Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer reflections

Tomorrow is August 1st, which means that summer, as I know it, is coming to an end. For me, this was a very different summer away from teaching. Normally, I teach a summer course to students in our master's program. The course didn't run this year due to lack of enrollment, something I would normally take personally if not for the fact that six or seven other courses were also cancelled for the same reason. Waddaya gonna do? So, with some extra time on my hands, I made an executive decision . . .

For the first time in 19 years of teaching, I would take a summer vacation, and do as little as possible that was connected to my normal academic responsibilities. I've been to my office once, to retrieve a couple of manuscripts I needed to read and to have my laptop, which literally went blank two days ago, checked out by our information systems guru. Turns out the one manuscript I needed to read is pretty good, another not-so-much, and my laptop is kaput! One for three nets you about $12 million a year in major league baseball. The sum total of my 1 for 3 day in the office will turn out to have a net profit of about $150, after taxes.
I should have stuck to baseball. But that would have required me to be much better than I was during my prime years, which were so long ago that I can't even remember my high school's nickname or who caught me during my junior and senior years.
Time. Like the weather, we talk about it a lot. But, unlike the weather, you can have some control over how you use your time (assuming, of course, you have one kid at sleepaway camp and another in day camp until 4 p.m). Academic life does give you the luxury of time, particularly at this point in my career, so that you can think about the things you want to do with your professional life. You also have time, very, very precious time, to spend with your family and the other interests that make up a complete life. So, for my last post of the summer, I thought I would share some of my thoughts over the summer on work, family, politics, Washington and some of the other life forces that run through my mind.
The fall semester at American starts on August 25th, and on that day I will begin my 20th year of teaching at this university, the only one I have ever known in my professional career. I can say, without hesitation, that I have watched the university only get better over time. Everything about the campus is nicer; the resources for faculty and students are much, much better; the number of full-time faculty teaching undergraduates has increased, and the university has made a genuine effort to improve its public profile by recruiting better faculty and better students.
On the other hand -- and there is always an "other hand," no matter where you are or what you do -- I do not believe that our best students now are any better than they were when I started teaching at American. Our students, on average, might be somewhat better. But whatever superior academic credentials are students have now that they didn't have, say, 7, 10 or 15 years ago, have been offset by the institutionalization of a culture of whining that has created, in my view, a more difficult environment for professors to do what they are supposed to do, which is to teach and challenge their students. The competition for good students and the desire to retain them has played right into a corporate culture that believes the customer is always right, even when the customer is clueless, lazy, disrespectful, stupid, arrogant and dishonest. If Nordstrom is willing to take back a suit with cigarette burns because the customer said it "came that way," let it. Universities that believe accommodating every student's absurd request, perceived inujustice and minor grievance involving their professors does neither the student or the professor any good. It tells students that complaining and negotiating to get what they want is the way to send them out into the world, and it reduces the incentives of professors, especially those not tenured, to require students to meet rigorous standards that we believe will benefit them in the short and long-run. I grew up in a small retail family. When a customer came in my father's store attempting to return something by claiming that the shirt or suit came with a cigarette burn, he had a very different answer: "Get the hell out of my store and don't come back." That made sense to me then; it makes sense to me now.
Even more bizarre are the parents who encourage their children to go down this path or, worse, are willing to do it for them. If my daughter came home from her piano lesson complaining that her accomplished and knowledegable teacher was being "unfair" by making her learn and play scales before learning how to play, oh, I don't know, "Black, Brown and Beige," by Duke Ellington, I wouldn't have any sympathy whatsoever. But, as I sometimes hear from students and parents who view college as little more than a credentialing service with room and board, since they're "paying through the nose" for their education they're entitled to get what they want.
Not so. Perhaps Elliot Spitzer was entitled to get what he wanted for his $5000 per hour. Students are paying to have scholars versed in a particular subject matter teach them what they know. If the professor is indifferent or incompetent, then by all means press the matter. But if one simply doesn't want to do the work, then save it for the Nordstrom customer service department. Don't come to me. I'll tell you to get the hell out.
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Speaking of work . . . I did a lot of reading this summer and began some preliminary research into what I hope will be my next book, which has a working title (just to keep me on track) of, "Jazz and the American South." During a gig one evening, I got into a discussion with a couple of people sitting at the bar watching us. We talked for a bit, and some of what we talked about involved the ability of music to tear down walls that artificially divide people -- whether on the basis of culture, race, ethnicity, gender . . . whatever. An African-America woman asked me how I got interested in jazz since it was primarily a "black" music. Although I tend to see jazz as much more than "black" music (although, if pressed, I would agree with her), I answered that I had grown up in the South during the 1960s and 70s, and had watched how music was both a form of political expression and a means to bring people together. She said she had never thought about it like that before but, thinking about it a little now, it made sense. Driving home on North Capitol Street around midnight, it hit me: you should write a book about jazz, civil rights and the South. I mean, why not? Here I was, driving from one the poorest areas in the city to one of its most affluent suburbs, separated by all of 9.2 miles, and we were all listening to and talking about the same music.
I mentioned this idea to several friends, none of whom work in academia. To a person, they thought it was a great idea. "You'll have fun with that!" said one. "Wow! Get some money to travel, and talk to musicians who played the South during segregation and ask them what they think," said another. Yes, yes, yes . . . said one after another. Feeling pretty good, I broached the idea with an academic press with whom I work as a consulting editor. "Interested in doing something like this?" I asked. The response, "Absolutely!"
So far, so good. I then mentioned it, in passing, to an academic colleague I bumped into at a mall. My colleague laughed and said, "How do you plan to operationalize 'jazz?'" I started laughing back until I realized that my colleague was serious. I could have responded like Duke Ellington would have, "If you to ask, you'll never know." But instead, I laughed . . . again . . . and said I would just have to figure that out. My colleague began reciting all the very important and timeless "research" in which s/he was engaged -- without my prompting, of course -- and wondered when I would do something "serious" again.
"I guess never," I said.
S/he started laughing. I didn't.
* * * * * * * * * *
Going into year 20, I can say with a fairly high degree of confidence that I have taught my students well, even if they didn't always realize it at the time; I have written, edited, co-written or co-edited six books, all of which have received favorable reviews, even if they didn't sell very well; written articles and chapters for scholarly publications; have been promoted to full professor; served as a department chair; served on university committees charged with recruiting presidents, provosts and athletic directors; given a hundred million talks and lectures to prospective students, on-campus groups and community organizations; have never been sued successfully; have done nothing to interfere in the professional or personal lives of any of my colleagues; and many other things that, as sports commentators like to say, don't show up on the scoresheet but contribute to the victory.
And yet . . . yet . . . I have to explain why I don't want to do the same thing over and over and over again . . . that I view the "intellectual" life that academia affords as something different from the "careerism" that pervades political science (and every other academic discipline, for that matter) . . . that somehow I'm not a "serious academic" because I no longer want to research or write about the things I did when I came out of graduate school 19 years ago. Since 1989, the world of information -- how we gather it, manipulate it, communicate it, publish it -- has changed to the point where the old ways are no longer recognizable. My feeling is this: if a colleague wants to spend a lifetime thinking about one or two topics and research those topics in a way that he or she finds interesting, go right ahead. And in return all that I ask is that you recognize that not everyone is built the same way. Odds are that when we're all dead and gone, we'll be remembered a lot more for what we taught our students and how treated those around us than whether we precisely measured the ideological distance between two members of the Montana Supreme Court.
Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and John Lennon have written compositions that deserve a lifetime of explorations. The rest of us are simply doing what we can. And a profession that gives you the ability to think and say what you want (as long as your tenured . . . but that's a different story), your only constituency is your brain and your conscience. So I might never be the president of the American Political Science Association. I'll live.
I keep hearing a lot about how Barack Obama has to "tread lightly" on race . . . that he "transcends" race; and that he needs to reassure this election cycle's constituency de jour, the white working-class, that he . . . he . . . he . . . what? Won't turn the White House into the East Coast's most coveted destination vacation sight for West Coast rappers?
Hmmm . . . haven't seen an article yet on John McCain's ability to "transcend" race or reassure African-Americans that he has no plans to return them to the Jim Crow era.
Why is that? Why are minority candidates required to "transcend" race and/or ethnicity, yet the same is not required for white candidates?
* * * * * * * * * *
I thought last year's Supreme Court decision striking down voluntary plans to desegregate public schools was its most intellectually dishonest in ages. But this term's opinion striking down the D.C. gun ban might well give that one a run for its money. When, oh when, will this nonsense about "Framer's intent" go the way of the Dodo? Or least New Coke? I just cannot understand how anyone can seriously argue that the Framers intended this or that in 2008, or 1838, for that matter. The Framers, however we choose to define them, didn't believe the country would last more than 30 or 40 years, before the problem they refused to resolve, slavery, would tear the country apart. The first fall I moved here I went to a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute devoted to the following topic: Why Blacks, Women and Jews Are Not Mentioned in the Constitution." The consensus of the deep thinkers assembled for lunch that day, which included Robert Bork, was that the Framers wanted to keep open the advancement of equality and purposely left the Constitution blank so that blacks, women and Jews would be able to take their rightful place among their white, male and Christian co-citizens.
That seemed odd to me, even at 27 going on 28 years old. "Mr. Ivers, I'm pleased to report that we are not including you in the new Constitution so that one day a future generation, more enlightened than our own, will include you. And let your sister and mother know that one day their day will come, although it won't be for over 150 years. And the black neighbor that you play ball with and share laughs? Tell him it's going to take a bloody war on American soil and a hundred more years of agitation and activism to achieve legal equality. But in the meantime, it's all good."
Back then, I thought maybe I was just a bit too skeptical. Looking back, I realized this was my introduction to the world of Washington conventional wisdom, where the truth is in the hands of those with an interest in protecting the status quo. The "quote" that more than one person wrote in my annual from my senior year in high school came from Steely Dan: "The busy world was not for me, so I went and found my own." That was certainly how I felt at 17; in many ways, I still feel like an outsider in my professional life. Funny enough, the only place I've ever felt at home is behind a drum set, a baseball field or sitting around a table with my family and friends. Twenty years ago, I imagined, for a brief moment, entering the world of Washington politics and policy, going to important meetings, giving important speeches and mingling with the city's elite at fashionable cocktail parties and dinner receptions. We'd compare our children's private schools, whether the Vineyard was getting too crowded, the majestic views of Jackson Hole and whether solar panels were the way to go when remodeling our house.
That life never materialized. It's almost worth believing in God so I can have someone to thank for the life I have lived -- a life of music, family, great friends, coaching kids and, as surprising as this might sound, the wedding and baby announcements I continue to get from the students I've taught over the past twenty years. All those friendships are genuine, and have nothing to do with proximity to power or the obssession with the "star-fucking" that pervades how so many people seem to choose their "friends" in Washington.
* * * * * * * * * *
George Bush in the worst president in American history, worse than James Buchanan. What's even worse than the havoc this man has wreaked at home and abroad is the American public's indifference to him. Okay, as I'm reminded by the corporate media, he's tremendously unpopular at home, with an approval rate hovering slightly under 30%. But has that unpopularity really affected his ability to promote his agenda? Is there one major piece of legislation or foreign policy decision where Bush has not gotten his way? Can you imagine the hell we would face if his popularity was where Bill Clinton's was when he left office? And Clinton really didn't accomplish anything after the Monica-Paula Jones-Ken Starr escapades. Just to know: I don't think Bill Clinton was a great or even good president. Fortunate to have a nation at peace and fairly prosperous, he squandered his opportunities to promote a more progressive society because of his immaturity and Willy Loman-like need to be liked rather than respected.
* * * * * * * * * *
I have a lot of friends who work in politics, and respect them all, even the misguided ones working for Republicans. To a person, they genuinely believe that working for a particular candidate or issue-group will make the country better. I don't have a lot of patience for opportunists, regardless of their profession, so I wouldn't remain friends with any of them if I didn't believe that had good motives. But, I gotta tell ya, I just don't see how they have the patience for what, to me, is a high school-level environment . . . hearing the constant stream of soundbites that say and mean nothing . . . the insistence that ideological purity indemnifies a candidate or elected official against criticism . . . watching how friendships appear dependent on following the leader . . . the incredible level of self-importance that the Washington political-media complex attaches to itself.
Earlier this summer, I was at the Union Station metro station buying a farecard to head back home. As I fiddled with my wrinkled dollar bill, I heard a voice behind me say, "Excuse me, I really need to get through." I didn't turn around because I didn't think this person was talking to me. But apparently he was, as he put his hand on my right shoulder, cleared his throat and said, again, that he really needed to get through.
"And that has what to do with me?" I asked.
"I need to go ahead of you because I've got somewhere to be," he said.
"So do I."
And then came the ultimate Washington bomb: "Do you have any idea who I am?" he asked.
I looked at him, dressed in a blue suit, white button-down shirt, red rep tie and slicked back hair. The outfit didn't exactly narrow it down."
"I have two answers for you," I said. "The first, yes, I know who you are, but I don't give a shit. The second is that, no, I don't know who you are, nor do I give a shit. Which one do you want?"
He took his hand off my shoulder, stepped back and waited his turn. I bought my fare card, turned around and asked, "Do you have any idea who I am? Because if you take a minute to think about it, I think you'll apologize to me."
This drone from Sector 7G looked me up and down, then said, "Oh, I'm sorry."
"You should be."
Like I'm somebody. Asshole.
* * * * * * * * * *
Priced Out
I can't say I feel all that outraged about the cost of gas. We are the number 1 consumer of oil in the world, yet expect to pay less than almost any other people because . . . well, because we don't want to pay more. I don't drive very much, so the increase in fuel prices is marginal to me. You think about the people lined up to buy iPhones, or "upgrade" their personal sound systems, or the teenagers walking through malls carrying multiple shopping bags from stores that I could have not shopped in -- had I cared about "shopping" at that age -- when I was that age (assuming they even existed), the affluent class stopping in for daily, at minimum, $4 cup of coffee, yapping on their cellphones while scrolling through their Blackberries . . . and those are the ones without jobs . . . spending, spending and spending . . . and spending, spending and spending . . . and that whole gas-is-expensive whine is hard to take. Rising costs on essential commodities are always regressive. Dealing with fuel costs and consumption will require a complete rethinking on the part of the public and private sectors, and any new "strategy" to deal with fuel prices will require changes to public and private behavior that very few people are willing to make.
A friend of mine I had not seen in 25 years came to visit for a long weekend earlier this summer. We had to run an errand to the Apple store at my local mall. My friend, who grew up in Atlanta with me, now lives in rural North Carolina and could not be further removed from the relentless materialism of modern America. As we were waiting for an Apple "genius" to tell me what was wrong with a feature on my iPod (turned out he was wrong; my friend, who doesn't have an iPod, pointed out the "problem" to me, which turned out to be an oversight on my part), my friend said to me, "What do people need with all this shit? I forgot how much I hated these places." I've slowly come to that conclusion myself over the years, especially when I watch the public arguments between parents and children, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, couples . . . everyone . . . about stuff that could not be more unnecessary to a meaningful existence.
I have yet to attend a Washington Nationals game in the new stadium. I didn't go to a game last year at RFK either. I never thought I would live to say this, but I just find major league baseball, in person, too expensive, too distracting and too geared towards people who have no interest in the game to go myself. For me to take my son or daughter to a game, sit in a decent seat and get something to eat is a quick $150, and that's a conservative estimate. Plus, there's the schlepping on the metro, the walk, the hassles, the drunk, obnoxious people on the metro ride home . . . all that just diminishes the fun of the game. I watch live baseball all the time, at the youth and college level, right around the corner from my house. For $5, I sit a few feet away from the field and watch good baseball played by college players home for the summer (Big Train, up at Cabin John). No blaring music, no commercial timeouts, no mascots, no Jumbotron, no endless adjustments on the part of pitchers and batters to delay the game. Just the game, pure and simple.
Plus, the Nationals absolutely suck. And they are not going to get better anytime soon. That's a good thing, as the Nats are the only thing that will keep the Braves from holding down last place for the next 5 years or so.
* * * * * * * * * *
Pretty boring, eh? That's all right. Sometimes, that's what summers are for.
See you in September.

1 comment:

tres_arboles said...

Great post, Gregg. I keep coming back to Poliscope for these beauties. Mean time, have a good August.

David, Seattle

Go Phils