Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Oh, my God! I'm right behind you in the carpool line!"

On July 1, 2004, Washington, D.C., passed a "hands-free" cell phone law requiring all drivers to have an ear piece or microphone if they wanted to talk while driving.

I don't know anyone who has ever received a ticket for driving in violation of the "hands-free" law, an amazing feat considering every other person driving in D.C. is -- at minimum -- talking on their phone, if not Crackberrying while yapping away, or reading the paper while talking on the phone.

I drove to campus this afternoon rather than rode my bike because I rode the morning before after playing hockey until 1 a.m. Tuesday night. Once I get to the D.C. line, the AU campus is only 1.4 miles away. In the 5 minutes it took me to reach campus and find a parking spot, I counted 24 drivers talking on their phone without an ear piece. I passed one person who was just yelling into the air, and no cell phone or mircophone visible to the naked eye.

Many of these cars advertised political causes or professed allegiance to a political candidate, some of whom have not held elective office for 12 years, others of whom have long since been deceased. A mom in a Volvo station wagon brandishing stickers from Martha's Vineyard (MV) and the elite Sidwell Friends school on the rear window and a "Hillary '08" sticker the center of the back bumper was laughing and talking into her phone; a neatly coiffed man driving confidently in his Jaguar, with hair that appeared to have come from the dry cleaners and wearing a shirt featuring a mongrammed French cuff was reading the sports section with both hands on the wheel while talking into a phone cupped on his shoulder. A Suburban advertising four different Catholic schools driving in front of me pulled into the Starbucks just west of campus. A mom popped out, opened the back door and helped five kids get out the car, and ushered them across the street while talking on her phone the entire time. She talked the entire time in Starbucks, then continued to talk as she walked outside with her five kids in tow. She talked while starting the car, and talked as she pulled into traffic. Perhaps she is still talking, even now.

I'm not sure this note has any particular point. But it is always fun to see people get worked up about some problem, demand a law to address it, and then ignore the law because it doesn't work for them. Cell phone scofflaws . . . is immunity from an inconvenient law the new form of civil disobedience?

The ugliest shoes of all time

Will someone please explain to me how the Croc, easily the ugliest shoe ever worn by a human being, became so wildly popular? I have never seen a shoe that could drain even even the prettiest woman or most handsome man of their appeal so quickly. Nothing ever created by Dr. Marten, Ecco, Birkenstock or any of these other companies that target middle-class hipster wannabes comes close to the Croc for sheer repulsiveness.

How much do I hate these shoes? Let me put it this way: If Sheryl Crow showed up at my front door and apologized for blowing me off 24 years ago and was wearing Crocs, I wouldn't take her back.

Yes, I hate them that much.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

You graduated from college. Now what?

So here we are, coming off the last weekend in May, and our nation's universities have just finished rolling their last undergraduates off the assembly line and into the working world. The smart ones will put off any meaningful career choices for as long as they can, waiting until they run out of degrees and/or out of money before they are pulled, kicking and screaming, into the "real world." Perhaps they'll make some money this summer, working as bartenders, waiters, camp counselors, strippers, amusement park attendants, toll booth operators, Hooters girls, bat boys, heat gun specialists or minor league baseball mascots . . . jobs they don't have to defend as their "life's work" if they run into someone they know from days gone by and take comfort in knowing they can leave to return to school.

The less fortunate ones will start their first grown-up job. After four or five or six or seven or however many years it took them to graduate from college, they'll finally have to get a haircut, a pair of shoes that covers the entire foot, put on a shirt that covers most of their torso and does not say, "Delta Tau Delta/Alpha Chi Omega Spring Bar Crawl Informal 2006" or sport a T-shirt with clever one-liners like, "P * * * y Magnet" or "Warning: Touch Me and You'll Burn I'm So Hot," put away the sweat pants with "I Love Pink" or "Delta Gamma Forever" on the butt, take off their welded-on baseball caps or at least turn them around and practice their conversational skills so that the words "like," and "dude," or the phrases, "like, no fucking way," or "get the fuck out!" do not make an every-other-word appearances in their sentences, especially the ones they will use in their job interviews.

The first few years after college are a difficult time in a young person's life, much more so than commencement speakers, university presidents, career center counselors or even professors are willing to admit. For a teen-age underachiever like myself, college was a great time, my personal Get Out of Jail Free Card from high school, an opportunity to start over, free from the suffocating cliques and social pressures to become the person you wanted. You spend four years -- that's all I was permitted at my father's expense -- taking steps towards adulthood, learning how to navigate your way through personal problems (getting blown off by Sheryl Crow) or financial crises (($7.24 in the bank with a week left in the semester) on your own, learning about the rest of the world works (you mean they actually have grocery stores in other countries? Who knew?) and learn the art of calm, deliberative and engaged conversation on complex and often controversial topics ("YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT WE SHOULD HAVE DROPPED THE ATOMIC BOMB ON HIROSHIMA SO FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE, WIMP, SHITHEAD!!!") that will help you transition into the adult world.

And then what? Just like that, you're back at the bottom, fretting over whether you're going to get a job doing someone else's bidding for barely enough money to pay your rent, go out once in a while, buy beer that actually tastes like beer and have enough money to buy clothes for work, usually from places you would never have considered entering in broad daylight when you were spending other people's money. Who wants to tell their friends, extended family or former professors that their first job, for the most part, really sucks? You spend most of your day looking for things to do because there just isn't that much going on; what you do do doesn't really require skills beyond 10th grade literacy (and that's even if you attended a public school in the South, like me); you would quit and wait tables or mow lawns or just bag it and drive around the country attending major league baseball games in every city if you could.

But you can't. Nope. You went to college, you majored in political science and you're in debt up to and probably beyond your eyeballs. And, to complicate matters, you live in Washington, D.C., where bragging about how long and hard you work doing something that is no doubt very important is the highest form of conversational currency. Try this little test sometime:

"So," says an assembly line Washington professional to you, adjusting his Timex watch under the cuff of his ill-fitting button-down shirt with one hand while looking over your shoulder to see if he knows someone genuinely important, "who are you working for since you graduated?"

You: "I work as a male prostitute for Hollywood female starlets shooting scenes for their movies in Washington. These women are away from home for long periods of time and they have needs, if you know what I mean (don't forget to wink while you say this). It's all very cool. I get a call from a personal assistant saying that Julianne Moore, Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson or Hillary Swank is coming to town for a week and would like someone to show them around town. And that's what I do. No $300 massages, just brass-tacks, scream-out-loud, crazy-ass sex with some of the hottest women in show business. And let me tell you about Lindsay Lohan . . . that girl can party."

Him: "Great talking to you. I think I see someone who owes me an email. Nice seeing you again."

"Again?" You've never seen that person. Ever. You'll also never see that person again. Until he needs something, provided you have something to offer.

Now try this answer:

You: "I'm working as a Legislative Assistant for Rep. Bob Forehead, who represents the 3rd district of Fredonia."

Him: "Hey, that's a great job! I was with Representative Forehead a couple of days ago -- he and I are very good friends -- to talk about some legislation that I am helping him write. You ought to get to know Patty Pearls and Wally Wingtips . . . they've worked for him for a long time and know everyone in this town. Stay with it. You're in a good place. Here's my card. We'll talk again soon."

Really . . . try it. You'll learn soon that I'm not making this up.

* * * * * * * * * *

Work, work, work. That's all Washingtonians like to talk about. New Yorkers like to talk about money. Los Angelenos like to talk about deals . . . deals coming, deals going, deals missing and deals pending. Southerners like to talk about football. Washingtonians talk about work like weight-lifters talk about how much they can bench press. "You worked how many hours last week? 483? That's nothing. We didn't get out until 28 o'clock on Friday night." So you start to wonder: "What's wrong with me that I'm not working that much or that I don't really care if I do."

The answer: Guess what? No one is really working that much. The people who regale me with their stories of workplace heroics are the same ones who forward me unfunny emails throughout the day, email me links about things I may or may not care about, call to vent about some injustice visited upon their child in youth sports, by their 2nd grade music teacher or ask me where my children are going to summer camp three years from now, email me to tell about the email they sent to someone about another person's email who had emailed another person about an email sent out by someone I don't know about an email that has nothing to do with me or anyone related to me or email me to tell about something they just won on Ebay after six very intense hours of bidding.

My dad ran a small retail business for 25 years and then ventured into other things that required him to go to an office building with an elevator, marking the first time that he had to venture beyond street level to go to work. My mother was a nurse. My neighbors growing up owned small grocery stores, insurance offices, two-person accounting firms, managed retail stores or worked for Delta, Coca-Cola or some other company I had actually heard of. I didn't know anyone who taught college, practiced law for a big firm, worked in politics or was a "consultant" of any kind. But my parents and their friends all worked hard, and spent very little time during the day wasting as much time as their "professionally educated" children do, whether shopping on-line, exchanging "drop-dead" emails with their son's hockey or soccer or baseball coach for hours on end or reading blogs like this one.

Do not make work your life. Do not become one of these people who ends up profiled in the Washingtonian or the Washington Post as one of Washington's "rising stars." Do not plan your career so that everything you do depends on a patron. At some point, your boss will lose an election, get nailed doing something really stupid or you'll realize that loyalty begins at the bottom and there is little room for you to advance. You'll quit or get fired, and you'll be right back where you started -- looking to ride someone else's coattails and make someone else's dreams come true, not your own.

Washington, D.C. is a great place for people who really loved high school -- the Post is the school paper; the Washingtonian the yearbook; Congress is the SGA by any other name; the White House is for anyone who got elected to something in high school and never got over it; the bureaucracies are the nerds' revenge . . . maybe they weren't cool enough to get elected to the homecoming court in high school or invited to join a fraternity in college, but they are smart enough to extract their revenge on the cool kids; and the Supreme Court? That is for National Honor Society members, the kind of kids who aced every class in high school, but couldn't make through a sleepover or summer camp without coming home early. I have lived in Washington almost eighteen years. People still ask me why I don't get involved in politics or try to latch on to someone's candidacy so that I can "use my skills." Leaving aside for the moment that I don't have any skills that could possibly benefit anyone in politics, the question for me is not why I am not involved, but why would anybody want to do this.

* * * * * * * * * *

Around 25% of all college graduates receive their undergraduate degrees in business. Less than 4% major in English and 2% earn a degree in history and less than that graduate with a philosophy degree. Here's one for you: more degrees are awarded to undergraduates every year in Parks, Recreation, Leisure and Fitness Studies than in foreign languages, comparative politics and Middle East studies combined. So much for September 11 changing everything.

For the liberal arts major, nothing is more awkward than having to explain to friends and relatives bearing congratulations and gifts at their commencement what he or she plans "to do" with their degrees not that they've graduated. You majored in political science? Are you planning on going to law school? Running for office? Worse, you majored in philosophy, so what can you do with that, right? Go to law school? Teach English in China? Work as an au pair? Really, what can you do with a degree like that?

All you can do with a college degree is frame it. Beyond that, how you choose to make your way in the world is up to you. Few people, even those with degrees in business, are prepared to do much more than menial work for someone else when they leave college. Although we tell our prospective students (and their families) that we are preparing them for careers in their chosen fields of study, that is nothing more than a sales pitch. All we can do is provide a baseline education in the hope that our students will become a little less certain, a little more skeptical and a little more aware that there is much to learn and that life's most enduring questions do not have clear cut answers. The world is too complicated, there is too much left to chance and there is simply so much that is going to cross a young person's path that cannot be known or predicted that the true legacy of a college education is the gift of an open mind.

* * * * * * * * * *

And just when did 22, 24 or even 25 become the cut-off point for young adults to make their choices in life? Just last week, I had the pleasure of coffee and conversation with a recent graduate of my university, a 22 year-old woman who is brilliant, beautiful and will achieve whatever she wants. And here she was . . . worried that she didn't have a "plan" for the next few years, or even the few years after she finished law school. Part of me understood exactly where she was coming from, having had the same anxieties after I finished college and had gotten off to a less-than-terrific start in graduate school (except I wasn't as smart and certainly not as attractive as my former student). But the other part of me -- the semi-grown up part -- couldn't believe what I was hearing. How could someone like this feel pressure about anything? Here is someone who is as good as it gets, and yet feeling like she wasn't moving ahead fast enough.

This was not the first conversation I have had like this with former students (and now friends) in their twenties. For all I make fun of some AU students, I have had the privilege over 18 years to teach some incredible young men and women, people far more talented, hard-working and mature than I was in college. Confession: I wasn't nearly as together as my students are when I was 21, 22 or 24. The difference was, and this may not apply to everyone going through the post-college blues now, is that I was never pushed to achieve, achieve, achieve and achieve. Kids now have a hard time just being kids. I had good time being 12 when I was 12, being 15 when I was 15, and 17 when I was 17. Now the pressure to make not just good grades, but perfect ones, to build a resume so that colleges will give you a serious look, to devote ridiculous amounts of time and money to their children's sports interests to "round out" that perfect child (and secure a professional contract or, at minimum, college scholarship) is not just wildly disproportionate to its long-term significance. It is dangerous. Our amazement at the intellectual capacity of our children and our propensity to treat them as trained seals obscures the reality that we are dealing with young people, whether 9, 13, 19 or 22, who are emotionally and socially not prepared for the world we want them to enter.

Take your time. Make sure your first adult choices are good ones. They are not permanent. Think of them as guideposts for the next round. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Above all, relax and remember that it is your life you are living.

* * * * * * * * * *

How do you know where you will end up in 10 or 20 years? Well, you don't. But hopefully the place you find yourself, whether in the White House or an African village, in Bethesda or in Timbuktu, will be the place you want to be. In our best moments, we all want to make a difference in lives of other people. But you cannot make a difference unless you are passionate about how you choose to live your life. Not just the work you do, but the books you read, the music you play and listen to, the friends you make and value . . . the whole thing. In the end, be happy that you made the right choice for yourself, not just the right choice for others. Take a chance on your dreams, and you may find the view from the other side more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.

Jazz in downtown Bethesda

This Friday evening, June 1st, my jazz trio, Zeebop, will play on the patio of California Tortilla in downtown Bethesda from 6-8 p.m. CalTort is located at 4632 Cordell Ave., across from Grapeseed, in between Victor's Pizza and Night Dreams -- true one-stop shopping.


Mark Caruso, our regular guitarist in Ocio Jazz, and I will be joined by my good friend and former band mate, Scott Aronson, on bass. Scott's presence means we will probably funk it up a bit. He can make even white folks want to dance.

Thanks to my CalTort friends Moussa, Lamine and Maas for the invitation to play. Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Gonzales 30

Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card's visit to then-Attorney General John Aschcroft's room to get him to sign off on White House detention policy appears to have angered many more people than just FBI Director Robert Mueller, Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum and Deputy Attorney General (then Acting AG) James Comey.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day, 2007

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Andruw Jones is not overrated

Jayson Stark of ESPN has just written two columns that are the filet mignon of barstool arguments for baseball fans everywhere -- who are the most overrated and underrated players in major league baseball?

I love baseball and enjoy most major sports -- football, NASCAR and professional basketball are the notable exceptions. Over the years, however, I have completely lost interest in the fist-pounding, beer-fueled arguments about who is better than whom, or should or shouldn't be traded, or who does or doesn't deserve $14.5 million a year to hit .270 and play a decent but undistinguished second base. Every time I'm at the gym and watch Sports Center, I'm grateful for close captioning so I don't have to hear anyone scream or watch a panelist pop a blood vessel over whether Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash deserves the NBA MVP. Believe it or not, these are just big boys and girls playing children's games. Whatever happens happens, and who wins and loses is just not that big of a deal. For me, sports are a diversion from life, not a way of life.

A friend was nice enough to send me Stark's column on overrated players in MLB, and his more extensive comments from an upcoming book on the same subject calling out Andruw Jones as the third most overrated player in the game. Jones has patrolled center field for the Atlanta Braves since 1996, the same year he became the youngest player in major league history to hit a World Series home run. Since 1998, Jones has won nine consecutive Gold Gloves, and is considered by most baseball professionals to be the finest defensive center fielder of the last generation, if not among the very best of all time.

Stark claims Jones is overrated, though, because he doesn't get to as many balls as he used to, and has never hit consistently for power and average. He cites a bizarre new statistical measure, the "Zone Rating," or the number of balls fielded by players in what is thought to be their defensive zone, and finds Jones has been living on his early (and justified) reputation as "The Best." Stark admits Jones is a great defensive outfielder, but not as great as so many seem to believe. He also faults Jones for being inconsistent at the plate -- he strikes out too much (true), doesn't hit for average consistently the way a center fielder should (true) and is no threat on the base paths (very true). Although Jones's power numbers for the last five years are actually quite good, Stark concludes that Jones is . . . the most overrated center fielder of all-time.

Stark is a fine writer and a smart observer of the game. He admits that he was surprised by what he found, as he thinks Jones is a good player and still gets around center field much better than most.

My favorite baseball writer of all-time is Roger Angell, not Bill James. I do not play fantasy baseball (other than to pitch BP to twelve-year olds and pretend I still "have it") or pour over statistics to find out who is most likely to hit into a double play in a day game when the count is 2-1 with his team trailing by 3 runs in the 6th inning. Baseball is a game of instincts and chance -- the very best hitter in baseball fails almost 65% of the time, and the very best pitcher will still get lit up on any given day. Yes, you make decisions based on statistical histories and probabilities, but you also go with hunches. My hunch is that most major league pitchers, if they could choose any center fielder to protect a one-run lead in the 9th inning of the seventh game of the World Series, would choose Andruw Jones. And that tells you much more than statistics ever will.

ADDED: By the way, see Andruw Jones's spectacular running, over-the-wall catch in yesterday's Braves-Phillies game here. Tell me if he still has it.

ADDED: Andruw hit career home run 350 today (Sunday, May 28). He has played ten full seasons and 81 games (1996+2007 games = 81). Since 1997, he has played no fewer than 153 games in a single season and has played 162 once and 161 once (plus post-season ever year but 2006); since 2002 he has not made more than 3 errors in a season. Compare Andruw to Jim Edmonds, Mike Cameron or Tori Hunter -- all great players -- and see what you get.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Hillary-tanic hits choppy waters

Like every other kid growing up when I did, there were about five or six choices presented to me by books from which I could choose a career. Becoming an astronaut was out -- I am somewhat claustrophobic, don't care much for heights and, even by the age of seven, had become spoiled by indoor plumbing. A firefighter? The thought of sliding down a pole to start my workday was appealing; the thought of being burned alive to save someone else's cat wasn't. A policeman? Uh, no, and I'll leave it there. Since I was a sports kid, I did entertain the thought of becoming a professional baseball player longer than I should have. But once my curveball stop fooling people and began being hit into other zip codes, I had to make some adjustment about my vocational opportunities.

Being president of the United States was something that never appealed to me. For starters, you have to spend far too much time asking people for money so that you can run for office. As a kid, I hated selling anything -- raffle tickets, lemonade, overpriced popcorn . . . whatever it was that my community sports club or school was selling to make money. To this day, I am the easiest mark there is for any kid sent out to do their organization's bidding. I don't even wait for the pitch once I see the Girl Scouts at the front door.

"Put me down for five boxes of whatever you want me to buy," I'll say. "Just make sure there are no peanuts."

There are many other reasons not to be president: the hours, the travel, the isolation, too many ceremonial events, having to do too many things that you really don't want to do . . . just for starters. But the reason I never wanted to be president is because I never thought I would be very good at it. Kinda like wanting to be an architect and not being good at math, or thinking that brain surgery might be cool, but being terrified at the sight of blood.

Hillary Clinton wants to be president of the United States because she thinks she should be president of the United States, much like she became a senator from New York because she wanted to be and thought she should be a senator. New York happened to be the place to which "my husband, Bill," as she refers to him in public, decided to establish his post-presidency career. By coincidence, New York also happens to be the media center of the world, a small tid-bit that had nothing to do with their post-Washington move. To demonstrate her solidarity with New Yorkers, Hillary put on a Yankees cap and posed for a picture. Not since Michael Dukakis wore a helmet and took a spin in a tank have I seen a politician so out of his or her element as at that moment.

Thursday, the Washington Post reported that two new books about Hillary are about to hit the stores that offer less than flattering views of her public and private lives. Hillary supporters have already launched a counterattack on the critical portraits these books paint of their heroine, who could not possibly be the ambitious, controlling, politically compromised and philosophically agnostic person who repels as many people as she inexplicably attracts. No, this is "more cash for rehash," an anti-feminist shot across the bow, resentment masking as journalism, and on and on and on. Rudy Giuliani is attacked by Hillary's pumps and pearls brigade as lacking political principles, refusing to take a firm position on controversial issues, preaching one line on "family values" while hop-scotching from one wife to another, and pissing off his children along the way. But just how different is her life, career path and political shrewdness from Giuliani's, with her "husband, Bill" doing the dallying instead of herself?

Political cognoscenti in Washington will claim that the public knows all they need to know about Hillary, and made of their minds long ago about what they think of her, Bill or their long-running soap opera of a private life. I'm not so sure. The public will drink up these books for the same reason they keep their ear to the ground for any new information on Paris Hilton's jail sentence, Lindsey Lohan's rehab progress (or lack thereof), Jessica Simpson's plastic surgery and Angelina Jolie's latest adopted baby: Americans love reading about the missteps, bad behavior, and family squabbles of famous people. Hillary Clinton has spent the last six years building a public profile she wants the public to accept as real, except what she wants is not necessarily what the public really believes. My suspicion is that many more people see Hillary Clinton for who she is, and that is as someone who should not be president simply because she believes she should be.

John Smoltz is going to Cooperstown

Last night John Smoltz beat his old friend, Tom Glavine, 2-1, to reach 200 career wins. Smoltz is now the only pitcher in major league history to win 200 games and save 150 games.

If Smoltz, Glavine and Greg Maddux retire at the same time, they will all become eligible for the Hall of Fame five years later. Each is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Maddux and Glavine will go in on their 300 + wins; Smoltz will go in on his 200 wins and 150 saves. That will be an induction ceremony worth attending.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The other Monica

"All I ever wanted to do was serve this president, this administration, this department," wept poor Monica Goodling, a former White House legal advisor and Justice Department official, to a senior colleague after it became apparent that her boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, had decided to make her the next sacrificial offering to stave off yet another call for his resignation.

At least she didn't have to explain how the president's DNA ended up on her blue dress.

Fresh from her six month tenure in early 2004 as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, Goodling took that wealth of experience to her next post -- deputy director of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, the office that oversees the work of the 93 U.S. Attorneys around the country. From there, she moved on to the Justice Department, where she worked first in a job created for her (special counsel to the head of the public affairs office) and then directly for Gonzales. And for an encore she served as the Justice Department's liaison to the White House.

Not bad for a 1999 graduate of Regents University law school who got her start in politics by working as an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee. By the time she tendered her "resignation" last month, Goodling had ended up where she started . . . if you accept the uncomfortable truth that the Justice Department has operated as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the RNC since Gonzales came on board in 2005.

Remarkable. A graduate from a fourth-tier law school -- there is no fifth tier -- with almost no experience as a prosecutor had become the Nurse Hatchet of the Department of Justice. A law school that was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson in 1986 to train Christian lawyers to serve the Lord, preferably in high-level government positions where they could oversee the sinners (liberals) and leave an imprint on public policy. Over 150 Regents law school graduates have gone on to jobs in the Bush administration -- not bad for a place that built its first library with books provided by Oral Roberts, who donated his collection to Robertson after he shut down his law school in 1985. Regents was originally called the CBN University School of Law, so named for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. The school wasn't accredited until 1996, just three years before Goodling graduated. Over 60% of her law school graduating class in 1999 failed the bar exam on their first try. Less than six years after her graduation, she was deciding who came and who went in U.S. Attorneys offices across the land.

How did Regents University law school become the training ground for elite placement for elite law and policy positions in the Bush administration? In 2001, the Dean of Regents school of government, Kay Cole James, became the director of the Office of Personnel Management, the human resources portal for the federal government. James help steer Regents graduates into the Bush Administration. In 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft modified hiring rules at the Justice Department to allow political appointees to assume more control over civil service hires. The result? Monica Goodling and like-minded "loyal Bushies" had unprecedented control over personnel practices in the civil service. By 2005, Goodling was doing what she believed the Lord wanted her to do: hire conservative, Christian lawyers to work at the Justice Department.

Goodling admitted in her testimony that she "crossed the line" by applying a political litmus test to potential Justice Department civil service employees. She or her underlings asked questions like: "Who is your favorite Supreme Court justice?" "What Supreme Court decision would you reverse and why?" and "Have you ever cheated on your wife?" Goodling also noted whether applicants had worked on political campaigns, made financial contributions to particular candidates or been members of the conservative Federalist Society while in law school. Between 2001 and 2006, the profile of career lawyers at Justice changed dramatically: fewer graduates were hired from prestigious schools, fewer hires had prosecutorial experience and more employees fit the profile of the "loyal Bushies" that the Lord had told Goodling to bring into government.

Goodling said she didn't "mean to" engage in illegal hiring practices at Justice. She also said she doesn't really know who was in charge of what -- especially the hiring and firing of U.S. Attorneys -- even though she was, by all accounts, among the two or three most important people with power over Justice Department personnel practices. Dahlia Lithwick, the peerless legal reporter for Slate, wrote that Goodling came across less as the Exploding Barbie Doll that many Democrats suspected and more like Elle Woods (the Reese Witherspoon character from
the 2001 movie, "Legally Blonde," except that Goodling resembles the beautiful Witherspoon like I resemble Robert Redford) without the puppy in drag. I watched bits and pieces on Goodling's testimony on You Tube, and I wasn't impressed. In the end, Goodling still failed to acknowledge any broader wrongdoing in the Justice Department because, like Gonzales, Kyle Sampson and Paul McNulty, her account holds everyone and no one responsible for anything illegal or unethical that might have happened. Goodling had no choice but to admit she "crossed the line" because she was confronted with incontrovertible evidence that engaged in the personnel practices that she did. The scandal of this scandal is that no one wants to come clean and tell the truth. Call Goodling's testimony the Bush adminstration's "blonde moment" if you want. But the greater offense goes much deeper than that. Turning the Justice Department over to religious zealots from Pat Robertson's law school was asking for precisely the problem that the Bible, in reminding Christians to render unto Caesar what is his and God what is his, cautions against.

Ring a bell, anyone?

"Employee's multi-tasking doesn't include work."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Gas? Expensive? Not compared to water

Although Americans still pay less for gas than any other First World Western nation, this cartoon is still funny.


I wonder if we'll a similar cartoon about the price of bottled water anytime soon. If 16 ounces of Giant or 365 brand water costs .69 cents, that means a gallon costs $5.52.

Eight 16 ounce grande coffees ($1.75) from Starbucks: $14 a gallon.

Eight Nantucket Nectars ($1.49): $11.92 a gallon.

Cheap gas is not an entitlement, not even for Americans.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Groove Yard

Here are a couple of great pictures of Mark Caruso (guitar), Justin Parrott (bass) and myself playing last night at an American University event.


For drum geeks, here is a picture of me and my set-up.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The silent justice

Clarence Thomas sat through 68 hours of oral argument during the 2006-07 term and did not utter a single comment or question for the bench. The last time he spoke during oral argument was on December 22, 2006. Since the 2004 term, Thomas has spoken 281 words during oral argument.

Newt the Frewt

No matter who you are or what you believe, you just have to give it up for Newt Gingrich. One of the great political charlatans of the last twenty-five years, Newt never flags for energy when it comes to the outrageous, hypocritical or just plain idiotic public statement. Only in America could someone whose public career has been marked by one failure after another be branded a "public intellectual" despite having never made a single meaningful contribution to public policy. Newt's great political achievement was helping to design and execute the "Contract with America" that served as the Republicans campaign platform in 1994. The Republicans took the House for the first time since 1954 and Gingrich became House Speaker. After a series of ethics violations and persistent rumors about his less-than-righteous personal life, Gingrich resigned in 1998 after being hit with a $300,000 fine for lying, tax avoidance and other problems. That didn't prevent him from leading the impeachment charge against Bill Clinton for lying about what became and remained -- sorry, Paris and Pamela -- the world's most famous blow job. Naturally, Gingrich was having an extra-marital affair of his own while making sure that consensual oral sex between a president and his intern would enter the constitutional lexicon of impeachable offenses.

Over the weekend, Gingrich gave the commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Now in touch with God and contrite about his multiple divorces, numerous extra-marital affairs, ethics violations and just general unseemly behavior, Newt warned of the "growing culture of radical secularism" that has taken over American life. When this happened is not quite clear, as one can argue that a severe shortage of radical secularists made it possible for born-again Christian George W. Bush to win two consecutive presidential terms. He went on and on about the discrimination that religious believers confront on a daily basis, the difficult life that Christians face in the United States and the anti-religious bias of contemporary American culture.

Newt Gingrich . . . man of ideas. Remember, in 1994, when he said that Susan Smith, a mentally ill young South Carolina mother who drowned her two children, was driven to her decision by liberal secularism? "I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. . . . The only way to change is to vote Republican." FOOTNOTE: As it turned out, Smith was repeated sexually molested as a teen by her step-father, the head of the local Christian Coalition chapter.

But he saved the best for last. He said this to reporters after his address: "Anybody on the left who hopes that when people like Reverend Falwell disappear, that the opportunity to convert all of America has gone with him fundamentally misunderstands why institutions like this were created."

Uh-oh . . . does this mean that Newt is coming to convert me? My rabbi would be thrilled -- perhaps I would become a serious Jew after rolling with Newt for a few days. Time to take cover.

None of this, though, is getting in Newt's path to the White House. He is going to run, he thinks, but he is going to wait a while to announce, because a serious job requires a serious attitude. Newt will not, and I mean will NOT, participate in a "game-show, 30-second-answer, so-called pseudo debates in both parties. . . . I am totally uninterested in applying for a game show as if this were 'Bachelor' or 'American Idol.' "

Newt Gingrich reminds me of Steve Carrell's Michael Scott -- a hopeless, bumbling fool completely unaware of how offensive, obtuse and stupid he really is. The difference, though, is that Michael Scott is likable because, underneath it all, he does have a good heart. Newt's right about one thing: "Bachelor" and "American Idol" might not be the right venue for him. He should head off to Oz, where he can get a heart and, while he is there, a brain.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bill Evans on You Tube

I cannot even begin to write coherently about the importance of Bill Evans, the most influential pianist in the history of jazz after Bud Powell (only because he came second), as a musical influence on me. I do not play the piano, but everything I have experienced in life can be found in his music -- joy, happiness, disappointment, heartbreak, emotional distance, reconciliation. Here is a wonderful edition of "Waltz for Debby," featuring his 1965 trio with Chuck Israels on bass and Larry Bunker on drums.

You can find much more by doing a Bill Evans search on You Tube.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Rudy G vs. the yahoos

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who transformed himself into Mayor 9/11 after the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center, is running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Naturally, Giuliani is attempting to make his resolute commitment to warding off terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign. He talks tough on the campaign trail, and insists that he will do more than any other Republican in the race to make Americans safe at home. Of course, he demurs on the question that perplexes every other Republican in the presidential race: how do we keep Iraqi insurgents and other terrorists operating in Iraq from killing Americans in that country? Simple, says Rudy. We should use "every method" short of torture because “I don’t want to see another 3,000 people dead in New York or any place else.”

Memo to Rudy: Another 3,000 Americans are already dead "any place else" -- in Iraq, a war that you support.

Rudy G's position on national security and terrorism is no surprise. He remains convinced to this day that his decision to walk the streets of Manhattan and patronize the city's cafes and coffee shops after the 9/11 attacks represented some sort of peculiar form of bravery. Like 8 of the other 9 candidates appearing at the most recent Republican debate -- with John McCain the sole exception -- Giuliani has no combat or military experience. He took two student deferments during the 1960s, as did Dick Cheney (five), Paul Wolfowitz (two), Karl Rove (two), Elliot Abrams (two) . . . wait, this could take forever.

Rudy G is in good shape when it comes to Republican red-meat issues: he supports the Iraq war; he supports "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture); he supports giving the military anything it wants; he opposes tax increases; and ad infinitum. So why is Rudy G in so much trouble with the Republican base, so much so that all the deep thinkers in the big-foot MSM have concluded that he has no chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination, even though he currently polls better than any other candidate?

Because he supports abortion rights, believes in gay rights, and (deep breath) is among the announced Republican candidates to accept Darwinian evolution as the best explanation for how we all got here. This makes him an outcast among the Republican table-setters who control the party's social agenda. Rudy G's positions on these three social issues are consistent with a majority of Americans, but not a majority of Republicans. Hmmmm . . .

Rudy G is hoping that his enhanced standing with Republicans after 9/11 will help overcome internal opposition to his socially "moderate" positions. Frankly, I have never understood Giuliani's post-9/11 celebrity status. Tony Williams, the mayor of Washington, D.C., walked the streets after the Pentagon attack and did his best to encourage the locals to maintain a sense of calm in the weeks and months after the ordeal. Even I went about my life pretty much as I always had, riding the Metro, using the local airports, lining-up at Starbucks . . . and you don't see either of us running for president. What is depressing, though, is to watch an intelligent man like Rudy Giuliani hem and haw over whether he should confess his support for positions that are supported by a majority of Americans. Here we are, in the year 2007, and a Republican contender is admired for his courage in supporting the right of women to control their decision to have a child, for believing that gay people are, in fact, real people with real rights, and that science offers a better explanation for the origins of mankind than a fairy tale. Courageous, I suppose. Pathetic, however, that taking such positions requires courage.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The complete idiot's guide to sex for dummies

There I was, standing in the checkout line at the Barnes and Noble in downtown Bethesda, preparing my answer to the questions that would soon come from the bookseller/associate acquisitions editor/bibliophile/assistant owner/deputy assistant to the assistant front end manager of confessional, tell-all books about my soon-to-be-forgotten time in Washington . . .

Above titled person: "Would you like to save 25% on your purchase today?"

Me: "Is it possible I could pay 5% more?"

"I'm not sure I understand. Why would you want to pay 5% more when you can pay 25% less?"

"Simple. I was always brought up to believe you get what you pay for. If I pay 25% less for my books, I'm concerned that I'll end up with something I won't like, or the pages will come off the spine, or the index will leave out my name. Paying 5% more is almost like buying insurance -- I know I'll end up with something I like."

"I've never really thought about it like that before."

"You should. It makes sense when you think about it."

I had this exchange all rehearsed and ready to go when, after spinning the rack with the mini-books around a few times, I saw one that was just too much, even by the standards of mini-book titles:

Sex for Dummies.

I had to find out more, so I left my spot in line, and went in search of more "Dummies" books. After a quick tour around the store -- I never ask anyone for help because, in my experience, most of the B&N employees are really bored, and view a request for help as if someone had just answered their personal ad for someone seeking "friendship, long walks around bookstores, the opportunity to discuss fiction authors no one has ever heard of but me, cuddling and giggling in the audio section while we listen to sample cuts of new CDs and hearing me talk about my M.A. thesis on "Discursive Analytic Post-Patriarchial Pre-Post-Feminist Sociological Groupings" -- I found a whole table of "Dummies" titles ranging from Sex for Dummies to Relationships for Dummies to Gardening for Dummies to Wine Tasting for Dummies to ADHD for Dummies and . . . on and on they went.

But, as if there were not enough Dummies in search of help on the most private and potentially embarrassing of topics, next to that table was another one featuring The Complete Idiots Guide to . . . . Amazing Sex, Controlling Anxiety (these two are arguably related), Great Buns and Thighs, Kama Sutra, Playing the Harmonica and RVing. And that's just for starters.

I don't remember the first Dummies or Complete Idiot's Guide to . . . . I want to say they started out as computer manuals for techno-phobes like me, and I could see buying a book like that without feeling too stupid because most people don't know much, if anything, about computers (which I hope computer makers and software designers will one day figure out). But who in their right mind is going to buy a book about sex, relationships, mental health issues or divorce in which you admit that you're an idiot? Can you imagine a couple going for marriage counseling and having the therapist say, "Listen, I'd like to say otherwise, but you guys are pretty much a lost cause and there's nothing I can do. But you might have some luck if you check out Sex for Dummies. Do some of the exercises in there, and then work your way up to The Complete Idiots Guide to Kama Sutra. And if that doesn't work, then read Divorce for Dummies and follow it with Single Parenting for Dummies. You might need to consult Bipolar Disorder for Dummies if you get depressed. There is also the Complete Idiots Guide to Hypnosis, so perhaps you can put each other under and find out what's really going inside your heads."

"Who buys these books," I asked an associate owner/buyout specialist/barista-punk guitarist (a barbwire tattoo on a woman's bicep is always a giveaway that there is another, more serious life outside of B&N or Kinkos or second-hand CD store)?

"Those? People buy them mostly as gag gifts -- I hope."

So she thinks. How long as she lived in Washington, I wonder to myself? This is not a town with sex on the brain. This is a town where most men and women aspire to a Volvo station wagon, matching lab retrievers, a collection of souvenir baseball hats, golf jackets, sweatshirts featuring status vacation spots, a closet full of L.L. Bean and Land's End fleece vests and "all-purpose" jackets and soft-soled sensible shoes by the time they're 30. Really, where else can you find a well-educated woman sporting a purple rain coat with a reflective triangle on the back or a man wearing sockless loafers to his kids' soccer or baseball game with a button-down shirt tucked into his Bermuda shorts who are not on their way to a Halloween party? How else can you possibly explain why the Washington Post gets so excited about non-sex sex scandals involving military contractors or ex-assistant secretaries?

I noticed, though, no titles called, Political Science for Dummies or The Complete Idiots Guide to the American Constitution. Now there's a great summer research project. Perhaps if I get one done in the next few weeks Alberto Gonzales's last remaining friends can get him one as a going away gift. Under most circumstances, that would be a great gag gift. But not this one.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell

Like most people who found Jerry Falwell one of the most despicable public figures of the last 30 years, his death yesterday at 73 poses an awkward challenge for me. Do I offer an unflattering obituary, or do I simply reprint below the cartoon published in Larry Flynt's Hustler Magazine that resulted in a 1988 Supreme Court decision upholding the right of political cartoonists to have at public figures?

Taste wins. Sort of.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Meanwhile, back in Bushworld . . .

Preoccupied as I was last week with the end of the semester -- getting in my grades, saying good-bye to students, writing critical pieces about the hand that feeds me -- I wasn't able to pay close attention to the ongoing escapades of the Bush administration. A part of me had resolved to take a break from these clowns. The constant lies, their endless repetition, the backstabbing, the absolute refusal to accept responsibility for anything that happens at home or abroad . . . it really just wears you down after a while.

But . . . WOW! Even by the standards of the Bushies, these past couple of weeks have taken deceit, deception, corruption and cowardice to stratospheric levels.

Let's start with Paul Wolfowitz. A primary architect of the Iraq war -- Wolfowitz, more than any other of the house neo-cons in and around the Bush administration, argued that a democratic Iraq would inspire its Arab neighbors to follow suit and bring peace to the Middle East -- Wolfowitz simply transferred his arrogance and political ineptness to the World Bank, where he has served as president since 2005. Several weeks back, news reports revealed that Wolfowitz had arranged a promotion and substantial pay increase for his girlfriend, Shaha Ali Riza, soon after taking office. All the available evidence since then has shown that Wolfowitz knew exactly what was going on was going on, approved it, and became angry once details leaked to the media.

I cannot understand the debate over Wolfowitz's actions. He did what he did, and is upset that he got caught. And, consistent with the Bush administration's approach to ethics and internal corruption, Wolfowitz refuses to accept responsibility for such obvious nepotism. Bush should have encouraged him to step down last week, after the World Bank's own investigation concluded that Wolfowitz broke a number of rules and could not lead the institution. Naturally, he didn't, because . . . well, The Decider just doesn't decide things that way. True, the Wolfowitz fiasco is, for the most part, an inside-the-Beltway stage play. The sleaziness, however, is a big issue. Bush could have demonstrated that his political antenna extend beyond the electoral base of the Republican Party by coming out four-square against Wolfowitz. He hasn't and he won't.

After watching Alberto Gonzales prostrate himself during the Senate hearings three weeks ago on the dismissal of the eight (now nine) US attorneys last fall and winter, I didn't think it was possible for this man to fall any lower on the sleaze meter. Wrong again! Last week, Gonzales appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to offer another round of "I don't recalls" and "I have no recollections" on the firing of the Gonzales 8 or 9. This, despite the voluminous documentation provided by the Department of Justice and testi
mony from fired US attorneys and others privy to the details on this matter that show that Gonzales was very clearly a central player in this mess. And then yesterday, Gonzales laid the blame for the scandal at the feet of Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who, by all accounts, has been peripheral to this whole mess. Gonzales's defense comes down to this: "I have too much to do to know what goes on in every nook and cranny of the Justice Department. Nothing bad that happens is ever my fault, assuming that bad things ever happen. If they do, these are staged events by an alliance of al-Qaeda supporters, Democrats and flashback-challenged hippies still strung out from too many Grateful Dead concerts thirty years ago."

Need more? Last week, Gonzales was asked by a Democratic congressman, Brad Sherman, whether he was aware if any American citizens were being detained as enemy combatants without access to an attorney or have been denied habeas corpus. His answer: “[Y]ou’re asking me a question I hadn’t really thought about.”

"Hadn't thought about . . ." Unbelievable this is not. Appalling, yes. But completely believable -- unless Gonzales is lying.

None of this compares, for pure sleaze, to the events described by former Justice Department official, James B. Comey (McNulty's predecessor), before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. In March 2004, Gonzales and Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, went to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room on the same day he had been admitted for emergency gallbladder surgery earlier that morning to get him to authorize the president's domestic spying program. Ashcroft had already transferred his authority to Comey, who was serving as acting attorney general. After Comey refused to authorize the program, one that Justice Department lawyers had found illegal, he, Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and other high-level officials threatened to resign. President Bush intervened directly, permitting to program to continue but promising to satisfy the Justice Department's objections.

Comey had to rush to the hospital to prevent Gonzales and Card from taking advantage of Ashcroft's disoriented state of mind. After leaving Ashcroft's room without the authorization he came for, Card ordered Comey to meet with him at the White House. Comey refused to meet with Card without a witness. And . . . and . . . and . . . read more.

Bush, of course, had no comment or response to this story. Tony Snow, his press secretary, did and offered the predictable "It is what it is" response, and how the domestic surveillance program has saved the lives of Americans and made us more secure. Really? How? Does anyone believe anything these people say?

I used to think that working in a toll booth was about the worse job anyone could have -- that or anything having to do with hot tar during the summers. But I genuinely believe that working in and for the Bush administration is worse than anything else. Repairing roads, fixing roofs and even making change in toll plazas are honest callings. Working for this president isn't.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder turned 57 yesterday. And it seems like just a few summers ago that I first heard "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" blaring over the PA system at my neighborhood swimming pool when I was about 9 or 10 years old. By 1970, Stevie had already had several major Top 10 hits, an enviable lifetime record for any popular musician. That he was not even 21 years old and chafing for creative control of his music under the heavy hand of the legendary Motown producer, Barry Gordy, made his accomplishments even more extraordinary. Stevie left Motown in 1971, and proceeded, over the next five to six years, to release his three best albums, Innervisions, Fulfillingness First Finale, and the epic, Songs in the Key of Life. Stevie's Motown years yielded wonderful songs from what was an unusually fertile mind -- "Superstition," "For Once in My Life," and "You Are The Sunshine of My Life," offer a wonderful sample of his early creative range -- but these three albums demonstrated that the "Little Stevie" moniker that launched his career was long gone, and in its place was a lyricist and musical visionary of the highest order.

Innervisions features my two favorite Stevie songs of all-time: "Golden Lady" and "Don't You Worry About a Thing." "Golden Lady" is simply gorgeous for its harmonic sophistication and stunning melody, while "Living for the City" sees Stevie singing in a street-blues voice over a majestic, near orchestral arrangement of keyboards, layered over an alternately funky, rock-driven beat. Adding to the legend of Stevie Wonder was the album's acknowledgement that he played almost every instrument. Famous by that point as a great harmonica and keyboard player, Stevie laid down drum patterns that would not have occurred to most drummers of that era, a loose combination of funk, off-beats, a shuffle hi-hat and displaced kick-drum. Plenty of drummers will tell you that they rather think like Stevie Wonder than play like Keith Moon. Fulfillingness and Songs in the Key of Life together offer a least half a dozen more great songs, including "Sir Duke" and "I Wish."

By the end of the 1970s, Stevie Wonder had emerged as the important popular songwriter and multi-instrumentalist since Paul McCartney. The only songwriters in modern popular music that can be mentioned in the same breath as Wonder and McCartney are Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) and Sting. Although the 1970s represented Wonder's creative peak, he has continued to record on a regular basis, and has occasionally charted well in adult contemporary markets with songs like, "I Just Called To Say I Love You." More importantly, musicians from Christian McBride to The Meters to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Soulive call Stevie Wonder a major influence. Stevie's ideas are incorporated into so much contemporary music that people unfamiliar with his early work cannot possibly know how much he contributed to harmonic structure and how he wrote extraordinary complex vocal parts on top of already novel instrumentation and arrangements. Stevie Wonder is, 44 years after his first recording session, a musician of historic importance.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Congratulations graduates!

Student readers of my blog may have noticed a theme this week in my posts: not all is well with the state of undergraduate education at American University. Some of the issues I raised are particular to my home institution; others reflect broader problems in academia.

BUT that doesn't mean that I don't have fantastic students. This year, like every year I have taught at American, I will watch some truly incredible young people graduate (the really smart ones, though, have figured out a way to stay in school).

For the really, really brave ones who took more than one class with me and didn't end up under the supervision of a mental health professional, congratulations. Look for your initials below:

A.A., J.B., K.Z., R.F., K.W., A.G., E.H., A.M., E.S., M.K.D., J.D., S.J., J.A., A.H., A.C., J.L., and A.G.

And a special thanks to my Landmark Law Cases class for the coolest gift ever (pictured above).

Thanks for everything. Like all great students, you gave me much more than I gave you.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Alienation University

The annual May ritual leading up to graduation has begun: new flowers, freshly mowed grass, sod implants to cover up the dirt spots, folding chairs on the lawn, triple-parked cars in front of the dorms as students prepare to return to New Jersey, Pennsyltucky, L-o-o-o-o-o-n-g-uh Island, Westchester County and perhaps a few other places for the summer. The campus looks pretty, the weather is warm without being humid, the mood is good . . . so students should feel sentimental about their alma mater, right?

They should. But most don't.

I understand that not every student gets attached to the university where they spent anywhere from 4-6 years getting their undergraduate degree. I look at my own case as an example: I really enjoyed my time at both universities I attended, and have no horror stories to tell about financial aid, sociopathic roommates, my car being towed, food poisoning, student health center disasters, bad RAs, miscalculated credit hours and so on. I had some great professors and only a few bad ones. Since I went to large state schools with major Division 1 athletic programs, I have more than my fair share of great memories -- to the extent that I can remember what happened -- of football and basketball weekends. But I have never been back to either campus since I left. Not Missouri since I graduated in 1983, and not Tennessee since I left for Missouri in 1981. I don't have any alumni stickers on my car, I don't really follow their sports teams and I'm not involved in any alumni programs. I donate a few dollars to each school every once in a while, and that's about the extent of my involvement with my undergraduate schools. I'm just not much of a rah-rah corporate-type, regardless of what kind of institution with which I am affiliated. That said, I have nothing at all against the universities I attended, and would recommend them to anyone who wanted to go.

Graduate school was a bit different. I went to Emory University in Atlanta right as it was making the transition from a reputable regional liberal arts college to a nationally prominent university. Emory always had a great reputation in the hard sciences, and its dental and medical schools were highly regarded as well. But when Coca-Cola gave Emory $102 million gift in 1979 everything changed -- for the better. I went to graduate school on a Woodruff Fellowship (so named for the family than once owned Coke), got a great education and felt really proud to have attended such a world-class institution. Like my undergraduate universities, I have nothing but great things to say about Emory. Am I any more enthusiastic about alumni activities, etc.? No. In fact, I've never attended a Washington-area alumni function, even though I get invited all the time. That's just not me.

Until I came to American University, though, I had never been anywhere -- as a student, a visitor or a job candidate -- where students graduated with such a palpable disdain for the institution. I didn't pick up on it until a few years after I arrived in 1989, but it has never gotten any better. I know plenty of students who had professors they absolutely loved (and, of course, hated, but that's part of college), made some great friends, had an interesting job or internship and generally had a good time. But when they leave they have absolutely no sense of pride or spirit about the university. By the time they are seniors, most students just want to leave as quickly as possible. I wouldn't even call it apathy -- hostility is a better description. One student who graduated last year and attended AU on a full academic scholarship told me s/he has absolutely no warm feelings or loyalty to the school. "You see how the school treats professors, how little it genuinely cares about academic standards and how insanely bureaucratic it is for a small university. I loved what certain professors did for me and I love the friends I made. But I could care less that I went to AU. As long as it caters to the lowest common denominator it will never get any better."

American is an unusual place. The administration is very insular, and not terribly open to new ideas, whether from faculty (faculty governance at all levels at American is nothing more than ceremonial) or outside parties. The university spends an extraordinary amount on marketing and public relations, and, like the apparatchiks in the old Soviet Union, we have far too many administrators, professors and staffers who believe the puff pieces that get churned out by our media relations department. The campus initiatives to open up dialogue about how to improve university life are straight from the pages of corporate "team-building" and management manuals. I suppose "conversations" and "town halls" are great in that there is a superficial interest in finding out what people think. But our university is governed by a classic oligarchic model. There are perhaps four, maybe five academic posts with real power at my university. Almost everyone else is there to carry out their mandate. From 2000-2002, I served as the chair of the Department of Government. Two years in that job was enough to convince me never to get anywhere near another academic management post. Unless someone above me agreed with a decision I had made (to the extent I could make any beside what color Post-It notes we should order), my opinion counted for very little. You think watching Steve Carrell's Michael Scott of "The Office" makes you cringe? That's minor league stuff compared to the foibles of academia.

For students, the dissatisfaction with American operates on multiple levels -- professors who do not challenge their students as much as they should, the near-complete absence of school spirit (attending events where some administrator launches into some "once an Eagle, always an Eagle" refrain is too painful to even watch), a campus devoid of a common culture to bring students together, the lack of off-campus places to hang out and the absence of a vibrant, intellectual community. For a good number of professors, the feeling of disengagement is similar, for reasons that range from administrative disinterest to what we think to an overly accommodating attitude towards whiny students (a small but powerful minority, by the way) to a personal, often vindictive style of management that refuses to acknowledge error, even when those errors are in plain view.

Not too long after I graduated from college, a friend of my family's gave me a great piece of advice that I have passed on to my own students as they prepare to make their way in the world, and that is that loyalty begins at the bottom. All the talk about "teamwork," "family," "the nurturing community" . . . whatever . . . is just double-speak to get faculty and students to fall into line. Two colleagues of mine were just denied tenure by the university's chief academic officer for reasons that are inexplicable. These two wonderful, talented people gave every ounce of their professional energy to the university for almost six years and should have been promoted. Instead, they were thanked for their "service" and fired. Good luck to us in finding their replacements.

* * * * * * * * *

This Sunday, our students will walk through their commencement exercises and feel a justifiable sense of accomplishment. They will have one last hug and cry with their friends and revel in the moment. But few will shed a tear for AU, which, as my former student told me, is really just short for Alienation University.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The professor and his student


John Smoltz has said he learned "a lot" from his eleven years of pitching in the same rotation as Greg Maddux when, along with Tom Glavine (a Brave from 1988-2002), they formed, from 1993-2000, the best 1-2-3 starting rotation in major league baseball. Elbow surgery forced Smoltz to the bullpen from 2000-2004. All he did there was rack up 154 saves in four seasons, including three consecutive seasons with 40 saves or more. Maddux has had one losing season since 1988; he has over 300 wins and a career ERA of 3.07 (and that includes playing for some pretty bad Cubs teams before and after he pitched for the Braves).

Last night, Maddux and Smoltz squared off against each other. Maddux is now with San Diego and Smoltz, of course, is back anchoring the Braves' starting rotation. Both pitchers were great -- Maddux went 5 1/3 innings and gave up four hits and a run. Smoltz was better -- seven innings and two runs, throwing 69 of his 97 pitches for strikes. Maddux singled his first time up against Smoltz, smirking at his friend after he rounded first base. It was great to watch two Hall of Fame pitchers, each now over 40, having evenings that hearkened back to their primes.

Greg Maddux is the smartest pitcher of the last 20 years. Others have been more powerful and intimidating (Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, of course); but no one knows more about the craft of pitching than Maddux. One my favorite stories about Maddux is a time, during his years in Atlanta, the Braves were up by three or four runs in the eighth inning against Houston. Jeff Bagwell, a great hitter, was up. Maddux through him a straight fastball down the middle and Bagwell hit a home run. The next time Maddux pitched against Houston Bagwell went 0-4. Why? Because Maddux gave him that pitch to hit out, assuming, correctly, that Bagwell thought he would see the same pitch the next time they played. He didn't, of course.

Smoltz is a fiery presence on the mound. He still clocks well into the 90s with his fastball, slider and split-finger, and when he's got his mojo going it's lights out for the batter. Maddux never got much past the mid-80s with his fastball, but he didn't and still doesn't need to. His precision, control and mastery in changing speeds left hitters clueless about what was coming. More so than anyone else in his generation, he made the art of pitching a science. Smoltz, his student, beat him last night. But there will never be another Greg Maddux, professor emeritus of the mound.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The grading wars

. . . and now for the worst part of the semester -- assigning students their final grades.

Believe me when I write that grading is BY FAR the worst part of university-level teaching, for me, anyway. For one, the relentless repetition of reading the same assignments over and over again, and trying maintain the patience necessary to give every student a fair evaluation gets more and more difficult with each passing year. For classes where I give a combination of multiple choice and descriptive questions, I can grade about five or six exams before having to take a break for 10 or 15 minutes. Otherwise, I find myself rushing through the descriptive questions just so I can be done. For classes that involve long and complex writing projects, I read one long paper and then find a diversion before reading the next one. I stopped requiring writing projects in my lower-level courses years ago because the papers were so bad. But that, naturally, did not stop students from lining up to argue about their grades. That led me to place in writing on my syllabus that I do not negotiate grades.

The reason I do not negotiate with students is the same reason I do not negotiate with my dentist when he tells me to floss more, or that I need a root canal on tooth #19: I am simply not qualified to offer my opinion on a topic I know very little about. Students take our courses for various reasons -- they are required to, they are interested in what we teach, or they have heard that ours is "must" before they graduate. Whatever the reason, no undergraduate is qualified to assess his or her own work with just three to 14 weeks of the topic under their belt. My students are free to love me or hate me, but I not willing to concede that they know more about what I teach than I do. You would be surprised how many of my colleagues negotiate with students when they come to complain. They do so because they are afraid that the student might file a grievance, or complain to the department chair or the dean.

How does this affect the grading process? The answer is simple: very few undergraduates make a C or less in their courses. The mean GPA is our department is somewhere around 3.2 or 3.3, which is a B+. A colleague is a position to know told me that less than 15% of our undergraduate majors in the Department of Government have a GPA of less than 3.0. The reason that our departmental GPA is so high is not because all our students are so smart. It is because professors do not want to suffer professionally for grading their students rigorously. I wrote about the power that students hold over their professors with the course evaluations administered at the end of each semester. Step back for a moment and ask yourself this: in your own line of work, would you deliberately do something to compromise your job status, raise or standing with your superiors? Professors are not rewarded for entering broadly distributed grades or even failing people who deserve it. We are punished for it.

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Here are some of my favorite student complaints:

"I studied a lot for this exam and I feel I deserve a better grade." Uh, one has nothing to do with the other. Whether you study for weeks on end or cram for a few hours before the exam, what you make is what you make. My syllabus does not say, "Grades will be determined by how many hours you devote to each assignment." It says you will be evaluated based on what you make on the assignments, whether you meet class attendance requirements, and whether you do the homework due at the beginning of each class.

"I feel like a deserve a B on the paper." Why just a B? Why not an A? Or A-. Or B+? Answer is simple -- the student cannot know what s/he deserves on a paper because s/he is not qualified to evaluate the work. The above sentence means, "I need a B on this paper because I'll die or get hit by lightning if I don't."

"I didn't know what you wanted on the exam/paper." That's because you didn't pay attention or didn't ask. 99% of all students who complain about their grades never ask questions in class or come to office hours for help. You get what you pay for.

"You weren't clear about what you wanted. The questions were confusing." Then why did several students make As and Bs? Either the student isn't smart enough to be in college (or this one, anyway) or didn't do enough preparation.

"I've never done this bad on an exam." And . . . this is relevant to my exam how?

"Can I do an extra assignment to make up for this one?" A good thought, and generally well-intended, but I think it makes much more sense to figure out the assigned work before groping for extra credit, don't you?

"You didn't say that you were going to count off for spelling and grammar." Call me crazy, but I assume that college-level students know that fidelity to the English language makes for easier communication. And it does matter if you can read and write.

. . . and, the winner

"If I don't get an A in your class I won't get into law school." Oh, no . . . I've deprived the world of another lawyer . . . again. Please. One class is not the difference between the drive-thru window at Jack-in-the-Box and the corner office at Big, Bigger and Biggest.

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I wish students weren't so bound up in the grading process. Less emphasis on grades would really make for a much better learning environment. Unfortunately, we have to figure out what the students know, how well they know it, whether they can communicate their thoughts on paper or in conversation. So we're stuck with the system we have. Over four years, almost all students end up where they should with their grades. I am in a pretty good position -- my students are highly self-selected, and know what they're getting into with each class. They have a good idea what to expect, and don't spend much time arguing about their exams, papers, projects, etc. In upper-level classes especially, the grades are generally very good. But that doesn't mean I let people coast. It simply means that I expect them to be accountable for what they do, and to be honest about the effort they put into their assignments. If they put the work in and do well, I'll reward them. If not, I won't. Pretty simple.

Grades are useful to the extent that provide a sorting device for employers and graduate admissions committees. Beyond that, they serve very little purpose. After you leave school, you will never receive a report card again. The odds are good, though, that you will be subject to some formal evaluation method in whatever job you take. Employers are not terribly interested in how hard you tried, or that you're girlfriend broke up with you two days before exams began, or whatever excuse you've put more time into than the class itself. Take what you get and move on. That's the best life lesson that grading can offer.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Question 21: Overall, the instructor is . . .

Our final exam period is over, and all the blue books are sitting on my desk, just waiting for my just and fair hands to open, read and grade. So are the independent studies, honors supplements, capstone theses and whatever the hell else I agreed to supervise back in January. Our university has a 72 hour grading policy from the point the exam is given so that our "customers," I mean, students, won't have to bite their nails down to the cuticle wondering if they made an A or an A- in Advanced Chem, American Foreign Policy, Spanish or whatever else stands between them and the rest of their life. I can only hope that my students, twenty years from now, will look back at the all-nighters, the Ritalin-fueled study sessions, the panic attacks, the inverted food pyramid diet and everything else that marks the ritual of exam week and wonder why they thought nailing down that 91 instead of an 88 on their Personal Finance final would determine whether they ended up living in a trailer park or driving a Hummer.

For now, our students have the most potent tool available to them in the history of higher education to extract revenge on their professors: the standardized evaluation we administer at the end of every semester. Known in the trade as the Student Evaluation of Course and Teaching Effectiveness Form, these surveys allow students the opportunity to evaluate the course and their professors on everything from "course rigor" to "taking diversity into account" to "course organization" to "incorporating current events." But the only questions that really matter to the administrators who read them are Questions 14 ("Overall, the course is . . .) and 21 ("Overall, the instructor is . . .). The survey choices range from 1 (Poor) to 5 (Superior). We also administer narrative evaluations that allow students to offer comments on the "strengths" and "weaknesses" of their professors. Administrators do not see or read the narrative forms. Those are "private comments" for professors so that we can "incorporate" our students' "suggestions" into our teaching techniques. But that can be challenging. Even after eighteen years of college teaching, I still have no idea how being called an "asshole," "shithead," "headcase," "doochebag [sic]" or "dumbfuck" will help me improve my teaching. On the other hand, a request to "have my children," "smoke a joint sometime," or getting "my private cell phone number" will not help me refine my pedagogical approach to undergraduate instruction.

Can you imagine if professors were permitted to write things like this on student papers and exams, our own instruments to evaluate "student learning effectiveness?"

"D is for dumbfuck -- get your shit together . . . now!"

"A+ (here's my cell number . . . let's talk about the 14th amendment privately sometime)."

"84.5, not bad, but nothing that a little doobie won't cure. I'm dry, but if you're cool come on by and we'll have office hours 'outside.'"

"F -- nice job, doochebag. Could you be any fucking dumber?"

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Students also have other outlets in which express their opinions on their professors, the most well-known of which is RateMyProfessors.Com. An entirely self-selected and self-administered survey, students can leave comments about their favorite or least favorite professors and include relevant information such as the professor's "hotness" quotient (you'll have a chili pepper by your name), perceived character flaws ("asshole ") and course difficulty ("no books, no reading, just discussion . . . best professor ever"). You would think this would rank right up there with an Amazon ("Read More About Me") reviewer's take on War and Peace. Think again. Students ask me time and time again, "Have you ever seen your ratings on rate my professors.com?" I pulled some quotes off my "page" when I created by website last August because I thought the dichotomy of opinions was hilarious. But do I think any of it matters? No. Do I know colleagues who worry about what students have said about them? Yes.

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I don't know how other universities treat student evaluations, but my university considers them the most important "measure" of teaching effectiveness. Now matter how respected you might be among your professional peers, how much time you put into your classes or how good a teacher you really are, all that matters for decisions regarding tenure, promotion, raises and teaching loads is the numerical score the students assign to Questions 14 and 21. And most professors understand that the connection between student satisfaction and a positive evaluation of their courses is a good grade. For untenured professors, the student evaluation process can be nerve-wracking. On the one hand, these are scholars steeped in the norms of academic integrity. For most scholars, the thought of fudging results or manipulating questions to achieve a certain outcome is an anathema. But so is the thought of losing their job because of students disgruntled with their grades. For universities like mine that have no corroborative measure of teaching effectiveness (peer observation, invited third parties from outside the university, qualitative assessment), the student evaluations have an importance and impact that are inversely proportional to their ability to assess a professor's ability in the classroom. I have heard my junior colleagues fret about how much work to assign in their classes, or what grades to assign their students or whether to give better grades before the student evaluation is administered and then wait until finals to "correct" the grades by giving more difficult exams or grading the papers more stringently. You would think that a profession whose members are more likely than most to support PBS and NPR because they enjoy programming that is non-market driven would not employ the equivalent of the Nielsen or Arbitron ratings to determine the worth of a professor.

Sometimes, though, the evaluation process doesn't even make sense when it comes out in your favor. For the academic year prior to this one, the five courses I taught were the five highest evaluated courses in my department and for all undergraduate courses taught in the School of Public Affairs. For the "merit" review process, however, I was ranked in the second quintile out of some 45 full-time faculty who teach in my school. Translated, I was the ninth or tenth most "effective" professor in my school, even though I taught the five highest evaluated courses at four different levels ranging from General Education to an upper-level seminar. And when, for the first time in my career, I asked for an explanation from my administrative superiors about why I landed where I did, I received answers ranging from "that wasn't my decision" to an explanation involving a complex formula that might well have beyond the capabilities of a Nobel prize winning statistician. More deflating was the fact that I did not use steroids to enhance my performance. Maybe some other stuff; but anabolic steroids? Absolutely not.

What does it mean to be an "effective" teacher? The benchmark in my school and, as far as I know, the university, is that 80% of your course and instructor questions must be very good (4) and superior (5). That means in a class of 35, no more than seven students can find your class "good," "fair," or "poor" without an eyebrow going up or some external encouragement to work on your teaching. Analyze the problem in these terms: if a professor distributed grades on a normal bell curve in a class of 35, 80% of those students do not receive grades of B or better. Only about nine do. And there is no way that 25 students receiving grades of C or worse are going to evaluate your class as "very good" or "superior." So the implicit bargain is in place.

The evaluation process that we use does not measure course or teaching effectiveness. It is, rather, a crude indication of "consumer satisfaction." We have to explain to students, and sometimes administrators after students complain, why we don't think it is necessary to bring a laptop to class to take notes; why they can't leave class to "take" a call on their cell phone; why we don't email them back at 4.30 a.m. because they emailed us with something "very urgent" at 4.25 a.m.; why we won't email them our class notes or PowerPoint slides; and why they can't sit down to a three-course meal in class when you are trying to teach. We need to put all this stuff on our course syllabus or we will hear how we did not fully inform the student of classroom policies and that we, not them, are at fault.

Universities are very competitive for students and their tuition dollars, especially at a university like mine where approximately 90% of the revenue for operating expenses comes from tuition. When you are almost completely dependent on your students to pay the bills, there is very little incentive to make the students come to you. You have to come to them. That might make for nicer residence halls, better food, luxurious work out facilities and lots of pretty flowers in the spring and fall. But that does not create a condition for truly distinguished teaching and a challenging intellectual environment. And while professors are certainly right to express their frustration with students who don't put as much time into their courses as they should, we would be less than honest with ourselves if we failed to acknowledge that universities, with our complicity, have done more than just a little to create the fix in which we now find ourselves.