Thursday, January 29, 2009

Voices inside my head

Years ago I remember seeing the Gary Larson cartoon to the right, and thought it was about the funniest thing I had ever seen in such a small space. Funny because I remembered, as a child, having "conversations" with my dog that never seemed to go anywhere. Funny because I have watched more people than I can possibly count "talk" to their dogs, sometimes appearing to believe that the dog is actually bi-lingual. No, no . . . the dog isn't responding to commands, sounds, context and a reward system or any of the other techniques that dogs are taught in obedience school. It's as if the dog, not the owner, went to Pet Smart and asked one of the clerks -- I'm sorry; I mean "Team Member Associate Customer Service Representative Litter Box Specialist Trainee -- where she could buy the "Hooked On Phonics CD" so that she and her owner could work on their communication skills. Yes, indeed . . . no more wondering what the other one is saying or hearing to such commands as "Ruff, ruff, grrrrrr, ruff, ruff, ruff" or "stop humping Aunt Zelda's leg unless you feel like popping for a trip to Florida -- in season." From that point forward it's, "I hear what you're saying about Aunt Zelda and I will give her the space she needs." A closed caption scroll will emerge from a special digital chip placed in the dog's body that will translate the "ruff, ruff, ruffs" into meaningful words, like, "I really, really need to pee, so please take me outside before I embarrass myself," or "Can I have the rest of your roast beef sandwich. It'd be a shame to let it go to waste."

I could be wrong about all this. It's been 26 years since I last owned a dog -- that during my first year in graduate school, when I thought the adorable but semi-literate half-Irish setter half-Lab I adopted three weeks before the term began would make a great conversation starter with women. I'd take it to campus because I'd already learned that my dog didn't take to "alone time" very well, electing to destroy my modest apartment rather than guard it from intruders or bill collectors. And a conversation starter it was:

"Ooh, you're dog is so cute," I'd hear. "Do you know if you're roommate is dating anyone?"

"What a cute dog! I'll walk it for you if you introduce me to your roommate."

So you can see where this is going. I got rid of the dog and kept the roommate -- needed the money. And my roommate kept his all-time favorite Wingman.

* * * * * * * * *

College students don't look, smell or dress like dogs, except when they're hungover or trying to make it through exam week or survive some other usually self-induced crisis. But sometimes, eve after almost twenty years of doing this, I don't think that professors and students are speaking the same language. I go to great pains in my course syllabus to make the terms and conditions of my class as clear as possible. I always take a minute at the beginning of class to ask my students if they have any questions about anything, from whether the books are available in the bookstore to whether anyone has attempted to reproduce the accounts of my class without the express written consent of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. And, inevitably, no matter what I write, say, announce, bellow, scream or sign -- even nicely -- I still get these looks from relatively bright people suggesting anything from bewilderment, anger, "oh, really," to "WTF?" You can even break them down into categories.

The Hair Twirlers and Eaters: I can say anything to these students, from "Do you think Justice Kennedy's opinion in Lawrence is persuasive enough to overturn Bowers?" to "I'm contemplating leaving class right now and road-tripping up to Hershey Park. Who's in?" And this is what they hear:

"Like, OMG, like, OMG, whatever, my hair tastes, like, soooooooo good, and it twirls, like, I don't know, licorice or something? If I smack my gum long and loud enough, maybe I can get it in my hair and that would be, like, so gross and I'd have to, like, leave class and go fix it or whatever." Smack, smack, smack. Twirl, twirl, twirl. Yum yum, yum -- that hair sure is good.

The Sports Guy: Hat on backwards, displaying his favorite team, dressed like he just cashed in his Sports Authority gift card from Christmas, this one doesn't really hear much of anything. Slouched in the back, given to knowing glances across the room to other sports guys that say, "Yeah, man this guy's a boring asshole, but what are you going to do (knowing laugh or smirk). Dude, he's a total dick, I mean what kind of loser thinks Federalist 10 is exciting. I wonder if he's ever been outside in his life." Nothing, and I mean nothing you say to Sports Guys clicks. These guys are killing time between re-runs of Sports Center.

The Breather: No gender distinction here. The Breather is a student who is very, very sure of his or herself, and generally believes the professor is out to get him or her. For example, I say this:

"Is there an argument that Roe v. Wade is no more activist than Marbury v. Madison? Didn't both cases require the justices to give meaning to clauses or implied powers about the Constitution that were not explicitly set out in the text?"

After making a significant shift in body weight, usually accompanied by a slammed pen or pencil on the desk, the Breather is making it clear that, first, the statement I have just made is conspiratorial, the product of a red diaper upbringing or the first stages of a plot launched in what Breathers refer to as the "faculty lounge" (although no such place exists at American University). How do I know? Because the first thing I hear from the Breather is, well, a very, very, VERY LOUD sigh that, translated, means:

"You've got to be fucking kidding me, you wimpy liberal piece of shit who has probably never had a real job and paid taxes (guilty to the first charge; not guilty to the second) so of course you believe in all this namby-pamby bullshit you're saying."

Breathers like to tap their fingers on their desk, one-by-one, like a parent waiting for a "good answer" from a teenager who has just done something really stupid. Breath all you want, Breathers. Just make sure to brush your teeth before coming to class.

The Know-It-All: These students listen less than anyone because they're just waiting for their turn to talk. I'm convinced that the Know-It-Alls are frustrated contestants from "Name That Tune" or some other game show where the guest who believes he or she knows the answer to a question gets to interrupt the host. In college, in goes something like this:

Me: "Let's take a moment to look at what Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote in his Dickerson opinion so . . ."

Know-It-All: Miranda v. Arizona was decided in 1966. Rehnquist wasn't on the court. That was Sandy Koufax's last season. The Beatles released "Revolver" and played their last concert at Candlestick Park. My Dad was a Beatle and my mother became pregnant through Jimi Hendrix but decided not to continue her pregnancy. The square root of 81 is 9. And . . ."

Me: ". . . and I don't give a shit. But thanks for sharing."

Know-It-All: "You're against me. You're biased. You favor other students."

This is what I'm thinking: "I am against you because you're being obnoxious. I am biased in favor of students who don't feel compelled to show off about things they don't know. And I favor students who listen and ask good questions."

This what I say: "I am against you because you're being obnoxious. I am biased in favor of students who don't feel compelled to show off about things they don't know. And I favor students who listen and ask good questions."

I don't know why students do this. I actually write on my syllabus that you should contribute only if you have something meaningful to say and only if you have read the assignment. And yet . . . . and yet, the Know-It-All feels compelled to interrupt and share, interrupt and share, interrupt and share. Not even students like Know-It-Alls . . . not even the Hair Eaters and Twirlers, some of whom are tempted, I think, to take off one of their 4" stiletto heels and hurl it towards the Know-It-All. But they've wisely concluded that a Jimmy Choo is wasted on people like this.

The Non-Violent Resister: This is an interesting one. Of all the students I've described so far, these students are usually well-intentioned and generally keep to themselves in a non-offensive way. But something just doesn't sink in, say, on the texting, eating or sleeping bans in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I teach classes about civil rights, political theory and other subjects where we read about people who stood up to power and forced change, usually for the better. We read about non-violent resistance, about taking claims through the courts rather than battlefield. "Wow!" some of these students seem to think. "If Rosa Parks can stand up to white segregationists in 1955; if Ishmael Jaffree can fight the forces of the Mobile, Alabama authorities on prayer in the public schools, then I can just do what I want, even quietly, because I'm battling injustice."

Here is some direct language from my syllabus:

Please turn off your cell phones and all other electronic devices before you come to class.

You may not use a tape recorder, personal digital assistant or personal computer in class. Any student who fails to comply with this rule will be dismissed from class. Students with documented disabilities requiring the use of such assistance must see the instructor for an exemption to this rule.

Do not bring food to class. You may bring and consume a non-alcoholic beverage. Any student who fails to comply with this rule will receive a warning for a first offense and be dismissed from class for a second offense.

Okay, this may sound kind of harsh, but that's not the point. The point is to communicate to students that we will treat our time as if we were in a real office somewhere for the 75 minutes they're in my classroom. No matter how nice the weather, Chief Justice John Roberts isn't likely to grant an advocate's wish to have oral argument outside. Or shrug off an advocate who responded, "Sorry, I have to take this call" or starting texting during an exchange between an advocate and a justice -- even a liberal one.

Instead, I might say to a student, "Do you plan to eat that croissant in class?" Here are some of the answers I've received"

"Does a croissant count as food?"
"I thought as long as I was quiet it would be cool."
"I'm really hungry."
"I need to eat raisins because I need the fiber." (TMI)
"This won't take long." (What, like a flu shot or unusual sexual request?)
"My other professors let me eat in class."

On the phone/text/computer issue:

"I didn't know what time it was."
"Oh, that was just my mom."
"My roommate wanted to make sure I got up."
"My other professors let me text in class."
"I can't read my writing."
"I promise I won't email in class." (Does this mean you'll only play solitaire?)

It isn't that the student doesn't understand me. It's just passive defiance, just a "oh, you can't be serious about this." Imagine things if we shifted the relationship.

"Oh, I forget to tell you I decided to include material on the midterm I didn't announce in class."
"Do you mind if I call my wife while you're trying to talk to me?"
"Does a Scotch and water count as a non-alcoholic beverage?"

* * * * * * * * * *

What we say to students: "Please come to class prepared having eaten breakfast, cleared you calendar with your mom, broken up with your girlfriend and filed your nails."

What students hear: "Ruff, ruff, ruff, (enter student's name here), ruff, ruff, ruff."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap review the first week of the Obama administration and critique the Oscar nominations.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Alexander the Greatest

If you still don't believe that Alexander Ovechkin is the greatest thing to happen to professional hockey since Wayne Gretsky, then look at this and think again.

How refreshing is it to see a professional athlete, one who is arguably the best in the world at what he does, actually acknowledge that he's playing a game, and that he owes it to the people in the stands who pay his salary to entertain them?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week . . .

Guitarist Mark Caruso and I will join forces with the Pablo Grabiel Trio at Maggianos in Northwest DC this Saturday, January 24th, from 7-10.30 p.m. Please come out and see us if you can. Maggianos is located at 5330 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC.

Upcoming Zeebop dates:

Friday, January 30th, at the Red Dog Cafe from 9-11.30 p.m. 

Monday, February 16th, at La Ferme, from 6.30-9.30 p.m.

We'll have more information on these shows next week.

Learn more about Zeebop by clicking here.  We've just posted new sounds clips.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


After the most interminable 2,291 days of my lifetime, George W. Bush finally left the office he disgraced and diminished as no president before him had managed to do -- not even Richard M. Nixon, who tried his damnedest, or James Buchanan, who didn't have try at all. My Bush's Last Day calendar had been patiently counting out time for the last four years or so and finally, at midnight, it just gave out. Gone, gone, gone . . . W., Dick Cheney, who looked like a hybrid of a 1960s-era James Bond villain and mean ole' Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life," Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, the entire neo-con mafia, Karl Rove . . .

and those are just the ones I haven't blotted out of my memory.

Since I knew he was leaving today, I could read the "exit" interviews he's conducted over the past three weeks or so with members of the Washington "journalism" Establishment and laugh rather than scream when I read his long-ago familiar refrain of "history will vindicate" all the tough decisions he had to make as president. Peppered with such tough questions as, "Do you think you made any mistakes?" to "What's the hardest thing about being president?" to "If you have runners on first and second and no one out, you're no. 6 hitter coming up who hits into more double plays than anyone else in your line-up, do you (1) opt for the double steal to kill (possibly) the double-play or (2) encourage him to hit the ball in the air to allow the runners to tag or, at worst, simply lose one out to the infield fly rule or (3) let him swing away." No one really asked him the third question because, as any good Washington journalist knows, it would rude to ask presidents questions that would actually require them to think analytically rather than produce a pre-packaged answer suitable for prime time programming.

Today, though isn't about W and his merry band of pranksters, law-breakers, religious kooks, global warming-deniers, torturers, liars and militaristic chicken-hawks. Today, January 20, 2009, is about something much bigger.

Today at noon, a little less than 144 years after Robert E. Lee laid down his sword at Appomattox, the Civil War finally ended. There was Barack Obama, standing on the balcony of the nation's Capitol building addressing the millions who had gathered to see and hear him speak, facing Virginia, a state that, 148 years ago, headquartered the capital of the Confederacy, a state that, 50 years ago, proudly flew the banner of "massive resistance" to post-Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation; but a state that, 2 1/2 months ago, overwhelming voted for the nation's first African-American president.

I couldn't help but wonder, watching President Obama's inaugural address on television with my family, what our new president saw as he stared into the distance. Arlington Cemetery? The Iwo Jima Memorial? The Washington Monument? Or did he see the silhouette of Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front the Lincoln Memorial, imploring the hundreds of thousands gathered before him 45 years ago to dream, to reach, to reconcile . . . to better humanity. I think MLK would have had a very different response had he, at 80 years old, been asked yesterday if he thought he would see a black president in his lifetime.

"What do you mean 'think,' he might have responded. "I always believed. That is why I and everyone else did what we did."

"I got this," Obama seemed to whisper to King's ghost, orbiting the Lincoln Memorial two miles away.

* * * * * * * * * *

Barack Obama has a chance to be a very good president. I don't know that he will be a great president, not so much because he lacks the capacity for greatness -- I think he possesses a first-class mind with the temperament to match -- but because he is facing a shitstorm unparalleled in modern times. Obama has inherited a horribly conceived and even more poorly executed "War on Terror," a frayed relationship with countries that were once our allies, economic disaster at home, a nation that brags about its technological prowess yet refuses to make health care available to all of its citizens, a public education system more concerned about teaching to the test than preparing students to think and develop ideas on their own, a culture locked into a mindless "debate" on homosexuality, abortion and the perils of free thinking when there isn't a chance in hell that you can put any of those Genies back in the bottle and a country that consumes far more energy per person than any other in the world and feels little, if any, need to do anything about it.

And, of course, the latest intractable crisis in the Middle East between Israel, Hamas, the Palestinians and whoever else thinks they're right about everything whether they are or not. Like the new president needed that . . .

Remember what Johnny Sack told Tony Soprano at the end of Season Five: "Everyone want to be boss? They should only know."

Externalities will not allow Barack Obama to achieve greatness. Forget e pluribus unum (from many unto one). Ours is not a nation of all-for-one and one-for-all. Yes, there are millions and millions of people who want Obama to succeed. And there are millions more, angry about their eviction from power, angry at seeing their hold on American politics and culture loosen as a consequence of an African-American taking office, angry that the nation's demographics are making the country more open and, at the same time, more complex, angry that the old ways of doing politics have, for now, been sent to the dustbin . . . all this means that the millions who were smiling, clapping, crying and hugging on the Mall in Washington, D.C. this morning were being watched at home by millions more hellbent on seeing Obama fail. The longer he can make them wait, the better.

And he also has the advantage of following the worst president in American history. There is nowhere to go but up. If nothing else, our new president can speak in complete sentences. He also understands how particle physics applies to politics -- that you cannot divide the world up into false spheres of good and evil, right and wrong and worthy and unworthy. Everything is interconnected, and the divisions we create are simply an illusion, reflecting the choices we make. Politics is about many, many things. It is, at once, a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective an occupation and something that is feared, admired and, occasionally, loved. I hope that President Obama will make the right choices. That journey will require him to listen, something he already does well and something his predecessor neither did nor valued.

* * * * * * * * * *

Yesterday was a great day for the United States. I cannot not even imagine was this day meant to and for black America. I couldn't help but think back to the black men, women and kids who welcomed me into their world 40 + years ago as a child and never made me feel better or worse for being white. I understood even then that the two worlds I traveled between during my formative years in 1960s and 70s-era Atlanta, one black and one white, were different. From an early age, I never understood why white America worked so hard to deny black Americans their culture and heritage while so eagerly and proudly embracing their lineage from the European countries that, ironically enough, gladly waved good-bye to their most undesirable elements. I thought it was great, absolutely great, to see and hear President Obama proudly acknowledge his Kenyan ancestry in a capital that once enforced the rigid codes of the antebellum South and, after the Civil War, the dehumanizing racial caste system known as "Jim Crow." It astounds me to hear people diminish the life and accomplishments of President Obama -- he isn't descended directly from slaves; he had (and has) a white mother; he's "half" Caucasian (a particularly offensive comment, one that could only be made by people unfamiliar with the "One Drop Rule" that defined racial identity before the formal abolition of racial segregation in the 1960s). Compare that to the experience of George W. Bush, who had everything handed to him from Day One by a family that by any measure qualifies as part of the American aristocracy and still couldn't get anything right.


So I suppose it makes sense that some white folks still believe it's their obligation to define who is and who isn't black in 21st century America; or who is or who isn't Latino; or Muslim; or whatever is unfamiliar to them. Really, now, it's time to let that go. We are way, way, way past the point of seeing the United States as a nation of two races, one white and one black, with subsets of ethnicities rounding it out. Language, culture, religion, food, music, custom might explain the "difference" between someone from Kenya or Cameroon or Ireland or Scotland or Egypt or Japan. White America created "black" America against the latter's will. Black America is now old enough to define its own identity without the assistance of the very same people whose track record isn't all that spectacular. Ethnic heritage, yes; "racial" identification, no.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thank you Mrs. Reagan, Mrs. Henderson, James Wright, Bill Braynon, Julian Bond, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Sr., Melvin, Toni and Tracy Echols, Matte Driver, Lonnie Johnson, Broadway, Billy Rivers, Walter Smith, Bruce Kennemore and so many others for helping me see the see the world beyond the one I was born into 47 years ago. I can still remember the first adult conversation I had with John Lewis, the great civil rights veteran and, since 1986, congressman from Atlanta, about the larger goals of the civil rights movement. After some back and forth on the lessons he learned as a foot soldier in the movement ("I always remembered to pack a tooth brush in case I got arrested") and some clarification about how loving your fellow man didn't mean you had to necessarily like him ("No, I can't say that I liked Bull Connor,") he explained to me that King was always speaking as much, if not more, to white America than black America. By harnessing and using the power of love to speak to your enemies rather than the language of hate and the tactics of violence, King wanted white Americans to choose the path of progress rather than submit to the unwelcoming hand of force.

In November, Americans made that choice. Earlier today, President Obama stood on the shoulders of giants and thanked them for giving a different generation of Americans -- their children and their grandchildren -- the freedom to choose love over hate. A powerful moment it was, by any standard.

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the cartoon on the Salon page. This was too good to hide in a link.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap get their inauguration festivities on -- commenting on which preacher will give the most awkward prayer, advising Obama's new treasury security to pay his damn taxes and "inaugurating" the Sarah Palin song contest.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Abolish grades -- now

In September 1979, when I arrived on the campus of the University of Tennessee, I didn't need any additional incentive to study other than playing back, in my head, the speech my father gave me before we packed our car and headed up to Knoxville.

"If I make Dean's List the first quarter," I asked, "do you think I can go to Florida with some of my friends over the Christmas break, maybe adding that to my Christmas present?"

"Two things, genius," he responded. "First, we don't celebrate Christmas. Second, your 'reward' for making Dean's List is getting to return for the second quarter. And your reward for making Dean's List second quarter is to return for the third quarter. Screw up and you can think about Florida all you want while you're attending DeKalb Community College, which you will pay for."

Remember the scene in "Glenngary, Glen Ross," when Alec Baldwin, in the best performance he's ever given, tells a group of despondent real estate salesmen that first prize in that month's sales contest was a Cadillac El Dorado, second prize was a set of steak knives and third prize was "You're fired." And when I asked my father for another cup of coffee, you know what he told me?

"Put the coffee down. Coffee is for closers. Or A students."

No, he didn't say that. But the other part of the story is true. Trust me, I wasn't heading off to college with a stack of academic awards under my belt. My sole academic distinction of merit through Grades K-12 was winning the second place ribbon in the county social science fair contest in 6th grade. My project was a reenactment of the JFK assassination complete with a second shooter behind the grassy knoll. "What you lack in artistic merit you make up for in creativity," I remember the judge telling me. What, you didn't think that using Hot Wheels tracks, mismatched model cars and "buildings" constructed from Lincoln Logs was an accurate portrayal of downtown Dallas in November 1963? Or was that simply a nice way of saying, "What you lack in brains and ability you make up for with heart and soul?" Or perhaps he thought I was poor, since my project actually looked like an 11 year-old made it rather than a team of architects, building engineers and professional landscapers, as was certainly the case for some of the other projects. Whatever the case, that was about it for the next seven years or so, until I made the Dean's List my first quarter in college.

Since my father had already "fired" me once from my occasional Saturday job working in his store growing up for sitting on my ass, talking on the phone or reading the paper when I should have been working, I never doubted that his threat to bring me home and sentence me to community college, complete with a part-time at job at Sears or, worse, something that would require actual physical labor, like painting, working in a warehouse or cleaning toilets in office buildings, I didn't need any additional incentives to keep my grades up.

Third place. You're fired.

Now, though, it just seems like the $45,000 tag of my university isn't enough to motivate someone to do well. Now, the Housing and Dining Program from the Office of Residence Life is rewarding students lucky enough to live in our South Side residence halls "study bucks" if an RA or some other residence life official "sees" a student studying in one of the hall lounges. Forget, for a moment, the great injustice this means for students who might be reading or computing or doing something academically-related in their rooms. How did we arrive here, paying college students for doing what they came to here to do -- reading, thinking, or perhaps even talking about what they're reading and thinking? Are residence life officials going to assume the posture of KGB agents, mysteriously roaming the lounges and, presumably, other common spaces to determine who gets "study bucks" and who doesn't? Is this sort of like the university equivalent of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," where good students are rewarded with golden tickets and the lazy, stupid and irresponsible ones are thrown in Rock Creek or buried in the World War I munitions dumping grounds behind the varsity athletic fields to rid the university of their ilk so the smart ones can claim their free cookies? Students already steal plenty of food from our dining hall anyway, so I'm not sure how the temptation of even, what, free-er food is much of a motivator.

For students not motivated by the prospect of free food or decorative shot glasses from our campus store, there is something now available to them called GradeFund.Com. Students can set up accounts and invite relatives, friends and, I presume, jilted lovers and angry bartenders to donate money to them if they make good grades. There is a catch, though. The donor and recipient have to agree on what grades merit financial reward and which don't. No, no . . . you're not gonna get that $20 iTunes card for just showing up!

Odd, isn't it, that just the price tag of a modern college education isn't enough to inspire a student to live a life of the mind?

* * * * * * * * * *

Reading stories like these further cement my view that the time has come to simply abolish the formal A-F grading system that has been in place in our university system (and secondary and elementary systems) from time immemorial. As everyone knows -- students, advisors, professors and administrators -- we moved to a de facto pass/fail system years ago. Over 90% of American University students make some combination of As and Bs, making the mean GPA over 3.0. So either every student is, at minimum, a good to very good student or students are receiving artificially inflated grades due to the perverse incentives facing professors charged with evaluating them. Graduate programs don't take seriously undergraduate GPAs anymore, relying much more than ever before on standardized tests to "sort" the "real" 3.4 from the "fake" one. Not surprisingly, many students complain about the emphasis that schools place on the GRE, LSAT, GMAT or MCAT. But the Faustian bargain universities have struck with their students -- we will give you As and Bs regardless of how you've really done in exchange for the tuition and fees that you agree to pay us -- has a downside. And this is it.

I think we should simply move to a Pass/Fail system. Removing the pressure to "make" certain grades, the moronic and demeaning ritual of a 19 year-old student with five weeks of experience in Econometrics insisting to a professor that he or she "deserves" much better than the grade that he or she received and the morale-killing tradition of handing back bad papers just in time for the student evaluations would benefit everyone.

So how will a student know how well or she is "doing" in class, or how much he or she has learned? Here's the straight dope: you never really know -- and I put myself in this category -- how much you know and how much you don't know. The point of an education is to open the door to greater knowledge by developing the chops to ask the right questions and seek out the right resources to answer them. Read, write, think, sing, dance, compute, play, run, paint, build . . . just keep at it and maybe the answers will come.

Or maybe they won't. That's the risk you take.

Can I have my cookie now?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Peter Gabriel

"WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?" asked my son, pointing to the television where a tall, thin young man appeared wearing a black, one-piece jumpsuit, sporting white and blue pancake make-up with, for good measure, a green and yellow flower pulled over his head.

That, by boy, is Peter Gabriel, circa 1973, when he fronted Genesis, which, by then, had justifiably secured its reputation as one of the two greatest bands in the burgeoning progressive rock movement (the other, of course, being Yes).

We were watching a "lost" concert that had been restored and included in the recently issued box set, "Genesis 1970-1975," a five CD/DVD collection complete with new (and genuinely ear-opening) stereo mixes, some astonishing 5.1 DVD mixes and lots and lots of extras -- interviews with Genesis members past and present, including Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips; concert footage; television performances (including a 1973 appearance on the American show, "The Midnight Special," a late-night viewing ritual of my youth); and all sorts of odds and ends. For a devoted fan of early and mid-period Genesis (1970-82) like myself, the Gabriel-era footage is notable for several reasons. First, finding any footage at all of the Gabriel years has been all but impossible until very recently -- so it's just remarkable to watch these performances of such classic tunes of "Supper's Ready," "Watcher of the Skies," and "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," in their entirety. You get to see guitarist Steve Hackett alternately crafting gorgeous classical lines, searing guitar leads and clever tapping runs that no other rock guitarist was even thinking about during that time, much less putting down on record. And, for me, best of all, is the chance to watch Phil Collins just play the drums. This is not the Phil Collins of "Sussudio" and Tarzan and all that bleech-y stuff you may now from the early 1980s forward. This is a chance to see why Phil was such an inspiration to so many drummers in the 1970s.

Plus, he's left handed. Even better.

But back to Peter . . .

I never subscribed and still don't to the common view that Genesis changed dramatically after Gabriel left in 1975, almost immediately after Genesis played its final show in support of "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway." Musically, Genesis's next two albums, "A Trick of the Tail" and "Wind and Wuthering" are two of the band's strongest -- indeed, "Wind and Wuthering" is my personal favorite because it showcases everything great about the band at its best. The compositions are full of humor, careful and clever arrangements minus the art school pretentiousness common on the first couple of its recordings, the absolute superb solo and ensemble playing, great lyrics and its two best instrumentals, "In That Quiet Earth," and "Wot Gorilla." That day would come when Hackett left two years later. But for the six or seven years that Gabriel fronted the band he helped form while a public (read: high school) school boy at the Charterhouse School in Great Britain, Genesis established the reputation it did largely because of the attention that his outrageous outfits drew from the music press. There was Gabriel in bat wings acting out "Watcher of the Skies," dressed as "Britania" for "Moonlit Knight," clomping around dressed like a wart on steroids for "The Colony of Slippermen," or wearing a fox head and red dress during "Supper's Ready" or "The Musical Box." Gabriel had once read that Genesis was "boring" to watch because the focus was on their intricate music -- everyone (naturally Phil) sat down when they played, even Hackett and bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford. "Boring," said Gabriel? "Well, top this!" And out came the fox head, the bat wings, the flower and all the other costumes that would launch Genesis's career.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Gabriel did not the lyrics while the others wrote the music. That only happened once, for the "Lamb," and he got so bogged down in the story's existentialism that Banks and Rutherford had to finish the lyrics for him. Gabriel did write the lyrics to many of the tunes, "Cinema Show," "Moonlit Knight," and "Get 'Em Out By Friday," and "Return of the Giant Hogweed," although he did not pen the lyrics to my favorite song of the Gabriel-era, "Watcher of the Skies." That was Banks and Rutherford. But Gabriel's contributions were numerous and strong. It is not too much to say that he laid the ground for the glam-rock movement almost by himself, before even David Bowie, another great talent, and Freddie Mercury of Queen. Come to think of it, if I had to pick the most distinct voices in rock music from the 1970s, I'd go like this, in no order: Gabriel, Bowie, Mercury, Roger Daltrey, Jon Anderson and Robert Plant. I started to write the "five" most distinctive voices; but I wasn't willing to cut out any of the above.

After Gabriel left Genesis, he went on to a great solo career, always pushing existing musical boundaries and becoming one of the first figures from the post-Beatles period in rock to move the genre into "world music." I don't have all that much of Gabriel's recorded output as a solo artist. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't appreciate his talents or the major contribution he made to rock music by making the lead singer something more than some skinny figure roaring through overheated tunes with a cucumber stuffed down his patents. By himself, he turned rock music into a form of performance art and proved that, in the right hands, what might sound ponderous, complex and serious could be witty, charming and full of life.

Rickey and Jim, yes; Mark McGwire -- it's not that easy

Glad to see that the nation's baseball writers went 2 for 2 with one intentional walk in this week's Hall of Fame voting. Rickey Henderson is a first ballot no-brainer. He is the greatest lead-off hitter ever -- no one else comes close, not even Lou Brock, a great player (and great man) in his own right. Brock could certainly hit and steal bases. He was also durable, playing 2616 games in his major league career, the equivalent of about 16 full seasons of the 19 years he played MLB. Brock also spent his entire career in the National League, and so never benefited from the DH rule (created in 1972, or 11 years after Brock made his MLB debut with the Chicago Cubs), as Paul Molitor, another great hitter (and HOFer), who spent his entire career in the American League, did. Although he never won a Gold Glove, Brock was an above average outfielder who could cover a lot of ground. From 1964-1970, when he and the peerless center fielder Curt Flood played together in St. Louis, the Cardinals had perhaps the two best everyday outfielders in MLB. Brock wreaked havoc on pitchers and catchers from the day he stepped on the field until almost the day he retired. By 1979, when he retired, Brock had redefined the lead-off position, creating the standard that Rickey Henderson would emulate and over his 25 year career (for the record, Rickey played in 3081 games, or just over 19 full seasons).

Rickey, though, surpasses everyone else. No one else could hit for power and average and then steal any base almost at will. Rickey took a great deal of heat for his crouched batting style, which critics argued neutralized his strike zone and allowed him to walk more than he should have. Guess what? Go back and look at Pete Rose's batting crouch. If you drew stick figures, it would be hard to tell the difference between the two. Now think about this for a minute: Rickey holds the record for most runs scored by anyone, most home runs by a hitter leading off an inning, most walks by a player leading off an inning, and, of course, his signature record, most stolen bases by anyone ever. Even if he didn't steal a base, he made pitchers crazy just by knowing that if wanted to he could. What else is there to say?

This. Rickey walked 796 times to lead off an inning? Who the hell walks Rickey Henderson to lead off an inning?

And this: By the time Rickey played bits and pieces of two seasons with the Boston Red Sox in 2002 and 2003, he had stolen more bases (1,395) than his new team (1,382) had over its 100 year existence. The Red Sox didn't surpass Rickey until 2004.

Okay, so Rickey was a pain-in-the-ass and almost single handedly invented the phrase, "sports diva." So what? The only question surrounding his HOF vote is trying to find the writers who made up the 5.4% of the voters who didn't vote him in on the first ballot. I'm guessing they also voted for Bush twice and McCain in 2008 because they thought, inexplicably, that Sarah Palin was hot. Hmmm . . . I had no idea that Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes had HOF voting credentials.

* * * * * * * * * *

Speaking of the Red Sox, Jim Rice, only one a handful of players from the post-Curt Flood era in MLB to spend his entire career with one team, finally made it into the HOF on his last try. This is one I've never understood. Rice was a great player and one of the most dominant hitters of his generation. Okay, maybe not a great all-around player -- he wasn't a particularly capable fielder; neither, though, was he incompetent -- but he could smack the living shit out of a baseball. And -- I'll get in trouble for saying this -- no other city outside the South has historically been as hostile to black athletes as Boston. Ask Bill Russell, Nate Archibald, Luis Tiant (before he went into his trance) and countless others. Red Auerbach, the great Celtics head coach, would tell you the same thing if he was still alive. Rice, in some ways, was not all that different than Ted Williams in his approach to the game and the fans. Rice, like Williams, never stepped-and-fetched for anyone, and that certainly did not endear him to the Boston fans, who like(d) their sports heroes white and personable (i.e., Orr, Havlicek, Cousy, etc.), not prickly and distant. How many people outside of serious life-long members of Red Sox Nation can tell you that Williams homered in his last major league at-bat before the Fenway faithful? How many of those same people are willing to acknowledge that Williams flipped them off as he rounded third base for the last time?

Admittedly, Rice is not Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray or even Dave Winfield. Depending on how deeply you want to go into stat-geekdom, something that is admittedly not my forte, you can make an argument that Rice doesn't belong in the HOF. But, if you calculate his greatness based on the following question, "From 1975-1985, would you rather face Jim Rice or almost anyone else?" then Rice's candidacy picks up considerably more steam. Had he been white, played in another city, and had a more agreeable personality, Rice would have been voted in years ago. Not on the first-ballot -- that's for the best of the best. One anti-Rice Red Sox fan told me that Rice's penchant for grounding into double plays alone disqualified him. Okay, then . . . let's rid the HOF of Hank Aaron, Carl Yaztremski, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken and Dave Winfield, all of whom grounded into more double plays than Rice.

So, good for Jim Rice.

* * * * * * * * * *

And then there is the Mark McGwire dilemma. On his third year on the HOF ballot, Big Mac picked up just over 25% of the vote, or about 50% less than he needs to get elected. Sure, there is the sanctimonious argument of many writers (and fans) that McGwire cheated by taking steroids, and then hurt his case even more when he refused to admit to his wrongdoing during the 2005 congressional inquiry into steroid use in MLB. Funny, isn't it, how Congress seems much more concerned about the performance enhancing drugs that professional and amateur athletes use than holding public officials accountable for torture, deception, lying and outright perjury on matters of life and death (what about blow jobs, you ask? not to worry; Congress is on the case). Perhaps McGwire should have taken a lesson from George Bush and said that he just wanted to hit some home runs to bring fans back into all the new retro parks built at taxpayer expense, and if -- IF -- he got a few things wrong along the way, then that's simply the price that great players have to bear for being, well, great.

Unlike our soon-to-be-departed president, Mark McGwire is a smart, thoughtful, talented and charitable man. Rather than go into my arguments for and against inclusion in the HOF during the Steroid Era, read my previous posts about this issue here (on drugs in sports) and McGwire's case specifically here.

I just don't think the McGwire question is all that easy. I'll say this much, though -- if McGwire can't go, neither can Barry Bonds. On the merits -- drugs aside -- they're both shoo-ins , yes, even the so-called "one-dimensional" McGwire (who, was, by the way, an excellent first baseman before he started DHing). Introduce the steroids as a factor and, in Bond's case, a possible criminal conviction, and they're both out.

Think this is tough? Wait until Roger Clemens's name appears on the ballot in five years. Two years ago, the only question surrounding Clemens was what hat he would appear upon his induction -- Red Sox, Yankees, Astros or Blue Jays. No longer. How strange will it be for the sport's most dominating pitcher of the last 25 years (perhaps ever) and dominating player of the past 25 years (perhaps ever) to sit in their self-imposed purgatory while watching lesser players get elected. If Clemens and Bonds are done, then both of them will appear with Greg Maddux in 2014. Based on the "McGwire Rule, only one can go -- Maddux, who is my favorite pitcher ever other the Sandy Koufax.

Perhaps while they're thinking about McGwire's fate, the HOF baseball writers can investigate all the players from baseball's glory years from the late 1950s through the early 1970s for alcohol and amphetamine abuse, the latter clearly a performing enhancing measure, who are currently sitting in the HOF. With pitchers and catchers set to report in just over a month, we may as well clean house as long as we're in a cleaning mood.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

FAQ -- myths and realities

In about five months, I will complete my 20th year of teaching at American University. And, yes, yes, it seems like just a few months ago that my wife and I watched the movers unload what were then our worldly possessions -- my books, CDs, records, running shoes and about a weeks worth of clothing; her shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, scarves, scarves, jackets, jackets, jackets, long coats, short coats, medium coats and 286 boxes of coupons for more of the above for anywhere from 10-40% off -- into our small apartment to begin our adult lives in Washington, D.C. We were both pretty excited to come to a place that we had heard was the "most exciting and important city in the world . . . where the smartest people from all over the globe came to make a difference," ad naseum, ad infintium. I was somewhat suspicious of that claim when I ran into a "Washingtonian" -- a phrase I had never heard before; come to think of it, the only city I ever heard describe an individual was New York, as in, "New Yorker" -- who asked me how I was "enjoying [my] first Washington August."

"I grew up in Atlanta, went to college in the central Midwest, then graduate school in Atlanta, so, no, this doesn't phase me," I responded.

"Oh," this Washingtonian responded. "Does it get hot and humid down there?"

I should have figured out, right then and there, that Washington was not the center of the universe; but, rather a place for people who think they're the center of the universe. Unfortunately, it would take about five more years before I came to the conclusion that Washington is place for people who really, really, really . . . really liked student government in high school, or found their time as the president of the Pan-Hellenic/Inter-Fraternity Council in college about as good as it gets, or enjoy talking about the "process," with no idea about whether what's going in or out of the "process" makes any sense, or find their personal six-degrees-of-separation from someone who has told them how important he is to the preservation of the Free World the starfucking equivalent of having an all-access pass to the set of their favorite porn star's latest film.

So, yes, you observe a great deal being on the periphery of a city that thrives on high school-level pettiness, revenge, cliques, and score-settling, a city that repeatedly refers to its most outstanding "Washingtonians" as "A students," a city that relishes and rewards conformity and punishes dissent and creativity. But you also experience and hear a lot of strange things working in the same place for twenty years, particularly in a university setting where your bosses aren't really your administrative superiors, but a cohort of (mostly) 18-22 year-olds who, despite not knowing all that much, if anything at all, about the subjects you are teaching them, wield the ultimate power over your livelihood and perceived success. And, gee wiz, if some of those students don't say the gosh-darndest things about you.

In twenty years, I've encountered some pretty strange questions from students, overheard countless comments about me that are alternately flattering, derogatory, plain false and just plain bizarre, watched my university, along with the world, change for good and bad. So why not just set the record straight?

How old are you?


My friend said you were the best professor on campus. But my other friend said she hated you and you were the worst professor ever. So which are you?

Neither one. "Best" and "worst" are only opinions, and those opinions have much to do with a student's expectations, their interest in the subject, what they're here for and what they expect from a college-level teacher. A "good" professor prepares for class, understands what he or she is talking about, makes an effort to communicate in a creative way that knowledge to his or her students, makes him or herself available for office hours and establishes rules and expectations. A "bad" professor doesn't do any of those things, allows students to determine the course of any given class, treats young adults like adolescents and would rather be liked than respected. There is huge difference between high school and the college experience. My fear is that we are collapsing the two rather than expanding the distance between these two points.

Do you think American is worth the current price tag?

I think it depends. I think my department and generally the School of Public Affairs are good with genuine opportunities to become very good and perhaps one day excellent. I think the Schools of International Service and Communication are also good with similar prospects for the future. I don't know enough about the business school to offer an opinion. Beyond that, I think the university has much to do to build a reputation as a respected liberal arts institution.

I do not think we help our cause by diminishing the academic component of our undergraduate program, which, based on my observation over twenty years, is something that we've been doing. In college, I never had an internship or a professional-type job. Those came during the summers between my junior and senior years and then the summer after I graduated and before I started my graduate program. College was nothing like I experienced in high school. I was blown away by the resources available to me, the books, magazines and journals out there that I didn't know existed, and professors genuinely animated to teach me something rather than just get through a "lesson plan." Any course syllabus longer than a page and a half was a rarity. Now, I have three pages of rules and regulations outlining a student's responsibilities. I found myself on a steep learning curve to keep up with the sophomores on my first floor I thought were genuine intellectuals. No one I knew talked about Democrats and Republicans; rather, you were an anarchist, a libertarian, a paleo-conservative, a democratic socialist or a Marxist. Students prided themselves on taking the hard professors and escaping with a B. And I attended large state schools, not small, elite private universities. I had a few friends that did, and the stuff they were doing was even more intimidating than what I reading and arguing about. I'm not sure our university offers that experience. Part of the reason for this development is that most of our students, I think, are more interested in the "experiential" component of their "education" than the academic one. And part of it is that a good number of professors are afraid to encourage serious classroom thinking because the students will resist it and then punish them come evaluation time.

So which one were you in college?

I was a democratic socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. My sympathies haven't changed very much but, with old age, my politics have. I can certainly be an airy, abstract professor; but I also have a very pragmatic streak that pulls me towards supporting candidates I believe offer the best chance to advance the causes I think are important.

You're a Democrat, then?

No. I am a registered Democrat in my state. But I do not really find party politics engaging or interesting. During this past election, I gave a small amount of money to Barack Obama's campaign, making this the first time I have ever donated money to a person rather than a cause. I would describe myself as a semi-lapsed democratic socialist who usually votes for Democrats.

You've voted for Republicans?

I have never voted for a Republican. I've sat out races when I found both candidates objectionable. I'm still not sure whether I would have voted for Hillary Clinton had she run against John McCain.

I guess this means you were brainwashed by liberal professors who took their Ph.Ds in the 60s and 70s?

Not at all. Two of my favorite professors were quite conservative. They were phenomenal teachers who demanded that you come to class ready, and I mean ready. I had one professor who gave you two passes a semester. If you weren't prepared the third time he called on you, you just didn't get one of those mysterious marks he would put on the roster in front of him. You had to leave. Another one was just really, really interesting and encouraged students to voice their opinions, especially if they were different than hers. I had some great teachers whose politics were liberal, I suppose, including an economist who was a Marxist. But a professor's opinions, to the extent they came up in class, were never relevant to the learning experience. I have always thought the "bias" argument is among the most ridiculous in higher education. No one is "neutral" about anything. "Fairness" and "neutrality" are not synonymous. No professor should ever punish a student for his or her opinions. Some students, on the other hand, resent someone challenging their views, i.e., their own "bias," and fall back on the persecution argument as a defense mechanism.

Is college different now compared to when you went through?

Yes and no. Certain aspects of college life will always be with us -- the dorm, first apartment and/or group house experience; complaints about the food, financial aid, crazy professors, insufficient nutrition; binge drinking and drugging, etc. College now, though, is much more sophisticated, corporate operation. The level of student services is worlds away from what it was when I was in school. Students, on average, are much more integrated into technology as both a means and an end to managing their daily lives; spend, it seems, much more money on clothes, entertainment and other consumer staples that were luxuries to me. My college wardrobe consisted of what I bought in the summers before I went to school. Not once in four years did I ever go "shopping" for clothes, shoes, etc., during the academic year, nor did anyone I knew. The kids who walked around looking like their mothers and fathers were ridiculed, not emulated. In college, we wanted to distinguish ourselves from high schoolers, yet not try to look too stuffy and grown-up. Things now on that front are very different. I drop my 4th grade daughter off at school in the morning and see girls in Ugg Boots and North Face fleece jackets; I attend my son's high school hockey games and I see girls in Ugg Boots and North Face fleece jackets; I stand in the lobby after a game and I see their moms wearing Ugg Boots and North Face fleece jackets; I come to campus and I am SURROUNDED by girls in Ugg Boots and North Face fleece jackets. Way back when, you could distinguish ages by how people dressed. No more. As for the guys, they generally don't give a damn, unless they're in their Pac Sun skater-wannabe phase, like my 9th grade son. At least I don't walk around in Hurley t-shirts and Adio sneakers.

Far more significant, though, is the growing trend in universities, and this one in particular, to dissolve the relationship between professor and student from one that is hierarchical albeit mutually respectful into one that is fundamentally a relationship between equals. The reason that my course syllabi contain so many rules that seem so self-evident is that, many, many years ago, I had students who successfully complained that I wouldn't let them sleep, or do work for other classes, enjoy a steaming hot, three-course lunch, leave to take a cigarette break or get credit for not participating in group projects because the syllabus didn't have rules against of these choices. When I was in school, the assumption was that you just didn't do things unless the professor said you could. Now, the assumption is the reverse -- that can do what you want unless the professor states clearly, in writing, that you can't. This is an unfortunate consequence of treating our students like "consumers" rather than young adults who have chosen to attend college and my (or someone else's) class in particular. Cultivating a sense of entitlement -- you can have what you want because you want it -- is not a lesson we should be teaching our students.

Do you like students?

I love teaching. I like many, if not most, of the students I teach. That said, I would rather teach my students something I think is important than view my courses as a tool to boost my self-esteem. I view my responsibilities as similar to those of a physical therapist or coach. If you want to get better, then listen to me. If you want just to continue on at the same level, then don't. At some point it evens out, if not now, then later. My best students, believe it or not, teach me a great deal. I relish debate with bright minds, and I go out of my way to encourage anyone interested in anything to talk to me.

A lot of students consider you intimidating and think you pick on them.

This is something I have never understood. I am the least intimidating person I know, for the main reason that I have no particularly intimidating qualities. I will talk to any student about anything, and I have given more students than I can count second chances to redeem themselves after screw-ups, some of which were pretty major. Find someone I've given more than one break to and see what he or she says.

If picking on a student is defined as asking a student in class to describe, explain and/or analyze some aspect of an assignment you've given them, or asking them questions intended to make them think about what they've said, or not letting them go forever when it's clear they're just bullshitting, then that says much more about the college environment than me.

How come some students really like you and some really don't?

For the same reason that some people really like Abba and some people really like Thelonious Monk. Everything is a matter of individual taste. Sometimes it takes someone 20 years old a while to learn that a professor you don't "like" is actually pretty good, and a professor you really "liked" really didn't teach you much or push you very hard. Teachers aren't like toasters or other kitchen appliances that can be evaluated somewhat objectively by Consumer Reports.

I've heard you think the student evaluation process is stupid. Do you not think students should have a voice in evaluating their teachers?

Of course I think students should have a voice in the evaluation process of professors. The problem is that American University does not professionally evaluate faculty. The sole measurement is the bubble evaluation that students fill out at the end of each semester. Anything you hear to the contrary is simply not true. No other professionals on campus are subjected to a "process" like this, not staff, not deans, not executive academic officers. I was part of a process to evaluate our current dean over a year ago, and I never saw or heard the outcome of the final evaluation. Moreover, our evaluations are available on-line, reducing us to the same level as a camera or air filter on Amazon ("EvaluationKing, Washington, D.C.: Gee, I wonder if the students that fared poorly in his class or didn't like the workload or didn't like being called on thought he was a good teacher. See more of my evaluations by clicking here."). Strange, isn't it, that we are held hostage by the very same people we are supposed to, at least in theory, receive poor grades for their failure to meet our course standards. Rather than be rewarded for distinguishing competence among our students, we are punished in student evaluations for not giving bad or indifferent students the grades they deserve.

So this is why everyone, it seems, makes an A or a B at American University?

Yes. And it happens in plenty of other places as well. We have moved to a de facto system of pass/fail (A or B/C). Professors want to hold on to their positions or get promoted or, even if full professors like me, not get bogged down in student complaints so they can research and write and engage in other creative projects.

How would you change it?

I think we should go to a pass/fail system and let the standardized tests sort out the graduate applications. And since most of our students are working in internship-type jobs during college, their grades are less and less important in getting a job. Besides, when everyone has a 3.5, the grades don't mean anything. Why do you think the standardized testing industry has grown so much in the last ten years?

Do you think it will change?

No. Universities are bureaucracies, just as all large organizations are. In twenty years here, I have found American University not terribly receptive to change or ideas that do not comport with conventional wisdom. Differences of opinion are often viewed as the equivalent of sedition and not welcomed. To get along, go along.

If we go to a pass/fail system, how will the students know that they've learned anything?

That is up to them. If they want to learn something, they will. If they don't, they won't. No one can make anyone learn anything they don't want to. That's part of becoming an adult -- learning how to form independent judgments and not to look to the person next to you for approval.

Were you a good student in high school?

No. Indifferent at best.

What about college?

Yes. I viewed college as my get-out-of-jail-free card. It was the most profound experience of my life and led me to pursue the path that I did. I learned an incredible amount, found myself, met the best friends of my life, all of whom I still see and talk to on a regular basis and grew up.

Did you consider other careers?

Of course. I thought about law school, journalism, music or going to work for a professional baseball team. Either I didn't like the mechanics of those professions or the odds were just simply too impossible to consider. And I never, ever thought about going into politics in any capacity. I would not trade the career I chose for anything. I am very lucky to do what I do and I know it. My parents worked much harder than I do for much less financially in return.

Do you think professors are underpaid?

Not at all. Like I said, we are very lucky to get paid to pursue interests that for many are hobbies or leisure pursuits. We practice our craft in a comfortable environment largely insulated from the push and pull of the economics of the other world. Anyone who complains about the life of an academic has never had a real job or known anyone who has.

Is it true that you are a professional musician?

Yes and no. I am a professional-level drummer who gets paid to play with other professional musicians in the area and I also lead my own group, Zeebop. I work mostly in the jazz, funk and fusion realms. I have always played music and been around it; I cannot imagine my life without a connection to music. But music is my sideline. I am just very fortunate that I have opportunities to play with excellent musicians and that I get paid on occasion play in public.

Who are your biggest influences as a drummer?

Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Bruford and Phil Collins.

Do people ever say you sound like anyone famous?

Jazz people who hear me play always comment that I "must like Roy Haynes." On the rock and fusion side, Bruford and Phil are in almost every note I play. I never set out to copy anyone and I don't think I do. I guess you are drawn to certain people because they play the way you'd like to if you could. In the end, what people say depends on what they know.

Favorite bands?

The generation gap emerges. After the Beatles, the music I come back to time and time again is Yes, Genesis (from 1970-82), Steely Dan, the Allman Brothers, the Who and the Police. From the post-Stone Age, I think the Dave Matthews Band is great -- the musicianship in that band is simply stunning.

Remember that I'm a jazz person first and foremost. Of the 9,000 or so recordings I own, about 6,500 are closer to jazz than what most people consider rock or popular music. I listen to far too many musicians to have perennial favorites, although I will say that Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Horace Silver dominate my older collection of music; John Scofield, Brade Mehldau, Keith Jarrett (and the Standards Trio), Pat Metheny, the Marsalises (Branford is my favorite), Dave Holland, Weather Report, Michael Brecker and Steve Khan take up more space than many others on the newer side.

If you could play with anyone, who would it be?

Hmm. Bass players: Paul McCartney, Chris Squire and Sting on the rock side; jazz -- Scott LaFaro, Jaco Pastorious, Anthony Jackson, Christian McBride and Ron Carter. Guitarists: Wes Montgomery, Steve Khan, Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Steve Hackett. Pianists: Bill Evans, Steve Kuhn, Brad Mehldau and Herbie Hancock (jazz); pop and rock keyboardists -- Tony Banks, Gregg Allman (a very underrated player) and Donald Fagen. I'll leave it at rhythm sections.

I would love to sit in the Steely Dan drum chair for a summer tour. I know the tunes, even the drum solo in "Aja." Donald and Walter, call me. I'm ready. And cheap. Very cheap.

Is it true you were engaged to Sheryl Crow?

I "dated" Sheryl Crow, then Sheryl Crowboff, for 45 minutes during my senior year in college. That's it. I took her to a party and she blew me off.

When and why did you start a blog?

I started my blog in September 2006, the semester I was last on sabbatical. I wanted to practice my writing, something I have always enjoyed doing, on a more regular basis, and blogging seemed the logical way to do it. I have always thought that you cannot get better at anything unless you work at it. And this is one way to do it. I never thought that it would interest, or seem to, as many people as it does, or that a publisher would express interest in publishing a collection of the "better" pieces as a book.

Will that really happen?

Maybe or maybe not.

Do any of your colleagues read your blog?

I suppose some do. But I make no effort to draw attention to it.

What do they think?

I'm not doing it for them or anyone else, so it doesn't matter.

What is your current academic project? When will it be published?

I am currently working on a book that will attempt to show how jazz and blues interacted to promote racial integration during the civil rights-era American South. This will not see the light of day for 3-5 years.

What is the thing that people would find most surprising about you?

You mean things, not thing, right? Let's see . . . I don't like crowds or big parties because (don't laugh) I am somewhat shy and never really think I fit in with everyone else. I like to cook, which, in addition for reasons of self-preservation, I find very interesting. And I am somewhat of a hypochondriac . . . and a pessimist as well. I am not competitive at all, as far as comparing myself to other people. I wish people success in whatever they choose to do, and do not believe that another person's success diminishes whatever I may accomplish. I have certain goals and I want to achieve them. I rarely, however, believe that I do.

What is the most bizzarre excuse you've ever received from a student for missing an exam, class, project, etc.?

Ah, the best for (almost) last. I once received an email from a student telling me she couldn't come to class that day because she slipped and cracked her head open while taking a shower with her boyfriend, who was in town visiting for the weekend.

Is there a piece of advice you ever received worth passing on?

Many. But two that always stick out in my mind are these:

"Quit or get better." I heard Phil Collins tell this to someone waiting in front of me to get his autograph at a local record store in 1978. The stoner was asking for advice how to learn a song that he apparently wasn't learning very well.

"Loyalty begins at the bottom." From an adult friend after I graduated from college, warning me about the perils of life in a large organization.