Not in Kansas. And Not in Oz.

Ozgate.

Hucksterism, yes.  Charlatanism, yes.  Buffoonery, yes.

Now that we have established that, let’s consider how the gleeful campaign to expel Dr. [sic] Oz from his Columbia professorship intersects with the current state of higher education.

Poppy Field Photo by Jon Bunting, via flickr

Poppy Field
Photo by Jon Bunting, via flickr

Budgets, curricula, trigger warnings, competition from the University of Wikipedia.  Societal suspicion of intellection and reflection.  Increasing corporatization.  And let’s not forget human rights.

Professor Oz (yes, that does sound odd) is not the only academic (that too) to have his professorial status challenged of late.  There are others whose livelihoods have been threatened because they hold unpopular political views or have stood up to the man.  Or because they did something as distressingly ill-advised as any of us might have done under the right wrong circumstances.

So, let’s not smoke the poppies just yet.

In 2013, University of Kansas faculty member David Guth was suspended over a tweet that distastefully maligned the National Rifle Association.  (Now, if he had tastefully maligned the NRA, would that have gotten a pass?)  Later, National Public Radio described the Kansas Board of Regents’ introduction of guidelines for social media, which restricted what faculty could say online.  On NPR, State Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady had this to say about the incendiary tweet:

“Look, you have freedom of speech, but you can’t go this far,” he says. “I think having a clear understanding between faculty and the board of regents on what’s acceptable and what’s not is better for everyone involved.”

Couture-Lovelady, by the way, is not only a state representative but is also a member of the NRA.

In 2014, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the School of Public Health’s executive director expressed disagreement with the administration’s budgetary plans, which he and others had been told not to oppose in public.  Robert Buckingham’s tenure was revoked.  He was fired and physically removed from the University and was told he was “banned for life” from returning to campus.  Although he was to retire in a matter of months, his retirement benefits were withdrawn.  University Provost Brett Fairbairn’s letter to Buckingham read as follows:

“In publicly challenging the direction given to you by both the president of the university and the provost, you have demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination and have destroyed your relationship with the senior leadership team of the university” [emphasis added].

Some leadership.  Some team.

(Buckingham was later offered part of his job back, and even later, Fairbarn resigned.)

Earlier this year, Steven Salaita filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois.  In 2013, he was wooed away from a tenured position at Virginia Tech to accept a professorship, also tenured, at UI’s Urbana-Champaign campus.  The following summer he was informed that his hire had been denied by the University’s Board of Trustees.

About ten months had passed since the initial offer.  The previous autumn, Salaita had proposed to UIUC that he finish up the year at VT, and UIUC had agreed to defer his start date until the fall. However, the Trustees’ vote on his position did not take place until the summer, well beyond the point where he had had to sell his house in Virginia and resign his position at Virginia Tech.  He was already working for UIUC, without a contract, preparing courses for the ensuing semester.  Yet the discussion about l’affaire Salaita circled around his offensive tweets.  (Some faulted Salaita for accepting such conditions, even as they failed to scrutinize the management that expected him to commit, relocate, and begin working before the Trustees voted.)

In March, former associate professor of anthropology Kimberly Theidon filed a lawsuit against Harvard University.  She contends that she was denied tenure in response to her advocacy for victims of sexual assault:

Yes, I was denied tenure in retaliation for my Title IX protected speech and conduct in support of survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Theidon says that she was explicitly told not to speak up about sexual assault.  Her tenure case was decided while Harvard was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in regard to Title IX violations.  Theidon, quoted in the Boston Globe, says she was expected to “check her conscience” when she entered campus:

“It’s about the fact that that institution would prefer to deny tenure to an eminently qualified person rather than tenure that person and have her continue to speak out about how much they have failed to protect students, both women and men, on that campus.”

(I remember reading an account—though I do not have a link handy—wherein Theidon reported being advised by an administrator that faculty do not normally undertake advocacy before attaining tenure.  I wonder what sort of explanation a junior professor might offer for keeping silent about violent criminal activity for six or more years.  “Sorry, can you reschedule your assault and PTSD for 2020?  Maybe I’ll be able to offer support then.  That is, if I get tenure . . .”)

So, back to Oz.  The anti-intellectualism and even magical thinking that feed his success deserve critique, and he deserves censure.  But the reactive craving for his termination, undertaken in the name of reason and science, give pause.  Oz is no intellectual—at least, not in his current incarnation.  However, the mass vendetta that seeks to remove him resembles, causally or not, battles against the very intellectual integrity that Oz-ousters claim to value. The content drives the public discussion, and the form is overlooked.  As are the likely repercussions.

It’s not so far from cries of “Reiki faker!” to accusations of  “amendment thwarter!” Or “insubordinator!” Or “Anti-Semite!” Or “man hater!”

In hawking magic coffee beans and in hosting celebrities who blame themselves for their cancer while promoting their new albums, Oz may do harm.  And so may those who tread the warpath looking to incite his downfall.  We do well to keep our bloodlust in check.

Those who are so invested in Ozgate may consider themselves rational and intelligent and superior.  They may be right.  But they may also be playing with a fire they do not even know is lit.  Some academic voices are touted and amplified, others merely tolerated, and still others are silenced altogether.    The forces that determine these outcomes cannot be seen on TV shows.

Some praise Oz for daring to speak up against GMOs and Big Food.  Others deride him for promulgating wishful thinking through homeopathy.  One need not embrace a rudderless relativism to realize that the verifiability of his claims is not the sole issue at stake.  (Have you never received inadequate advice, based more on personal bias than rational consideration, from a medical professional?  I have.)

Imagine an intellectual you respect, one with a keen intellect, unwavering integrity, and a fierce commitment to the greater good.  Imagine her fulfilling her professional obligations with expertise commitment yet being subjected to claims of inappropriate speech and insubordinate behavior.  Imagine her research, lauded in the field at large, suddenly subjected to disproportionate scrutiny and found lacking by the administration that had previously tenured her.  Imagine her being directed not to speak in public—whatever “public” means these days—about any misgivings she may have about her university’s policies. Imagine her receiving word that she should not, at 11 p.m. of an evening, on the comfort of her sofa, compose an impassioned, impolitic few sentences expressing frustration at gun violence.  Imagine her being told she is not to speak up in support of students who have reported being raped.

That’s why we have tenure.  Or had it.

A little Reiki and unfounded weight-loss advice might not be such an insupportable price to pay for academic freedom.  And who’s so sure we can’t converse with the departed anyway?

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A Paglia Reduction

Chuck Jones Dover Boys Pimiento U
Listening to Dark Powers: Camille Paglia on CBC’s Ideas

 

Rather than illuminate her dark women, Paglia turns the light on her true subject: herself. She offers reductive comment after reductive comment, promoting herself and smearing the intellectual community, while claiming other scholars are reducing art to ideology. Did no one advise her to cite sources?  Who is it who claims that “a few laws and sexual harassment committees will make it all [misogyny] go away?”  Is she unable to distinguish between opinion and idea, between attitude and inquiry? And how is it that with all her time on the stage she cannot deliver a single sentence without “uh, ok, you know” and a parade of em dashes?

 

Paglia claims, “Academics on the whole have absolutely no idea about how art is made or how the artistic mind works. This is one of the main reasons for the utter incompetence and sterility of so much academic criticism about the arts.” Apparently, all scholars, except Paglia, lack any understanding whatsoever of vision, ecstasy and peak moments: “All of that is completely gone from any kind of discourse on the arts. What passes for criticism of the arts in the academy is absolutely,—ok—it’s useless, and it has driven away several generations of young people from the arts.” Well, there are plenty of young people in my arts community, at my university, in my courses and private lessons.  They are mentored by devoted, probing scholars and artists who refrain from—fasten your seat belts—reductively reducing all other scholars to ideologues who see nothing but ideology in art.

 

Paglia claims that “art is deeply interconnected with the dream process.” Indeed, her fictional account of a uniformly bumbling, incompetent, unimaginative academic community is quite a dream.  (Bumbling comes easily, but one of the many things we academics are not good at is consistency and unity.  [Oh, that’s two things.  See what I mean?])

 

Perhaps Paglia would like to read Brandon LaBelle’s commentary on the dream nature of Hildegard Westerkamp’s sound art; or Daniel Albright on the “inhumanly intense orgasm” in Yeats’s pseudo-Noh plays; or Malcolm Turvey’s account of the “machine aesthetic” in Ballet Mécanique.  I’m sure she could find a full reading list if she were to give a moment’s notice to the scholars she terms “incompetent” and “provincial.”  There are many subtle and invigorating critical writings to be found.  Or are listening and nuance also “useless” to Paglia?

 

And what about those of us who are both creative artists and scholars? Does Paglia understand art-making better than those of us who . . . um, ok . . . practice it? And who sometimes collaborate with full-time scholars to consider exactly the phenomena she insists are “completely gone” from the sterile work of us blunderers who have “absolutely no idea about how art is made or how the artistic mind works”?  I guess, when I step out of my studio and into class, the composer region of my mind goes to sleep and I am suddenly seized by the delusion that all artists are “political sign wavers” in order to “drive away several generations of young people from the arts.”  No wonder I have been so tired lately.

 

It is telling that Paglia casts ad hominem aspersions rather than exploring the ideas and insights of these unnamed scholars.  We hear about “the people who are teaching in humanities departments,” accompanied by crude, unattributed caricatures.  I would rather focus on Paglia’s inquiries rather than her infantile persona, but it is difficult to do so when she herself cannot get past the players to see the play.  Paglia energetically describes herself as “persona non grata in academia”: apparently that self-description gives her street cred.  At a time when universities are becoming more and more corporatized; when academic freedom and intellectual inquiry face extinction; and when most higher-education instructors are overextended, under-compensated adjuncts with little time available to misunderstand art in the way Paglia condemns,—and when dozens of universities have been investigated for Title IX violations for mishandling sexual assaults—it is not only sensationalistic, not only irresponsible, but abhorrent to flog the entire scholarly community for imagined sins.  Who is it, again, who is driving young people away?

 

Has Paglia based her own ideology on scholarship about bondage?  Has she noticed that we did not agree to her terms?  And does she know that that makes her words an assault?  Or does her insistence that revulsion is part of our “dream life” extend to fantasies of whipping her comrades, enacted through words?  What about the “dream life” that depicts students overpowered and violated by their peers in their own dorm rooms?

 

Few women are accorded a stage where they can construct themselves as rebels and iconoclasts, where they can believe their own hype. Such honors usually go to the Steven Pinkers and . . . those other guys. One does not want to come down harder on Paglia than on the unbuttoned noblemen who—you might want to sit down for this—trade on their institutional privilege to pretend to puncture the very establishment that provides the pulpit from which to do so.  But why Paglia? Is it because she proffers shallow, vacuous, easily digestible propaganda, bullying the tenants of the university rather than scrutinizing the master’s house? Does her hemming and hawing invite the spectator to look down on her inarticulate bluster even as he makes an ostentatious display of cheering her wild transgressions?  Does the anti-intellectual state maintain order by “allowing” her to play the maverick, as long as her performance does not threaten the royals who continue to exclude true iconoclasts and risk-takers from the banquet? (A meal laid out on a table being dismantled even as she critiques the entrée.)

 

Now that would be reductive. And ideological. And useless. To some of us, at least.

 

—Posted by Barbara White

 

From Jonathan Bellman’s Post on Disparagement

Ironic dismissal of passionate commitment to ideals, or indeed to anything, is as unsophisticated as anything on earth—simply a sneering “Huh-uh, no you can’t” with more syllables. Beyond being lazy, it is cowardly: the tacit acknowledgment that someone’s commitment, passion, and action have called you out, and cast your ironically superior pose into the light for what it is.

—Jonathan Bellman, “On Disparagement,” posted on Dial M For Musicology, September 19, 2014.

“Moving At the Speed of Thought”—Or, A Drop of Liquid Sunshine

[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013

[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging.  Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won.  But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]

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Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.”  He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion.  He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles.  I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.

[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]

Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).

[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard.  The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression.  And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later.  I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]

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Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”

[Indeed.  One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma.  I marvel at my profession’s expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess.  My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called “a vale of soul-making”—

—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, “You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]

Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward.  He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.

There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential.  “What would equality look like?  What would it sound like?”

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Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts.  She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma.  I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.

Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules  in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended)  that  the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around.  One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”

[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.”  Perhaps its exit is also messy.  I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine.  I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work.  I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format.  Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma.  I have had enough bleeding for now.  Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]

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Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.”  The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.”  Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.

Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach.  Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about.  He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.” 

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It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated.  Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all.  Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year.  I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.

These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”

March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness.  Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating.  The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while.  I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly.  Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together.  I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit.  Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.

Gangplank-225x300“The speed of thought”: the speed of my thought, I see, is slow, its path recursive, its destination hidden.  Sometimes it feels less like a path and more like a gangplank.

March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world.  Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists.  It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.

April 1: a good day to post at face value.  Time to listen to the birds, head out,  and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.

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*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs.  “On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.

 

What is Classical Music’s “Women Problem” Problem?

Chewing on the many issues raised by
“What Is Classical Music’s Women Problem?” by 

Formerly posted elsewhere by Barbara White, October 11, 2013

Thank you for calling attention to this issue, for covering it with nuance, and for including counterexamples. This eruption has an all too familiar shape: there is the A theme (inane offending statement), the B theme (understandably outraged response), and . . . well, not a lot of development. Recapitulations abound though: Twenty-five years ago Rolf Smedvig, trumpeter with the BSO, claimed that women lacked the equipment to play brass instruments, and there was outcry; in 2013, despite certain improvements in circumstances, the nature of the discussion itself has not changed all that much.

The very question, “Why aren’t there more female conductors?” shapes the discussion by implying that there is a clearly identifiable cause for underrepresentation and that the interviewee himself possesses a sophisticated and worthy understanding of a complex societal problem; this invites him to express his unconsidered biases and just make something up. When posed to a (specific) male figure who, it appears, has had no incentive to consider his male privilege, and who does not care about the underrepresentation of women in his field, the response is more a script than an exchange: a man exposing his inadequacy by claiming (yawn) that women are “weak.”

Consider a different question: “How do you go about fostering equity and respect in the workplace to make sure that the profession can ascend to the highest possible level?” I don’t for a moment think the esteemed gents cited here would start waxing poetic about diversity and inclusion, but it would take a step away from these unwitting invitations to proclamation one’s incomparable virility: “Why no women? Because my penis rules! Only I can wield the wand!” (Yawn again.)

And why is this called a “women problem”? (I know this may not be the author’s title.) Could NPR instead dare to title this article, “Gender discrimination persists amongst prominent male conductors”? Or, “Misogyny hinders excellence in classical music”? Or, “Male privilege still enjoyed by highly paid time-beaters?”

It is heartening to read, “I would like to hear the women in our community speak up as well, without fear of embarrassment, contempt or retribution.” And there are those of us who do speak up and write about such matters; I am only one who has done so. But the sad reality is that, in addition to the necessary burden of some of us (some women and a few men) taking on a second shift by addressing and resisting unequal treatment, those of us who advocate for equity do experience retaliation every day. And women are socialized to downplay the intransigence of inequity, encouraged instead to internalize the Ayn Randian notion that those who are tough enough will succeed and those who speak up about discrimination are just whiners—to focus on individual will and determination instead of systemic mechanisms that render some more equal than others. Ask a woman in a male-dominated field whether she has experienced discrimination (another one of those cocked questions), and see whether she checks the box yes or no. It’s another script, and a reply of, “No, no, not at all; I’m too strong for that” is positively reinforced. So, inviting women to speak up without fear is laudable but may—although this is absolutely inexcusable—cause even more harm to women. Even in 2013.  Sad but true.

For example, here is another prominent conductor speaking on the dearth of women in the field, ten years ago: “I personally feel that accepting the role of powerless victim can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I am unwilling to even entertain that concept!” Who was that? Marin Alsop. It was posted on her site in 2003 as part of a
reply to the question, “Have you ever experienced prejudice as a woman in a field dominated by men?” It’s still there.

Faculty To “B-word”: “Toodles!”

In an unsurprising development yesterday, the combined faculty of all United States institutions of higher learning voted to terminate employment of any scholar who had previously uttered the word “b—h.”  This sweeping reform applies to utterances in the classroom and outside; to loud statements and to soft, tentative ones alike; and to self-scolding.  The intercourse at the First National Epithet Caucus was cool, calm, and collected, the discussion genteel, peppered with academically appropriate expressions such as “gentlemen” and “esteemed colleagues.”  Tea was served, with an herbal option available.  There were gluten-free muffins, and no one complained about the taste.

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The meeting was inspired by an online discussion regarding the famous and little-known “Salaita Affair,”  in the course of which a bravely anonymous faculty member advised, “Perhaps a better way to look at this is to rely on George Carlin’s old comedy skit about ‘seven dirty [sic] words.’ In short, don’t use them to maintain civility.”  The subtlety of this recommendation was appreciated by all, and there was a unanimous vote to adopt the “Carlin Standard” as a measure of civility on campus, which promised to ensure that all language would remain harmonious for all.

Namaste Bitches

Music faculty from across the country did not mobilize, become heated, or express concern about the proper procedure for citing Miles Davis’s “B——s Brew”: they’d always been puzzled by the title’s grammar anyway, and there are plenty of other Miles albums to work with.  Women’s studies professors did not raise questions about assigning B—-s, B—-s and B———–s: The Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes.  

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No faculty member asked for special dispensation for a colleague who had called him or her a “b—h”: there was no report that they had later discussed the matter, learned from it, agreed that the term was counterproductive, and had gone on to teach a gender studies seminar together.  Indeed, since any remedy and/or rapprochement would require both parties to utter the verbum non gratum, it seemed moot.

No professor who, upon being appointed chair of his or her department, had anointed himself or herself “Head B—h,” mentioned the possibility of reclamation or destabilizing meaning.  There was no panel on socialization or Stockholm syndrome.

Not Always B---- Coffee Mug DETOURNEDThere was no concern about addressing the reality that coarse and crude language is ubiquitous in the culture at large or that expunging it completely could make it difficult to discuss important matters.

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It was agreed that the 🙂 be included in all communications henceforth, which will allow Tweets, blogs, text messages, peer-reviewed articles, tenure statements,—as well as notices of disciplinary action—to remain free of any appearance of antagonism.  All applauded demurely at the Smiley Initiative, which promises to ensure a “positive, welcoming, fair and open environment” for all members of the higher-education community.  (A subcommittee has been appointed to develop a technology that will enable the Smiley Initiative to be used in face-to-face meetings.)

As the terminations were effected, there was no uproar.  Petitions did not circulate.  Neither boycotts nor strikes took place.

NOT YOUR B----

As classes began this week, students were not ill-served by finding that the vast majority of their courses were unstaffed due to the termination of the “b-worded.”  It has been confirmed that there are seven professors in the nation whose records are clear and who retain their positions; they have agreed to increase enrollment in their courses in order to accommodate the students whose mentors are no longer available.  It is not yet clear how this reshuffling will affect grading policies or the implementation of new measures aimed to curb sexual assaults, which are being proposed at many universities.

Students’ assigned work this week, in tweet and text-message format, frequently featured the new expression “WTF,” said to be an acronym for “Wow, that’s fabulous.”  However, other interpretations have been proposed, among them “Whoa; très freaky,” and “Wonderful!  They’re free.”

In response to IAmNotMakingUp’s tweet to all the nation’s faculty asking for comments, the response was a unanimous 🙂

—Guest Post by Rosie Router

 

All the Way Down

“I object to the hegemonification of the verbed noun.”
“Shouldn’t that be hegemoni—?”
“I love it when you talk sub-altern-dirty.”
“Shall we interrogate the ‘cleanliness’ construct?”
“As long as we problematize the discursive paradigm.”
“No worries, I’ve got my arsenal of non-binary identity-destabilizing implements handy.”
“‘Arsenal?'”
“Would ‘bouquet’ be better?”
“Still too dualistic. Supply?”
“Normative economics.”
“Toys.”
“Age construct. Infantilization and projection.”
“Ah, let’s just watch Fox.”
“Deal.”
“Transactional term supporting the dominance of the market state.”
“OK, ‘Finding Nemo’?”
“I love the turtles.”
“They go all the way down.”

—Posted by IAmNotMakingUp

Space is the Place

My Harvard Facebook group has been discussing an article Ellen Jovin shared: Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period! 

I was blissfully unaware of this seismic shrinkage until a month or two ago, and several months before my fall from grace, I was reading student papers and observing that the use of just one space after a period looked underwhelming (all the more so when there were other infelicities in the writing).  I had no idea that it was the new normal.  Thus, having brought the two-space-embrace with me into the computer era—twenty-five years ago!—I am having a hard time adjusting to my sentence, to this notion that I should halve my space.  And it has thrown me to think that I had failed to notice the new standard.

And, my spacing shows me to be . . . over 40!  Bless me, youngster, for I have sinned.  By surviving four dozen years without dying.  (My shame was eased ever so slightly when I read that I have classmates who, like me, prefer the two-space program.)

A couple of weeks ago, I read another account of the same phenomenon.  When first I heard, I figured it must have been a Twitter repercussion, a capricious notion arising from that character-meter that tells you how many spaces you have left in your microtext.

At last having time to satisfy my curiosity, I just now took a moment to look at some academic journal articles, choosing one by Harvard’s Daniel Albright—and, well, I remained vexed, because academic articles are right/left justified!  (In addition, there is approximately one punctuation event per paragraph, so the data set is unreliably small.)  No wonder I had not noticed the disappearance of the sous-space.  So, am I now to understand that these articles circulating and proselytizing about saving space apply only to texts such as this blog, type[sic]scripts, and the like?  And æther-mail?  It seems odd for dual-spacing to be considered such an offense when people are hyphenating adverbs and using colons after verbs and stuff.  Not to mention all the nouning and verbing that I see every single day.  (It’s a fail-ure, not a fail!)  I just don’t get it.  Why is there suddenly so much attention to decreasing the space between words when the words themselves are so often shabby?

And how is it that being over forty has now become a sign of being a poor writer?  I thought we were the ones always telling the hipsters to shape up.  On the contrary!  This new generation is so judgmental:

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste*. . . .  What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right.
—Farhad Manjoo, “Space Invaders”

*I have yet to receive word of the fate of the four-dot ellipses used at the end of a complete sentence.  Did anyone think about that before they voted to semi-space all sentences?  Does a proportional font—the reason given for the new zoning regulation—obviate the need for a distinction between the end of a sentence and an unfinished sentence?  The marker of omission—the series of three mute dots—has already been brutally smooshed together . . .  as if the mysteriously unstated is merely nonexistent.  Do I understand correctly that it is of urgent importance to save a space after every sentence, while it is acceptable to use three question marks just before???  And what about the poor em dash—which has so often suffered drafts from either side, not to mention getting replaced inexplicably with the inadequate little hyphen?

And how is that the space between sentences is getting all the funding for repair, when there are still so many extra spaces between words within so many sentences?  We seem to be losing sight of the everyday here, focusing on the dramatic, to our detriment.

I cannot help but think that this coup de point arises from broad cultural shifts.  Bad ones, of course.  Do we want to give in to them?  We complain about being busy and rushed—and people write about our complaints with sentences that I now realize are granted only a single space to breathe before the next begins.  Is that really a coincidence?  And more and more people are staying single.  Could they be behind this eschewal of the paired space?  On the other hand, our culture seems to have trouble with boundaries, and we are flirting dangerously with word disindividuation here: how long will it be before we abandon punctuation altogether and every sentence is one breathless portmanteau word with indistinguishable syllables?

Oh.

I get it.

It doesn’t matter whether what I write is intelligible, or meaningful, as long as it looks good.

Now, that makes sense.

There is no penalty for describing oneself as “reticent” to adopt a dog.  As long as the dog gets one space and one only.  Consider this pair of sentences: “Old Québec, a UNESCO World Heritage treasure, is walkable and safe.  Stroll the only walled city North of Mexico and its cobblestone streets.”  I gather no one will be confused about the location of those cobblestone streets as long as they don’t wait too long after the safety announcement before commencing their stroll.

And to make it worse, I look at this absurdly long disquisition and now think there is too much space after my sentences.  I have been tamed.  But, before letting go the second space, I’ll remember these words:

When I write, therefore, I enhance the meaning borne in my sentences—not only in dialogue but in narrative—by imposing on them silences tailored through heavy use of commas, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, and line breaks.  It is something that gives my copyeditors hypertension, yet I encourage students to write this way, and to read their pieces aloud as often as they can, to an audience if possible.  An audience furnishes feedback, tells you by its response how well your scansion’s working.  Thus, I tell my students, silence boosts the import of the words you write.
—George Michelson Foy, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence

Of course, the book where I read this is also fully justified.

—Posted by IAmNotMakingUp

From One Egg To Another


It’s nice to see you here in the æther, Brad, and to read your “We Are What We Think.”  It’s been a while, and we do not really know one another, yet I’ve always thought you a fellow good egg, so I shall presume to speak freely, as one egg to another.  When I read your comment, I begin to dream about what it might be like to think of gender issues as simple and as something that could be gone beyond.  The thing is, I don’t have that luxury.  Indeed, #SomeOfUs, at some times, might experience the inverse: as if every mince of meat in the pie is wrapped within a tight crust of gender socialization.  All the veggies and spices are held in check; it’s hot and uncomfortable in there.  I observe how frequently constructions like, “it’s not just gender” come up.  (Again, socialization: I myself included a formulation not entirely unlike this in my earlier text.)  If I had a dollar for every time I read, “it’s not just gender,” I’d have . . . $0.73 on the dollar.

think what you are(I’ve had this détournement on hand for some time.)

I think we also think what we are.  Moreover, depending who holds what sort of power and how much, we are effectively what others think we are, whether or not we think so.  One could run around like a chicken with her head cut off if she continued to be and think this way.

This is my vantage point: rather than nibbling on the gender aspect as the chicken in the soup, I drink it in as the stock.  It’s always there, hydrating (or drowning) the rest of the ingredients, and it has caloric, if not always measurable, effects.  I often refer to the “second shift”—a term that has been used to describe women’s domestic “homework,” completed after returning home from the workday.  But the shifts are more than two: as “the gender” (a term a colleague applied to me once), I have a second shift in managing the chromosomal matters that come up from day to day.  On the occasions when issues of equity threaten to affect my performance and/or well-being, my third shift—seeking remedy—commences.  The price for all this is high.  Often the dishes go unwashed.  For days at a time.

I am intrigued by what you write in your 2007 essay, and I am sorry it was not embraced for more traditional publication.  I especially appreciate the inward-lookingness, which is all too rare in the contexts and culture(s) you describe.  Many of your stated concerns intersect with my own.  Along these lines, I have been conceiving of a project to do with the intersection of ethics and the arts—perhaps less frighteningly described as values and the arts.  My dream is to foster more attention to the implicit habits of mind that stock our soup and thus to the more explicit, if still unquantifiable, fruits and poisons of those habits.  Perhaps there is more discussion to be had on this topic.  Ironically, although gender is one of the main factors—if not the only one—that led me to reflect on values and ethics as related to artistic activity, the requirements presented by my many shifts preclude my moving forward on this endeavor at the moment.  It’s too bad, because I think such a project would contribute much to the field and its culture, and I would like to make such a contribution.  Maybe someday.

I remember that Paul told me about your blog when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I think we were experiencing life-threatening illness at the same time.  Perhaps there is something to the notion that such an experience can clarify and distill one’s values and goals.  Although that sounds cliché, for me one aspect of such reorienting may be that clichés cease to feel so clichéd; that values feel more urgent, more communal, less rarified.  Of course, I do not know whether this was your experience, so I would be curious to know.  For my part, I fired up the still and started on the moonshine some time before my diagnosis, so I was already under the influence of thoughts about impermanence before I met my tumors.  As I get older and continue breathing, I debate whether I want to spend my remaining years stirring against the current, or whether it would be more useful to twirl over to the blender to make gazpacho instead.

You mention “the sense of protection and entitlement that leads to an unhealthy insularity.” #NotAll would choose to reflect, and openly, on this sort of privilege and its effects.  I suspect we might have some similar thoughts about the current political, cultural, and academic climate.  My eyes have been opened of late as I have learned more about the experiences of adjunct faculty across the country, as well as of tenure-track and tenured faculty who teach at institutions that permit less hermetic luxury.  And there are the recent threats to academic freedom, which seem to be arising at regular intervals.

As a fellow presumed good egg, perhaps you will be interested to hear that such a sense of safety and ease is is largely foreign to my experience.  My sense is of disenfranchisement and exposure to the elements—so much so that my saying even this much may well open me to professional risk.  Even though I am a full professor with a distinguished record, I do not believe my tenure to be secure.  I know that I do not have access to academic freedom.  My environment is not insular; on the contrary, I travel largely on my own, outside the clubhouse.  This is a shame and a shock, for such stability is one of the great perks of knocking oneself out as a junior professor (the others, of course, being able to work at home in pajamas, and having good health care if and when the overwork catches up—if that is, one thinks materialistically about such matters).  And I fear not only for my job security, livelihood, and wardrobe, but for my overall well-being and my very survival.  Stirring against the current takes a toll.  Again, it is an unquantifiable one, but it can be deadly in various ways, both literally and metaphorically.  I’m only joking about the pajamas, of course: it’s the vocation itself that draws me.  And so I am sorry to find that, even after paying my proverbial dues—plus the gender tax levied on top—I am hindered from “contributing to the field,” as we say when we advocate for our mentees in all those letters of recommendation, thwarted in my efforts to share the wisdom I have gained along the way.

IMG_0078

In the stream of your self-reflection, you write, “I could also hide behind the tired excuse: ‘I’ve already written/said/discussed this before, so why drag it out and bore everyone again?’ Been there. Done that.”  That is another difference.  I  sweat in the heat but am denied the license to get out of the kitchen.  I do not have the luxury of choosing not to be bored, or electing not to bore you.  As with life-threatening illness, one cannot take a break from gender disparity and disrespect.  Moreover, crafting a productive response to counterproductive circumstances is much harder than writing a dissertation or compiling a portfolio for promotion.  (Hmm—perhaps we could give tax credit to junior professors for gender duty?)  I’m damned if I cluck and damned if I don’t.  Instead, in order to survive, I must continue to cough up eggs even as my limbs are being chopped off.  How long before there are none left to sacrifice?  It’s like The Giving Tree, which I cannot but call “The Tree of Codependence.”  Or like the Monty Python’s disembodied knight.  (He perseveres, armless, to scoff at his opponent: “Chicken!”)

I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is worse than cancer.  Much worse.  I strode to my mastectomy, but I trudge to the concert hall.

In regard to the nature of the concert hall and thinking outside the box, I believe this matter too to be deserving of attention and inquiry.  I agree, in 2014, about the restrictions you identified in 2007.  But I have to play prep cook first and ask, whose box is it?  And how do those who have yet to make our way in step outside of it?   (By the way, hasn’t the fantasy of “thinking outside the box” become rather boxy itself since 2007?  Funny how that happens.  Times have changed.  Do you agree?  Should we at least ask the chicken’s name and make sure she’s got room to stretch?)

Do I remember correctly that when you came to the Princeton conference some years ago you performed solo, something kind of folky?  I remember having a resistance to that, in a way that will not surprise you given what you write/wrote in your essay.  And that’s a good experience to have.  I would not have the same response today, I bet.  What  might it mean that “something folky” is what puts someone off in the concert hall in the ivy?  (Or perhaps that was someone else.  It’s been a while.)

Fast forward to 2014, last night’s gig: I was ticket-seller for the Thursday-night Ceilidh here in Cape Breton.  There is a sign at the entrance to the Sessions Lounge that says, “Beer Belly Boulevard.”  Local musicians, mostly amateur, and (“and,” not “but”) supremely skilled and devoted; their music is moving and inspiring.  I got a $5 tip!—from a hulking, very drunk man who called me “sweetheart.”  I tried to refuse the money, suggesting he reallocate his funds to the bartender who was working for minimum wage and tips, but he firmly pushed the bill into my hand.  (Given his disinhibited state, I didn’t think it would be productive to undertake a discussion on his unwanted largesse.)  A fleeting moment, but neither simple nor beyondable: a physically intimidating man refused to accept that I would not accept his money and assumed license to address me with a term of infringement.  I toyed with the thought of disclosing to him my salary, whether the $0 per Ceilidh I get for taking tickets or the vast sum I receive for my multiple shifts at the university.  (In an immaterial sense, I am no longer sure which is more lucrative.)  Instead I took the colorful fiver and bought my duo partner a Bud.  Then I joined in the weekly jam session and played some jigs and reels on my bass clarinet, swimming along with the circle of generous and welcoming local virtuosi.  At ease.

And now, I must take my leave.  There is a very nice man across the room who has just cooked me an omelette.  (It’s actually French toast, but sometimes you gotta break an egg to make sour-grape lemonade, eh?  If I can’t catch a break, I’ll take poetic license.  With maple syrup.)

I am curious: how have your thoughts crystallized and/or shifted since your 2007 essay?  Anything new?  And to the larger—here I use such a word advisedly—issue: how is your health?  Good, I hope, in all ways, small and big.  (And let me know if you do not self-identify as a good egg; it’s not for me to say.)

—Posted by IAmNotMakingThisUp