Friday, September 30, 2011

Jazz for the beginner

I came across one of those articles recently by a jazz writer recommending recordings for the jazz novice . . . as in someone who might have heard something he or she might have liked and decided it was "time to get into jazz." Not surprisingly, I found the critic's suggestions pretty strange. I have no idea why anyone would recommend Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch" as one of the first ten recordings to own. Don't get me wrong: I love Eric Dolphy and I love "Out to Lunch." I have several recordings on which Dolphy plays (mostly with John Coltrane) and as a leader. But to start? No. Dolphy, Andrew Hill and Tony Williams were pushing bop into a freer place, although still a good standard deviation or two inside Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, both of whom I love. A novice does not need Miles Davis's early '70s recording, "On a Corner," a period in which Miles was at his lowest creative ebb, having followed the "fusion" movement launched by Weather Report and Gary Burton. As much as I love Miles Davis and deserves every great thing that can be said about him, I never liked his electric period (post-1968). I love music that fuses genres -- Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Joe Zawinul's world music, for starters; I just don't think Miles did this very well because it wasn't him. His heart, which he fought against in the latter part of his career, was always in the beautiful melodies of the great jazz standards and the freedom and beauty of modal jazz.

Anyway . . .

Here are my ten starter jazz recordings in alphabetical order. I begin with Ellington, the great American composer and bandleader, who bridged the gap between old swing era and the bebop revolution. I end with Wayne Shorter in 1966, a time when jazz had reached sort a peak in terms of boundary-pushing. Ornette, Cecil and Andrew Hill were moving jazz into a place so free that few could even understand where the pulse was. Miles was about to disband his second great quintet; the fusion movement was building but had not yet rocked, literally, the jazz world; the Beatles were at their peak, and African-American recording artists like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations and James Brown were drawing black listeners, and the young white music fans, who would have grown up on Bill Haley and Elvis Presley a decade before they were about to turn to Jimi Hendrix and the Who to stake out their claim in the late 60s cultural rebellion. On these ten recordings you'll hear most of the major instrumentalists and composers of the early modern era, which is one of the main reasons I chose them. Remember, this is for the beginner! And in alphabetical order.

Enjoy!

Dave Brubeck, "Time Out"
Miles Davis, "The Complete Birth of the Cool"
Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue"
John Coltrane, "Blue Train"
Duke Ellington, "Live at Newport 1958"
Bill Evans, "The Complete 1961 Recordings at the Village Vanguard"
Thelonious Monk, "Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington"
Wes Montgomery, "The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery"
Charlie Parker, "The Complete Savoy Recordings, 1947-48."
Wayne Shorter, "Adam's Apple"

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Moneyball meets academia

Of course I saw "Moneyball" the first day it came out.

Everything is great about the movie adaptation of Michael Lewis's terrific book on how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, managed to field a competitive team with scarce resources by junking the conventional model of team-building in major league baseball and emphasizing instead the "hidden" statistical performance of players who had either been written off or, as was more often the case, never had their worth properly assessed. Prodded by a 29 year-old Harvard-educated economics major named Paul DePodesta,who had developed, while working for the Cleveland Indians, a complex model of player performance, Beane retooled his management style that put him at odds with the way professional "baseball men" had assessed the talent and, in the post-reserve clause era, the monetary worth of free agents. He didn't have a choice. As a small market team with a payroll that was roughly a little more than one-third of the New York Yankees team that defeated the A's in the 2001 American League Divisional Series -- indeed, the typed graphic across the screen as the highlights of that series are replayed at the beginning of the movie emphasizes the David and Goliath context of Beane's challenge (the A's payroll is around $39 million per year; the Yankees, about $114 million) -- Beane was operated at a distinct disadvantage. After the 2001 season, the A's lost their three highest paid players to free-agency.

If you read the book or saw the movie, you know what happens next (there are a number of liberties taken with the book for dramatic effect; nothing fatal to the basic story, though). Billy Beane or Brad Pitt or whomever is sitting around a table somewhere in the dank bowels of the Oakland Coliseum with a group of scouts, most of whom look like they were extras on "The Sopranos." The old guys rattle on about the "five tools," "athleticism," and discuss gaudy stats like RBI and HRs, determined to find the right players to replace the ones they lost. One guy even says he doesn't trust a player because he has an "ugly girlfriend," which suggests that he lacks confidence. Others see his point. Beane stops them in their tracks and tells them they simply can't afford to replace all three, so they're going to have to find players that, in the aggregate, can replace first baseman Jason Giambi, center fielder Johnny Damon and relief pitcher/closer Jason Isringhausen, who, together, comprise about one-third of the team's already small payroll. And that's where the search for hidden talent comes, through a process that Bill James, who made his living as a security guard for a company called Stokley Van Camp, which made and canned baked beans, in a small Kansas town, introduced in the late 1970s caled "sabermetrics." James explicitly rejected the star system, and instead argued, through hard numbers and empirical evidence, that many players who nobody ever heard of were, in fact, quite valuable, and that many star players were not, in fact, nearly as important to a team's ability to win as the conventional wisdom seemed to believe. Compounding the problem was the enormous amount of money that owners were lavishing on position players and pitchers that had put up one or two decent seasons, only to watch their "investments" tank after a decent year or two or never put up a good season again. Something wasn't quite right, and James knew it before almost anyone else.

Naturally, when I watched the movie, I wasn't thinking too much about the novelty of the Beane approach, which was, in reality, was something that Sandy Alderson, who preceded Beane as A's general manager, had begun tinkering with in the mid-1990s. I've never believed in the star system in much of anything, mostly for the simple reason that it doesn't work. And it's not just because of the big busts this year in major league baseball, such as Jason Werth and Carl Crawford and John Lackey. That happens every year, and it will happen again next year. Owners will pay absurd amounts of money for reasons that have nothing to do with winning baseball games. They want to "prove" to the fans they're committed to winning (the Nationals and Werth); or they just can't help themselves (the Red Sox and Crawford/Lackey); or they're sentimental (the Braves and Chipper Jones, who I love, but is barely a WAR player at this point in his career). Some teams even believe it because sometimes -- sometimes -- it works, like when the Phillies bought the best starting rotation in baseball for one complete season, and they won the most games in they're history and are easily the odds-on favorites to win the World Series this year.

No, I thought instead about the mentality of my employer, and the belief, almost universally shared among my colleagues, that our department will get "better" if we hire the "best" political scientists entering academia from graduate school or hire a senior professor away from another university. Think of the former as first-round draft picks and the latter as free agents. Naturally, all employers, regardless of profession, want to hire the best people they can. But in a world where buyers and sellers are not equal, who you want to hire is largely based on the resources you have. Those resources are not equal. Understanding that, you hire the person that best fits the what the firm, institution, organization, baseball team or political science department is really there to do -- represent clients, advocate for the homeless, win baseball games or teach students. The problem with much of academia is that hiring professors often has nothing to do with the people who will pay our salaries and sit in our classrooms. In my department, the problem, in my view, is even more acute: we are a university that is approximately 95% dependent on tuition to operate. Nonetheless, our hiring decisions for about the last ten years or so have not been based on our undergraduate curriculum needs or by the need or desire to engage our undergraduates. Not at all. Instead, we hold meeting after meeting to discuss how we can address a "hole" in our graduate program, and that usually means finding a someone who can teach a course in advanced research design and/or statistics. These are important needs IF you are a major research institution -- Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Chicago, etc. -- that attracts the very best students and educates them specifically to land in other elite academic departments, where they will teach very little and instead bury their heads in their computers and hope that make a "significant contribution to the discipline." Undergraduates will never discover what those "significant contributions" are for two reasons: (1) they are not, in any real world sense, "significant contributions" and; (2) on the odd chance their contributions are significant, these professors will not teach them to undergraduates; rather they will teach them to the graduate students who sit in their seminars, all the better to perpetuate the illusion that they are all doing something very, very important.

But as someone -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, I believe it was -- once said, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different than you and me." Just like the New York Yankees were and remain different than the Oakland A's, Harvard is a very different place than American University. Harvard's operating expenses are nowhere closely related to the tuition they charge their students to come to Cambridge. My university's expenses, on the other hand, are almost entirely dependent on the tuition we charge our undergraduate students. For me, the analogy moves to another dimension of baseball: the fantasy leagues in which people with no real stake in a team and no real money to spend play a season by "drafting" players and "competing" against their friends for bragging rights, a small pool of money that the members of a "league" cobble together, beer, or, for the very rich, significantly higher stakes. In the end, though, it's just a fantasy, sort of like pornography, romantic comedies and professional wrestling. Cold, hard facts aside, we continue to hire (and fire) professors who do not meet our definition of a "productive scholar," which is the kind of person I described above and in more recent post on the diminishing role for professors in the classroom.

For example, we don't hire a professor with a particular research or teaching interest based on our curriculum needs. We hire someone because we think it will impress professors in other departments and prospective graduate students, who we think will come here to study with a new or established "star" professor. In all likelihood, we will adjunct-out our new hire's teaching responsibilities so that s/he may concentrate on publishing and teaching graduate students. Forget that we don't attract very many graduate students, and the ones that we do attract don't get good academic jobs. All that matters is that we think we are making an impression on the cocktail circuit at academic conferences held periodically around the country, where political scientists gather not to share any genuinely interesting work, but to gossip about what's happening in the "profession" and to hustle for book contracts and publishing opportunities. If the talk is that AU is hiring some "really good people" who will have an "impact" on the profession, that's considered a successful recruiting year. And that, in turn, makes us a department that is "on the way up."

But are we on the way up, and, if so, where are we going? Since 2000, we have hired 14 new professors. Of the professors we hired between 2000 and 2005, only one is still with us. Three were denied tenure, one left after a year to attend law school, and two more moved on to large universities that historically have not emphasized teaching in their hiring and promotion decisions. They were free agents who were never a really good fit for what we do. Only one who was tenured has remained with us. Since 2009, we have hired two established professors and five untenured assistant professors, so it's too early to tell how these hires will work out. But when you are unable to retain almost half the people you've hired over an 11 year period, and the two most "productive" professors leave for institutions with greater prestige in the field, it's not a bad idea to ask if we are hiring the right people for the kind of school we are. We are not asking that question. Instead, we hire professors who don't teach undergraduates very much, and, in some cases, not at all. But that's by design. Among my newer colleagues, this means that we are getting better as a department because we are becoming more "visible" in the profession. Are we really getting better? And visible, though, to whom?

We are the academic equivalent of a small-market team in baseball. Our hope for growth and prestige lies not with the star system and the misguided notion that we can compete with the richest and most powerful universities in the country by hiring people who don't really fit with the kind of institution that we are and think we should be. With an undergraduate population of roughly 6,000, a good number of whom did not consider AU their first choice when applying to college, our focus should be on delivering the best undergraduate experience we can in the classroom and developing an environment where professors and students can form a community. For the most part, professors who do the most teaching are the closest to their students and the most engaged in student life. At AU, those professors consist of adjunct, temporary and other non-tenured faculty, not the stars making the most amount of money and eligible for the longest-term contract available in all the professional world -- tenure.

So, for most of the baseball-heads who rushed out to see "Moneyball" last week, the movie was about baseball, and how a small band of unconventional thinkers challenged themselves and the sport they had grown up with to think beyond the star system. For me, the movie was about much more than that. Others in the theater saw the Oakland A's payroll of $39,722,689 vs. the New York Yankees payroll of $114,347,764. I saw $52,236, the cost of attending one year of college at my university, and wondered why continue to adhere to a business model that does little more than give those in power the feeling that they, and not someone else, are really in charge.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tom Tomorrow

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Farewell to record stores

From the first time I ever touched one, I loved holding a vinyl records in my hands. Loved 'em, loved 'em . . . absolutely loved 'em. I am not a good record-keeper, so I have no way of knowing whether my own unofficial estimate that I spent roughly 95% of what little disposable income I had as a kid on records is accurate. I still remember the first time I held a record in my hand. I was two or three months past my eighth birthday, hanging out at my neighbor Marcy Pitt's house on a rainy day. I saw a copy of "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club" band leaning against the record player in her room. My father had just put a copy of "Sgt. Peppers" on his reel-to-reel tape deck and, like most kids in 1969, I was utterly transfixed by the Beatles. I asked Marcy if she could put it on. Because she had polio and often got tired from walking around in her braces and crutches, Marcy told me I could put it on myself. This was a privilege I did not yet have in my own house, where records were the equivalent of the nuclear codes and were guarded from my sister and I as if a child's hand touching one would set off a mushroom cloud over our house.

So I slid the record out of the sleeve and, just like I had watched my father handle his records, let the vinyl touch my thumb, careful to balance the middle on my other four fingers, my palm concave to ensure that my skin would not come into contact with the grooves. Balancing the record like a seasoned waiter balances multiple plates on his palm and forehand, I lifted the dust cover and, placing both palms on the outside of the record, placed the greatest record ever made on the turntable. Marcy had a Dual 1237 turntable, a model slightly below our own, so I knew how to work it from watching my parents play their records. I knelt down on one knee, careful to line up the tone arm so that the stylus would hit the outer groove at just the right point and begin its concentric journey to the opening song, "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band." This was really my favorite part of playing records -- lining up the tone arm with the record with the precision of an Army ground-spotter calling in a precision air-strike to an F-15 fighter plane. Even into my twenties, the period when CDs started to replace records, I still went through the same ritual every time I put on a record.

* * * * * * * * * *

My mother played records constantly. Her concession to popular music was the Beatles, more the early "moptop" Beatles than the later "Revolver/Sgt. Peppers" Beatles. She was convinced that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was a drug song and had serious reservations about whether I, much less my younger sister, should listen to it. Her own tastes ran to Broadway show tunes, album versions of such popular musicals as "Oklahoma," "The Sound of Music," and "Stop the World: I Want to Get Off," the dramatic, over-the-top renditions of popular songs by Judy Garland and occasional singles by such noted female vocalists as Nancy Sinatra, Bobby Gentry and Ella Fitzgerald, who, in my mother's terminology, could "really belt out a tune!" My mother frequently attempted to "belt out" these same tunes, usually in public places and without the slightest concern that anyone would turn around and stare at us. Of course, she was the same person who would STAND UP in the movie theater and yell "Bravo!" when especially moved by an actor's performance. My mother's strategy of avoiding embarrassment to herself and reserving it for my sister and I was to take us to movies in African-American neighborhoods, where the call and response culture of the black church suited her own preferences just fine. Rather than a "sit down and be quiet response" that she would have surely received in a theater closer to our house, my mother's antics were greeted with a "That's right!" or "Mm-hmm!" or "Tell that woman she can sing!"

Having no particular enthusiasm for my mother's record collection, I contemplated sabotaging her albums, particularly anything on which Judy Garland appeared -- through a subtle, gradual campaign of scratching them, infecting her vinyl with the dreaded "skip" that made records unlistenable. An occasional bump against the turntable, down with a brief but effective hip check against the base on which it sat, would do it. I also thought about jumping up and down to shake the stylus off the record, forcing it to "jump" across the vinyl, setting it on its path to destruction. But I never followed through on my well thought-out plans to get Judy Garland out of my house. After a day of my sister and I driving her crazy, those records were my mother's sole reminder that she had a life outside of her children. She could keep her records and play them as much as she wanted. Besides, I would have gotten caught and had to endure my mother's tears as she looked at me and asked, "Why did you do this to me?" Not worth it.

* * * * * * * * * *

My dad treated his records very differently. He held them, examined them, checked them for dust, fingerprints and other foreign substances before he put them on his Dual 1245 turntable. He owned a Discwasher record-cleaning system, a Sound Guard "miracle" spray concoction that claimed to provide a "protective coat" of some chemical on the record to preserve the vinyl's integrity. To the best of my memory, record-cleaning fluids and audio equipment were my father's only concession to "brand name" products, convinced then, as now, that all cars, cookware, plates, lawn fertilizer, bottled spaghetti sauce, canned vegetables -- really, everything -- were all "made by the same people." Later, in my teen years, when I suggested to him that just because General Motors made the Cadillac and the Nova didn't mean they were really the same car, my father looked at me incredulously, unsure whether to clock me (which he didn't do and never did) or feel sorry for me ("boy, I don't know how you're going to survive when you start paying your own bills!").

For every one record my mother owned, my father owned twenty. He had hundreds and hundreds of albums, his record collection spanning the history of American jazz music. The emphasis was on Louis Armstrong, 20s swing, New Orleans music, big band leaders like Benny Goodman, who my dad revered as a band leader more than a horn player ("never hired a bad musician -- ever."), Billie Holliday and, of course, Duke Ellington, whose music he collected and studied like a Biblical anthropologist alone with the tablets that Moses received on Mount Sinai. Entire weekends were devoted to making documentaries about an Ellington performance featuring a particular horn player or unusual arrangement of one his standards. He took great care of his records, always careful to return them to their paper sleeves after he finished playing them and insert them back into the cardboard cover, with the sleeve facing up so the record could never accidentally slip out and make contact with the ground.

My dad's record collection ended when the be-bop revolution started. He acknowledged that Monk, Dizzy, Miles, Lester Young, Max Roach and Bud Powell were "talented" musicians but he didn't find the break from swing the eye-opener that I later did. Popular music had little room in his collection. Aside from the occasional Tony Bennett record, my father's scholarly interest in male vocalists was limited to early Frank Sinatra. He loved female jazz singers much more, and used to lament how unfortunate it was that I never got to hear Billie Holliday sing on record the way she sang live. "The saddest life in the history of music, maybe ever," he would say about Billie, with whom he was on a first-name basis.

* * * * * * * * * *

The first two records I ever bought with my own money were "Let It Be," by the Beatles, and "American Woman," by the Guess Who. This was shortly after I touched Marcy Pitt's copy of "Sgt. Pepper." My parents understood that if my cool 17 year-old neighbor would let me touch her favorite album, I was ready to buy and take care of albums on my own. I did not buy them at a "real" record store. I bought them at a discount department store called Zayre's. My mother had taken my sister to another part of the store to buy pajamas, underwear, slippers or whatever essential items a 5 year-old girl needed. I announced I was going to "look at records." I picked up those two albums, contemplated whether I could afford both with the ten dollars I had in my pocket. At $3.99 a piece, with tax on $7.98 coming to 32 cents, I realized I could pull it off. Better yet, the albums folded out, and included pictures inside. This meant the spine of the records was a little bigger, and made it easier to see the album artist when you stored them sideways. So thrilled was I with my first albums that I peeled the plastic wrap off on the way home just so I could the inside of the cover and peer into the record sleeve itself. The first song I ever played from the first record album I ever owned was "I Got a Feeling" by the Beatles. Not a bad start.

* * * * * * * * * *

By the way, the first record label to introduce album covers that opened up was Impulse!, a jazz label begun in the early 1960s as a somewhat arty alternative to the jazz being issued by CBS and Atlantic Records. Impulse! wanted to compete with Blue Note and Riverside, the premier labels for jazz purists. Impulse! put a great deal of time and expense into designing album covers that would be distinctive, as much as Blue Note had developed a "look" through four-color covers that included the musicians names, usually in white block letters, on the front, and a "sound," courtesy of the legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Impulse! records features orange and black colors, changed up on the front but consistent on the spine. It also signed John Coltrane, who put Impulse! on the map by releasing a record, at his insistence, with Duke Ellington. Serious record collectors always placed their albums in alphabetical order by the year they were released, separated by genre. The two exceptions were records on Blue Note and Impulse!, which received their own special section.

The folded record cover would, of course, serve a far more useful purpose later in the 1960s (and beyond) -- to sift the seeds out of marijuana and serve as a platter to roll joints. For music collectors who have grown up with CDs and never had to make the conversion from vinyl, they missed out on one of the great rituals of listening to records.

* * * * * * * * * *

The arrival of CDs in the mid-80s was initially touted as a storage medium that would augment vinyl records and cassette tapes, not replace them. I held on to all my records even while I started to replace them, more for romantic reasons than any useful purpose. How could you argue with a system that allowed you to hear 45 or 60 minutes of music without having to turn the record over? That permitted a listener to skip over bad songs like "Mother" on "Synchronicity" by the Police? That you could play over and over with no risk to the recording's fidelity -- no pops, clicks and scratches? At the beginning, I bought into vinyl snob's insistence that vinyl recordings were superior to the new digital storage medium and that imperfections in the playback process made the music "real." By the mid-1990s, I used my turntable maybe once or twice a year, having converted fully to CDs. I stopped buying records five years or so before, even giving up the time-honored practice of all record collectors of rummaging through used record stores for the occasional $3 gem.

For Father's Day this past June, my family gave me a new turntable and, separately, a turntable that transfers vinyl records into digital files. I hadn't played a record in my house in years, since my Dual 522 turntable stopped working and I didn't feel the need to repair it. But I also didn't feel the need to get rid of it, as it sits inside of a closet nestled between boxes of crayons we bought our children anywhere from 10 to 15 years ago and a desk lamp whose bulb I haven't gotten around to replacing. The first record I put on my new turntable was Bill Evans, "Live From Shelley Manne's Hole," because it contains my favorite version ever of "Isn't It Romantic?" the great Rodgers and Hart standard. I was nervous putting the album on, unsure of what it would sound like after years of sitting dormant inside the record sleeve, full of the sorts of jitters I remember getting when waiting for the door to open on a first date way back when. But as soon as the stylus hit the turntable and those first few seconds of static came through the speakers, I remembered immediately why I loved records so much in the first place: the care and selection of the album, of searching through your records to find the one you felt like playing and re-reading the liner notes to make sure that you hadn't missed anything the first 40 or 50 times you read them. Best of all, the album sounded great -- full, warm and completely absent of the harshness that sometimes accompanies digital production and recording.

I still have probably two or three hundred records in the built-in bookshelves in my home office, which are there simply to remind me of how much I loved buying and listening to records growing up (and now, record by record, are being moved to digital files so I can put these records on my iPod). Close to my house growing up was a small record store called Cheap Thrills, which was run by a guy whose main income, I later determined, came from dealing pot out of the back of his store. But he always had the best records, the "cool" ones that Zayre's, K-Mart and Woolworth's didn't carry. Coolest of all were the "bootlegs" of concerts he kept in the back. You had to ask for them, and once he decided that you weren't an undercover cop, or a kid recruited by an undercover cop to set him up, he would sell them to you. I still have three bootlegs he sold me -- a Pink Floyd concert recording from 1973, a Genesis show from 1976 and a 1977 Yes concert. One afternoon, when I was about 14, I remember sifting through album after album in Cheap Thrills, looking for something I didn't have or, as was more likely, records I did have that were cool enough to be sold in this coolest of all stores, and thinking to myself, "This is what I want to do when I grow up. Own a record store so I sit around all day listening to music, keep the bootlegs in the back, develop a reputation as the "go-to guy" when you needed a hard-to-find album or just wanted somewhere to hang out." For a kid like me, there was no better feeling than, upon being told by the Cheap Thrills guy that an album I was holding was one I "should buy," to say, "I've already got it." All kids, whatever their pretense to rebellion and independence, want approval. And approval from the Cheap Thrills guy was as good as it got.

* * * * * * * * * *

The first mega-record store to come to Atlanta was called Peaches. It was the size of a large supermarket, the kind now that would qualify as a "Gourmet Giant" or "Super Safeway." Peaches featured the hand prints of musicians and bands that had come to town on the sidewalk in front of the store, and stocked, so it seemed, every record ever made. You could also by "Peach Crates" to store your records, and naturally I owned many a "Peach Crate" over the years, not getting rid of my final one until I moved from Atlanta to Washington in 1989. As a "serious" teen-age record buyer I faced a serious dilemma once Peaches, and then later, a store called Turtles opened much closer to my house: do I save a dollar or so on records by buying them at the big stores or continue to buy records from the cool guy at Cheap Thrills?

I did the only logical thing I could do: I started buying them at all three stores. Anything else would have been unfair.

* * * * * * * * * *

Tower Records closed its doors three years ago, a victim of the Internet and a bad business model. The company's demise marked the end of records stores as I once knew them. Once Wal-Mart becomes the nation's leading music retailer it's time to throw in the towel. People like myself who once spent hours in record stores reading liner notes and looking for the occasional "lost" album that showed up in the Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull or Pink Floyd bins do not constitute the majority of recorded music buyers. CDs meant the end of vinyl records, and iTunes and the mp3 revolution are slowly bringing to an end the CD. Music buyers want the music they want, and care little about liner notes, album covers or displaying their music collection for their friends and guests to see when coming over. To this day, the first thing I do when I walk in someone's house I've never visited is to look for and then assess their music collection. I think this is a distinctly male trait, much like my wife will ask me if I think she -- I mean, we -- should redesign the kitchen in which I prepare her and my children's meals after seeing someone else's vastly superior layout, state-of-the-art appliances or genuine marble counter tops.

Me? I now hold on to my CDs the way I still cling to my vinyl records. In an effort to adapt to the on-line revolution, I bought a few "albums" through iTunes a few years ago, but felt empty that I didn't have a booklet to flip through or a plastic case to hold in my hand. So I now buy CDs, transfer them to my iPod the moment they arrive (I buy all my music on-line), and then put them in their appropriate alphabetical, chronological place -- by genre, of course -- in my CD cabinet.

No different than 20, 25 or 30 years ago, I do this because I labor under the illusion that someone will care about, much less be impressed by, my CD collection, which I am no longer permitted to keep upstairs in full public view, but rather downstairs in an obscure corner where we keep discarded sports equipment. Yes, I still hold onto that "reverse snobbery" prevalent among record people that says, "Okay, so you've got your BMW 535i, but do you have the Complete Village Vanguard Recordings of Bill Evans or the Complete Classic Quartet Recordings of John Coltrane on Impulse! Do you know who Rudy Van Gelder is? Do you have the 'lost' version of the Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East album?"

Perhaps that is not the most mature way to weigh your station in life as I approach the half-century mark. But when you're sliding down the wrong side of the parabolic curve of middle age, it sure feels normal to me.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thelonious Monk

Going through some CDs the other day I came across a Thelonious Monk recording from 1965 called, "Monk in Paris: Live at the Olympia." The performance, as always, is something to behold. Monk's group from the 1960s doesn't always get the acclaim it deserves, since there has been a tendency among jazz critics to measure everything he did against his work from the late 1940s to late 1950s, Monk's most prolific compositional period and when his bands featured musicians like Art Blakey and John Coltrane. But I know many Monk-o-philes who are quite content to listen to his CBS recordings featuring Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone and Ben Riley on drums. Rouse, in particular, was a great interpreter of Monk's music and he shines on this recording.

I had forgotten, however, that the CD included a DVD featuring Monk performing three tunes from a separate concert in Oslo, Norway. And as the liner notes to the disc point out, you had to SEE Monk to really appreciate what he was doing, and just how incredible his compositions were. The band plays "Lulu's Back," "Blue Monk," and "Round Midnight," and all the musicians swing their asses off. Just watching Ben Riley is a humbling experience -- his kit consists of a kick drum, snare, hi-hat and a crash/ride, and he makes more music from these four instruments than most modern drummers make with an arsenal of toms, electronic enhancements, nine or ten cymbals, a double-bass drum, remote hi-hat and so on. And Monk, of course, is a trip: watching him play you get the impression that there is so much he could be doing but would rather toy with his listeners by leaving us to wonder what is going to happen next. His percussive, angular piano style always met with a mixed reception by critics who loved his compositions and his bands. Monk's piano playing has gotten a better reception over the years; I, for one, have always loved him. No pianist, not even Bill Evans, could infuse his playing with the wit and humor that Monk did; and no one has since.

For the Monk neophyte, this recording is a good place to start because you get the DVD along with a superb recorded live concert. But be careful. You'll get hooked, and before you know it you'll be spending a lot more time (and money) trying to figure out what this seminal American musician was all about.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Professor TBA

If you've ever wondered who Professor TBA is in your course catalog, now you know.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Professing nothing

Last spring, I paid about $150 for two tickets to sit about four rows from the field to watch the Atlanta Braves open their baseball season against the Washington Nationals. Normally, I pay $32 for two tickets in the upper-deck to sit near the air traffic controllers tower at National Airport, get to the park early to watch batting practice and never make it up to my seat. Since the Nationals are grateful for anyone to attend their games, the ushers never ask you for your ticket. On that day, I decided to play it straight, go against my family's roots in Jewish retail and pay full price. Worth every penny. But I'll tell you this: I would have been pissed if the University of Virginia or a local high school team had showed up instead.

Towards the beginning of summer, I paid some serious cash, about $100 a ticket, to see my favorite all-time rock band, Yes, for what was probably the 25th or 30th time. Of course, I knew Jon Anderson wasn't there, but I will pay whatever I can to sit as close as possible to Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White. And these guys, creaking and, in Squire's case, staggering on stage, can still play rings around musicians a third of their age. Had some prog-head emerged from his basement to perform his F# minor scales for me instead, or some other wannabe air-guitar player even attempted even to simulate a Howe guitar solo I would have stormed the stage and, after my release from jail, demanded my money back.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see the movie, "The Help." She gets in for free because she's that hot, and I usually have to pay a little extra because I'm not. I have mixed feelings about the movie, since I grew up during that era in the South. But you can't argue with the performances, though. Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Alison Janney and Octavia Spencer are all remarkable. Had I paid to see this movie with this cast, and instead been treated to actors and actresses that were not billed in the advertisements, I would have been pissed. And I would have been doubly-pissed had this been ten years ago and I had a baby sitter on the clock.

*******************

$53,236.

That's the retail price for an undergraduate to attend one year of college at American University. That assumes you pay full tuition, live on campus and participate in the university's meal plan. It does not include travel, clothing (a big expense at AU), books, parking, getting around town, drugs, alcohol and so on. On our website, we tell our prospective students that are faculty-student ratio is less than 20:1, that our professors are "engaged" in the world and with their students, that we have a "world class" faculty that has done everything from building nations from scratch to saving the world from itself. And these are just the modest professors on campus. Many, many more are busy governing and instructing the country, when not busy advising presidents and various heads of states, or rescuing the economies of less-developed countries or countries that don't even exist quite yet, creating new languages or assessing non-verbal social interaction between gay insects in Madagascar. Some have even managed to find foundations and government agencies to fund their intellectual endeavors, allowing them to disappear for a semester, a year or sometimes even longer to collect their data, construct their hypotheses, put together panel discussions and write articles and books for the dozen or so people who share their interests, all of whom are scattered in universities around the country competing with their fellow scholars for the very same academic sugar-daddies (and, to be fair, sugar-mommies) and publishers.

What our world class faculty is not doing, at least in my department, is teaching. Think about this for just a minute: in what other business do customers pay for a product that they are not going to receive? Not only that, but in what other business to customers support a workforce whose status increases the less they do what advertise they are in business to do? Go back to the top and add this example: you decide to travel to New York to see a Broadway show because you saw an advertisement in the New York Times featuring a superlative cast. You travel to Manhattan, perhaps even fly or take the train, book a hotel for a couple of nights and set aside some time to take advantage of everything New York has to offer. You show up at the theater, only to discover that the billed cast isn't there. Rather, they're up the street, performing in a workshop for other top-billed actors and actresses, trading stories and perhaps even secrets of the trade. Meanwhile, you're watching their understudies while still paying top-tier prices. Granted, understudies on Broadway are very accomplished stage performers, and no doubt endured a brutal apprenticeship just to make it as far as they did. But that’s not what people are paying for when the lights die down on Broadway.

In my department, the professors who are not on tenure tracks, who are paid the least and have job (in)security to match do more than 60% of our undergraduate teaching. These professors are either (1) adjunct, which means they teach one or two courses a semester but no more than three in an academic year. They range from accomplished individuals like Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and living historical figure to some Washington “professional” yanked off the street a week or two -- or day or two -- before a semester begins to fill a class that some other adjunct bagged at the last minute. That person may or may not have the highest degree in his or her chosen field, and wants to teach because it is “fun,” or having made money in some "real" profession, decide they can now afford to teach, like it's a hobby of some sort; (2) one-semester or one-year temporary appointments who teach either three or four courses per semester or six or eight per year, depending on a department’s needs at any particular time; and (3) lucky enough to have received a multi-year contract of three to five years, renewable based on good performance and behavior, which gives them a reasonable degree of job security, if not in academia at least compared to the non-tenured world that exists beyond our walls. But not even these professors are equal people in academia, or at least in my department. They are generally not allowed to vote on departmental matters, even though they are sometimes asked and often do serve on university or departmental committees. Moreover, they are generally not eligible for a promotion in rank and, most of all, the possibility for tenure. They are considered “teachers” and not “scholars.” They can, of course, attempt to publish in professional journals and with academic presses. But that is just for a sense of accomplishment, sort of like setting a personal goal to run a marathon in a certain time at a certain age. Good for you; but no one’s watching.

Jobs that Professor Type 1 and 2 have are often called “replacement” positions for people like me, tenured professors who are on sabbatical, have received an external grant to work on some research project or have had their teaching load reduced because of their prolific scholarship. In the academic world, the more “productive” you are as a scholar, the less you generally have to teach. In contrast, no matter how well you teach, you will never receive an equivalent benefit. As with most things, the more time you put into your teaching the better you will generally be, assuming you begin with some degree of ability. The more time you spend on your teaching, the less time you have for your research. And that means you’ll never be as “productive” as a mediocre teacher who publishes lots and lots of work. That work or may not have any real significance or even qualify as real scholarship. No one but themselves and some colleagues will probably ever read it, save for the students they assign their work to read. But it allows departments to “count” it as a publication, and that is how most departments measure their status within their academic discipline. Look at it another way: a reduced teaching load is not a reward for productive scholarship; rather, a “normal” teaching load is a statement that you are an average scholar. Getting an extra course tacked onto that is punishment for not engaging in or generating any scholarship at all. Think about that a minute: colleges are sending the people they claim are the least productive, the least “on top” of their fields, the least imaginative and capable of anything creative into their undergraduate classrooms. How do some of my colleagues view people like me, tenured full professors who, at this stage of their professional life – and honestly, at the beginning and middle – believe that college teaching is a luxury and a privilege and that trying to teach their undergraduates about they know -- and sometimes what they don't know -- and how to make their way in the world is the most important thing they do? I got this question, although not from someone in my department, late last spring from a young professor: “Do you still consider yourself a scholar, or do you consider yourself mostly a teacher now?”

About three or four years ago, my university made an explicit and conscious decision to become a “research institution.” This, after making a decision about a dozen years before to become a liberal arts, teaching-oriented university. Translated, this means as long as you are relatively competent in the classroom – not necessarily good or even better – you will not diminish your chances for tenure provided that you have an outstanding research record. In my department, the teaching load for a new tenure-track assistant professor is 1 / 2 for the first year. That means they teach one course during their first semester and two in their second. We hired two new assistant professors to join our department this year who are teaching around or below 35 undergraduates, as one is teaching a graduate course in research methods and, as such, no undergraduates at all. Last year, we hired two new assistant professors who taught a total of 25 students in their first semester. Like this year, one taught a small class of graduate students and the other taught a small undergraduate class of around or below 35 students. Sure, they’ll teach more next semester; but they probably won’t teach more than 40 students. In contrast, the non-tenure track professors I described above are teaching anywhere, assuming they have three courses per semester, anywhere from 90-140 students, depending on the sections and enrollments. And because they’re good teachers – remember, that’s why they were hired, it’s a good bet they are at the higher number rather than the lower one. They also make a lot less money.

What’s the incentive for us to offer such a minimal teaching commitment to our new faculty? Competition, from what I understand. We can’t compete with the “best” institutions in our disciplines if we don’t offer “competitive” teaching loads, which means that we have to entice our new hires by minimizing the time they “have” to spend teaching undergraduates. This doesn't speak well of political science as a discipline, as we receive around a hundred and usually more applications for our entry-level tenure-track positions. From there, we whittle the pool down to three or four. And generally our department is only happy with one. Sometimes we put searches over for another year because we're not happy with what's out there. And these candidates come from the "best" graduate departments in the country. Can you imagine if medical and law schools trained their students to enter their profession and no one would hire them, not for reasons of supply and demand, but because they weren't very promising? We have far too many students in graduate programs around the country "training" for jobs they will never get. Part of the reason is that there are so few tenure-track jobs out there. But another reason, and one more substantial than many will admit, is that the Ph.D students we're training don't have very much to say. What they do have to say they really aren't very good at saying. And very few view the opportunity to teach as something they really want to do. In most elite Ph.D. departments, any student who openly says that he or she wants to teach at a small, liberal arts college will not get the attention and support as students who spend the better part of their waking hours fretting over their dependent variables.

Many of our young professors, but not all, would prefer to teach graduate students, the better to impart the mysteries of political science to our own graduate students, almost none of whom will ever get a tenure-track job in higher education. Since 2002, we have placed exactly one student from our department in a tenure-track position. Last time I checked, our department ranked 89th out of 125th of Ph.D. granting departments nationwide. Nonetheless, we are putting more and more resources into our graduate programs, as that somehow provides incentive for the best graduate students at other universities to come to ours. Personally, I think this propagates the illusion that we are doing something really important in our professional journals and similar outlets, and that political science is real profession. Not college teaching, mind you. Not being a college professor. Being a political scientist – that’s a real profession. Then again, so is event planning. Really. It is. Look it up.

None of this matters to the decision-makers and committees involved in our hiring process. Last year, our committee consisted of three professors who did not teach a single undergraduate during the fall semester. One taught four graduate students, another 16 graduate students; and one didn’t teach at all. You need not graduate from the Paul Drake Detective Agency to conclude that a committee like that isn’t too concerned about getting a committed, energetic undergraduate classroom teacher.

Potential professors we bring to campus are not required to teach a class during their day and a half of interviewing. Instead, they meet with various professors to discuss their “research agenda,” and we give them a chance to ask us questions about who we are and what we do. Interviews culminate with a research presentation, which is generally a summation of the article, dissertation or book that attracted our hiring committee to them in the first place. So we spend the most time on what we know most about our applicants, and the least time on what we know the least about our applicants – what they’re like in front a group of undergraduates. A few years ago, I suggested that we build in time for our applicants to teach a class. Eyes rolled. Too disruptive to the interview process . . . will interfere with my course syllabus . . . students might not like the applicant (well, good then) and, best of all, it would require the applicant to prepare more and put more pressure on him or her. Good. If someone is about to offer you a job for what might be the rest of your professional life, having to put a few more hours to prepare for it isn’t such an unreasonable demand. Suffice it to say my suggestion never went anywhere.

Very few, if any, applicants ask us, or me, anyway, about our class sizes, what are students are like and the kinds of courses they will be able to teach. Their questions are geared towards resources available for research and how little time they’ll need to spend in the classroom. Practically, I don’t blame them. This is the system. Jobs like mine are rare, and you do what you need to do to get the part. I’m sure there are plenty of talented actresses who would rather not to slum on Cinemax after dark; but they need to work and need to eat. So they do what they have to do.

Perhaps I’m too old and cynical. After all, I’ve been doing this 23 years now. Sadly, I enjoy it more than I ever have. I look forward to the first day of the semester. I love engaging those students who come into class determined to “get me” or prove their mettle. I don't care who I teach and when, as long as it's after 10 a.m. I love meeting new kids whose intellectual curiosity and creativity makes me wish I had it together at their age. I love hearing from people I taught 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago whose email begins, "Hey, professor, I just want you know that I'm not that skinny, obnoxious jerk I was back then. Now, I'm fat, rich and obnoxious. Just kidding. Just fat and rich. Thanks for setting me straight back then." Those 75 minutes I spend in each of my classes twice a day on Mondays and Thursdays – yes, feel sorry for me – are reasons 1 through 75 I continue to do what I do. But what I do know? I’m just a teacher.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tom Tomorrow

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Yes, students are biased. So what?

So I confessed a couple of days ago the shocking news that professors have points of view, sometimes feel strongly about their own research and scholarship and like to share, in different ways, those opinions with their students. To distill, in uncharacteristically precise fashion, the point of that piece to its essence, I suggested that, in the end, it doesn't matter what professors think or what their opinions are. What matters is how well the student challenges his or herself and how honest a student is willing to be about s/he does or doesn't know. What I believe or how I vote -- or even if I vote -- is no more relevant to a student's education than a student's decisions are to my own life.

I have colleagues who make no bones about where they stand on almost anything, and others who make a special effort to "hide" their opinions for fear of "prejudicing" their students' perceptions of them. After more than twenty years of teaching at the college level, I don't think it really matters how professors handle their "opinions" as long as they create space for a student to introduce and defend their own ideas.

Here's the real question for students who wonder how their professor's "biases" affect their in-class experience: Do students ever think for a moment about their own biases, and how those biases affect their perceptions of their professors?

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't spend a lot of time guessing or even thinking about what my professors' politics were. I spent most of my time thinking about:

1. Whether the girl that I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No. But would she confess three weeks later in a bar that she would have if I had only asked her out 33 more times? Yes!)

2. Whether I had enough money to go out Friday and Saturday night, or whether I would be stuck home pretending to study one of those nights because I was broke. (Answer: No; yes.)

3. If I made a A in this class, would that move my GPA up enough to get into the "reach" graduate school to which I applied? Or what if I made a B? Or C? (Answer: I don't know. I got in where I wanted to and hoped like hell I didn't get a call saying there had been a bureaucratic snafu and I was back on the street.)

4. Whether the other girl I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No. But would she confess after graduation that she always liked me, and was afraid of liking me "too much?" Yes!)

5. Whether the other girl I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No, without a caveat.)

So, no, I didn't wonder very much if my professor in whatever class I was taking in college was a Communist, a socialist, an atheist, a Republican, gay, lived with his mother, killed small animals as a child just for fun, smoked dope, was a reformed arsonist, a secret cross-dresser and so on. I spent much more time, when I wasn't thinking about which cute girl was going to turn me down for a date, about the opinions of my classmates, and what could have possibly happened to them that caused them to say some of things that they did. Dropped on their head? Locked in a shed? Brainwashed by foreign, no, extraterrestrial agents? Denied food and water for extensive periods of time? Suffering from an untreated concussion? The list was endless . . .

But that was really one of the funnest parts of college -- getting a chance to hear views, opinions, accents and beliefs that you had never heard before (and, depending where you moved after college was over, you might never hear again). That wouldn't happen to me again until I started playing ice hockey ten years ago, when I was fortunate to meet men and women younger and older than me who didn't do what I did for a living and lived in other parts of town. Now, colleges emphasize intellectual diversity in their admissions decisions (sometimes linking them to race and ethnicity, but that is a whole different subject) because they want the undergraduate experience to be one that exposes students to different points of view.

Great. All for it.

But that means students will come into the classroom with biases of their own. And just as professors must evaluate students as fairly as they can on graded assignments, students must learn to evaluate professors as fairly as they can without regard to their own opinions. I'd much rather have a student just come right out and say, "You know, that guy is an asshole!" rather than feel that s/he couldn't get a fair shake on the basis of their opinion. Teach long enough and enough students will conclude that you are an asshole (or a fuckhead, shitbrain, prick, whatever) regardless of their self-styled political philosophies, but very few believe that my opinions, whatever they may, got in the way of a fair evaluation). For me, as for any serious and ethical college teacher, students need to understand that they are going to get a high, hard one right down the middle regardless of whether they think they agree with me or not. Or make it move around a bit, change speeds and, when necessary, throw at their heads. A student needs to develop the self-awareness and the maturity to realize that they should not always blame me if they ground out or whiff. My only obligation is to put the ball over the plate. The rest is up to you.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bill Evans

Thirty-one years ago today, Bill Evans died at the age of 51. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t discover his music until a few years later. I was listening to an early 1960s Herbie Hancock album, Maiden Voyage, with a friend and was just completed entranced by it, especially the title tune and "Dolphin Dance," which closed side 2. My friend, a talented pianist, told me that I needed to listen to Bill to understand Herbie’s playing. He lent me a copy of the seminal Miles Davis-led recording, Kind of Blue, and told me to listen to the tracks that Bill played on, and then compare it with "Freddie Freeloader," the sole cut on which Wynton Kelly (another great pianist) appears. My friend was one of those jazz guys who took a knowing drag on his cigarette, squinted his eyes, cocked his head just a little to the side and leaned into you just a little bit, but never too far, to make it clear l that what he was telling you was really important.

"I want you to listen to me," he said. "Really, really listen. And let go . . . I mean, just let go of everything inside you and let him come into your world. Listening to Bill Evans is going to change everything about how you hear music and experience life."

Okay, I thought to myself. This marked approximately the 3,285th time a semi-stoned musician had told me that a particular musician or recording was going to change my life. I was a bit skeptical.

But there something about the way my friend looked right in my eyes to make sure I "really, really" was prepared to hold on for a life-altering experience.

So listen I did, the stakes seemingly higher than any other musical challenge I had confronted since I listened to Side 2 of Dark Side of the Moon. I nervously took Kind of Blue home with me. And several hours later, and after playing "Flamenco Sketches" over and over and over until I began to see the white under the black vinyl, I emerged from my bedroom, fully converted to the cult of Bill Evans. To this day, I remain firmly convinced that Kind of Bluebelongs to Bill as much as it does Miles.

The jazz journalist Gene Lees has written that he has never known fans as possessive of their favorite musicians as Bill's fans were (and remain) of him. The first time I heard the Beatles on my own, my ears perked up as if some mysterious life force had just opened up a new world to me. I remember, in 1972, hearing, right in a row, "Long Distance Runaround" by Yes, "Living in the Past" by Jethro Tull, and "Do It Again" by Steely Dan late at night on the radio, and thinking, “Wow . . . what is that all about?” My first experience with John Coltrane I remember all too well: I sat in my crappy graduate student apartment on the cheap-shit couch I bought at a moving sale for $50 the previous spring. Feeling pretty good after a long, hot run, a refreshing shower and, after a half-gallon of water, a perfectly chilled Heineken waiting for me on the coffee table, which now that I think about it, wasn't so much a coffee table as it was a pile of phone books my roommate and I stolen from the other buildings on our apartment complex, I put on Coltrane, his eponymously titled Impulse! recording from the early 1960s, and didn't get up for the next hour, long after Side 1, which ran less than 19 minutes, had stopped playing.

Literally.

I couldn't move. Even to this day I can't quite describe what hit me and what it felt like. Was this how it felt to get shot at close range by hunting rifle? Eeeek! Those poor fat guys from the circus who had cannonballs shot into them. How horrible! Didn't anyone try to stop it? You can be damn sure that if some carnie was shooting cannonballs into a horse or cat or tiger, the outcry from animals rights groups -- hell, perhaps even the Vatican or the Orthodox Rabbinate -- would have demanded an end to that fiasco. No, not a cannonball, but like slamming into brick wall going 30 miles an hour. I don't mean in a car, either. I mean suppose you were skating really fast or werejust whipped by some air blower or gargantuan slingshot. I can only imagine that would offer a memorable entrance into a world of pain.

Bill was different. After my Kind of Blue experience, I went to a second-hand record store to buy all the Bill Evans albums I could afford. For $3 a piece, I bought Waltz for Debby, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Live at Shelley Manne’s Hole. I spent an entire afternoon listening to the Vanguard recordings, and then all of a sudden it hit me. I welled up in tears and just put my head in my hands. I had never heard music so beautiful, so meaningful, so heartbreaking, so genuine, so bare, so sympathetic, so loving . . . so, so, so . . . anything ever before. And once I learned about the difficulties he experienced in his life, with drug addiction and depression at the top of the list, his music radiated even more powerfully with me. I reported to my friend the jazz guy that I had begun the Bill Evans journey, and that I just wanted to reach into the speakers and tell him, “It’s okay, I know, I’ve been there, too.” Maybe not drugs and depression, but certainly my share fair of tough encounters with life. My friend went through his whole routine with his cigarette, and said, “You feel like he’s talking to you, don’t you, in a way that nobody else ever has, right?” Bill devotees think they have a straight line to his heart, and his to theirs, that only they understand. This was Gene Lees' point, and I certainly feel no embarrassment or shame in admitting to feeling that way.

Miles Davis once wrote that Bill Evans didn't play chords; he played sounds. Miles was right.
The place to start, of course, is the Complete Live at the Village Vanguard box set, which offers the legendary June 25, 1961 sessions from start to finish, including a new version of "Gloria’s Step," complete with a missing few bars due to a recording malfunction. You can also see Bill play thanks to the wonderful people behind the "Jazz Icons" series. Another great DVD featuring Bill's later 60s and early 70s work is called "The Oslo Concerts."

If you want to know where Bill was going at the end of his life, listen to the final Village Vanguard sessions from June 1980. The beauty, grace and otherworldly harmonic voicings are all there, but you will also hear a power and urgency that had reinvigorated his final years. It’s almost as if Bill knew that his time was almost up, and the moment had arrived to open his heart once last time to tell us everything he had ever seen, heard, touched and, most importantly, felt.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Yes, professors are biased. So what?

"Like, I know you're not going to agree with me on this, but . . . "

If I had a dollar or some other equally worthless form of currency for every time a student said that to me in or out of class in twenty-two years of college teaching, I could retire and live off the interest for the rest of my natural life. And yes, that takes into account the very real possibility that the life expectancy of relatively fit, non-smoking white men in non-physically demanding jobs will increase by three to four year years by the time I teach my late 70s. That, according to the people who keep statistics on such things, is when I'm supposed to die. But they could be wrong. According to the Weather Channel, I should have died approximately 16 days ago when Terrorist Hurricane al-Irene huffed and puffed through Washington, D.C. I don't know if the Weather Channel thought I was going to die because the Hurricane was just that bad, or because it knew that PEPCO is my power company.

Regardless.

Of all the things that seem to preoccupy so many students about their professors -- whether our socks match, how often we wear a particular tie, sweater or an old sweatshirt that says "McGovern/Shriver," what kind of car we own (at American University, usually one less expensive than our students), what our husbands or wives look like, our lack of attention to ill-sprouting hair in our noses and ears -- our "bias" heads the list for the more politically minded undergraduate. Conservative students, in particular, are the most attuned, or so they believe, to our "liberal" views and spend a good deal of their time attempting to sniff out radicals in their midst.

An example: "My professor said that President Bush's decision to invade Iraq was the worst foreign policy mistake of the post-World War II era. He is so biased and unfair to those of us in the class who think it was the right thing to do!" a young conservative might fulminate.

Another: "I saw my professor getting into her Honda Civic and she had an "Obama/Biden" sticker. She also had a sticker that said, "Arms Are For Hugging." So how I can say that I support Mitt Romney in class or suggest that my Second Amendment rights include the right to own a flame-thrower?"

So what? What if the professor took the opposite position? Would if a professor said in class that President Obama was simply the latest in a long line of Democratic presidents that punish the successful to support an inefficient and morally problematic welfare state? What if a professor said in class that the modern feminist movement is at odds with the biologically determined path of men and women? Would that mean that s/he was being unfair to liberal proponents of the socially and economically active welfare state? Unfair to students who support gun control or, at minimum, don't believe that American citizens have a "right" to own flame throwers, handguns or automatic weapons of any kind? That student would probably not even think the professor was biased. Rather, this professor was telling the "truth."

It works both ways: "Like, I said in class this morning that I so totally supported abortion rights, and then my professor jumped all over my ass and told me that my position was an opinion, not an argument. I thought he was liberal. Or I really think he just doesn't like me because I don't agree with him . . . " is an often ever-so-insightful comment from a student holding a more conventional liberal belief.

Here's a secret of the professorial trade: most professors aren't altogether that concerned with a student's politics. I don't care at all about the opinions of any of my students -- save for those that might think the "Unabomber had a point." They can vote for whomever they want as often as they can and take whatever positions they want. They are free to insist to think that whatever they believe is true. I do care quite a bit, though, whether a student can distinguish between an opinion and an argument. Support abortion rights? Fine. Support capital punishment? Great. That the United States has the greatest health care system in the world. Your choice.

But can that student tell me why? That's the key issue. For many students, falling back into "the professor is biased" defense as an excuse for their inability to form a cogent, well thought-out argument for an opinion they've asserted is quite convenient. It's also really lazy. College is supposed to teach young people that the world of ideas is a much more complicated place than they have been led to believe. Every time I hear a student asked me, "Is it okay if I take the other side of the issue as long as I back up my argument?" I'm not sure what to say. How does a student get to his or her first year of college intimidated or afraid to voice an opinion for fear of punishment? Just what the hell is going on in our secondary schools?

Of course, supporting a position that you believe in is a good thing. But assuming there are only two sides to any given problem is too simplistic a way to think about abstract issues. In some ways, this is the consequence of attending college in Washington, where students often enter the world of politics as part of their undergraduate experience, and get caught up in the "liberal/conservative" dichotomy that drives what passes for "debate" here. Players in the Washington culture are driven by the need to acquire power and keep it. If they can't acquire very much power or keep it, they want to pontificate on television just to let the world know what the rest of us should be thinking and why. Professors are not immune from the temptations of membership in the Washington political-media complex that operates as a sump pump against the seepage of any thoughtful commentary or discussion of contemporary issues facing the country. There is no shortage of professors on our campus who would rather talk to reporters and camera crews than students and believe their every thought is so important that it must be "tweeted" as often as possible.

In Washington, ideas are simply a means to an end, commodities to be cleaned and sanitized so that everyone stays "on message." Everyone -- politicians, lobbyists, think-tankers, reporters, professors, bureaucrats, for starters, -- is in on the game. A few months after I moved here, in 1989, a reporter from the Washington Post called to ask me a question about a Supreme Court decision. I don't remember all the details, but I remember the reporter's frustration with me after giving her a "it could mean this, or that, or this, or that, or maybe nothing at all"-type answer. Or perhaps that she realized I was 27 years-old and didn't know much about anything.

"Just give me a three-sentence summary!" she demanded.

"But I can't," I responded.

"Well, then I guess you won't make it into the Washington Post! Remember, this will help you," she sniffed.

I had to admit I was curious. "Help me how?" I asked.

"It will get your name out there, and you'll get more calls for quotes."

"Honestly, I don't really care about that."

"You have a lot to learn," she said. And then she hung up.

Oh, well. I didn't go to my high school prom, and I managed to survive that, too. I mean, it was tough, but . . . .

So here it is: a professional academic who has spent a decent amount of time thinking about and studying a particular subject is going to have opinions. And it is perfectly reasonable for that person to share those opinions with students or whomever. Dentists, internists, hardware specialists, baseball scouts and many other professionals have opinions on what they do, and that is perfectly fine. Imagine going to an orthopedist for an examination to find out why your knee or shoulder hurts so much, and the doctor responded by saying she didn't want to offer you her opinion because that might come across as biased.

A student's responsibility is to absorb as much information as s/he can before forming an opinion that s/he can defend. Are universities disproportionately occupied by liberals? Uh, yes, just as the banking, real estate and communications industries are disproportionately run by conservatives and the arms business is run by people who favor politicians who want to spend more on weapons systems, regardless of whether those systems have any real value. The difference is, and this is something that gets easily lost on students concerned about "professorial bias," that the English department of Duke or the sociology department at the University of Indiana have far less influence in the real-world of politics and power than the men and women who run the country's most powerful institutions. This might come as a shock to my colleagues at American University, but the people who run this country don't really care about what we think or what we're teaching our students in class.

So, my young friends, if you are reading this, worry less about me and more about yourself. What I believe or think doesn't really matter. It's getting you to grow up a little and take charge of your own mind that does.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Welcome to 13th grade

So here they come, strolling through campus, barely looking old enough to cross the street without a white-gloved, yellow-vested guard holding up traffic so their parents can escort them to elementary school. Some look like they are on their way to a job interview, parole hearing or debutante party; others appear to have last bathed sometime during the previous month, and then only because they were caught in Hurricane Irene. Some are chatting away on their cell phones even as their undergraduate guide describes where they are walking and what goes on in the buildings they briefly enter, survey and leave; others are paying rapt attention, writing everything down, placing post-it notes in their "welcoming materials," as if there will be a quiz at the end of the tour that will count towards the final grade in a fall class for which they have not yet registered; still others are looking at their watches or at their feet, wondering when their tour will end so that they can go back to their rooms and do nothing, or convince their parents to buy them more "dorm room essentials," as Bed, Bath & Beyond calls the approximately 427 items that burst from their display racks in the weeks before school begins.

And they are all texting. Constantly. Sometimes I'll just stand in the middle of a sidewalk or hall way and wait for someone to run into me. Which they do, and then shake me off like Alex Ovechkin shakes off a check and just keeps going. And like Ovechkin, they don't say excuse me.

Welcome to American University, Class of 2015.

And welcome, too, the Parental Advisory Board Class to the American University Class of 2015. Not even summer orientation, which used to just be, at most, an arranged and carefully choreographed visit for incoming freshman, has escaped the sleek corporate setting of modern university life. Our program, which mirrors most orientation sessions staged by most colleges and universities, sets aside nearly as much time for parents as students to talk to their children's prospective professors, academic counselors, representatives from residence life, student organizations, career center specialists, fitness center staff and other university offices that would take up too many gigabytes to list here. College is no longer the good luck-and-see-ya-later ritual it was when I began my freshman year in 1979. Universities offer their students amenities that are more consistent with the pleasures one might expect from Club Med, Sandals or some other popular vacation resort that I have heard about but never seen for myself. For many, maybe even most, students, their parents will be very involved in mapping out their "formula" for college success, just like they hovered over every extra-curricular activity or every school-related issue that faced their kids from elementary school forward.

College is now the 13th grade.

* * * * * * * * * *

Summer orientation brings back great memories for me. I remember checking into my dorm room and finding out that my orientation roommate had already bailed. I saw the door to the adjoining suite open, and I walked through to say hello. Sitting on the bed, smoking a cigarette was another 17 year-old, one Joey Pierce of Memphis, Tennessee. Joey was reading a collection of Woody Allen short stories. He didn't get up -- Joey resembled a Buddha statute in those days -- but he put down his book and said hello. I noticed a "YES" belt buckle, an accessory that pretty much sealed our since life-long friendship. I was the only person in my high school that was really into Woody Allen, and Yes was my favorite band. We sat down and talked, left briefly to eat, sneaked some beer into the dorm, and talked into the early morning. I went to sleep thinking college would be the greatest, most life-changing experience of my life. And it was.

My Dad, of course, had driven me up to the University of Tennessee for orientation. Between the time I checked into my dorm until the moment we met back up at the appointed check-out time two days later, I didn't see my Dad for five minutes. Parents were housed somewhere else on campus. All I remember my Dad telling me when we met up again was that his roommate left in the middle of the night. Maybe he was my roommate's father . . . I don't know.

Parents did not accompany their children on the campus tour. UT had a big campus, about a dozen times the size of American, so we took the shuttles than ran through campus to a certain part of campus, and then got out and walked. During one round, I remember our student guide pointing to Hess Hall, the notorious freshman dorm that housed 1,100 students, and issued a warning to us. "That's the Zoo, the wildest place on campus," he said. "You don't want to get assigned there if you want to survive your first semester.

I lived in the Zoo my freshman year. It lived up to its summer billing and more. Joey lived in the Zoo, too; but thankfully on a different floor. Not only did I survive, I made the Dean's List, the first time since 6th grade, when my reenactment of the Kennedy assassination with a second shooter won second place in the county social science fair, I merited academic recognition of any kind.

I did not go home my first semester until Thanksgiving. I called my house once a week, always on Sunday night after dinner. I knew my family would be home, watching "60 Minutes." Our phone conversations never lasted more than 2 or 3 minutes because, living in a dorm with a shared phone, I had to call collect. I grew up in one of those families where a long-distance call was viewed as an extravagance. When my sister and I were forced to make a phone call to a relative thanking them for a gift or card, my Dad stood in the background, whirling his arms and hands in a cranking motion, the universal hand-signal for, "Hurry up and get the hell off the phone!" Since my sister and I didn't like any of our relatives, getting off the phone was never a problem.

I never called home to tell my family good news or bad. I never called my Dad to talk sports or politics or to get his advice on navigating the rocky terrain of college women ("Keep asking until one says yes!" was his perennial advice. "There's someone out there as hard up as you!"). I never called my Mom to ask for money or to get her advice on getting a date ("Remember, it's their loss," she'd always say. If that was the case, the women attending college at the same time as I did incurred more losses than the New York Stock Exchange did during the Great Depression or that wealthy bankers temporarily endured during the Great Recession of 2008). I missed my parents and my sister, who was three years younger than me and with whom I had finally stopped fighting. When my Dad took me to college that fall, he made it very clear that I was not to call home unless there was a "life-threatening" emergency. He helped me move into my dorm room, gave me a hug and a kiss good-bye, and, looking at my roommate's side of the room, which featured a Bible, a crucifix, a clock radio, a picture of his girlfriend and a bed made so tightly that you could bounce a quarter off it, wished me good luck.

* * * * * * * * * *

Had I ever called home to complain about a grade from a professor, or that my roommate was trying to convert me to Christianity (he didn't; he was a great guy and we remained friends for years after I graduated until life pulled us in separate directions) or that my R.A. was out to get me or the food wasn't meeting my expectations or that I didn't know what to do about this or that, my Dad would have hung up the phone. "Life-threatening emergency" meant someone had a gun to my head or that I had been taken hostage by a terrorist organization. During my sophomore year, I started receiving not-very-pleasant mail under my door from a self-styled "Christian" student organization, which was unhappy with me for some columns I had written in the student newspaper critical of the Moral Majority. I finally broke down and called my Dad, telling him I was worried that something was going to happen to me.

"What the hell are a bunch of yokels going to do to you?" as if I were some super-imposing javelin thrower and not a 145 lb. Jewish know-it-all who could barely lift a 16 ounce beer without getting sore . "Here's what you do: invite them to your room, offer them a glass of Dewar's, tell them you like your drink strong and your women stronger. Ask one of the girls to tie you up and flog you while reading the Bible. Call your friend, the one from Memphis who is always high . . . what's his name? . . . Joey! Give them a joint. You'll scare the shit out of them and you'll never hear from them again!"

So I followed his advice, for the most part. At the end of my pitch, they all got up and left, including, unfortunately, the one girl who, underneath her two heavily starched shirts, pink crew-necked cable sweater, green pants and add-a-bead necklace, was cute. I am pleased to report that I never heard from my "Christian" friends again.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dumbfounded over the constant cell phone conversations that take place in the halls of our academic buildings, in classrooms, the student center, the dining facilities, the gym . . . everywhere and anywhere open to students, I asked a student sometime ago who the hell all these kids were talking to. Didn't they see each other enough in class, walking around, in the dorms or at their apartments?

"They're talking to their parents," she told me. "That one (pointing to girl we dubbed "Phone Girl" because I never, ever saw her when she wasn't on the phone) talks to her mother five or six times a day." My student then told me that almost everyone she knew talked to their parents at least once a day. They talk to their parents about their grades, how unfair their professors are, how the university is screwing them over on this or that, that their roommates fart too much and don't apologize, or steal cheese sticks or won't pay them the $5 they owe them and a million and one other things that do not qualify as "life-threatening emergencies."

I am aware that students talk to their parents about their grades because I have had their parents call me to ask why I "failed" their son or daughter on an exam or assignment. I only had once such conversation with a parent over a grade before I decided never to make that mistake again. I had just returned midterms, and stayed about five minutes after class to schedule appointments with students who were convinced that their grade from me had ruined their life and diminished all hope of getting accepted to Stanford law school, their "safety." This despite a 2.9 GPA from a not terribly demanding university. A message awaited me on my phone from an irate parent when I returned to my office. This parent had worked as a legal secretary for 20 years and knew full well that her son had not written a F minus-quality midterm(Yes, I have given F minuses; just ask) . . . blah, blah, blah. I returned the call, more out of curiosity than anything else.

"I know my law, and I can tell you my son is not an F student," she insisted.

"He might not be an F student. But he wrote an F exam, I can assure you of that. Actually, an F minus."

"No, he didn't. He read his exam to me over the phone, and that was not an F exam!" she bellowed.

Far be it from me to argue with a legal secretary with 20 years experience.

"Do you know your son doesn't have the book? Do you know that your son just sits there with a blank piece of paper waiting for me to give him the answers? Do you know that the exam was open book, that students could refer back to cases when they wrote their opinions?"

I thought that might do the trick . . . but no.

"Judicial opinions are public record. How do you know he isn't reading the entire opinion from somewhere else?"

"Our conversation is over," I responded. "If your son has a complaint, he can take it through the appropriate channels."

I said that because I believed that no one would take this seriously. My department chair at the time didn't. She had an even less pleasant conversation with the mother. But I received a call about a week later from someone in the Dean's office asking me to allow the student to take the exam over. Perhaps there had been a misunderstanding about the class or exam requirements, I was told. No, I assured my superiors, there was no misunderstanding. This student simply had not done the work. Let's make this a "teachable moment," came the response, and give the student a "second chance."

The student ended up making a D on the re-take. He made a D in the class, only because I wanted to have leverage to say, should he complain about that, that I could have given him an F but decided against it. That turned out to be his best grade for the semester. He made F's in his others and did not return for the next semester.

Parents call academic counselors, department chairs, professors and even higher-ranking academic officers detailing the injustices to which their children have been subjected more often than you would think. For students having health or personal problems, families should work with universities to serve the best interests of the student. Universities are much better equipped today than when I was an undergraduate to deal with the genuine health-related problems of students, particularly students with physical and learning disabilities and other mental health issues. But in 99% of the cases, parents are calling their children's colleges for the same reason they leaned on the high school chemistry teacher, the lacrosse coach, the middle-school band teacher or the elementary school reading instructor: they have decided that their child deserves a permanent advocate. Their child, because he or she is their child, is entitled to whatever it is that the parent wants for them. Not in all cases do I blame the student for this unfortunate development. We do not get complaints from the parents of students who are the first in their family to attend college, who are from modest backgrounds, who are working their way through college or who do not have parents in "professional" fields. No surprise, but the biggest complainers are the affluent parents, who really, really believe that their social station and tax bracket entitle them to whatever it is they want for their children. I see this all the time where I live -- parents continually pushing teachers, coaches, tutors, camp counselors, bake sale coordinators, parent volunteers . . . whoever has responsibility for their children -- to give their children what they want even if they don't deserve it. And it now continues into college.

From there it continues into the workplace. Yes, these achievement-driven parents are now accompanying their children to campus job fairs and, in some cases, their job interviews. The sad part is that these parents have no idea what a tremendous disservice they are doing their children.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was taught that college was a "supply-centered" enterprise. That is, you went to college to get an education. Classes were supposed to be hard; professors were supposed to be feared then loved; you were supposed to experience the "hellish" professor who made the spring semester of your junior year a living hell, only to discover five years later that she was the best professor you ever had; you were supposed to figure out a way to live off of $5 for a week; you were supposed to take courses that sounded off-the-wall, since high school was (for me) an intellectual straight-jacket; you were supposed to stay up until 4 a.m. arguing about the "big" issues facing the world; you were supposed to fail an exam and then figure out how to climb your way out of a hole; if your roommate left his stuff on the floor or insisted on bringing strange people into room night after night, you were supposed to figure out how to resolve the problem without calling your parents or an attorney.

No more. Universities are now "demand-centered" endeavors. My university constantly surveys students and their parents for their opinions on everything from the food to parking to classes to professors to the appropriate number of Stairmasters in the fitness center. Every course taught at the university is available on-line so that students can decide if the professor meets their requirements. I include three pages worth of rules and notes for students so that when they complain that I don't let them sleep or have sex in class or call their broker on their cell phone that I made it clear on the syllabus that such behavior was prohibited. As an undergraduate, I viewed the course syllabus as a rough guide to the semester, not as formal contract. It never occurred to me that I could pee in my pants or light up a joint in class simply because the professor didn't have a "rule" against it on the syllabus.

For the most part, my university, like most universities now, will attempt to give the student and their parents what they want. We should draw a line that says, "No, sir. This is what we offer here. Take it or leave it." We don't. Universities now have "customer-initiative teams" that are trained to "improve the student experience." I am waiting for the day when we are told (not asked) that all professors will begin wearing red or blue polo-collared short-sleeve shirts with an American University logo on one side and a name tag with my name, rank and length of service on the other. For staff professionals, that day has already come. And they hate it. It makes them feel like they work at a car dealership.

When AU hosts programs for prospective or admitted students, it emphasizes three main reasons to make our university the student's choice:

1. We are in Washington, D.C., the most important and exciting city in the world.
2. We offer extensive internship-for-credit courses that will improve your position in the job market when you graduate.
3. We are Metro accessible with first-rate on-campus residence and dining facilities.

Nowhere do we emphasize the Great Books, the courses available for students that will expand their intellectual universe, student centers for intellectual exchange, the importance of music, the arts and philosophy or the other, more traditional reasons that people went to college. Universities are now trade schools that provide job training for private companies, government agencies, small businesses, public and private schools and so on. A college degree is a credential, not a certificate that tells the world you are an educated person. Getting a degree and getting an education are not the same thing. But we are responding to the marketplace. And this is what our customers want. In fact, our university now hands out awards to our advisers for "excellence in customer focus" or some other achievement in corporate double-speak.

Several years ago, I encouraged readers of this blog to read Rick Perlstein's essay in the New York Times Magazine, "What's the Matter With College?" This fall, I asked students in my freshman American government class to read Louis Menand's more recent New Yorker article on the point and purpose of going to college. This essay is not a response to either article. Rather, I wanted to offer my own take on the question. I will, though, attempt to answer Perlstein's question. I will comment on Menand's later this week . . . .

Two weeks ago, I stepped over several incoming freshman who were sitting on the floor in the lobby of our departmental office. They were waiting to see their academic advisers to plan and make adjustments to their fall schedules. I walked down the hall to the room where we keep our office supplies, and, on the way, peaked into one of our adviser's offices to see a freshman planning his schedule. I smiled to myself, as it brought back memories of all those years ago at my freshman summer orientation. Then I looked again to make sure I saw what I thought I saw. And there she was, a mother sitting next to her son, asking questions and making sure that everything would work out for the fall. I stood outside the door and listened. I heard her voice but never his.

That, right there, is what's the matter with college.