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Any conference report that includes “but the mere public showing of his erection from the podium was not sufficient” is worth an extended read. The presenter–one Professor Brindley–was experimenting with cures for erectile dysfunction. His strategy involved the wince-inducing method of direct penile injection. He was not content with merely showing slides:

He paused, and seemed to ponder his next move. The sense of drama in the room was palpable. He then said, with gravity, ‘I’d like to give some of the audience the opportunity to confirm the degree of tumescence’. With his pants at his knees, he waddled down the stairs, approaching (to their horror) the urologists and their partners in the front row. As he approached them, erection waggling before him, four or five of the women in the front rows threw their arms up in the air, seemingly in unison, and screamed loudly. The scientific merits of the presentation had been overwhelmed, for them, by the novel and unusual mode of demonstrating the results.

Suddenly, Powerpoint doesn’t seem that bad.

From the web edition of Jobs for Philosophers, put out by the American Philosophical Association:

306. SAINT MARY’S COLLEGE OF CALIFORNIA, MORAGA, CA. POSTDOCTORAL RESIDENT, COUNSELING CENTER. Saint Mary’s College of California – Moraga, CA. For the 2010-2011 academic year. The Residency requires a 9.5 month, 5 day per week commitment in order to meet California licensing requirements of 1500 hours supervised postdoctoral experience. Qualifications: Psy.D, Ph. D. in Clinical/Counseling Psychology. College/University Counseling Center experience at practicum and/or internship level (desired). Fluency in Spanish (desired). Salary and benefits are competitive and subject to the availability of funding sources. Complete details are available at http://jobs.stmarys-ca.edu. Preferred deadline is 01/18/10. Open until filled. EOE. www.stmarys-ca.edu. (184W), posted 1/11/10

Yes, that’s right.  Once again, our esteemed national organization has accepted a listing for someone with a psychology degree. Wrong APA!  I’m sure there are charitable explanations, but my preferred non-charitable one is that the national organization is suffering from the same confusion as the typical acquaintance who hears a philosopher explain that he does philosophy and then asks if he’s allowed to prescribe Prozac or if he needs a medical degree to do that.

The “traditional forms of history are dying” meme is strong within conservative precincts, and, oddly, the New York Times. “Traditional” in this case usually means one of a choice of political, diplomatic, economic or military history. The regular story is that these important kinds of history are being excluded from academia by (unstated but usually implied) less important forms of history that involve politically correct topics like race and gender. The articles are written from the viewpoint of the traditional forms of history, and those quoted represent those forms. Input from those historians practicing the PC forms are largely ignored.

A canonical example of this came a few years ago, in the National Review. John Miller wrote “Sounding Taps: Why Military History is being retired,” which took as its starting point the inability of the University of Wisconsin to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair in Military History. Miller’s article is typical of the breed. It nodded to the “official reason” why the Chair hasn’t been filled, but then pivoted to the “real” explanation:

The ostensible reason for the delay is that the university wants to raise even more money, so that it can attract a top-notch senior scholar. There may be another factor as well: Wisconsin doesn’t actually want a military historian on its faculty. It hasn’t had one since 1992, when Edward M. Coffman retired. “His survey course on U.S. military history used to overflow with students,” says Richard Zeitlin, one of Coffman’s former graduate teaching assistants. “It was one of the most popular courses on campus.” Since Coffman left, however, it has been taught only a couple of times, and never by a member of the permanent faculty.

And even the military history that some are doing was not acceptable to Miller because their military history took as its main focus social and cultural concerns. Thus had military history been “infiltrated” by social history to the cost of the real kind of military history, operational military history (this ignored–as Mark Grimsley pointed out) that Mac Coffman, Wisconsin’s emeritus military historian, was actually a social historian of the American Army. Never mind the facts, we have a narrative to write.

But this post is not mainly about Miller’s article. That came out a while ago, and others have done a good job of shredding it: Grimsley’s post mentioned above, and a number of others by him, which are gathered here. There was also a useful discussion on H-War.

No, this post is about the way in which the narrative overcomes the reality. This is nowhere in evidence more than in the most recent article of the genre, Patricia Cohen’s piece in the New York Times. The article starts off with the standard lead-in:

To the pessimists evidence that the field of diplomatic history is on the decline is everywhere. Job openings on the nation’s college campuses are scarce, while bread-and-butter courses like the Origins of War and American Foreign Policy are dropping from history department postings. And now, in what seems an almost gratuitous insult, Diplomatic History, the sole journal devoted to the subject, has proposed changing its title.

For many in the field this latest suggestion is emblematic of a broader problem: the shrinking importance not only of diplomatic history but also of traditional specialties like economic, military and constitutional history

It goes on in this vein, quoting senior diplomatic historians and a lone graduate student, mostly commiserating the state of the field. All in all, it’s a pretty standard example of the type. Read the rest of this entry »

Is it absolutely necessary for the image gracing the cover of the most recent issue of the official mouthpiece of my professional organization to depict something that, when seen on my desk by a colleague from another department, compelled her to ask where a viper fish would even get a detachable penis to whack off against a shrimp-wielding toucan? Do other departments not laugh at us literary folk enough already?

Why does this same issue contain a write-up of a forum from the 2007 MLA convention? Did it really take two years and change to transform that panel into something print-worthy? So I take it the first sentence is supposed to read:

In contributions to this 2007 panel of the division on Comparative Studies in Romanticism and the Nineteenth Century, titled “Untiming the Nineteenth-Century: Temporality and Periodization,” periodization, a venerable mainstay of comparative literarature safeguarded by its apparent neutrality, is critically arraigned.

Lest you think I’m mocking the author of this sentence, Emily Apter, let me make this absolutely clear: Apter’s introduction is lively and interesting—historicists like myself tend to be interested in arguments about or against periodization even when we disagree with them—but how well is her intellectual project of two years previous served by appearing so belatedly? How well is her intellectual integrity represented by an error so basic only a typesetter could have made it?  These are the standards against which necessarily inconsequential (because) online conversations should be judged?

Maybe I’m still in a foul mood, but I don’t think so.

(x-and-posted.)

Teaching composition exclusively leads to (1) a greater appreciation for the pedestrian complexity of correctly subordinated clauses and (2) a bone-tiredness for the unmerited praise of student peer reviews.  As someone with a penchant for paragraph-length sentences, I find (1) wholly salutary; but (2) irks me endlessly.  Why?  In one of my undergraduate History of the English Language course, the professor handed out slips of paper on which he had written a single sentence and told everyone to decipher what it meant, because he wanted us to present the sentence and the paraphrase to the class in ten minutes.  My sentence read:

Another thing there is that fixeth a grievous scandal upon that nation in matter of philargyrie, or love of money, and it is this: There hath been in London, and repairing to it, for these many years together, a knot of Scotish bankers, collybists, or coine-coursers, of traffickers in merchandise to and againe, and of men of other professions, who by hook and crook, fas et nefas, slight and might, (all being as fish their net could catch), having feathered their nests to some purpose, look so idolatrously upon their Dagon of wealth, and so closely, (like the earth’s dull center), hug all unto themselves, that for no respect of vertue, honour, kindred, patriotism, or whatever else, (be it never so recommendable), will they depart from so much as one single peny, whose emission doth not, without any hazard of loss, in a very short time superlucrate beyond all conscience an additionall increase to the heap of that stock which they so much adore; which churlish and tenacious humor hath made many that were not acquainted with any else of that country, to imagine all their compatriots infected with the same leprosie of a wretched peevishness, whereof those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets have given of late such cannibal-like proofs, by their inhumanity and obdurate carriage towards some, (whose shoe-strings they are not worthy to unty), that were it not that a more able pen than mine will assuredly not faile to jerk them on all sides, in case, by their better demeanour for the future, they endeavour not to wipe off the blot wherewith their native country, by their sordid avarice and miserable baseness, hath been so foully stained, I would at this very instant blaze them out in their names and surnames, notwithstanding the vizard of Presbyterian zeal wherewith they maske themselves, that like so many wolves, foxes, or Athenian Timons, they might in all times coming be debarred the benefit of any honest conversation.

That would be from the EKΣKYBAΛAYPON of Thomas Urquhart, best known for his translations of Rabelais.* In Urquhart, Rabelais found less a translator than a kindred spirit; but in Urquhart’s prose, I found an unparaphraseable wall of words, before which I stood befuddled but impressed.  Granted, I should have been impressed, so the analogy to peer reviews is imperfect; but my comprehension and subsequent paraphrase of Urquhart amounted to what I abhor in peer reviews: salivation at the sight of a dependent clause containing multiple polysyllabes and a “Good!” slapped in the margins—as if knowing big words and including them complex sentences means someone’s saying anything meaningful.  But now that I teach composition exclusively, I see similar instances of unmerited praise everywhere:

When most former major leaguers write memoirs, you wonder why they bothered; with Ron Darling—Yale graduate, former New York Met and Oakland A, and current Mets broadcaster—you wonder why it took him so long. What other former athlete could write a sentence like this even with assistance from a professional writer (Daniel Paisner): “This right here [his legendary college pitching duel against St. Johns star Frank Viola**] was one of the great epiphanies for me as a competitive athlete, only it took a while for it to resonate.” Most former pitchers can’t resonate even with help.

Just so you know, my love of béisbol knows no limits; moreover, my love of the Mets generally, and Ron Darling in particular—both as a player and announcer—is unimpeachable.  But for the San Fransisco Chronicle to praise a Yale graduate who double-majored in French and Southeast Asian history and who speaks both Chinese and French fluently—to praise him (if it was him and not his co-writer) for using the words “epiphany” and “resonate” makes me want to quodlibetificate into demission this clusterheaded intelligentry, the miserable baseness of whose expectations ought to debar them from the profession of letters.

(x-posted.)


*But who should be remembered for titling the second volume of his Logopandecteision; or an Introduction to the Universal Language thus: Chrestasebeia; or, Impious Dealing of Creditors Wherein the Severity of the Creditors of the Author’s Family is Desired to Be Removed, as a Main Impediment to the Production of this Universal Language, and Publication of Other No Less Considerable Treatises.

**The bracketed link takes you to 95 percent of Roger Angell’s “The Web of the Game,” a contender for the best essay about baseball ever written.

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has drawn generally negative reviews (though the Facebook fan club has attracted 500-some members). My feelings about it are mixed — but reading the discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place here and here I felt torn, defensive, even protective. So many readers seem to be beating up on Alexander almost personally, rather than trying to read the poems well. (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs my defense (being not only a grownup but a lit professor), but I still want to try to draw out the virtues of the poem, to show it’s worth not scorning.

To begin with, I’ll acknowledge that the poem was written for the eye. The verse is syllabic, composed in lines of about 10 syllables each. (That’s the length of iambic pentameter, but she doesn’t use that effect.) The lines are grouped in tercets, with one lone line at the end. There are sentence breaks at the ends of many lines, and of most of the tercets. In other words, there’s a strong formal grid, achieved through means that were inaudible in her performance.

(And she uses the grid intricately: in

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

see how the four -ings are placed in the lines: near the beginning, at the end, near the end, and at the beginning.)

And the choice of words is timid, sometimes banal, starting right with the first line. There’s a certain amount of padding, as if to fill out lines — the doubling in “noise and bramble, thorn and din” is redundant. And the language is self-conscious, perhaps particularly in the way the text repeatedly proclaims itself a “praise song” rather than just praising.

But most importantly, the poem puts in view at once, in relation to one another, a number of serious thoughts on the occasion — on what it may mean, for many people, that for the first time a member of a minority group has taken our highest office. In crude and partial paraphrase:

  • Our ancestors suffered
  • which is a painful memory
  • but they suffered and labored for something;
  • Here we are at a great day
  • Let us move forward with love
  • so great that it will not efface that memory (“pre-empt grievance”) but encompass it.

As nearly everyone says, writing a poem for an inauguration, or any momentous official occasion, is a mug’s game — it’s almost impossible to do well. And surely everyone has a favorite exception. Mine is John Ashbery’s “Pyrography”, commissioned by the Department of the Interior for its bicentennial exhibition, “America 1976″. It’s a magnificently inclusive ramble, as sincerely kitschy as Rushmore (or at least North by Northwest).

Part of me, this week, wished the old surreal master (still writing at 81) had been given the chance instead. But I have to admit that Ashbery could never have done what Alexander did — to tell home truths in perspective.

Following up on the discussion of teaching evaluations, I thought I’d mention courses that tend, in my experience, to be more prone to getting bad course evaluations. By “prone to getting bad course evaluations,” I mean that these courses, independent of how well they are taught, or how well the students retain the information, are nonetheless likely to be low-rated for other reasons. Today, I’d like to introduce gateway courses

There are more undergraduates planning to go to medical school than there are openings in said medical schools. Institutions don’t want to graduate a lot of pre-med majors who will never be able to get into an onshore medical school. The result, at many undergraduate institutions, is the gateway course. This is a course, coming early on in the student’s undergraduate existence, that is designed to weed out people who aren’t really committed to becoming doctors, or who don’t have the skills necessary to thrive in medical school. Some professor is given the job of designing a course so unrelentingly hard, so horrifically evil, so sadistically impossible to get a good grade, that all the excited young first years whose mommy and daddy had dreamed of them being a top-flight surgeon suddenly discover the wonders of Public Policy. Read the rest of this entry »

Even granting for the sake of argument*, both of Klein’s premises, viz., that university professors do not care about teaching, and that universities are structured not to reward good teaching, this proposal strikes me as a bad idea.  It’s not that it’s unfair; it’s that student evaluations reflect not the quality of instruction, but factors such as easy grading, and whether the professor is attractive.

Providing a handsome reward for good student evaluations isn’t going to give professors an incentive to care about teaching; it’s going to give them an incentive to care about whether they get good student evaluations.   There is not necessarily a lot of overlap. See:  NCLB, call center metrics, etc.


*I’d agree with the second, but not the first.  Plenty of professors care about teaching and do a good job; it’s just that it won’t matter a hill of beans when it comes time for tenure evaluations.

So a few weeks back, a small package arrived in my department mailbox.

“Willikers!” I thought. “Another interesting book I won’t ever have time to read!”

Sure enough, I discovered this catchy little fellow tucked inside the envelope. Figuring I’d ordered it as a desk copy because (a) everyone knows you have to suck up to Rauchway on this blog, and (b) I’m too cheap to fork over the $6.87 for a used copy, I placed it on top of the “I’d Read You if I Didn’t Have a Toddler, Seriously I Would” pile, superseding Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long, which is much, much longer and written by someone who, to my knowledge, was never photographed in a wetsuit.

Earlier this week, as fate would have it, I received a phone call from one of my favorite students. He’s planning to take my historiography and methods course next semester, and he was wondering which of the books we’d be reading first. I told him we’d be looking at History in Practice by Ludmilla Jordanova, followed by a shitload of articles, then History on Trial by Gary Nash and friends, then another shitload of articles, then . . . I dunno. Haven’t decided yet.

“What about this shorter book?” he asked.

Blood Done Sign my Name?”

“No, the other one,” he said. “I got my list here — oh, yeah, Blessed Among Nations.”

“I assigned that?” I asked. “Good to know!”

So I forget things like this from time to time — things like, you know, what I’m actually assigning to my students. But that’s not actually the point of the story. The point of the story, rather, is two-fold:

(1) Eric should give me a kickback on this. (There are five students enrolled in the class.)
(2) There is no #2.

… good luck to all of you on the various academic job markets this year.  This sums it up nicely, except on the academic markets, there are fewer coins.

It is not generally true that one is required to dance at the interviews, however, if that comes up, stay in unison.

Also, for those of you following the parliamentary dust-up in the True North Strong and Free, a helpful guide to Canadian politics.

First: I have to write some comments for a session at the Central APA. The paper I’m commenting on is by a much smarter guy, but I’m pretty sure he’s wrong. So this puts me in a weird position: I confidently predict I’ll make my objections and then he’ll respond in a smart and convincing way. So at some future moment I’ll believe that he’s right. But I don’t know the content of his reply, so I’m stuck with my current belief that he’s wrong. I’m reminded of al-Ghazali’s discussion of taqlid (more or less beliefs held out of uncritical emulation rather than reasonable enquiry) in Deliverance from Error: it seems that continued belief is incompatible with the recognition that your belief is of this sort. And yet reading this guy’s paper, I can’t but think that he’s not correct. Ah, the epistemology of everyday life. (Fine, I know about the al-Ghazali discussion only because Gideon Rosen talks about it. Damn, my Islamist cred is slipping away, isn’t it?)

Second: I got a great referee report in the mail today. Refs one and two wrote up careful, thoughtful comments. Referee number three said only: “Interesting. I don’t agree with all of it, but that’s philosophy for you.”

Indeed.

Ben Alpers has e-mailed to let us all know that historian Alan Dawley has died. I didn’t know Dawley well enough to write anything like an appropriate tribute to his life or work. So, I’ll simply note that he was, for me, the very model of the scholar-activist, a kind of moral compass for the profession.

Beyond that, it should be said that Dawley’s written work was outstanding. If you haven’t read Class and Community, and you have any interest at all in social history, get the book today. It’s a vivid depiction of a fascinating place, Lynn, Massachusetts, at a critical time, the early nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution remakes New England’s landscape, politics, economy, and culture. Then there’s this: scholarship was only one part of Dawley’s life. He also devoted himself to pursuing social justice, including the rights of working people. And, recently, he was among the most dedicated organizers of Historians against the War.

Dawley was, in sum, a great historian and, it seems, an even better person. In his e-mail, Ben says of Dawley: “His particular genius was bringing disparate personalities and points of view together by identifying and articulating real common ground. He’ll be sorely missed.” Again, I didn’t know him well enough to speak to the former point. As for the latter, I knew him just well enough to miss him already. To his friends and family, please accept our very deepest sympathies.

I’d like to be fair to Mark Bauerlein, who’s arguing, well, I’m really not sure what he’s arguing. Which makes it hard for me to be fair. But I’ll do my best.

In the main, Bauerlein seems to be responding to a comment made by April Kelly-Woessner, the co-author of a forthcoming study (detailed coverage here, a pdf with what I think must be some of the results here) on the ever-popular issue of the so-called liberal bias in the academy. Kelly-Woessner’s study finds, among other things, that conservatives often don’t go on to get PhDs for a range of reasons.

But that’s not really Bauerlein’s interest. He’s more focused on Kelly-Woessner’s suggestion that “someone who places more importance on raising a family would shy away from academia.” Because, she says, “our average workweek is 60+ hours. And unlike a regular job, where you come home at 5, we’re grading well into the evening.” Bauerlein is incredulous: “Can this be true, 60+ hours?”

Read the rest of this entry »

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