Monday, November 01, 2010

No, Sarah Palin is not hot

The question still burns, but the answer remains the same: Sarah Palin is NOT hot.

Among the stranger phenomena of our time -- stranger, I dare suggest, than the Cabbage Patch Doll craze in the 1980s, the popularity of the show "Friends" in the 1990s, the emergence of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer as an essential item in the modern hipster's portfolio of coolness, the rise of Bono and Angelina Jolie as roving international ambassadors of good will or the near improbability of the Boston Red Sox winning not one but two World Series, how Uggs and Crocs simultaneously became must-have fashion items in pre-schools, elementary schools, high schools and colleges and worn by the mothers (mostly) and fathers (sometimes) responsible for taking and dropping their children to these educational outposts near and far -- is how Sarah Palin, two years ago a name unknown to approximately 281,121,906 Americans (that's 281,421,906 minus 300,000 or so Alaskans, or about half the state's population. I'm assuming that at least half of all Alaskans, like most Americans, real or fake, don't know who their governor or mayor is) has emerged as the modern-day Marilyn Monroe -- or Lady Gaga, take your pick -- of American politics.

Granted, Palin cuts a more dashing figure than, say, Elizabeth Dole, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Barbara Mikulski or Condi Rice. But does Palin have that "it" factor that allows her to walk along side of Sheryl Crow, Julianne Moore, Sandra Bullock or her impersonator, Tina Fey, with first-tier MILF (or GMILF or VPILF) credentials?

Dear, God . . . no.

No, no, no and no again. And again. And again. And . . . again and again and again.

The Sarah Palin as sex goddess story line has some bizarre roots, if we are to believe Jane Mayer's account two years ago in the New Yorker on how a troika of conservative pundits in Washington, D.C. fell hard for the Alaska governor after a visit to her home during June 2007 for an afternoon and evening of dining and "flight-seeing." Bill Kristol, the know-it-all know-nothing editor of the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes, another conservative pundit whose most recent professional accomplishment was a fawning biography of George W. Bush and Michael Gerson, an insufferable and righteous Op-Ed columnist (and former W speechwriter) for the Washington Post who manages to find God's work in all things Republican and notably absent in anything Democratic, visited Palin during a stop-over on an Alaskan cruise for conservative contributors and activists. According to Mayer, these three permanent members of the Washington Establishment reacted as most high school nerds do after being summoned to the head cheerleader's house for a Homecoming float party, only to find out that he was the only one invited and her parents weren't home -- in utter disbelief that an attractive (in their view) woman would want to talk to them. Think about the visual cliche you see in almost every movie featuring the story line where the sweet but nerdy boy who has a secret crush on the girl/woman too good to be true ("Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," any recent movie with Katherine Heigel or Seth Rogen, "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," "Manhattan," "Hitch," "Sideways," or, most improbably, "The Graduate"), and you'll understand how Kristol, Barnes and Gerson fell hard for Palin.

Of course, to understand how these fine men found their libidos reawakened by Wasila, Alaska's great claim to fame, you have to understand the completely desexualized nature of Washington, D.C. Picture this: You arrive in D.C. as Sarah Louise Heath as an 18 year-old veteran of beauty contestants and high school basketball with a full head of hair that actually falls past your ears. You decide you want to pursue a career in Washington, so you find the right internship and finesse the system to build connections. You're not motivated by anything other than getting into the game so that you can go to parties where people spend most of the time talking about themselves and the essential services they are providing to the nation. But unlike your peers, you don't trade your fashion-conscious pointy-toe heels that you bought at Pay Less for a pair of square-toed, thick heeled clompers that look like something the head mistress might wear at a German boarding school for gifted pianists. You keep your hair long, don't spend your evenings fantasizing about what it would be like to own a blue suit with matching faux pearls from Brooks Brothers, but you do wink and giggle when a guy says something he thinks is funny or insightful because you know -- just know -- that guys like girls who think they're funny and interesting. You might not be the smartest person in the room, but, because you grew up in the Alaskan wilderness, you understand the fundamental biological and anthropological principles of the mating ritual. You know that men are attracted to women who are, well, physically attractive to them. And you know that men will do stupid things to impress women they find attractive . . . so . . . you . . . run with it!

Is all this that hard to figure out? That men are attracted to women who fulfill some sort of fantasy ideal of the attractive woman? That women are attracted to men who fulfill some sort of fantasy ideal of the attractive man?

In Washington, sex is viewed as something to be viewed, at best, through spread fingers held up against your face, like an awkward scene in a movie that you just can't bear to watch, yet you can't look away from either. How else can you explain the obsession that Washingtonians in good standing in the political-media complex developed over Monica Lewinsky's dalliance with Bill Clinton, or Larry Craig's "wide stance" in an airport bathroom, the reaction of the gray-ladies- who-lunch over the scandalous sleeveless dresses that Michele Obama wears during the city's warm months or the alcohol-infused battles that rage late into the evening in happening bars across the city over who is gay and who is not on Capitol Hill? Why does the Washington Post's "fashion" columnist catch such hell for commenting on the length of Hillary Clinton's hair? Why, why, why?

Because Serious People don't think about sex or give in to their sexual impulses . . . no sir-eee, not in Washington, where selfless men and women have elected, in their minds, to forgo better paying but less worthy careers to promote the interests of the real, often forgotten Americans who are busy sweeping our floors, fixing our washing machines, selling us digital cameras or cheerfully refunding the price difference on that absolutely daring J. Crew sweater purchased 10 days before it went on sale. And when you are working 27 hours a day, 9 days a week on no sleep, fueled by endless supplies of Starbucks and Red Bull and subsisting on food that your palette was educated not to eat, you simply don't have time to worry about whether your boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or husband would ditch their L.L. Bean denim skirt or argyle fleece jacket for something more inviting. Such frivolity is beyond the bandwith of the Serious Washingtonian, particularly for women. If you want to prove your mettle in this great city of serious and tireless thinkers, demonstrate your concern for "the process," and prove once and for all that you've left those table-top dancing days in cut-off denim shorts and figure-flattering tops behind you for good, then, by all means, schedule that appointment with a Talbot's personal shopper and begin the process of desexualization.

And that's what Sarah Louise Heath Palin understands. Washington is a city of serious men and women who have little time for such unimportant things like fashion and style. Among the many things that struck me about Washington after moving here twenty years ago, more so than what seemed like a Volvo in every other driveway in Northwest D.C., where I first lived and also worked, was how people my age -- then 27 -- would want to decorate their apartments and homes with pictures of English hunting scenes or place scented candles in living rooms that smelled like vanilla or lilac or some other fragrance that reminded me of how my least favorite aunt's house smelled in 1968 or boast about the new stuffed red leather chair they just purchased for their "study" (not home office). A guy I once had more than one good time with just two or three years before beamed with pride when he showed me the fancy new globe he bought for his "study."

That's right. A globe.

He told me this on a Saturday afternoon while he was wearing a pressed dress shirt with dress slacks and loafers without socks. At the time, he was working as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill. Boy, did I feel stupid, dressed as I was in jeans, my Sambas and a pullover sweater, all proud of myself that I had hung, just a few weeks before, a framed poster of John Coltrane's first great album, "Blue Train," on the living room wall in our first apartment, thinking that guests arriving for the first time might think it was cool.

"Shit," I thought to myself, "I should have opted for that English country pheasant hunting painting I seemed to find in every Washington home I'd been invited into since moving here.

Not only that, I thought that perhaps I should start wearing soft-soled wingtips and my Timex Ironman running watch when I wore a suit, the better to fit in with what seemed like the dominant fashion sensibilities of the Washington professional. My wife often awoke a night, drenched in sweat that someone had kidnapped her, tore up her Bloomingdales and Saks charge cards and forced her into Joesph A. Bank at gunpoint and forced her to purchase a dozen blue and grey flannel suits with floppy bow ties or a skirt with pineapples on it. And worst . . . worst of all . . . someone had stolen all 34,894,85 pair of her shoes and replaced them with a pair of black and white Spectator pumps, some Topsiders for the weekend or black ballerina flats with a big gold medallion on the toe for just lounging around the house.

It took all of about 46 seconds, but my wife and I made a pact not to go down the L.L. Bean-lined pavement of dressing alike as much as possible. If my wife stole one of my shirts to wear around the house or, as was more likely, as part of a disguise to avoid being identified when she cut through Sears to get to her car in the mall parking lot, then it was for a good reason, not because we had decided to order matching attire from the Audubon Society catalogue. My wife's fashion sensibilities are great where they are, which they should be when you have 233 black T-shirts, 233 black slacks, 233 black sweaters, 233 pair of black boots and 233 pair of black shoes to choose from. I, on the other hand, have never been tempted to dress like a volunteer nature guide or a Deep South or Midwest college fraternity president on the weekends.

So Sarah Palin's hot to those men and some women who entered Washington's spay and neuter program after they arrived to start their busy and important work governing and instructing the country. Remember, this is a city wear men other than Nation of Islam members wear bow ties as part of their serious work attire, not because they're attending a Laurel and Hardy tribute show or auditioning for a part as Professor Kingsfield in a suburban dinner theater-version of "The Paper Chase." That a hard vow to take, especially in your early to mid-20's, when you can still laugh at the Cialis and Lipitor ads on television during sports events rather than squint hard at the lower part of the screen to read about their side effects in greater detail. After a while, the women start wearing theme sweaters with matching earrings, thrilled to play their part in celebrating the change of seasons, while the men start wearing red vests under their suit jackets from Thanksgiving through the New Year. And once you've gone down the road of seeing theme sweaters as something other than a put-on for an office gag party, there's no turning back. Nor is there a brighter horizon for men, who have had to trade their devil-may-care wardrobe of untucked shirts and ill-fitting jeans for "walking shorts" with matching shirts, usually featuring a breast logo identifying the exclusive resort where you vacationed last year with some other couples from the D.C. sub-culture of androgynous but very important professionals.

Sarah Palin is many things. She's inarticulate, not terribly bright or knowledgeable about the job she campaigned for two years ago or the undisclosed job she is campaigning for now or aware that the president has responsibilities that go beyond organizing the snack schedule for her son's Pee Wee minor hockey team. Palin is a xenophobe, uncomfortable around people outside her limited world view and not having ever given a serious thought to anything serious in her entire life.

I asked a gay male friend of mine, of whom Sarah Palin is apparently "very tolerant," whether he thought that she was hot.

"Are you kidding?" he said. "Why do you think I'm on this side?"

Hmmm. "Are you suggesting that Sarah's right, that you're gay by choice and you're just trying to get benefits from the government without getting married, which she doesn't think you should be allowed to do, even though she's willing to tolerate you?" I asked.

"You'll have to ask God," he said. "He decided it for me. That, and the secret gay gene that I was born with that I am honor bound not to disclose the origin of."

I started to ask a gay female friend if she thought that Sarah Palin was hot, but she hit me before I could finish the question.

Yes, Sarah Palin is many things. But hot? That is not one of them.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Evaluating the professor, or how French ice-skating judges have overtaken higher education

Finally, four months after the spring 2010 semester ended, I am now able to answer my friends and family when they ask me, "So, how did your classes go last semester?"

"6.46 and 6.39!, unadjusted for wind or difficulty factor! Now, go ahead . . . ask me the capital of Missouri -- Jefferson City!"

And there you have it . . . a semester's worth of preparation, haggling, negotiation, grading, individualized consideration, pointless, random email from students with 3.44 a.m. Sunday morning time-stamps, questions such as, "Does a croissant count as food?" and "Will you really lower our grade if we don't turn in the work?"-type questions in response to specific written policies on the course syllabus stating that no food is permitted in class and I will deduct half a letter-grade if you miss more than a certain number of classes . . . boiled down to numbers more familiar from figure-skating and gymnastics competitions than suitable to how well professors teach their classes and how much students learn in them.

American University modified the student evaluation form about four or five years ago so that we are now evaluated on a scale of 1-7 rather than 1-6. The evaluations ranked us from poor to superior. Now, the numbers translate to "One of the Worst" to "One of the Very Best," whereas before we were just poor, below average, above average, superior, etc. I have no idea why the university changed the system or why it believes the new survey will yield a more accurate assessment of the "student classroom experience." But this much is clear: the student evaluation process, completely unscientific, hopelessly biased, lacking accountability and unable to capture nuance or account for important differences in how teachers teach, is more powerful than ever in determining whether untenured faculty -- whether on tenure-lines, renewable contracts or teaching as adjuncts --get to keep their jobs. The student evaluations are also central in determining promotions for faculty below the full professor rank and in allocating raises. Besides the obvious problems that exist with the surveys and their administration, there is one more -- perhaps the most bizarre -- element to this charade that goes undiscussed on my campus (and on others, to judge from my colleagues who teach in other universities). Professors are, as far as I can tell, the only employees on campus whose fate rests in the hands of those they supervise. Our administrative superiors do not visit our classes. No system exists for "peer evaluation" of professors by professors. We have something here called the Center for Teaching Excellence. As far as I can tell, the Center functions more like a charm school for professors than a place that tries to hold the line against the "customer service" mentality that now pervades the management of colleges and universities. All that the committees and academic officers have in their hands when they determine my "teaching effectiveness" and whether it merits a cup-of-coffee a week or a latte-a-week raise are these numbers. Since I cannot ascend any higher in professorial rank, I can afford -- literally and figuratively -- not to take seriously a process that doesn't merit serious thought. But my colleagues still working their up through the system do not have this luxury. An unintended consequence of turning over such a large degree of power to students over their professors is that it diminishes academic standards in the classroom and discourages professors from pushing their students harder than they are willing to go. From grades K-12, one parent after another (or this one, anyway) gives their kids the "I don't want to hear about how 'unfair' your teacher is; until you speak Spanish as well as she does just shut up and do the work" speech. In college, the reverse is true. Not getting a good grade? Complain, complain, complain, or just slam your professor on the course evaluation. In the end, the student wins because the student, like the modern American consumer, is always right.

* * * * * * * * * *

Professors are also the only employees in the university whose performance reviews -- another phrase we have borrowed from corporate America -- are available for anyone with a university email account to see. Around seven or eight years ago, the university began putting the teaching evaluations for all our courses on line. I still do not know who made this decision or whether there was even any faculty input. Had anyone asked me, something I don't remember happening, I would have said no, for no other reason than we -- professors -- are not permitted to see the evaluations of staff (from academic advisers to physical plant employees) or the periodic "reviews" conducted of the university's academic officers (from academic deans to the university president). Over the years, I have been asked in surveys to rate the performance of my academic superiors and interviewed for my "narrative" opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of the same. I have never seen the results of these reviews. Nor has any other professor I know. Placing our teaching evaluations on-line encourages colleagues to snoop on each other. Since our performance reviews, in part, are based on the student teaching evaluations, any professor who believes he or she was undervalued -- we are ranked in percentiles -- might want to know how a colleague was evaluated by students to get a sense of fairness. How do I know that colleagues of mine have looked at my evaluations? Simple. They've told me.

Professors are not permitted open access to student academic records. From time to time, I will discuss a student's performance with an academic adviser to get a sense if an issue I am having with that student is unique or indicative of their academic performance. But can I go into an adviser's office and troll through student files? No. University rules and federal law accords students privacy rights over their records. A professor's classroom record, on the other hand, is the equivalent of a menu posted outside of a restaurant. That's a more charitable description than saying we are nothing more than prostitutes sitting in an Amsterdam storefront, allowing our customers to size up their preferences before plunking down their cash.

* * * * * * * * * *

And then there are the "narrative" evaluations professors distribute to supplement our quantitative assessments. These are little more than venting sessions, sometimes for good sometimes for bad, and sometimes just plain weird. They have absolutely no value as evaluative instruments, since the committees and individuals charged with assessing our teaching effectiveness do not read them. I know plenty of professors who just pitch them without even bothering to open the envelope, and I understand why. Since the process is anonymous, an aggrieved student can just let loose in extraordinarily personal and vindictive terms. And sometimes they do, letting us know that we're "stupid," "full of worthless shit," "a dick," or offering a psychological profile, i.e, telling us what we think, who we favor or don't favor and why and, of course, questioning our life outside of our professional responsibilities. Professors have no similar tool their disposal. We can't make comments on papers and projects that read:

"Your essay begins well. You offer a good and coherent thesis. But you do not develop your thesis's main idea as well as you could have. We discussed Author A's position on this in detail, and we spent two class periods discussing the differences in Cases A & B. Also, by not discussing Author B, you do not provide any evidence that you read her book, something you were asked to do. Worst of all, though, you continue to wear Birkenstocks to class despite that big black toenail that stares at me throughout the 75 minute class period. And what is with "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt that you wear every other class period? Have you ever thought that you were stupid? Please . . . please . . . please . . . take shower once in a while. You smell like beer and Doritos. It's evident that what drives your poor performance in class is the strained relationship you have with your mother. No wonder you don't have a girlfriend. And could please ditch the Crocs and stretch pants? You're twenty years old."

But students can. And they do.

For comic relief, though, nothing tops RateMyProfessor (or, more accurately HateMyProfessor), the website where anyone in the country can leave a comment about any professor teaching at any university in the United States. You don't even have to attend a university, much less actually take the course you want to rate. I had never even heard of this site until a student brought it to my attention a few years ago. My first impression was that it reminded me of the message boards for professional sports franchises, the kind of place where large, out-of-shape, angry, nachos-and-cheese drooling sociopaths who couldn't throw a baseball more than 7 feet or skate from the goal line to the defensive blue line without dropping dead go to issue death threats against their team or question the sexuality of rival players. If I wanted, I could, as a professor, select at random a professor teaching at any university, also selected at random, and leave a comment about that person. There is no control over comments, although the site reminds posters not to leave "libelous" comments about the professors they rate. Mmm-hmm, and the Supreme Court has said that sexually explicit material, taken as a whole, that lacks literary, artistic, political and scientific value, can be considered obscene and not afforded constitutional protection. Do a quick Internet search for sexually-explicit material and then tell me exactly what isn't permitted.

Here's one for you. A person left this comment, my all-time favorite (more so than the one that says there is a "special place for him in hell") on my RMP page, which a former student forwarded to me.

"Greg Ivers epitomizes the 'cool' professor. Young girls drool over his every word and spend most of class fantasizing about one of AU's few profs with tenured-DILF credentials. Unfortunately he knows it, and spends most of the class reveling in his rock-star status. Ivers has a LOT to offer, but sadly keeps most of it to himself."

Like, OMG! Where to begin with this one?

1. I spell my name with two g's on the end.
2. The only people who drool over anything I say are the seniors who play scrabble at the Jewish Community Center. That's usually in response to my asking, "Is anyone using this chair?" In fairness, they drool pretty much over everything.
3. A DILF? That's a new one. All I can conclude is that this person has just recently been released from a long jail sentence or just returned to land after an extended submarine tour of Antarctica. There can be no other explanation.
4. I am not a rock-star. I don't have the hair, the tatoos, the jail sentence, a secret X-rated home video or the stint in rehab necessary to qualify. Plus, I'm not rich, nor have I ever lost my fortune to shady business managers. I am a jazz drummer who loves funk and the blues. I must confess, though, I do have a weakness for progressive rock and complex time-signatures.
5. I don't share my medical records and the confidences of friends and family with my students. Besides that, I don't really keep much else to myself.

But the strangest thing of all is this: this post wasn't written by a student or even anyone in my class. Remember, nothing written in cyberspace in truly anonymous.

I did, however, receive a smiley face.

How stupid.

* * * * * * * * * *

Is there hope for a more reasonable assessment of teaching performance than the system we have in place now? I don't think so. That isn't to say that better choices aren't available. We could distribute the bubble and the narrative surveys so that a student's name and university I.D. number appear in the top corner. Our registrar could provide a correlation between a grade received and the score a professor receives. For the narrative portion, our dean's office could redact the names when they give us the evaluations to hide a student's identity. If the narrative contained abusive or inappropriate language, a professor could request to meet with the student or have someone from the dean's office do the same. If a student knew that he or she could be accountable for profane comments, the odds are they would never put pen to paper. We could also conduct peer review by asking professors from neighboring institutions to sit in on classes taught by professors in similar fields. Naturally, that might only work for one or two classes here and there. But it would at least permit professionals to evaluate professionals, something this is absolutely lacking now.

Don't look for any of this to happen anytime soon. Universities are businesses with a product to sell and customers to please. We might not have a pianist performing on the mezzanine while shoppers go about the business of buying and returning. But we are much more similar to the modern department store than the classical university model where professors once reigned supreme.