Saturday, December 8, 2012

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #3

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #3:
How to Put Your Foot in Your Mouth with "Hello"

This blog was inspired by an email I recently received from a student seeking advising so he could register for classes.  He contacted me because it was near the end of the semester, and he'd not yet heard back from his original assigned faculty advisor.  He opened his email by addressing me as "Mrs. Reames."  First, I'm not married (divorced actually, for some years now, and Reames was never my married name).  Second, I do happen to have a phud, so I'm Dr. Reames.

Often, students aren't sure how to address college professors.  In public school, most female teachers are "Mrs." (a few "Miss"), and most male teachers are "Mr."  I rarely see "Ms." used in Nebraska, although I know it's employed elsewhere and (personally) think public schools should be pushing a title that doesn't depend on a woman's marital status.  Be that as it may, I understand why especially college freshmen may not be entirely sure what honorific to use.

But this student called me -- the female faculty member -- "Mrs.," while referring to the other -- male -- faculty member as "Dr."  Yet I know this student never received any email from my colleague that had "Dr. ___" in the signature, or saw the title posted on his door, or heard the secretary call him "Dr." and me "Mrs."  In short, he had no clues whatsoever beyond our gender.  We are both full-time, tenured faculty, both slated for undergrad advising, both entirely equal in all department presentation from the website to the sign outside the History department door.

No, he defaulted (probably unconsciously) to the assumption that the male professor was "Dr." but the female professor was not.  Yes, sexism is alive and well on college campuses.  There's only so much information I'll publicly share, to protect identities, but I'm quite sure this young man had no reason to assume my colleague was a Dr. but I wasn't, beyond gender.  "Male faculty advisor" vs. "Female faculty advisor."  That's all he knew.

This is not the first time I've encountered such bias, but is among the more blatantly obvious.  I rarely make a stink about it, and don't deal with a lot of sexism (especially blatant sexual advances), but like many women, I DO face these "unconscious" assumptions periodically.  Yet if we complain?  We're being too sensitive!  Or we're reading into it!  There must be another explanation!

Er, no.  Not in this case.  Let's call a spade, a spade, shall we?  I don't face sexism around every corner, but that means I damn sure know it when I see it, thanks.

Students, if unsure, "Prof. ___" is ALWAYS safe.  If one must err, err on the side of flattery, use "Dr. ___."  The teacher will correct that if it's incorrect.  But NEVER address a female professor as "Mrs. ___" unless she's told you to do so.  It assumes a lot of problematic things.  Likewise, never call a professor by his or her first name unless s/he has told you to do so.  Some of my colleagues absolutely prefer that, and are uncomfortable being either Prof. or Dr.  I have no issues with that.  In fact, I felt that way myself when I first began teaching.  "Dr. Reames" was WEIRD.  I've got used to it, but it took time (and a lot grayer hair).

Yet this young fellow's blunder does raise the thorny issue in modern times of politisms and honorifics, and quite varied (sometimes regional) expectations.  I was reminded of this recently by another colleague who comes from the American N.E., who found the very southern/midwestern endearment "hon" offensive when coming from a stranger.  This surprised me, as I use "hon" habitually myself, being raised in the South by Midwestern parents.  I promised not to use it for her, but she said, "You're my friend, it's okay.  It's strangers who use it that bug me."  To her, "hon" felt overly familiar -- and thus rude.  To me it's just a friendly way to address someone, especially a younger person.  I wouldn't call an elder "hon," but I often call my students that.  Yet her comment made me stop and think -- maybe I shouldn't call students that, especially if I don't know them?  I mean nothing by it -- in fact, I intend it to sound "warm and friendly" instead of "coldly formal" -- but it may be perceived as overly familiar by others.

I don't think it's such a bad thing to stop and ask ourselves these questions, now and then.

Are the words we use perceived by others in the ways we intend them?  To some degree, accidental offense is probably inevitable at some point in our lives, but it behooves us to learn from the experience, not dig in our heels and insist the other person is "too sensitive."

We all have personal triggers.

For me, I have a deep, personal objection to anybody, especially a man, calling me "baby."  There is only ONE living person who gets to call me that -- my father.  (My mother died 15 years ago.)  I might make an exception for my brother, who changed my diapers (he's a lot older than me), but even he doesn't call me that.  No one else alive may do so.  I find it belittling.  I think many of us have such personal triggers, if we think about it -- honorifics, pet names, or endearments that strike us like nails on a chalkboard, for whatever reason.

That brings me back to handling honorifics in our increasingly changing society.  How DO we politely address strangers without putting our foot in our mouth?

Most people are NOT asses, although they may display unconscious assumptions.  I don't even assume that young male student was trying to insult me.  In fact, I assume the opposite.  But he DID insult me by making some pretty big blunders.  I tried to view it as a "teaching moment," and sent back an email that first answered his question, and then (gently) corrected his error.  I have no idea how he'll take the correction; he might get offended himself, which I can't control.  All one can do is respond politely and honestly, and hope the other will HEAR, not be too busy talking.

So how does one avoid insult?  Well, I'm not Miss Manners, or any expert on etiquette, but there are some safe bits of advice to keep in mind when writing a formal (or even informal) letter to someone whose title isn't immediately clear.  First, look it up, if possible.  Avoid assuming.  I have a lot of students who assume without doing something as simple as checking my syllabus (where my title is given) or the signature on my letters (where, again, my title is given).  In this case, the young man had neither a syllabus nor had he seen my letter signature, but I DO have students who have one or both and STILL persist in using the wrong title because they don't pay attention.

Frankly, this is dumb.  Replying to a reply of mine and continuing to use "Mrs. Reames" or even "Ms Reames" while the signature to my letter clearly has "Dr. Reames" shows a certain failure of simple observation.  And that, in turn, doesn't impress me with one's intelligence, even if no intentional insult is meant.  Students need to be aware (and BEware) of how such "goofs" appear to professors ... or (later) to potential employers.

Taking a little extra time to track down information in order to make a good first impression is important.  In our increasingly informal world, students forget this.  Perhaps there are some venues were informality is assumed, even preferred.  But both education and the business world are not among them.  While some occupations, and a few businesses, prize informality ... most don't.  This is something college student need to learn, if they have a hope of getting hired later.  Again, there are occupations that don't have such expectations, but the expectations are still useful to know, as they may come in handy in unexpected circumstances.

Details matter.  My grandfather, a carpenter, used to look at the SHOES of potential employees.  This was back when men wore shined leather dress shoes or boots, and when all his applicants were male, too.  Why shoes?  He said (paraphrased), "If a fellow won't take care of details like his shoes, I can't trust him to take care of proper finishing on cabinets."  Job applicants need to realize potential employers notice such things and evaluate accordingly -- and it's not even an unfair evaluation.  My grandpa had a point.

Details matter.  People who can't pay attention to details in one arena are often uncareful in others.  Exceptions exist, but they are exceptions that prove the rule.

If you really WANT that job, prove it.  Spell- and grammar-check letters.  Dress neatly.  Have clean shoes. (*grin*)  And for pity's sake, CHECK THE INTRODUCTION to any letter.  There is little worse than 1) Misspelling a person's name, OR 2) using the wrong (and potentially insulting) honorific.

If you aren't sure, GOOGLE IT.  Invest a little time.  Care of details pays off.  If not today, then tomorrow.

Practice the Art of Getting it Right.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Harry and Tonto" (Art Carney, Paul Mazurski, dir.)

"Harry & Tonto"

I don't normally write movie reviews here, but I don't normally see a film like this one.  I rented it because it's that rare thing -- a "buddy movie" about a man and his CAT, not a man and his dog.  Lots of dog feature films out there.  Not so many with a cat.  I read that Carney won an Oscar for his performance, but I didn't expect to get the total GEM of a film that this turned out to be.

If you have never seen this, run out and rent it RIGHT NOW.  Even if you're not a cat person, rent it anyway.  It's not about the cat.

Although shot in 1974, it doesn't feel dated.  You could pretend is was made yesterday, but set in 1974.  It stars the inimitable Art Carney as Harry Coombes, with an ensemble cast, some of whom had or went on to have stellar careers of their own.  (And it's ironic that I'm watching it just a few days after the death of Larry Hagman, who has a supporting role.)  Ellen Burstyn is in it, and Phil Burns, Chief Dan George (one of Hollywood's better known native actors of the 60s/70s), and a very cute, very young Melanie Mayron.  Most people know Carney best from "The Honeymooners," but this role won him an Oscar -- and it's very much his vehicle.  Without such a subtle, talented actor as lead, this film would have flopped.

Yet as a road-trip film, PLACE is as much a "character": as the humans in the film.  We move from coast to coast:  New York City to Los Angeles, with Chicago and various other destinations in between (Ft. Wayne, IN, somewhere in Arizona, and Las Vegas).

What I love about this film is that it features older people, not just Carney, but his NYC friends, as unique, interesting people with vivid lives-- not stereotypes.  They're funny, irreverent, opinionated, sometimes wise, sometimes foolish.  In other words, fully human, but with a lot of experience to share for those willing to listen. This is what Elder means in native communities.  The character of Harry Coombes was a former English teacher, and as he's talking to the young Ginger (Mayron), he tells about how he once thought about pursuing a career in entertainment after working as a singing waiter while going to college.  But instead, he says, education needed him more, and teaching was like performing anyway, holding the interest of one's students.  Speaking as a professor, he's absolutely right.  Teaching is performance art.  And even retired, now a widower evicted from his NYC home and on the road, he's still a teacher ... and more than a little bit performer.

But interacting with the younger people he meets wakes the younger Harry, as well.  First is his nephew, Norman (Josh Mostel), pursuing a rather twisted mishmash of Eastern philosophy and '70s drug culture, who's taken a vow of silence.  The rest of the family (Harry's eldest son, wife, and another nephew) find the whole thing ridiculous.  And, really, it is.  But they seem to miss the point.  Harry, being on the outside, takes time to ask questions ... and offer some thoughts.  And Norman listens.  He doesn't change his mind immediately, but it's obvious the fact someone he knows took time to talk to him matters.  Interest is a wiser path than deaf disapproval.  Even if one may disapprove, or question, without paying attention, it means nothing.  (My mother taught me that, long before I saw this film.  Because she listened and engaged with what interested me, even if it didn't interest her, I, in turn, listened to her opinion.  But that's a blog for another day.)

Harry's tie with the underage, run-away hitchhiker Ginger is similar.  He listens, and shares his own experiences ... so she listens in turn.  There's an old saying that our Elders and our Children share a special bond because the latter are at the beginning of the circle of life, while the latter are at the end.  I think there's a lot of truth to that, and if this film does nothing else, it demonstrates the continued value of our Elders especially to our children.  (This reminds me, also, of an lovely song by the very talented indie blues singer, India Arie, "Better People.")  And, btw, when Ginger ends up with Harry's nephew Norman (of the silence), it feels quite fitting.  Yes, staged for the film, but not forced (there's a difference).

The irony behind all this is that his relationships with his own children are clearly less healthy.  He's a better grandfather (and teacher), perhaps, than father.  The fact his daughter Shirley (Burstyn) calls him by his given name, not "Pop" (as with the two sons), says a lot.

As with all good Road Trip stories, it's not just about Harry teaching others, but Harry learning along the way.  In NYC, one of his good friends is Leroy (played by Avon Long), a neighbor of his generation who happens to be black.  When Leroy is invited to dinner at Harry's son's home in the NYC suburbs, some rather funny, subtle critique of honest friendship versus fake acceptance takes place.  But when he later goes looking for a former sweetheart and gets the right name but wrong person -- and she turns out to be black -- awkwardness ensues, but of the honest sort and it's not long-lasting because they quickly get beyond skin color and interact as people.  This is the very human side the film consistently illumines.  It's understated, sometimes funny, sometimes painful, but avoids being preachy even while hitting head-on some of the big social issues of the early/mid-70s.  It doesn't avoid them, but it also doesn't dwell.  Maybe, in the end, the confusion of parties in Ft. Wayne wouldn't have been any less awkward if the woman had been white, not black.  And that's the sort of challenging question this film asks.  Get beyond perceptions, but don't ignore reality.  We'll come back to this in Las Vegas.

But first, and even before the road trip begins, there is a significant, symbolic encounter back in NYC.  Harry has many friends of various ethnic groups, but one is Jacob (Herbert Berghof), a Polish immigrant who, amusingly, goes on and on about "damn capitalists! and "damn Nazis!"  His full background is never explained, but we can guess.  The two have a casual-intimate relationship forged on a NYC park bench.  When his Polish friend dies shortly before he leaves the city, Harry goes to identify the body so his friend can have a proper burial.  When he arrives at the morgue, there's a brief issue because he's not family, but as he points out, Jacob's family are all back in Poland.  When they ask for Jacob's SS$#, or even his birthday, Harry can't give an answer.  They let him in anyway (lacking other options), and he then tells stories to the morgue worker, showing he knew his friend far better than stats could ever reveal.  The essence of what makes us human is not our birthday, our ethnicity, our SS#, or any of those census details.  It's the story of our lives.

To see a person real.  That seems to be Harry's great gift through much of the film ... although, and again ironically, he sees his adult children the least real of all.  But he's trying.  His encounters with his book-shop owner daughter in Chicago, and later his youngest son in LA, show that he's trying, even if the latter falls flat.

(Almost) all the characters in the film are, ultimately, likeable in their own odd way.  (The most distasteful are his eldest son's wife and one of the nephews.)  But even while being likeable, they're also human.  Some of the scenes were almost painful in their authenticity.  I sometimes had to pause the film to think about it before continuing ... as one does with a good book.

One of the more subtly hysterical scenes is when Harry pretends to be a traveling salesman while in a cab in NYC.  He claims to sell CATS.  The cabby totally buys it, ridiculous as it sounds.  BUT, later in the film, Harry meets a real traveling salesman who used to sell ... cats!  It's one of the ways the film borders on the surreal, but by that point, we're ready to believe about anything, as if -- once Harry has passed Chicago (the furthest west he's heretofore been) into the "mythical" American West -- ANYthing is possible.  And of course, the salesman fellow is a total sleeze, but colorful and fun.

As the film progresses, we watch Harry shed his inhibitions.  At one point, he gets a ride from a hooker.  Remember, Harry is a widower in his '70s, and when earlier, the young Ginger gives him a free glimpse of her breasts (in a non-sexual setting), he's clearly unsettled.  Of course, she's very young, younger than his grandchildren.  But he's also still "emerging" into his own.  On the road to Las Vegas, the (safely adult) hooker offers a bit more than a glimpse, and he's ready to take her up on it.

(It's all Offscreen.  There's some frank discussion of sexuality, but aside from that one mentioned very brief shot of bare breasts, this is not a graphic film.  In fact, if that breast shot earned the film its /R/, I'd consider this perfectly safe for anybody 13/14+.  It might even be GOOD for younger teens to hear older people talking about sexual activity in realistic, non-romanticized ways ... they're not dead.  It's a far better film for teens than graphic violence, IMO.)

In fact, the entire Las Vegas sequence was amusing.  Among other things, a drunk Harry is arrested for peeing in public, which is where he meets Sam Two-Feathers (Chief Dan George), a medicine man arrested when a patient died.  He says he practices good medicine on good people, and bad medicine on bad people.  He heals Harry of his arthritis.  But the discussion of Harry's cat is another way in which racism is confronted and dismissed. Harry explains his cat is named "Tonto" after the Lone Ranger & Tonto, a famous radio show.  Two-Feathers has never heard of it, says he doesn't own a radio.  Harry says he's sorry, (and one can almost hear him thinking, 'Wow, you're so poor/beyond civilization you don't have a radio?'), but Two-Feathers goes on to explain he has a TV.  So much for primitive.  He also discusses a blender with Harry, and says his wife will be very pleased to have it, when Harry gives it to him.  Again, their whole conversation upends stereotypes even while subtly acknowledging them.  The real Indian doesn't recognize "Tonto," the most famous (fake) Hollywood Indian of the era.  But the real Indian does own a TV and a blender, even while he's a medicine man able to heal a persistent ailment Harry has suffered for years.  He isn't a stereotype.  He's just a guy, from a unique culture living in the modern world.

In many ways, I found this film better and more honest about ethnic issues than many films made post 2000.  It's elegant and clear-eyed.  It makes its points so softly, one almost doesn't recognize them until one finds one's self seeing anew.  Bravo.  All authors (myself included) could take a page on ethnicity issues from "Harry and Tonto."

Finally, Harry makes it to the other coast -- L.A. -- and his youngest son, Eddie (Larry Hagman).  Eddie is almost the cliche of Playboy California, but as we discover, it's surface.  He's in need of money.  His father tries to help him, but the son just disappears once the surface nature of his life is uncovered.  He wants help, but only if it's under the table.  Being Real isn't something Eddie can do ... even while Being Real is something Harry has gradually perfected.

Harry ends up on his own in L.A., hanging out at the beach boardwalk, playing chess among the older generation and debating philosophy ... not that different (except in setting) from his life in NYC.  Different coast, same (sort of) people ... and that's part of the philosophical debate he has with his new friends, in fact ... "We breathe the same air."  Indeed, we do.

The ending is both sad and oddly hopeful.  I won't give it ALL away, but have a few tissues.  The final shot shows Harry with a kid on the beach, who's building a sand castle ... a structure quintessentially impermanent.  Like life.

It really is a beautiful film, not to be missed, however "old" it may be.  It's not old at all.

Ironically, what caused me to rent the film -- the cat -- was the only "thumbs-down" I'd give.  He's a cute red tabby ... but well, he's just there.  As a life-long cat owner, I never felt much connection between Tonto (the cat) and Harry.  In fact, the cat often looked like he was just putting up with it all.

This may owe in part to the fact Carney doesn't seem to know how to interact with a cat, or even how to carry one properly.  The poor cat sorta hangs, clutched in Carney's grip, much of the time.  Maybe that was intentional, but it looked strange to a cat person.  I know of NO cat who likes to be held with one arm under the chest, rear legs left hanging.  I've known cats who ride on shoulders, or half on shoulders, who like to be carried like babies, who hang over two arms outstretched, or who sit tucked in the corner of an elbow (if small enough).  But not dangled.  It's a wonder the poor kitty didn't bite him!  It didn't help that Tonto had little onscreen charisma, and wasn't very vocal.

Perhaps, like the people in the film, the director wanted "just a real cat."  Unfortunately, he seemed like a cat chosen at random -- not Harry's long-term companion.  He didn't interact with Harry in a way that left a true cat-owner with a sense that this cat loved HARRY.  He wasn't Harry's cat.  He was a cat hired because he walked on a leash.  The fact he was carried as much by other characters as by Harry, says a lot.

If hiring a regular red tabby may have fit the story's general theme, it might have been better to use a "breed" cat known to be people-oriented.  Siamese/Oriental short-hairs are more talkative and "human centric" (following "their" people around from room to room).  Even half-Siamese will show that characteristic.  For that matter, my son's cat Licorice has more personality than Tonto in the film.  He's a good example of a very smart, laid-back, but remarkably personable "alley cat."  So it doesn't have to be a "breed" cat, it just needs to be a very special cat, able to carry the "animal" part of the film much as Carney carried the human part. Tonto wasn't it.

Perhaps this was a case of bad animal casting, or a case of "actor doesn't really know cats."  But the defining relationship of the film -- that between Harry and Tonto -- fell flat for this cat-lover.  I wanted to believe it, because otherwise, the film was exceptional ... but I didn't.  Tonto felt like a prop, not a character.

And that's too bad.

But don't let that stop you from renting the film.  It's absolutely worth your time. Art Carney earned every bit of that Oscar.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #2

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #2:
How Many Dead Grandmothers This Semester ...?

The infamous "dead grandmother" as an excuse for a missed quiz, test, paper, or project has become a bit of a joke among professors.  Every semester, before (almost) every test in large lecture courses, somebody's grandparent dies. Sometimes it's a close friend, aunt or uncle ... but usually it's a grandparent, and more often than not, a grandmother.

Deaths in the extended family are a popular excuse when one forgot the test or just didn't bother to study, because 1) they're harder to verify, and 2) a death in the family will net the sympathy card.

Except it doesn't.  It's been overused to the point professors are automatically skeptical.

That's something students need to be aware of.  It's such a staple excuse, if your professor seems surprisingly cool ... that's why.  You may be the fifth student that semester to lose a grandmother right before an exam.  To be honest, most students trying to come up with excuses just aren't that clever and/or don't seem to realize their "brilliant idea" isn't brilliant (or original).

But what if -- in your case -- it IS real?  What if that grandmother raised you, or you were especially close to him/her?  When my maternal grandmother died, my brother went AWOL (briefly) from the navy to come home to Illinois for the funeral.  Fortunately, our uncle (a navy vet) got him back to base before it was discovered.  And my own son is quite close to my father.  Even if he knows Grandpa can't live forever (he's 88 now), it will still be very hard on my son when he has to stand there and watch his grandfather's casket lowered into the ground.

For many younger people, the loss of a grandparent is the first significant loss in their lives.  In cases where a student really didn't know the grandparent that well, his or her mother or father may be distraught and that, in turn, upsets the student.  Or at the very least, the now-adult (if young adult) child may be needed at home to help get the necessary tasks done, which other family members may be too upset to handle.

Yet when the student informs his/her professor of this personal tragedy, the professor (cold-heartedly) demands proof or documentation on top of everything else!

Unfortunately, we have to.  Too many students have misused that excuse to the point it makes us instantly dubious ... fairly or not.  It isn't that we don't care if you really DID lose your grandmother (or grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousin, best-friend from grade school).  As someone who used to work in ER, ICU, oncology and cardiology, I understand that the closest ties in our lives aren't always to the standard "immediate family," and the death, at only 36, of the cousin who was like a sister, after two bouts with ovarian cancer (love and remember you still, Bren), can hurt just as much as the death of a "real" sister.

But some students don't respect the sanctity of anything.  They'll lie through their teeth and cry great big crocodile tears in my office ... only to come up empty handed when asked for documentation.  This makes me really, REALLY angry ... not just at the lie, but because it makes me doubt students who may truly be hurting, and don't need unsympathetic professors on top of everything else.

Your professors do want to care about you, and your struggles, even those outside the classroom.

So a word to the wise student ....

1) Do what one of my students just did ... send your professor an email if a grandparent (or other) is in especially ill-health, or if there's a new diagnosis.  My student emailed to alert me that her grandmother had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and wasn't expected to last to the end of the year.  She wasn't asking for time off right now, and might not need any ... but she could.  She just wanted to let me know the situation.

This helps me, as a professor, enormously.  Admittedly, it also helps that she's heretofore been a very good student with excellent attendance, inclining me to take her email seriously.  Students with spotty or bad attendance who send such a letter will still be regarded with more doubt, but it's preferable to not letting a professor know at all.

I wrote back to tell her I was very sorry, and to keep me informed -- which lets me express genuine sorrow.  It also lets me know to keep an eye on her grades, as -- if she's worried about her grandmother (and/or her parents), that could (and probably will) affect her grade.  If she starts to show a decline, I can pull her aside and see if I can help.  And, of course, if the worst-case scenario happens, I know ahead of time.  She'll still have to bring documentation, but she won't get any skepticism from me in finding a time for her to make up her exam.

Honestly, this is how professors would rather react to a student dealing with a crisis outside of school.  Because people DO die, and bereavement is a process.  Students may think their professors are "too busy" to hear about family matters or, for other reasons, are embarrassed to share them.  And yes, there are professors who honestly just don't care.  But a lot of us DO.

Please keep us informed.

This goes for more than just illnesses in the family, by the way ... if a student is going through a divorce, or the break-up of a long-term relationship, if a student's wife or sister is pregnant and experiencing complications, if a student has a family member in trouble with the law, if a student just lost his/her job, if a student is fighting with parents, if a student is struggling with depression or other illness ...  let professors know.  Some of those may feel embarrassing or shaming, and students may not want to admit to them, but we really need to know.  We can be a lot more sympathetic.

2) If the death is sudden -- and sometimes there isn't much warning -- do try to remember to inform your professor immediately.  The more specific a student is, the more authentic it will sound:

Dear Professor ____,

My mother's mother, ____ ____ (give the name), died yesterday evening of [pneumonia with complications ... or whatever].  I need to drive/fly to ______ for the funeral and to help my [parents/whoever] make arrangements.  The funeral is scheduled for/I believe the funeral will be scheduled for ____, and I expect to be back in town by _____.  I'll bring documentation and contact you as soon as I can to schedule a make-up.

Thank you,
Class # and hour

One may not know (yet) all those details, but the more specific, the more likely a professor is to believe the noteALWAYS promise to provide documentation.  For funerals/deaths in the family, there's usually a funeral-home-printed memorium or church program and/or plane tickets ... although be sure to ask, if the professor hasn't specified in the syllabus.  Yes, this may seem like just ONE MORE THING to worry about, but it's important, and will make life much smoother upon returning home to resume one's regular schedule.

3) In rare cases, a death even in the extended family can result in so much chaos in a student's life, or such an extended absence in order to deal with the fall-out, that it becomes the better part of valor to consider withdrawing for that semester.  This may depend somewhat on WHEN in the semester it happens.  If nearer the beginning, a withdrawal is a good idea.  If it happens right at the end, and most of a student's coursework is complete, then it may be possible to request an incomplete for the semester, and make up the final bit the next semester.

I've spoken to students who fear their professors will be angry, upset, or insulted if they have to withdraw for "personal" reasons.  I can't promise none will be; I've met a few jerks in academia.  But most professors have lives (and families) outside the university themselves, and understand perfectly well that, well, "Shit happens."  I've had students come to me, apologetic for needing to withdraw, but they go with my blessing.  Really ... take care of your family.  There is NOTHING more important in life than the people near and dear to you -- no, not even your degree.

As noted above, I used to work in hospitals before going into academia, and I spent some time counseling not just for ER and ICU, but also for oncology and cardiology.  I have seen -- far more than I wished -- that child, sibling, friend, other who decided his/her job/meeting/class/what-have-you was Too Important To Miss [tm].  He (or she, but frankly, it was usually "he") arrived at the hospital TOO LATE.  His/her parent/sibling/friend was already dead.  No good-byes.  And it stopped that person in his/her tracks.  PEOPLE are the most important "things" in our lives.  School is important, to be sure.  Sometimes I wish especially younger students took it a little more seriously.  But people are more important than school.  Or work.  Or that promotion.  Or playing in the Big Game.  Or whatever.

Take care of your family.  Even if that means withdrawing for a semester -- take care of your family.  School will still be there when you get done.  And most of your professors will not hold it against you, if you must withdraw.  In fact, I've had students do so, then sign up for the same class with me later.  I'm happy to have them back when they're ready and able to concentrate -- not be distracted and at their wits' end.

But my main advice is ... Keep your professors apprised of what's going on in your personal life, especially if it's potentially disruptive.  Regard them the same way you might a boss.  Honestly, we don't want to be skeptical and heartless.  But too many students trying for sympathy when they're simply lazy have made us so.

Help us trust that your crisis is the Real Deal.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mitt Romney, Business Thinking, and the Failure of Civilization, or why business types have trouble with arts and the humanities

I wrote this 4.5 years ago now, but the arguments here are now more relevant than ever, since electing a president who ran on the platform that "I am a [successful] businessman."  And that businessman-president has proposed sweeping cuts to the NEA, NEH, and NPR/PBS, et al.

Ergo, it's time to republish it.

If elected president, Mitt Romney [now Donald Trump] has advocated either cutting in half or (more recently) just doing away with subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) -- and PBS, too -- as a step towards balancing the Federal Budget. To be clear and quote Mr. Romney directly, he told USA Today that he would “eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential … The federal government should stop doing things we don't need or can't afford,” the latter half of which is a soundbyte he repeats frequently in stump speeches. He went on to say he would “enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, [and] the Corporation for Public Broadcasting …”
A more recent interview in Forbes has him state, “there are programs I would eliminate … the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own…” He goes on to say our government borrows money from foreign countries to support them. Actually, the government borrows money. It doesn’t earmark what those borrowed funds go to. One could just as easily say the government borrows money to fund the military, so it’s deceptive to say funds are borrowed FOR the NEA/NEH/PBS.[+]
Another important point … the president (whoever he may be) does not determine the final US budget. He submits one that must be passed through Congress. This increasingly convoluted dance (especially during Obama’s presidency) has resulted in frightening stalemates where neither side will compromise. So Mitt Romney can say he wants to cut these things till he’s blue in the face, but it may or may not come to pass, especially if Republicans don’t control both houses of Congress. Ergo, I’m not throwing up hands in a panic asserting that electing Romney would result in the immediate death of these agencies. Rather, we must view his proposals as seeking political brownie points. They don’t represent “a clear and present danger.” But they do represent a deeply troubling attitude.
Why did Romney target these agencies (et al.) for elimination, and announce it in a magazine like Forbes? I believe it points to a growing trend in corporate America to question the intrinsic value of both the arts and the humanities. Let’s look at those phrases, “stop doing things we don’t need,” and, “they have to stand on their own.” All this is even more interesting as corporate America has, historically, patronized the arts and humanities, sometimes substantially. And whatever Romney and other Republicans (and Blue-Dog Democrats) imply, this is not about balancing the budget. Let me explain:
In 2012, the NEA budget was $146 million, and the 2010 (couldn’t find 2012, but years vary little) NEH was $167,5 million. Let’s average them both at about $157 million. That's not even nickle-and-diming the budget, that's fraction-pennying it. If you’re looking at that “million” word and wondering how I can say that? Keep in mind the TOTAL US budget for 2012 is estimated at $3.796 trillion. So yes, a program that’s $157 million is loose change. But it’s a psychological trick like pricing something at $1.99 not $2. We see “million” and think, “Hell, that’s a lot of money!” And it is. For a person. Not a government that must provide for the needs of 311.6 million people.
To compare … the government allocates $20 billion for farm subsidies, and spent $556 billion for Department of Transportation roads, rails, bridges, and other upkeep. Um … that’s billion with a /b/, not million with an /m/. Now, I don’t advocate cutting infrastructure funds -- if anything, they need boosted -- but I am making a numbers comparison here. To give another figure, the US military budget was about $1.030-1.415 trillion … with a /t/. So when you consider it, NEA and NEH money is negligible in balancing the federal budget. Let’s make farm subsidies 19,700 billion a year. That slight reduction of approximately TWO PER-CENT would fund the NEA & NEH both.
So no, this is not about balancing the budget. These aren’t programs we “can’t afford.” These are programs that fall into Romney’s other category: “we don’t need,” because there are ways to move money around to pay for them if we genuinely think they’re important. But in today’s emerging business mentality (to which Romney subscribes), there is a growing disregard for and discomfort with the arts and humanities. See, the arts and humanities have little to no quantifiable profit or material gain as the financial world measures it. Ergo, they have no point in a modern business-driven model.
So why do the humanities and arts matter?
Humanities are the premiere teachers of CRITICAL THINKING. They also encourage curiosity, which leads to INNOVATIVE THINKING. The humanities won’t make us more money. But they will teach us how to think more systematically, analyze more cogently, imagine more creatively, and express ourselves more clearly (both verbally and in writing) … all skills fundamental to being better United States citizens, and to driving our society forward as a whole.
As for the arts … aside from the benefit of simple beauty or joy, it’s in art that a culture transfers the very essence of its ego, or selfhood. Our myths/legends, music, and art -- including folk art -- are the means by which a culture tells itself about itself. Art defines/explains WHO WE ARE as a people. It also challenges us to become who we would like to be. IT INSPIRES US. Without art, we lose our culture … and our identity. We are Oudeis. No One.
A society that will fund neither the humanities nor arts in the name of “balancing a budget” is no longer civilized. As noted, there are ways to move around money to find that extra $320 million a year in a budget of trillions. One only cuts programs that cost “mere” millions when one decides they’re unimportant, because in terms of budget balancing? That’s like finding an extra five cents in your checkbook register when it’s a thousand dollars in the red.
So if it’s not really the money, what IS it about? Why do the NEA and NEH matter so little that they can be eliminated with a rather limp apology from Romney about how he “very much appreciates what they do”? Because the truth is, no, he does not appreciate what they do in the original meaning of the term. “Appreciate” means “to grant significance to or recognize the worth of.” Only recently has it come to mean the watered-down, “Oh, how charming…”
This is something that, as a professor of the humanities, I’ve had to address again and again with my colleagues in other departments. I don’t intend to tar and feather the College of Business. Not a few of their faculty are great supporters of humanities and the arts, and we must remember they, too, are academics. A Business College professor is still a professor, and (usually) respects a well-rounded education.
That said, some business school professors, as well as those in information technology, public affairs, and the hard sciences don’t really see the point in demanding several credit hours in the humanities or arts, at least for their majors. Liberal and fine arts are those electives that support useful [e.g., profitable] degrees. If a student wants to major in them, fine, but why demand that students in other majors take more than one or two such classes? What good are liberal and fine arts classes for computer programing, dental hygiene, architecture, horticulture, public administration, or accounting? In short, should there be such a thing as a general “higher” education, or has it become all about vocation-specific training these days? That’s a question for a different blog entry, but my point here is that it is a question, and the business mentality tends to be functional-pragmatic. Learning for learning’s sake …? Well, no gain/return … no point. Raw curiosity is not encouraged. It’s distracting. Furthermore, when it comes to grants and other external funding, business, athletics, science, and technology bring home the lion’s share. Ergo college administrators tend to regard these departments as “the geese that lay the golden eggs.” Again, value is determined by quantifiable-financial, not educational, criteria … yes, even in a university.
I’m sure some reading will think, “Well, you’re just defending the NEH because you want to use it.” Possibly, but I’ve never applied for an NEH grant, nor one from the NEA, and doubt I ever will. Not everything in life is driven by mercenary motivations. I’m writing in defense of the NEA, NEH, NPR, and PBS not because I need their funding. I’m writing in defense of them (and the arts and humanities in general) because I believe in their fundamental importance for our national health and discourse. I went INTO a career in the humanities because I support them.
I’d like to suggest there are reasons, though, beyond mere lack of respectable profit margins that make arts and the humanities suspect in the prevailing Business Model. Both express individualism, free speech, and critical thought: things that, at least historically, our nation has valued, but which can prove problematic in corporate culture. Those who pursue the humanities are wont to evaluate what they’re told rather than merely accept it, which can lead to uncomfortable questions, and artist enclaves tend to be full of colorful individuals who run on their own time-tables. Office buildings … well, not so much. The business world may be aggressive and competitive, but it’s not necessarily individual or critical. They aren’t the same thing.
The corporate world has a love-hate relationship with individualism. The best CEOs often are mavericks. And some business elite are also very strong supporters of the arts. But in the business rank-and-file, individualism is frowned upon. So is free speech … and not just negative expressions about one’s employer or their investors, but any expression that might be controversial and result in “blow-back” on the corporate image. Corporations also have a “uniform” of sorts in their dress codes, and the entire point of uniforms is to erase individual identity in favor of “the group,” whether that’s the military, police force, or ___ Corp. Don’t question orders, just follow them (whether those orders come from your commanding officer or your boss).
So critical thinking (and individualism) is frowned upon in some circles precisely because it leads one to question things. Karl Rove has been widely quoted for, “As people do better, they start voting like Republicans -- unless they have too much education and vote Democrat, which proves there can be too much of a good thing” [The New Yorker, February 19, 2001, p. 78]. The larger paragraph this comes from refers to voters preferring tax cuts over government services,[++] but I’m more interested here in his attitude regarding education, because it’s not “education” generically that Rove means. “Too much education” = an education that teaches critical thinking … the ability to take in information, review it logically, and decide if that information is sound. That’s all critical thinking IS. Good ol’ horse sense, combined with recognition of double-speak, platitudes, and an appeal to knee-jerk reactionism.
Those educated in critical thinking rarely fall manikin-like into line with either party’s political rhetoric, even if they may lean more towards one or the other, precisely because both major parties can be guilty of double-speak and platitudes. So a good education in the humanities may not make one a Democrat, but it will probably make one disinclined simply to swallow whatever swill one is fed by party leaders. Ideologues and demagogues (Rove is both) dislike critical thinkers on principle.
In any case, let me turn from the humanities to art and why it, too, may seem of dubious value within business models beyond mere lack of consistent bottom-line. Art resists pigeonholing, while business often depends on it for purposes of sales. Those who distribute art -- publishers, music companies, producers, etc. -- like labels, genres, and categories. Artists mostly put up with it, but sometimes kick-back. They enjoy traversing genre and category lines, but such straddlers are considered “hard to sell” because they’re hard to label for sale. Where does one shelve them in a book/art/music/movie shop? Online distribution might ease that puzzle by allowing multiple search tags and alternative means of marketing, but Amazon no less the corner store still employs labels.
More to the point, however, art is disturbing, disturbing of our perceptions, biases, expectations, ideologies … Sometimes that disturbance is political, as when Euripides wrote the Trojan Women and presented it in Athens in the very same year as the infamous massacre (by Athens!) at Melos … which the play critiqued.[*] Or it might be esoteric … art that “messes with” popular prevailing assumptions of what art should be … Picasso, anybody? The “disturbance” might be even more subtle. The first time I saw a Dali painting I found it as once fascinating and bothersome, this mix of hyper-real against the impossible/improbable. One wanted to stare for a while to wrap the mind around it. Art challenges us to see the world anew.
And of course, one of the great counter-culture moments of the 1960s was Woodstock, a 3 (really 4)-day music concert full of protest songs challenging everything from political policies to traditional social morēs and expectations. “3 Days of Peace and Music” was the slogan. The original Woodstock was, of course, a logistical nightmare, but it was also among the more culturally significant events of the 1960s: that moment when the rest of the US (and world) came to understand just how big the counter-culture movement WAS.
In contrast, the “business takeover” of Woodstock (e.g., Woodstock ’94) turned it into a money-making venture more about nostalgia capitalized-on than art as expression. At the original Woodstock, cases of aggression, rape, and thievery occurred, but they were not epidemic, and misbehavior was met with non-violent obstruction: Wavy Gravy’s “Please Force.” Violence was constrained by peer pressure. Instead, people pulled together when the festival turned out much, much, much bigger than anyone foresaw. What could have been not just a logistical disaster but a grand human tragedy of riot … wasn’t.
But introduce an attempt to capitalize (corporate sponsorship), and things turned out differently … e.g., the horrible 1999 Woodstock with its rape, violence, and burglary necessitating a premature close. The original Woodstock had people (The Hog Farm) step up to give away food and water to those who couldn’t afford it. Woodstock ‘99 charged $12 for a slice of pizza and $4 for a bottle of water … and no one was allowed to bring in their own. It had to be purchased there. Perimeter fences weren’t pulled down as in ‘69; instead entry pat-downs became notorious. The difference is stark. Greed begets violence, anger, and a disregard for basic human decency. 1999 wasn’t about ART, it was about money.[**] I must also add, good organization need not equate with business control. Witness The Burning Man Festivals.
Yes, art can be Just About the Pretty, pleasing the eye, ear and mind. It doesn’t have to be “disturbing” (in any of the varied definitions of that). But it can be, and many artists produce both The Pretty and The Disturbing in their careers. Sometimes they’re even the same thing. Art (and the Humanities) make us think differently … outside the box. That is their “bottom line.” It’s hardly one that will square well with the modern Business Model, even beyond the issue of “how much money did it make?” The highest grossing things are rarely the ones that truly challenge us. That’s not to say great artists can’t be popular, but the best things are usually a few tiers down in terms of sales … if they sell at all. Marketability has different criteria than “artistic merit.”
Given all of this, it’s clear why a businessman like Mitt Romney (or the many readers of Forbes) would barely blink at cuts to the NEA and NEH. Balancing the federal budget is an excuse, not the real reason. Many of them don’t understand why art or the humanities have value regardless of profit. To their minds, art -- like business -- should sustain itself via advertising or sales (e.g., Romney’s, “they [arts and humanities] have to stand on their own” statement). If they’re not profitable enough to gain advertising, then they’re a luxury that can be cut, not a socially critical endeavor. By contrast, the arts and humanities measure value by criteria that grant profitability a small role (if any at all).
Now -- and quite beyond the business model -- one might also note that Romney’s discomfort with art and the humanities could owe to his membership in a conservative religious system, Mormonism. Art and the humanities are often seen as challenging popular morality, if not just stomping all over it.
This is true -- and one reason the novel died in the west as an art form between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication of Don Quixote or Pamela.[!] Exceptions were made for fiction when it came to morality plays or Biblical stories re-told. Even the modern novel Pamela, published in 1740, was roundly critiqued for promoting immorality, despite the fact the book’s subtitle/alternate title was “Virtue Rewarded.” Many Christian moral leaders had issues with fiction on principle, whatever the potential teaching value.
I use fiction to illustrate my point because it’s a clearer example of the ethical objections the church had to art, historically. There was a distinct bias against fiction/fancy because it was perceived as “deliberate falsehood,” which meant “lie,” which meant “sin.” Only TRUE stories were permitted to be told.[!!] Even (pagan) Plato claimed that art was mere imitation of the Real, thus “fake” or “false.” Neo-Platonic Christians pounced on this argument as a reason to restrict artistic expression.
This subtle discomfort remains in Western perceptions of storytelling versus that of other cultures. For instance, storytelling is regarded as sacred in most American Indian traditions, and not just Traditional stories, but storytelling generally. Nor are they alone. The notion that a story is a LIE (e.g., evil or sin) because it’s not literally true would strike many world cultures as bizarre. Today, most Westerners would agree. But Western storytellers (poets, playwrights, and fiction authors) regularly have to justify what they do as valid. Author Flannery O’Connor’s once said, “Fiction is after Truth.” I can’t imagine any native storyteller saying such a thing because there would be no need to.
As much as we may try to escape it here in the West, we remain the inheritors of Christian suspicion of fiction and art … and it’s evident in these periodic “kickbacks” against art and humanities programs at the local, state, and national level.
Another problem historic Christianity had with art involved its emotionalism (sentiment), especially when not directed to religious ends. Here, differences arise not only between Catholic/Orthodox traditions and Protestant, but even within Protestantism, which was far from a monolith.
John Calvin was famous for his “anti-sentiment” stance. This anti-sentimentalist approach did not, however, praise logic in contrast to sentiment. Calvin was also anti-humanist. Humanism -- which included Christian humanism, à la the theology of Roman Catholic Erasmus of Rotterdam -- advocated critical thinking. If both John Calvin and Martin Luther regarded themselves as Pauline in their promotion of the “foolishness” of the Gospel, Calvin was even more anti-intellectual than Luther. Calvinism suppressed both emotion and intellectual rigorism, while espousing ideas of predestination or Election -- a “fated” view of salvation. All of this was part of what is referred to as Five-Point Calvinism (TULIP). Many later groups rejected predestination/Election (resulting in Four-Point Calvinism), while retaining Calvin’s anti-reason, anti-sentiment perspectives: early Congregationalists, many Evangelicals, radical Anabaptists, Reformed Baptists, and conservative Lutherans among them. If some modern branches of these groups have walked back on extreme stances, particularly with regard to reason, the anti-sentiment threads remain, often deeply buried.
This is critical to understanding Christian suspicion of art and the humanities. The humanities, after all, arise from humanism, which is automatically dubious in certain religious traditions -- and not just Christian. Yet this Reformer-Calvinist anti-reason, anti-sentiment trend was not found in all branches of Protestantism, much less early Christianity.[^] For instance, John Wesley (an Anglican who became the founder of the Methodist movement) praised both reason and religious sentiment. His famous line about his experience during a Moravian service when he “felt his heart strangely warmed” was oft-repeated by Christian groups who gave higher prominence to orthopathy … or “right [religious] feeling.” Then again, Wesley’s clashes with Calvinist theologians such as George Whitefield were famous, and he belonged to the Episcopal tradition, which is theologically closer to the Catholics. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral elevated Scripture, Tradition, reason, and experience as fundamental to theological argument. Humanism was not a dirty word in Methodism. Modern orthopathic Protestant groups -- think Pentecostals or the charismatic movement -- are now more often associated with anti-intellectualism, but this is somewhat recent.
So Protestantism is diverse. Sentiment and reason are elevated in some branches, yet denigrated in others.
Where does Mitt Romney’s Mormonism fall in that spectrum? In the history of Christian Thought, Mormonism derives from an Anabaptist-millennial background (et al.), which is a sub-branch of Puritan theology, sometimes called “radical Anabaptist,” and at least partly Calvinist. This isn’t to say Mormons are Calvinists, but in theological approach, they’re closer to Calvinist/Reformer traditions than to Methodist/Arminianism.
So in short, Mitt Romney’s rejection of artistic sentiment and humanistic logic is no theological surprise … and goes a long way towards explaining his attitudes about the humanities and arts, irrespective of his business background. Now, one may say that Romney doesn’t talk a lot about his religion, and if there are articles that raise the spectre of Mormon leaders as the “Eminence Grise” behind a Romney Presidency, let me point out very similar scare tactics were raised about John F. Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic president. Yet Kennedy was a politician first, a Catholic second. Likewise, given his previous political record, I believe Romney a politician first, a Mormon second.
Yet if Mormonism may not have an obvious or overt effect on Romney’s political policy, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t influence it in subconscious ways, just as his business training does. We are, after all, products of our “historicity.” In the case of Mitt Romney, both his business training and his religious theology would lead him to question “art for art’s sake.” Or at least lead him to believe that art should “justify itself” in quantifiable ways. In his recent Iowa speech, he said Sesame Street might continue, but with commercials. The implication here is that if it can’t GET that corporate sponsorship, it doesn’t “deserve” to continue.
The problem, of course -- as artists throughout history have known -- is that “sponsorship” comes with strings. In the ancient world, artists either had patrons or were independently wealthy, and those with patrons had to be careful. When they didn’t, they might wind up at the back of nowhere on the edge of the Black Sea (as famously happened to Ovid in 8 CE when he offended Augustus’s moral sensibilities).
What the NEA does is remove at least some of that pressure. Artists are judged on criteria other than 1) making money, or 2) keeping wealthy patrons happy. Yes, proposals are judged on “artistic merit,” but this isn’t the same as “moral soundness” or “marketability.” A society that prides itself on free speech needs this alternative for artists. It hardly stops artists from pursuing corporate sponsorship or making money, but it doesn’t restrict their ability to produce art by saying it’s not “valid” if it doesn’t make money or win advertisers/sponsors/patrons. Do we really want to return to a world wherein the only way to escape the long shadow of patronage is to be born (or become) wealthy? I say, “No.” But being born wealthy himself, I’m not sure Mitt Romney understands why it matters.
By their very nature, art and the humanities cannot be measured by material (quantifiable) criteria. A civilized society decides that art and the humanities have value in themselves and will subsidize them, regardless of profit margins (or lack thereof). Repeatedly throughout history, the societies that succeeded best or lasted longest were those with room for the (unrestricted) expression of the arts and humanities.
(+) I believe in quoting what people say, not what we paraphrase them to say. A sound argument doesn’t need to spin doctor, and I have a sound argument against Romney’s position. I’m not deluded enough to think everyone will share it, but I don’t need to set up Romney as a straw man to argue against him.
(++) The quote is frequently given with either no citation or an incorrect citation, so I tracked it down because one should never believe just anything one reads on the internet without checking. People make shit up constantly. I would give a fuller quote, but it’s not relevant. As noted, the full paragraph is about tax cuts, but the part I want to address is the thrown off bit about education, and what “too much education” is code-speak for.
(*)This dating and link have been called into question. For a discussion, see Barbara Goff’s recent (2009) translation of the play.
(**) Contrary to some overblown idealizations of the original Woodstock, it was also intended as a money-making venture, only becoming a free concert when too many people arrived to effectively collect money at the gate. Some well-known artists turned down an invitation (the Beatles, Dylan, The Doors, Led Zeppelin) in part because the money and/or publicity wasn’t assumed to be good enough. Yet what I find interesting is that in the face of a potential disaster in both ’69 (soaking rain; more than double the expected crowd) and ’99 (excessive heat, poor security), the organizers of the former (as well as the 500,000 attendees) mostly made humanitarian -- not corporate -- choices that circumvented rage. In ’99, greed won, and it was regarded as a failure, not an event future generations would want to commemorate over and over again.
(!) Whether Don Quixote or Pamela is the first modern novel depends somewhat on how one defines “novel.” Personally, I’d go with Don Quixote.
(!!) To be completely fair, this odd attitude persists in academics. More than a few historians HATE historical fiction for “distorting” the truth. Likewise, some scientists hate science fiction for oversimplifying science. If some just object to bad examples, others have philosophical objections. As a professional historian, I’ve spoken to colleagues who question the legitimacy of historical fiction of ANY stripe, no matter how well-researched or who writes it (even other professional historians). A colleague (who shall remain nameless) once told me that historical fiction is “an absolute disgrace to the field, making truth just stories.” I’ll admit, I had to swallow a laugh as I don’t believe in absolute truth anyway. MUCH of professional history is reconstruction from a careful analysis of the evidence. Good historical fiction authors do the same, if to different ends. In any case, the argument “fiction = false = illegitimate” has transferred from the early modern church to the modern university.
(^) Among the more famous “rational” early Christian thinkers, we can name Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Bardaisan, Augustus, Pelasgius, Arian, Athenaeus, Nestorius, etc., etc. Thomas Aquinas, of course, may stand with Origen as one of the greatest minds of the Church. And yes, some of those in that list above opposed one another theologically, but they did so on REASONED grounds.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Phantasm of Race and the Honesty of Children

This is a response to, "White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious," by Michael Skolnik. Skolnik calls a spade a spade and gets right down to brass tacks -- ugly as it may be. But it's a reality/truth every (visible) minority in this country knows damn well already. Read it.

I have three additional thoughts to add.

FIRST, when I heard not just the description of how Trayvon was dressed that night, but how he responded to George Zimmerman, my first thought was, "That could be MY son." Trayvon wore clothes similar to Ian's standard gear right down to the hoodie. Furthermore, he did exactly what my own son would likely do if followed by a stranger: pull up his hood to hide his face, walk faster, and try to appear nondescript. But my son probably wouldn't have been hounded and shot. Why?

He's as pale as the moon.

Now sure, the investigation is on-going, and I tend to listen first before offering an opinion. It's the historian in me -- wait for the evidence. But the more I hear, the more evidence that comes to light, the more it looks like exactly what was first claimed -- this boy was racially profiled and killed for it. Zimmerman was a trigger-happy cop wannabe. He had an issue with blacks. He chased Trayvon and shot him. Yes, he was Hispanic. So what? If you think all minorities like each other just for being minorities ... well, there's ANOTHER myth we should bust right here. Suffice to say, Oh, HELL no. There's as much hostility between various minority groups in the U.S. as between any minority group and Euro-whites. Go back to the riots in L.A. after the Rodney King shooting. Much of the damage? Asian and black. Latino, Asian and black. Other minorities that don't always get along (or understand each other): black and Jewish, black and NDN, etc. Religion is another area that can create friction beyond ethnicity. So it's not simple.

But the more I read, the more convinced I become there is no excuse for Trayvon's shooting. That could be MY son.

Except ... yeah ... probably not. Again, why? He's white. My son will never be profiled even though he's native because he doesn't LOOK it. He'll never be pulled over in an old car to be breathalized for alcohol if he's driving under the speed limit (because the car won't go faster). He could dress like a bum and walk into a mall or Home Depot and nobody would edge away from him in the aisles. He won't be shadowed in a convenience store because he might shop-lift. If he's loitering, cops (probably) won't stop him to ask what he's up to.

And why?

What's that I hear? Oh, yeah, the refrain ... HE'S WHITE. Or looks it. That's what matters. He looks white.

I want to tell a story. It's a true story, happened in the winter of 1999, during the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C. I was doing job interviews, post Ph.D. As it was in DC, I opted to stay with my brother's family, not rent an expensive hotel room. That meant every evening, I took the Red Line (Metro) back to Shady Grove, where I'd parked my car. It was late the last night of the Meetings. I was headed back, and as we approached the End of the Line (Shady Grove), the Metro gradually emptied until in our car, the only people who remained were me, another nicely dressed business guy old enough to be my father (or close) ... and a pack of noisy, aggressive, tattooed late teen/early twenty boys (5-6 of them). When we all exited the train at this last stop, I headed for the parking garage where I'd left my car. Both the Pack of Boys and Business Man headed the same way. Well, Pack of Boys soon veered off to a stairwell to go up to another floor as Business Man and I continued on. I reached my car soon after. He then cut across the parking lot and headed for ... the main surface parking area.

I realized he hadn't been parked in the garage at all. He'd parked in the surface lot. He'd just been shadowing me to be sure I got safely to my car. He'd been worried by the noisy boys on the train. They turned out to be harmless, but he'd worried.

Now, let me ask -- as you read that story ... what COLOR did you envision the players? Yes, I'm white (or would look so). Well, my "protector" ... he was about as dark as they come -- that pretty blue-black. Elegantly dressed, clearly well-to-do businessman. But very black. The noisy boys? Skinheads. White, blond, tattooed ... To be honest, my protector was probably in more danger from them than I was. But he worried about ME. He made sure I got safely to my car. It was what any gentleman-father would have done ... regardless of color.

But what interests me most is the various ways this incident could be viewed. To the teen boys, who were ultimately harmless ... we were boring business types, we'd Sold Out to The Man. This assumes they paid any attention to us at all ... and they very well may not have. Adults assume teens notice them more than teens actually DO. They're usually more interested in each other.

I was more worried by the boys than the man. Why? They LOOKED more threatening. Is that fair? No. Predators (of any ethnic background) often learn to make themselves nonthreatening. So Mr. Business might have been more of a threat than the noisy teens. Predator camouflage is not just found in the Animal Kingdom.

Last, what did my Protector think? Hard to know, or even guess. Clearly, he was concerned for me -- probably a product of my gender, my age, and perhaps even HIS skin color. I do think our age difference had a lot to do with it. When I boarded the train, he'd looked up and smiled at me. I'm sure that (white or not) I probably looked of an age to be his daughter. Maybe he had daughters; maybe he didn't, doesn't matter. He could have been my daddy, even if I was probably older than he thought I was. Yet I brought out some sort of protective/paternal vibe in him. The man went WELL out of his way to be sure I got safely to my car.

But I've also wondered what, if any, racial element was involved for him? We often evaluate situations from OUR perspective (unless we consciously rethink). Had he seen "Skinheads" and assumed "Danger, Danger, Will Robinson?" -- a natural enough response for someone black (or Jewish, or native, or Hispanic, etc.) Maybe he just saw, "Rowdy pack of teen boys feeling their oats" -- nothing racial at all.

But what does all this tell me? We are not our skins. We are our experiences: our age, our family relationships, our occupations, our choices for how we present ourselves to the public. Yes skin color plays into that as it forms some of our experiences, but not all of them. Not even the majority of them (in most cases). If you take skin color out of the above story, it could be any story.

And that's how it should be. Gentlemanly, father-figure ensures young woman gets safely to her destination. End of story. The only reason I DO remember it? SKIN COLOR shaded everything. I sincerely hope a day comes when I'd have chalked up that incident to, "Whatever," and forgotten it 15 years later. Because that's how it should be. I shouldn't remember it. But I do.

And man, that's just Messed Up, ennit?

SECOND, one can be of Euro-colonial ancestry, hear about the fact racism still exists, and NOT HAVE TO GO ON THE DEFENSE. Really. I think some Euro-whites in the U.S. feel they must defend against, diminish, or deny racism, or they are somehow culpable. No. One is more likely to become culpable by sticking one's head in the sand ... and thereby perpetuating it. Our European ANCESTORS may have been guilty, but by denying or diminishing racism, we are MORE likely to continue what they started.

Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Let's recognize and admit what's in black and white (and red and brown and yellow) in front of us. There is a difference between recognizing and being. Furthermore, it's possible for people (now or historically) to do really GOOD things and really BAD things. They're not mutually exclusive, and people are not that simple. We do not wear white hats and black hats. (And boy, there's a loaded metaphor, no? But I'm using it on purpose.) We can admire our ancestors for some things even while critiquing them for others.

Furthermore, when some of one's ancestors abused, took advantage of, or enslaved the other half of one's ancestors, it creates a weird internal quandary in the mind ... but perhaps that's good. When that happens, it forces us to consider the difference between ancestry and actuality. The sins of the fathers need NOT be visited on the sons (and daughters), as long as the sons and daughters recognize what was done and try to fix it.

THIRD, one can be curious about obvious difference without being racist. For instance, as a Euro-native, I find the differences in my hair and that of some of my black friends kinda interesting. I've had long conversations with them about black hair care. There's a big difference between natural curiosity and making fun of differences. What is it? Simple Interest. Does one approach difference as threatening? Or as interesting? The former is a large underpinning of racism (sexism, religious-ism, etc.). The later is healthy. It shows an active mind. I can vividly recall a conversation I had years ago between a really dark black friend, an India-Indian friend and myself, about skin tone. We were baffled by labels (at 7) because when comparing, Anula's skin was, yes, brown, by mine was pink, and Vanessa's was sorta chocolate. I wasn't white (or red), and Vanessa wasn't black, so where did these terms come from anyway? Seemed sorta off-base from what our skin REALLY looked like. This is how kids see things ... REAL. Individual difference trumps categories and defies cookie-cutter "Are you black enough to be black ... red enough to be red ... etc., etc.) These games of who IS, and who isn't weaken us. WE ARE NOT LABELS. But we are indelibly affected by them, and the assumptions they foist onto us -- assumptions we may adopt, reject, or passively learn to live with.

Yet when we can get back to that honesty about difference -- the recognition that it's there -- but not assign it relative value ("better" or "worse") ... THEN we've truly moved past racism. "Color-blindness" is not the opposite of racism. Color (or really ethnic) CURIOSITY is, and to enable this, we must recognize that "race" is a cultural construct, not a biological reality. As such, WE determine how we interpret it. Phenotype isn't identity.

What?, you may be saying. But race is so ... obvious!

Not really. We've just been taught to see a particular set of distinguishing factors and assign them special meaning. Ignore the usual "racial" markers. Look at your family. Imagine if "race" were determined by hair color. Or height. Or the size of one's nose. "Construct" a different set of markers and we have ENTIRELY DIFFERENT categories. In short, we decide to what (marker) we give meaning. Identity is chosen, and ethnicity (and race) is by self-ascription. I've known those who identified as "black" (or Latino) whose skin was no darker than mine. I identify as a part-blood American Indian due to my mother and how I was raised, even if my skin is Dane-fair. And the red hair makes me look even less native, even if it does owe to L'Oreal, not nature. (My natural color is black.) But look at my facial shape, features, body-type, and I look very native. In short, ignore coloring -- remove that as a marker -- and I could walk onto any rez and be recognized as native by other phenotypical criteria.

Identity (and ethnic-racial identification) is a complicated matter that involves everything from language and how one was raised to what one "looks like."

So yes, "black" is a construct that has reality because we give it reality. Why do we give it reality? For a whole host of reasons from the European tendency to view The Other in simplistic terms that denied unique identity, to the pragmatic reality that slavery erased original ethnic identification. African American ancestors were brought here against their will, subjected to dehumanizing tactics, and discouraged from ethnic memory. Thus, original African ethnic identity was lost.

Likewise, I know Euro-Americans who can't name their ethnic ancestry because their immigrant ancestors wanted to leave it behind. Both created a new identity of "black" and "white/American" that are CONSTRUCTS. (And notice that whites are more likely to use just "American" without qualifying it. Why? They don't need to. American Indians have more right to the simple label "American," but must clarify with American Indian.) Furthermore, what has been "white" has varied. It surprises most of my students to learn Italian and Greek immigrants were not considered "white" as recently as the early 20th Century. For that matter, Irish immigrants were a sort of "non-white white" in earlier eras. So even what constitutes a "white" American has altered over history.

This sort of "confused identification" is a frequent fact of colonial countries, or those with large immigrant populations. Identity becomes NEGOTIATED. Yet we all NEED and crave identity, so "black" becomes an identity (at least here in the US), as does "white" (as does "red" and even "Asian"). But we must recognize these are "created" ancestries (not biological). And we must also recognize the HISTORICAL situation that led to these categories.

Furthermore, if we scratch the historical surface of MOST places in the world -- look back a little further into history -- THEIR ethnic identity is often "created" as well. This goes for Europe, the Med, Africa, the Americas, Asia ... you name it. In history, PEOPLES MOVE. They immigrate, and emigrate. They intermarry with those they've moved to live beside, and their offspring create new identities. I don't care if that's Mesopotamia, Sub-Saharan Africa, North America, Northern Europe, Russia, etc., etc., etc. NO ethnic group is "pure." That's just not how history works.

Again, IDENTITY IS A CREATED REALITY. That doesn't make it "unreal." But it's real because we make it real. We ascribe "significant meaning" to certain categories ... but not to others. Change the categories, change the identifications. When we can RECOGNIZE that, see it not as biological ('essentialist') but as CHOSEN ('constructionist') ... then we can begin to see ourselves (and others) in more healthy non-racist/non-ethnic terms. We can recognize phenotypical differences, but not ascribe them to race ... just to the individual. Different can be INTERESTING, if we let it be.

The curiosity of a child. Kids see these same differences we do; they ask the same questions. They're CURIOUS. They just don't assign these differences any particular VALUATION until they're taught to do so.

We need to get back to the curiosity of a child. "You're different from me. I think that's neat. Tell me more about it?"

That's the death of "racism," folks.

Honest, innocent curiosity.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #1

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #1:
Did You Really Mean That, or Do You Just Want Something?

This is the first in what may become a series about how professors – or at least this professor – sees college life, intended half as myth-busting, half as frank (and occasionally irreverent) advice.

Something that virtually all professors face in their careers is how to interpret student enthusiasm.

Unless a professor is just bad (and there are always a few), he or she will – at some point – encounter the Really Enthusiastic Student™. The problem for many is whether to believe the student’s professed interest. This is something students should be aware of, if they want their professors to take them seriously.

Now professors were once students themselves, and many were (to quote Pink) “too school for cool.” We wound up professors because we actually got excited by ideas and theories – GEEKS of one sort or another. And many had a professor or three … or five … who they admired, and who inspired them to go on to advanced studies. So we GET that. And we’d LIKE to think all students who approach us fall into that category.

But time and experience have worn off the shine. We’ve had too many Close Encounters of the Lazy, Desperate, and Deceptive Kind, heard horror stories from colleagues about similar, and received dire warnings from college administrators. We’ve become skeptical, cynical, dubious …

So when a student approaches us to say, “Wow, I really like your class; you’re a great teacher!” we may smile and thank the student … but inside, our minds are clicking through all the possible motives behind the praise. This is all the more true if the compliment is given during a semester, not after final grades are handed out.

Some students understand that. I’ve had more than one offer some sort of qualifying statement that showed a little savvy for potential doubts. But others – more naïve – may not understand why their professor seems a bit … cool. Sometimes this is even interpreted as professorial arrogance, or not caring about the student. It might be. But more often, it’s professorial uncertainty.

Do you really mean that … or are you just engaged in the age-old student ploy called “sucking up”?

Professors build their careers on their intelligence, and being duped undermines that, so they can be TWICE as sensitive to attempts to play them. The last thing they want is to look like an idiot. So a student trying to fool his/her professor is challenging that professor’s fundamental self-identification: “Smart Person.”

Just sayin’…

The problem is simply that the longer we’ve been teaching, the closer we come to the, “I’ve heard it ALL before” … and learned to believe less than a quarter of it. You may tell your professor the honest truth, but if s/he seems dubious … remember, you’re the 23rd person to relay some version of that, and most of those who tried it before were LYING.

Student “skittishness” is much discussed. Students can be afraid to approach professors to talk about problems they’re having, or bad grades … or even how much they enjoy the class. They assume the professor won’t have time for them and could care less – based on bad experiences, or horror stories from their friends, or popular perceptions about professors in campus culture.

Professor skittishness is just as real but far less discussed (at least outside professorial circles). If students are afraid of how a professor will respond, professors are often equally unsure what a student truly INTENDS. This, of course, lessens the more a professor knows a student, but below are some tips to students for how to speed up the process and demonstrate their interest is genuine ….

1) CARDINAL RULE THE FIRST … NEVER TELL YOUR PROFESSOR YOU LIKE A TOPIC IF YOU DON’T. Nor should you ask to read a professor’s article unless you actually plan to read it. If you promise to do something … keep the promise. We’ll figure out if you haven’t, and we’ll assume your interest was mere flattery.

I think students sometimes feel they must at least pretend to like everything their professor does. No. Most (sane) professors do not assume that. A student taking my class on Alexander the Great may have absolutely no interest whatsoever in my class on, say, Rome and the Early Church. I’m not offended. Even when I act as advisor to history majors, some seem to fear that if they don’t claim some interest in ancient history, I’ll be upset. Well, no, I want to point students to classes that interest them, not fill up my roster. Yes, I know a few professors are territorial or will try to sell a class to a student who doesn’t want it, but in my experience, that isn’t most of them. We’re more likely to be annoyed if a student fakes interest.

If you are interested in something, but time got away from you … just say so. Professors are often extremely busy themselves and understand, “I’d really like to do that, but don’t have time right now.” Yes, they may wonder if it’s a polite-ism for “not really interested,” but they’re far more likely to become annoyed if you promise to do something … and don’t.

2) Give us time to believe in you. If you come up to us on the first day, oozing enthusiasm and excitement, and we’re just a little … cautious – it’s not you. (Well, probably not you.) It’s that we’re not sure what to make of your enthusiasm. We’ve had students pretend enthusiasm before. Rarely will a professor be so rude as to dismiss you outright, but if we seem to take a step back … it’s because we’re trying to assess motives. If your work and class participation supports your enthusiasm, we’ll be thrilled to have you.

3) Remember that we’ve probably heard every story under the sun. We’ve suffered some very obvious, some less than obvious, and some really clever attempts to play us. Sometimes strange things do happen that interfere with class, and sometimes a student’s beloved grandmother DOES die during a semester. But we get so many “dead grandmother” stories it’s a wonder there’s cemetery property left. If it’s real, you should be able to document it. Don’t be upset with us for asking you to do so, even if you’ve taken previous classes with us.

4) We’ve also had students who started enthusiastic and determined to work hard, but who got the proverbial inch and took a mile. They interpreted our encouragement as license to get away with murder … or at least with late papers, skipped class, and rickety excuses. We sour on such quickly, and begin to fear all students will Take Similar Advantage ™.

5) It’s fine to offer compliments during a semester, but we’re more likely to take you seriously if you send us a letter AFTER grades have been recorded. Then we’ll believe you (and probably thank you most sincerely).

6) “Repeat offenders” – that is, students who take more than one class with us – will more likely be believed if they say they like our class/topic/teaching style. We assume so, or they’d run far, far away from us. We’re also a bit more likely to grant such students the benefit of the doubt … BUT see #3 & #4 above. If the excuses get increasingly frequent and shaky, we go from tolerant to downright resentful fast. Why? A sense of betrayal. We wanted to believe that student really did like our topic/us … but maybe not. And (again) skepticism raises its ugly head … were we just played?

There is a simple way to combat this – one students rarely recognize or are too embarrassed to employ. Tell us the truth – even if it’s not flattering to you (or you worry it’s not). No, we don’t want excuses … but we do want reasons. When a previously good student suddenly starts performing sub-par, we aren’t sure WHAT to make of it. But if that student just broke up with his/her long-term S.O., or is dealing with a problematic roommate, or is now carrying two part-time jobs and trying to study, or even if he or she has just been having trouble deciding if this major is the right one … well, CONTEXT is all.

Remember – all professors were once undergrads, too. And not all were perfect students. Sometimes we didn’t study enough, we borrowed from peter to pay paul, we blew off tests, we partied late, etc. etc. We also had (and have) to deal with real life crises of our own. CLUE IN your professors about what’s up with you. Sure, a few won’t give a damn. Many will, especially if you’ve proved yourself to them before. You’re NOT 6, or 12, or 16. You’re an adult (if a young one, in most cases). Professors will treat you accordingly if you act like an adult.

7) A simple (if perhaps un-PC) truth … if you are an attractive young woman or man, be careful how you approach the professor. Professors of both sexes have had students try to flirt with or even seduce them for a grade. Male professors suffer this far more than female. To be honest, I’ve never had a male (or female) student proposition me, even when younger. This is partly a factor of cultural norms. Men do not, on average, date older women (even if the difference is only five or six years), nor will they date those with higher academic degrees (at least not if it’s a Ph.D). It may not be fair, and some may want to deny it or claim it’s changing, but I’ve still found it to be overwhelmingly true. Some men do flirt in an offhand, friendly way, but rarely press it. Instead, male students unhappy with a grade are more inclined to try intimidation. If they stand close, it’s to tower over us and seem menacing – not to flirt. Unsurprisingly, this is more likely to make a female professor really pissed off. But male students with a crush on a female professor rarely, in my experience, act on it. (In fact, in the few cases where I was told about such a crush later – usually by someone else – I’d had no idea the student had felt anything beyond casual admiration … if that.)

By contrast, women have always been open to older partners or those with higher degrees for a variety of social-cultural reasons. So a male professor with half a brain will be especially skeptical of young female students, skimpily dressed, who lean over the desk to show their cleavage (or young male students who get too friendly). Can some be flattered? You bet. But many won’t be, and may become cold and even hostile if you try. Professors can, and have, lost their jobs over affairs with undergrads.

8) Last … ah, the ethics of navigating Social Media. Undergrads, please don’t ask to “friend” your favorite professor on Facebook, or at least don’t be surprised if your professor turns you down. Some may keep an account meant for public consumption much like authors, journalists, doctors, musicians, artists, etc. But the majority I know don’t (they’re more likely to use Twitter or a blog – like this one – for that purpose). Facebook is for family and friends. Occasionally professors may friend select grad students, but many routinely draw the line at undergrads. (Besides, do you really want your professor to see that photo of you wasted last Friday night and wearing underwear on your head? I thought not.)