Monday, November 24, 2008

Academic Freedom: The Professorial Right to Make Stupid and Dangerous Analogies and Get Spanked for Doing So

This is a busy time of year. And not a successful one for most of our students. Having just completed my massive pre-Thanksgiving essay grading extravaganza, I have been spending a lot of spare time gazing at puppy-cam--its all my brain is good for. Keep your eye on the one with the green collar--its trouble.

While others are fighting the good fight against the militarization of our discipline, I have been fighting the same much smaller, local version. The Sarah Palin/Sean Hannity/Brit Hume minority has been expressing its displeasure. Mysterious forces hit the College Democrats bulletin board (across from my office) systematically removing all references and celebrations of the Obama victory. Then one of the smallest blobs of intellect in the History Department decided to post on his door a right-wing blog accusing Obama of trying to build his own personal army of Hitler's Brownshirts. Posted next to the blog on his door were some nice (?) depictions of Hitler. If you are not aware of it, we have gun shows here in Texas--frequently.

Over at Contexts The Color Line blog has a nice summary of Post-Election Racist Incidents. With my heightened sense of awareness, I couldn't help but feel that our students did not need any faculty support for hate. But I am a supporter of free speech. So I embarked on a push-back campaign. had a nice critique of the "Brownshirt" accusation. I emailed it to the intellectual midget and hung copies on my door and the Democrats board. I noticed two days later he pulled his crap off his door. Score one for academic arm-wrestling and thanks to my brother for teaching me never to back down (until you have a free path to run like hell and you just can't take one more thump). Although, really, I wish he would have left it up. He said he thought it was a topic for discussion--so, let's discuss, dude.

Teaching here--in a Community College in a red state with colleagues with Master's degrees from the local University of Houston satellite campus--has challenged every perspective of academics, I have ever had. No one at the University of Virginia or Northwestern prepared me for this. Should sheer stupidity (assertions with no analytical validity, quotes taken out of context) be protected by Academic Freedom? In institutions which have no tenure system, no evaluative measure of the worth and quality of a faculty member, should we just let this stuff go?

Stanley Fish has a piece over at the NYTimes exploring a forthcoming book on academic freedom. Here is a brief summary of the argument:

Now, in a new book — “For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom,” to be published in 2009 — two distinguished scholars of constitutional law, Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, study the history and present shape of the concept and come to conclusions that support and deepen what I have been saying in these columns and elsewhere.

The authors’ most important conclusion is presented early on in their introduction: “We argue that the concept of Academic freedom . . . differs fundamentally from the individual First Amendment rights that present themselves so vividly to the contemporary mind.” The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are “grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes.”

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

In critiquing the text Fish makes this argument:

Finkin and Post are correct when they reject the neo-conservative criticism of professors who bring into a class materials from disciplines other than the ones they were trained in. The standard, they say, should be “whether material from a seemingly foreign field of study illuminates the subject matter under scrutiny.”

Just so. If I’m teaching poetry and feel that economic or mathematical models might provide a helpful perspective on a poem or body of poems, there is no good pedagogical reason for limiting me to models that belong properly to literary criticism. (I could of course be criticized for not understanding the models I imported, but that would be another issue; a challenge to my competence, not to my morality.)

But of course what the neo-conservative critics of the academy are worried about is not professors who stray from their narrowly defined areas of expertise; they are worried about professors who do so in order to sneak in their partisan preferences under the cover of providing students with supplementary materials. That, I think, is a genuine concern, and one Finkin and Post do not take seriously enough.

Responding to an expressed concern that liberal faculty too often go on about the Iraq War in a course on an entirely unrelated subject, Finkin and Post maintain that there is nothing wrong, for example, with an instructor in English history “who seeks to interest students by suggesting parallels between King George III’s conduct of the Revolutionary War and Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq.”

But we only have to imagine the class discussion generated by this parallel to see what is in fact wrong with introducing it. Bush, rather than King George, would immediately become the primary reference point of the parallel, and the effort to understand the monarch’s conduct of his morewar would become subsidiary to the effort to find fault with Bush’s conduct of his war. Indeed, that would be immediately seen by the students as the whole point of the exercise. Why else introduce a contemporary political figure known to be anathema to most academics if you were not inviting students to pile it on, especially in the context of the knowledge that this particular king was out of his mind?

Sure, getting students to be interested in the past is a good thing, but there are plenty of ways to do that without taking the risk (no doubt being courted) that intellectual inquiry will give way to partisan venting.

And you know for a brief moment, that sounded good. I transposed the Bush example, in my mind, to the Obama's Brownshirts scenario, and thought how nice it would be if Mr. Peabrain would be forced to be a good academic and not permitted to repeat such drivel.

And then where would we be? Here in Texas, I would be teaching creationism and the "all Muslims are terrorists" philosophy. lest I be accuse of "partisan venting". So, Stanley Fish, I am going to resist the appeal of your control issues and put my faith back in my students and the process of education. Most of them will figure it out--as long as we keep standing up long enough--before we run like hell.

Thanks to the World's Most Beautiful Sociology Professor for the picture of the board (pre-vandalism). As she says, its bigger and better now--cause we are the ones with the printers!

And, by the way, Bong Hits for Jesus!!!!!

(and, yes, I do think that Obama's desire to expand the Peace Corps and the State Department is imperialistic--but that is a different discussion)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

First Contact Clip: A Short Visit with an Amazing and Highly Useable Documentary

LOL. It is Sunday night and I am giving exams tomorrow and Tuesday. I just got a panicked email from a student who has only just begun to try to deal with missing the class (some weeks ago) with the showing of the documentary First Contact. I give her credit, she managed to find a preview clip that had been recently posted on YouTube. So, I am passing on her find.

I love the documentary, it is packed full of teachable moments and having seen it what seems like an infinite number of times, I see something new each time. Here are some of our discussions:

I use it to illustrate the Theory of Unilineal Evolution, 19th century evolutionary thinking. The opening newsreel footage uses the language of that view in referencing the New Guinea people "shaking off the shackles of barbarism..on the path to civlization". I try to get them to discuss notions of "progress".

We then discuss how what plays out is a good example of theories of underdevelopment/world systems theory/dependency arguments. We discuss the capture of resources and labor and who earns profit and what that continues to mean today.

I have to address the issue of the value of shells versus gold and point out disclosure laws existing in the U.S. today. Since we live in Texas, I make an analogy to oil.

We always have a spirited discussion of the shooting incidents. I have read the companion book so I have a bit more info about the incident presented in the film. A lot of students these days want to shoot anyone with a spear but there are always enough others to help out with the debate.

I use this also as an example of what oral history is like and how "truth" of any incident is hard to come by in the interview process. Sometimes we can push the discussion higher, sometimes not.

I love to point out to them that in the shit-smelling scene the New Guinea Highlanders are using scientific method to test their theory about white people being spirits...nope, the observable world reveals that their shit sticks just like ours.....not spirits.

Once we see this film, it serves as an example for the rest of the, marriage, bridewealth, collectivistic/individualistic, Moka, commodities/possessions, and then some.

It reminds me, also, the good part of interacting with the "other"; the joy of being able to participate in the sharing of their history. It is a shame it cannot be done as equals. I have to think that it is still worth doing.

(BTW the follow-up pieces (like Joe's Neighbours), also, have previews posted as well.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

(Re)Framing Darfur

International Scandal: Don Cheadle Planned Darfur Genocide To Create Film Role

An interesting satirical piece about the manner in which the Darfur conflict is co-opted by Americans. Once again, the reality of "Africa" is defined and "made" from an American perspective--for personal aggrandizement.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mama Africa goes home

Maybe today of all days, we should pause and appreciate the beauty to be had on this earth.

"I just told the world the truth, and if the truth then becomes political, I can't do anything about that."--Miriam Makeba

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hedgehogs and the Internets

I have temporary custody of my daughter's hedgehog. He can't go to college with her. She promises me that next year she will live in a house in Austin and will take him. This I am counting on. I am tired of boiling eggs for him. I am tired of his shit encrusted wheel. He is, however, terribly cute. And not named Sonic. Say hi to Theodore. He is very shy. But very sweet. In a hedgehog kind of way.

We have issues. After living with him since last Spring, I appear to have become allergic to him. I can't get anywhere near him without my eyes itching and swelling and non-stop sneezing. This makes it difficult to meet his minimal hedgehog needs. And I have pulled a back muscle from all that sneezing. I do not believe that it is psychological. But the good thing about psychology is that you never know...and the bad thing is you never know.

What does a pseudo-academic do when faced with such a challenge? Off I go to Google "hedgehogs and allergic reactions". What do I learn? Every hedgehog information site has the exact same cut and pasted, copied, plagiarized (?) snippet. Quite a few. Same thing. Over and over.

Seems I can't be allergic. Hedgehogs don't have dander. The same thread of reasoning on site after site. My students would assume that was "fact". At least, that is what I have been told.

I understand "students today" don't understand plagiarism. They are so used to this phenomenon of cutting and pasting the same "truth" over and over that they think all knowledge is open season.

Except, a ha! Pulled up were also the posts you usually ignore. But the ones with all the truth. Posts written by owners, offering hedgehogs--with all their hedgehog accessories--to good homes because their owners have developed allergies to them. Many have long sad stories of love and commitment backed up by commodity fetishism. I have bought this for them...that for them....tried this bedding...that bedding...

Most clicks does not equal most accurate is my supposition. Nice example of the Google version of truth and reality.

Don't worry. Teddy and I will make it through. New bedding is on the way. This weekend I managed a bath--for the hedgehog. I will keep pretending that a solution is in sight. Baby girl, you better make it to Austin.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Teachable Moment in Linguistic Anthropology: the great post-election talk hang-over

Are we hungerin' for a more intellectual discourse having drunk one too many beers with joe six-pack?

Those of us seeking to turn this electoral moment in time into teachable moments, will be thrilled with this marvelous blog post on Linguistic Anthropology. Peter Haney draws on Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the strategy of condescension to evaluate the success and failure of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates to appeal to the American electorate through their speech styles.

No more summary on my part. Read the post. A highly recommended teachable moment. He wrote the lecture for you.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Blue Anthropologist in a Red State: Our Job is Not Done

I suppose I should make the standard joke about that making purple. But that won't be happening. Those molecules just won't bind. Heck, they won't even do lunch. And here is why....we anthropologists are very far from succeeding at the only agenda that we ever truly had: getting the 'us-es" to understand and accept the "them-s" as fully and completely human. If we had succeeded at that simple goal would we even need to bother debating the Human Terrain System-mockery of our discipline? If that message had pierced the psyche of those of us who hold wealth and power over the world, would we even have wars to fight? These weeks...this election, should be highlighting for anthropologists the extent of our failure.

The press is debating whether it is truly possible that Sarah Palin does not know that South Africa is an independent country and not a region of the wider country of Africa. Journalists, bless their egocentric, narcissitic, biased hearts can't believe that it is true. I do. I have students that ignorant. No biggie, they are young. The real problem is that I have colleagues, you know, College "professors" that dumb. The dumb leading the dumb. Dumb and dumber. Dumb from the top down. Bottoms up? Dumb. Worse than dumb, though, they are scary. Batshit scary.

Its been a rough time of late. We are expected to finish out the semester having lost two and a half weeks to Ike. Which translates to absolutely no margin of error. No missed lecture. No discussion that goes on beyond the clock ticking in the back of my head. But I am way behind having to explain the most fundamental concepts that they should have got in other classes.

I assume like most anthropologists, I have always held myself distant from political party affiliation and electoral issues. While disagreeing with everything the Republican party stands for, I have cast my own vote dutifully for the Democratic party primarily to avoid the philosophies of the opposition. I would happily participate in a global revolution, hey, hey, you know, we all wanna change the world (thanks, World's Hottest Poli Sci Prof) but, as yet, one hasn't passed my way.

But this year I jumped in and allowed myself to hope. I suppose with advancing years my expectations had lowered significantly. Or that having protested repeatedly and loudly against the Bush Doctrine and our growing imperialism and been attacked and criticized for being "unpatriotic", I was just so happy to recognize a message with a rational thought process behind it. And the package that the message came in was so appealing. A beautiful family. A (non-allergenic) pound puppy in the White House. Ground swells. Racial healing with a thousand soundtracks. Angels having orgasms. And a President who speaks with subject and verb agreement. And, yes, not only can he pronounce nuclear but I might actually trust him with that power.

Anyway, caught up in my fantasies of a President that would not embarrass me (and hopefully not invade any more countries killing vast numbers of human beings), I did not notice how isolated I was here in the Lone Star state. You would have thought that that "lone" would have been a dead give away but de-nial is a sneaky river, its upside down, you know. It wasn't that I didn't know Texas. It was that I didn't really know how bad my College environment is. Not really. Okay, I knew it was bottom up dumb but I was really hoping it wasn't top down dumb. Okay, I knew the top top was dumb but I had some hopes for the middle. I mean, that is usually were the yummy filling is, right?

I am trying to cover "Redistributive" economies. I am trying to get to the Moka and the Potlatch(oh no, Alaska!). We have watched "First Contact", a film I adore. Love teaching from it. Would talk about it for hours. All of the sudden, we are talking American tax system and I get "Obama is a Socialist". Oh, Sweet Baby Jane, how long is it going to take to explain this....fairly, academically, thoroughly, properly.

And I am now sure that I never really did, never really could. Like those Kwakiutl salmon, I was swimming upstream.

In the last week and a half, I have, had to swallow the realization that some 3-4 of our government (the Texas word for Poli Sci) teachers and 2 of our history (should I call them professors?) and geography guys believe just that. Obama is a socialist who has pal-ed around with domestic terrorists and the only proper solution to the world's problems is MORE war. And the cessation of all possible "welfare" with any social support being distributed through one's church because even though the mantra is "Country First", the group they wish to support is not their "country" but their own tribal compounds. Joe the Plumber gets welfare and that is okay. But not one of "them". But, oh, they are so cadgy about who "them" are. Just a little too smart to play the race card, they tar and feather with a different brush. And they freely share their views and imbue their lectures with those philosophies.

One year of American history and one year of American government are state-mandated in Texas. No one has to take me. We have a long way to go, baby.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Power to the People: Right On! Queing up for the Vote

I can't help it. I am completely addicted to the election. I can barely focus on Anthropology long enough to give a lecture. And I must suppress urges to post either long rants or hopeful, optimistic school-girl blatherings about my country. In the latter category, a diarist on the Daily Kos has put together a nice photo retrospective, entitled Why We Stand In Line to Vote. It starts with the image to the left, South Africans in Soweto lining up to vote for the first time. Its a lovely collection of memories and moments. Have a look.

I was saddened to hear of Studs Terkel's death. As a one-time Chicagoan and oral historian and a full time human, I admired him greatly.