously also because the question of how to step outside his hypermasculine logic is one to which the Middle East, and the world in general, desperately need an answer.

Antaki confronts her character with this question by throwing him a real curveball. His Palestinian mother, whom he thought was dead and who, after a long search, finds him one day in the arms of Iman, hands over to Ahmed his Jewish father’s diaries. It turns out that his father escaped the Nazis during World War II.

“There are not many Jews in your town, but your name is David, I cannot believe it. The joy of finding you and then suddenly losing you, obliterating you. Father, you are a Jew! It is you whom I deny and assassinate. Life’s effrontery produces buried mysteries, trembling and shouting voices. I am afraid of the truth, it sometimes delineates accursed and irreparable destinies.” (21)

I assume that much of the rest of the novel will be about Ahmed’s coming to terms with this truth. At this point, all he does is imagine his father’s childhood in Europe at time of the Nazi occupation of France. What interests me here is Ahmed’s evocation of the Shabbat services his father attended and the how, in Ahmed’s imagination, the prayers connect the Jews who are praying under occupation to the land of Israel. “In the clergyman’s words [the people at the service] unravel the mysteries of a distant land beyond the seas, a country of prophets where milk and honey flow” (34).

As Ahmed understands it, it seems, Israel is a mythical place to the Jews of Europe, a place that exists only in their imaginations and that, in their imaginations, is the “land of milk and honey,” not a contemporary place, inhabited by people, with an economy, a politics, a history of its own. I don’t want to make more of this in terms of the novel itself, since I have not yet read enough to know what Antaki is going to do with it, but it struck a chord in me nonetheless because it is a central tenet of one argument people sometimes use to delegitimize Jewish nationalism—and I use that term rather than Zionism simply because I want to name the feeling that I am talking about and not get caught up in the question of whether, given the actions and policies of the Israeli government, Zionism can only signify the political ideology of that government.

I am aware that what it means to say that the Jews are a people, a nation, is complicated, not least by the fact that European Jewish nationalism, with its focus on establishing the State of Israel, was not unequivocally embraced by Jews in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, to suggest that the feeling itself is purely fantasy, rooted only in ties to a mythical place and not in a felt cultural and historical connection between and among Jews is to deny the Jews’ own understanding of our identity. I’m not arguing that this feeling gives Jews the right to a Jewish state in the land of Israel. That’s a whole other question. I am just wary of the kind of thinking Ahmed displays in quote above.

Like I said, I don’t want to say more in terms of the novel itself. I am, however, very interested to see what Antaki does with this.

Cross-posted.

Posted in Jews and Judaism, Palestine & Israel | 6 Comments