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Beware the Enthymeme!

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It's bad enough to debate complex issues in slogans, but even worse when the slogans so cheerfully lie.

In Florida, as in many states, there are a variety of license plate designs for car owners to choose from. I always think that these, like bumper stickers, are a strange way to express oneself, though I’ve been known to slap a bumper sticker on my car now and then. Last presidential election cycle, I had two Obama stickers stolen off my car, and I have a long-term one that says, “Please don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Opt to adopt.” Other than one time when a friend at first thought it protested the breeding of humans and was an insult to his parenthood, that one has been uncontroversial. At least as far as I know. And I guess that’s the joy of broadcasting one’s opinions this way. Unless you meet up with a crazy person who will bash into your vehicle, you are safe from argument.

One of the popular license plates around here is a yellow one with red crayon-like boy and girl figures that imply they were drawn by a child and that says “Choose Life.”

It might be an okay message if it really meant what it says. Of course, most of those who sport this license plate don’t actually mean that. What they mean is that they would rather force every pregnant woman to bring any pregnancy to term. What they mean is not “choose life,” but “choose to support laws and organizations that offer no choice to women.” And, as this Slate article reports, “the legislation in most states [that have these plates] expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.” In other words, these plates support lack of choice, not a choice.

There is an odd way in which the language gets twisted like this. Of course, progressives and liberals do it too, but what I notice lately is the way that Republicans and right-wingers do this all the freaking time. No doubt, we are gearing up for a maelstrom of misused language in this coming election season.

What I also notice is that progressives have a hard time correcting these misuses of language. I guess they don’t want to be accused of nit-picking about semantics or something like that. But the use of language is one of the most important things we can pay attention to. This is one of the things that rhetorical analysis is good for, and it pains me that so many can get through high school and freshman comp and even four or more years of college and still not be able to understand the manipulations of language to which they are subject on a daily basis.

I will never forget one of my early teaching experiences, when I was laboring as a freshman-composition TA at Penn State during the fall of 1991. At the same time, playing out in the media, were the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill, who had worked as his assistant some years earlier, arrived on the scene with her testimony about Thomas sexually harassing her.

Hill’s testimony lasted only a few hours, but the discussion of it went on for weeks and months, even years. The issue even resurfaced in 2010, when Clarence Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill and suggested she should apologize.

In spite of the fact that Hill subjected herself to a polygraph test that indicated her testimony was honest, whereas Thomas refused a polygraph, and in spite of another woman’s affidavit that she had received similar treatment, Hill’s testimony was vehemently called into question. And one of the prime reasons people gave for their disbelief was that Hill had continued to work for Thomas rather than quitting her job, had in fact even worked for him at a second position after the time during which she said he harassed her. This line of discussion had been begun during her Senate testimony when Republican senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch strove quite clearly to discredit her. (The entire hearings are available via C-Span. About half-way through Day 1, Part 3, Specter grills her about why she continued to work for Thomas).

This discussion nagged at me and nagged at me. Finally one day when I was set to teach the enthymeme, I realized why. Dully, I had been writing a traditional enthymeme lesson (that had been provided to us new TAs) on the chalkboard:

Johnathan lives in Japan.
Johnathan speaks Japanese.

And then out to the side the missing link: People who live in Japan speak Japanese.

In a fit of inspiration, I erased it and wrote instead:

Anita Hill claims she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
She’s probably lying.

“How many of you agree with this?” I asked. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the men and a few of the women.

For the next half hour, we explored the possible unstated assumptions behind the conclusion. The students eventually had to admit that the basic assumption they were making was that women should always put their “purity” above their careers. Certainly, that was the assumption that the all-male panel of senators who had grilled Hill clearly made. If this were not true, there might be a host of other priorities that Hill would put before quitting her job to escape Thomas’s advances and inappropriate comments.

Once we teased these assumptions out into the open, there were very few students (maybe only one) in the class who agreed with the statement that women should always put their “purity” over their career advancement. Most of them found themselves confronted with an assumption they didn’t agree with but that they had allowed to underpin their opinions on a matter of national importance.

A few of the young women in class began to make the connection to their own experience. “Oh, yeah,” one said, “I have a manager who is so offensive—he always stares at us waitresses too much and puts his hands on us whenever he can—but I haven’t quit my job! We all just ignore him. And it’s a nothing job.” Every female in the class could cite at least one instance of sexual harassment that she had let slide. We agreed that none of us would quit a job over it unless there was actual threat of rape or a high level of severity and directness in the harassment, but that this did not erase the fact of the harassment. It was a daily part of our collective lives.

By the end of class, because they could understand why Anita Hill might have stayed in her job in spite of harassment, they no longer deemed her a liar. I will never forget their mouths hanging open in disbelief at what they had been duped into repeating from the media to friends and family members. They rushed off after class to correct themselves. Thomas, of course, had already been approved as a Supreme Court justice.

I wonder about this kind of thing in the media. It seems to me that both the “neutral” media and the progressive factions do too little to correct this kind of blatantly stupid and unsupported claim. They do too little to monitor the use of language in blatantly deceptive ways. Some, including, of course, FOX News, are notorious for participating in this kind of ridiculous bias themselves (several examples here and one here that’s particularly about twisting of language). Lately, even our senators and representatives have felt free to make utterly false and ridiculous claims, and later to say they didn’t mean them as factual or to insist on defending their mischaracterizations. Only in these most blatant of examples are they called out on it.

For instance, in response to an email I sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s ridiculous decision to sign off on establishment of a new (unneeded) state university in Florida, I received a reply containing this statement: “Governor Scott’s top priority this legislative session was adding $1.06 billion in new funding for K-12 education.” First, nothing in Scott’s email responded to the subject I had addressed. And second, this is bull. Scott has been ballyhooing his great increase in state funding for K-12 education this year, after he cut $1.3 billion last year. A few reporters note toward the end of their articles that Scott’s budget doesn’t even replace what he has previously cut, but the headlines mostly remain that he is raising the budget. (Notice that this blogger put a more accurate headline on the same article published with an innocuous-sounding headline in the Palm Coast Observer. But, hey, at least the reporter mentions the facts.)

I believe that these twisted uses of language are one of the reasons why our society has become so divided and discussions so disharmonious. I think that we need to do all we can every time we hear these false uses of language to stop them in their tracks, even if it means making conversation halting. The fact is that it’s one thing to disagree about the substance of things and another for someone to lie in order to exaggerate our disagreements.

There are many examples, but I have gone on long enough. Today’s exhortation, again in support of so many friends who are ending long semesters of teaching freshman comp (and other courses that attempt to teach critical thinking), is: REMEMBER THE ENTHYMEME! Talk about the enthymeme. Pick apart the enthymeme.

People Connections: Facebook Reprise

Bruce and I recently watched The Social Network. We’d put it off for quite a while because we’d heard that it was full of jerks, and indeed it was. The filmmakers were fascinatingly successful at rendering Mark Zuckerberg sympathetic by making it seem as though the other jerks were worse than he was. Poor little lonely rich guy.

Several things struck me about the movie. One was how much college has changed. My brother graduated from Harvard in 1980, where Facebook got its start 20+ years later, and I attended another “elite” college, though not in the Ivy League. As I watched The Social Network, I couldn’t help thinking about the way money has come to be the vastly dominant value in our culture. I don’t mean to trot out that “when I was your age, we had to walk to school two miles through the snow.” But I have virtually no recollections of talking about plans to get rich when I was in college, and I don’t think my brother had many either. Yes, both of us knew obnoxious rich kids, the silver spoon jock types. It might be an odd thing to celebrate those fellows’ 1970s and 80s obsession with drugs and sex, rather than intellectual learning, but—hey—at least it wasn’t an obsession with reaffirming their privilege and expanding even further their financial advantages in the world. I’m sure financial plotting was there; it just wasn’t so bald in my youth.

It was no doubt more prominent at Harvard than at Carleton—I remember the much stiffer and status-conscious atmosphere from when I visited my brother there, and I remember being amazed that Harvard allowed those dinner clubs to exist in our day and age. In fact, one of the reasons why I had chosen Carleton was that it had absolutely no fraternities or sororities. I believed that such things were a throw-back—like debutante balls and country clubs. How could universities open their doors to women and people of color and different backgrounds, thus asserting that the right to higher education was not a birthright, and then turn around and allow these clubs to perpetuate the discriminatory privileges that their admissions policies no longer supported?

Of course, instead of dying out, secret societies, country clubs, and fraternities and sororities have made a huge comeback. On our recent visit to Knoxville, Bruce and I asked my dad about an enormous new construction project near the UT campus, and he informed us that the university is now pouring money into a project to build sorority houses. “To fix the gender inequity,” he said, and sighed. I find the idea of sorority houses addressing an inequity hilarious. One kind lessened for more of another kind. That they’re now building sorority houses instead of demolishing fraternity houses shocks me.

As we watched The Social Network, I thought a lot about the exclusive origins of Facebook. I recall that when I was first encouraged by friends to sign up for a social networking account, I was told that the Facebook membership was better educated than that of MySpace. I didn’t realize for a long time that Facebook had originated at Harvard, that it had been built on the concept of exclusivity. First it opened to other Ivy League schools, then expanded to university students with “edu” email suffixes, then (I suppose when some of them started graduating) to people at certain companies, and then, finally, to all over the age of 13.

In some ways then, Facebook has been democratized. Yet I wonder if it doesn’t remain tied to a hierarchical system based on rather juvenile standards of interaction and created by a fellow who imbued it with a barely-beyond-high-school sense of social values. I think a lot of us—even those of us who use it enthusiastically—have deep ambivalence about it because of some of these remnants.

On the one hand, I really enjoy Facebook. It’s rather miraculous to be in touch with people I would likely never have heard of again had Facebook not come on the scene. I no longer live in either of my hometowns, and I have never received an invitation to a high school reunion, nor have I ever attended a college one. When you have had the rather peripatetic life that I’ve had, it’s also a miracle to see so many different parts of your life gathered in one spot. Weird sometimes, but cool, too.

There’s my brother, of course, whom I’ve known since birth, but close on his heels is Sharon, whose parents played bridge with my parents when I was a toddler; Lisa, who I met in elementary school and who introduced me over the years to both s’mores and Spin the Bottle at her parties; William, who played basketball with my brother but who was closer to me in age and stayed my good friend and correspondent all through college. There are high school friends mixed in with college friends mixed in with grad school friends mixed in with colleagues and recent friends mixed in with former students. When on Facebook I often miss my friends who don’t use it at all or much. There’s something deeply satisfying in knowing that there are some continuities in my fragmented life, even if it is just that a lot of my friends like cats and dogs.

Facebook was also great immediately after my brain hemorrhage last year—it made things easier for everyone, including me. Hospitals have changed—I can remember when they took everything away from you as soon as you were admitted. Now they leave you with your iPhone in peace. I had music, I had Scrabble, I had email, I had the ability to make calls, but I also had the ability to not have to make calls. I just posted on Facebook, and the messages of concern and affection came rushing in like rain on the windowsill—it was outside, but I knew it was there, warm and life-affirming.

Obviously, these purposes now go beyond the college-student hook-up site that Mark Zuckerberg originally envisioned. Facebook, as we all know, has helped to create entire political movements and to help locate lost teenagers. Wikipedia even reports that in February 2011, a newborn in Egypt was named “Facebook” to honor the role that it played in that country’s revolution.

On the other hand, Facebook in my health crisis situation was a little deceptive because serious illness is a demand, both physical and emotional. Some people in your life are going to meet that kind of demand and others won’t, and there are even some people you shouldn’t ask. Facebook lumps everyone together, though now in response to Google+’s circles it allows for different “lists.” Still, the effect of Facebook is a kind of superficiality—a kind of one-night-stand of support rather than something more sustaining. Three people—one colleague, one former mentor, and one dear friend—rather brutally abandoned me in the immediate aftermath of my brain hemorrhage, and Facebook has made this doubly weird.

It’s not that these betrayals wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened without the brain hemorrhage—at least one of them definitely would have, as the ground for it was laid by my colleague long before her final coup. My brain hemorrhage was in that case used as a convenient excuse for side-lining me, and this extended to the betrayal by my former mentor as well. In both of these cases, I was discredited partly because I was ill and therefore “weak.” This is a common and well-documented reaction to serious illness, outlined long ago by Irving Goffman in his work on stigma. The friend who abandoned me is another matter, and one that I’m at a loss to explain. Explanations and excuses are seldom forthcoming in such situations, and certainly friendships sometimes end without major illness as a factor. But I will say that such abandonments in times of illness seem cruel, far more so than when you’re well.

And it’s not as though these betrayals wouldn’t have happened without Facebook. It’s just that Facebook takes you back to the kind of public rejection that we’re all likely to have had in junior high and high school. One of the people who betrayed me in 2011 also “unfriended” me on Facebook in a good indication of her own guilt and self-loathing, just like the junior high girl who steals someone else’s boy and calls her former friend names.

The other two are still my “friends” on Facebook. One of them is probably completely unaware that I feel betrayed by her; I grant her the benefit of the doubt because I know she was misled by others. We are still polite to one another, but I feel a bit like a teenage girl who thought she was the favorite of the football team captain only to find he’s dropped her for a cheerleader. The one who was my friend simply sits there, just as her image does in my wedding photos, a cypher, like the former close pal whispering with her new buddies at the school lockers.

I feel no particular antipathy toward any of these people, though it is odd to see them on Facebook (and I do see even the one who “unfriended” me because we have numerous “friends” in common). I suppose that’s an indication that my emotional life has matured since high school even if the structure of Facebook shapes us in that h.s. mode. This has all pointed out to me concretely how Facebook is not so much about friendship as it is about something else, the wider social network indeed—or the appearance of community, but not community itself.

We all know this, of course—it’s particularly obvious among writers and academics where so many of us use it as a tool of self-promotion. I do this myself, to the extent I link my blog to it and post publications sometimes. There are those who use this aspect lightly, though, and those who use it heavily. There are those who do so unrelentingly, and there are those whose Facebook pages are strangely unreal, surreal even. Watching The Social Network, I thought it no wonder that Facebook is so commonly used this way, considering its founders and their original intentions of getting ahead.

Being “friends” is, after all, not the same as being friends. I’m pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg has known this from the very beginning since his main motivation for his creation seems to have been revenge and social climbing. In other words, this may be a “duh” moment. But I still think about it a lot, in love as I am with both the simulacrum and the real world and still trying to parse out what differences Facebook makes, positive and negative.

Sandusky and the Democratic Need to Speak Out

You might not think that the Penn State child abuse scandal and Occupy Wall Street have much in common. But maybe I can explain why I will celebrate OWS every day until they are smashed completely by those who don’t want to hear it. It’s not just because they have a point, but also that they are willing to make it.

I spent 14 years in State College, Pennsylvania, first working at Penn State and then earning two graduate degrees there. I never met Jerry Sandusky, met Joe Paterno only once briefly, and only met Graham Spanier a handful of times, though I worked for his wife as a research assistant for a year and sometimes filed papers in their presidential home.

In spite of many claims circulating these days, a devotion to football is not required for membership in the Penn State community. I attended one football game in all my years there, and I left at half time, though I was sitting on the fifty-yard line in the company of a member of the Board of Trustees who was much older and more important than me. This latter was a situation chock full of a low-level sexual harassment that I managed to deflect, but I remember how it felt to say no to a person vastly more powerful than me. Maybe those connections cause me to want to comment on the recent scandal, or maybe it’s just my status as a human being.

Certainly the internet has been lit up with outrage about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior and about possible cover-ups that occurred in the Penn State football program and beyond. I participate fully in some of this outrage—we should assuredly feel it when any child (or adult, for that matter) is sexually assaulted —much less numerous ones over years. Certainly we should expect that all people who witness such a situation, directly or indirectly, should find it worth their trouble to do all in their power to stop it.

But when we expect the latter, we are hoping for people to break an ingrained habit that we usually approve of and take for granted in other situations, a habit that is generally rewarded. Granted, a crime, particularly of a heinous nature, should call for the setting aside of politeness and self-interest. But why is it that so often it doesn’t?

When, in fact, was the last time that you or I looked the other way and didn’t speak up in the face of an injustice, wrong, or lie? Probably yesterday if not today. So I agree that much with neoconservative columnist David Brooks’s recent opinion. I don’t, however, believe it’s because we’re all just inevitably sinful. As Daily Kos blogger Frederick Clarkson pointed out, that’s a dodge. Instead, I believe that, especially in many of our places of employment, we are trained in an anti-democratic obedience that is a hard habit to break. It takes a lot to rehabilitate Pitt bulls that are trained to fight; most humane associations euthanize them rather than ever expect them to recover. Like Pitt bulls trained to fight, people trained to be yes-men and yes-women have a hard time overcoming the pattern.

I also agree with much of what Michael Berube said recently in the New York Times about the Paternos’ academic heritage remaining intact. I wonder, however, whether greater faculty involvement in the governance of Penn State would have made a huge difference, as he claims. Faculty are not fundamentally different from anyone else, and they are no strangers to politics that favor yes-men and yes-women. Faculty are no strangers to pumping up numbers for the image of a program when the reality is not so keen. Faculty are no strangers to unfair practices, and many faculty have never spoken out about even the less drastic (and less risky-to-reveal) wrongs they might witness in their daily work. What Berube suggests would only help this kind of situation if it were one in which faculty themselves did not have to fear repercussions from those more powerful than they.

This is by no means exclusive to universities with football programs. Even though laws that protect them somewhat have been on the rise since the late 1980s, whistleblowers from all walks of life report the high price they often have to pay for their honesty, even when the behavior they report is criminal. (Just type “whistleblowers pay a price” into Google for 2,960,000 hits. Or read this other New York Times column by Alina Tugend who traces psychological research into why this is.) People lose their jobs, entire careers, their marriages, their homes, sometimes even end up on welfare waiting for cases to be resolved. Even in a best case scenario, people who blow the whistle look forward to years of punishment.

There’s another complication here as well, and I finally figured this one out after reading Sara Ganim’s Patriot-News account of conflicting testimony about reported incidents with Sandusky. The article does a great job of laying out all the different indications there were that something seriously wrong was going on. Yet, I didn’t quite agree with its last statement that, “everyone cannot be telling the truth.”

What the litany of reports reminded me of was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and the reports by the Rogers Commission that came out afterward analyzing how on earth NASA could have launched a mission with a combination of factors almost certain to bring the ship down and kill its seven crew members.

When I was a graduate teaching assistant at Penn State, in fact, we used the Space Shuttle Challenger as a prime example in composition classes of why clear and honest communication is important. We used it as a case study of how communication can go wrong. Engineers knew that the Challenger was likely to fail, but the authoritarian culture of NASA and the media pressure due to the inclusion of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe on the flight made those engineers afraid to assert what they knew in no uncertain terms. As the warnings went up the chain of command, they were repeatedly weakened until they became completely vague euphemisms that did not indicate the extent of the danger. Thus, the fatal decision to launch in spite of low temperatures for which the O-rings had never been tested and were unable to hold.

Here’s how the evolution happened at Penn State, as well laid out by the Patriot-News article:

McQueary: anal rape.
Paterno: something of a sexual nature.
Schultz: inappropriately grabbing of the young boy’s genitals.
Curley: inappropriate conduct or horsing around.
Spanier: conduct that made someone uncomfortable.
Raykovitz: a ban on bringing kids to the locker room.

It’s like a game of Telephone, only the scrambling isn’t random; rather, the message remains coherent, just weaker and weaker.

It is also, Tracy Clark-Flory notes on Alternet (originally Salon), very common for child sexual abuse to be overlooked, ignored, or covered up. By no means are McQueary, Curley, Schultz, Paterno, and Spanier alone in their inability or unwillingness to face up to what was going on.

None of that excuses what happened at Penn State, either the abuse perpetrated by Sandusky or the failure to stop it by others. It does, however, make surprise about it somewhat disingenuous.

And, in spite of my disagreement with David Brooks’s “original sin” kind of thinking, it also means that one of the many places we should look in the aftermath is within ourselves. We can hope that each of us would have the decency to stop and report far and wide such events and suffer the counter-accusations, the damage or complete destruction of our own careers, and the necessarily long, perhaps public, involvement in attempts to rectify something dirty and disturbing. I hope for myself personally that I would have the nerve, and I think I would. Still, while most of us may not be sick or criminal in the vein of Sandusky, we are a lot more like the others than we would like to admit.

So it disturbs me that most of the “attempts to heal” that I’ve seen focus on this false question, “How could it happen?” rather than “How can I prepare myself never to fail in this way?” Externalizing all the blame is inappropriate. We need instead to create different habits in ourselves: habits of telling the truth and speaking out.

Even when we have perfectly good reasons for speaking out, we may be discouraged from doing so. There are kinds of damage less than losing an entire career. There is damage that isn’t even as clear as pepper spray in the face of a protester.

I myself was told by an administrator at my university that in order to make my way in the face of certain manipulative and back-stabbing behavior I just need to get more “strategic” myself. I told him I would rather fail completely than become devious and dishonest. And there’s a very good chance that I will fail by a certain set of standards. In some ways I already have.

Recently a colleague of mine in another place has been sidelined from a program she developed precisely because she criticized the performance of a senior-level administrator for some serious errors. Now an additional faculty member has been added to help further the program and, now that there’s potentially someone else to run it, that senior administrator is saying that she won’t approve of the next phase (investing the resources to create an international center likely to have some renown) unless my colleague be excluded from having anything to do with the program she created. All because the administrator doesn’t like this person.

I also have an acquaintance who was sexually assaulted by an employee of the college where she worked. Because there was no “proof” the institution refused to act on her complaint, and her colleagues wanted her to shut up about it so as not to damage the institution’s reputation. She became—in my eyes, undeservedly—a pariah and eventually left for another, lesser job.

None of these situations is as clear as the issue of speaking out about a child being raped, of course. But I do believe that those of us who are in the habit of speaking out about lesser wrongs are more likely to speak out about greater wrongs. We know how to bear the anger. Some know how to withstand the pepper spray and tear gas.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s very hard to tell the difference between a truth-teller and a mere trouble-maker or even an asshole. For those of us who are not complete corporate or university sell-outs—yes-men and -women who have consciously prioritized getting ahead—the main quandary is how to create the habits in ourselves of telling the truth without becoming simply obnoxious.

We all know the types that everyone avoids, whose sense of what is wrong in the world may be paranoid or self-serving or just plain crazy. We know the ones who are just angry all the time and who will lash out at anyone with an accusation.

In order to try to prevent my own corruption in this regard, I have to always remember that other people see things differently and have a perfect right to do so, that I should say what I think but be ready for the (sometimes legitimate) push-back, and that I will never, ever be popular. Even accepting all that is no guarantee I won’t end up either fudging the truth sometime to get ahead or obsessing about something others see differently. All of us can only try to remain aware.

Beyond myself, I grieve a societal structure that is based to such an extent on a false meritocracy. The belief that greatness necessarily rises to the top poisons a lot of our professional interactions. This, too, is a difficult issue for me. As a teacher, I do indeed want my students to grant me the respect and authority accorded by my education and experience. Fundamentally, though, I don’t want anyone to think they are ultimately inferior or superior to me. I squirm within a university hierarchy in which individuals are expected to show constant deference to those in higher positions and where any questioning, no matter how polite, is considered disrespectful.

Hierarchies are based in the idea that some people are superior to others. This should be in a limited and role-based way at best. But too often, the skinny woman just thinks she’s a better person than the fat one. Too often, people believe that the wealthy deserve it. Too often, the boss sees himself as having a God-ordained entitlement. And in situations like the one in which Michael McQueary witnessed his “superior” doing something terrible, he responded with the assumption that others were in charge, others were responsible, others knew better than he did. We are asked to respond this way almost all the time.

On the other hand, I have in my mind’s eye an image of Myles Horton, one of the co-founders of the Highlander Folk School in East Tennessee that became a training ground for labor and Civil Rights leaders in the 1940s and continues social justice work today. Horton came to speak at my undergrad institution in Minnesota one spring in the early 1980s, an old man who still had a lot to say. I was dating a boy who was interested in Horton’s politics, but I went to see him partly because I was homesick for the gentle rising East Tennessee spring while I sat in a snowbound Minnesota April. He kindly spoke to me about the mud and the unfurling of the bright green, baby leaves and the redbud blossoms, and then he turned to the larger audience and announced, “Democracy is not efficient.”

There is a way of thinking about democracy that means “equal opportunity” to scramble to the “top” with those at the top necessarily defined as deserving. And there is another way to think about democracy, which is that no matter where on the ladder one is, one is an equal as a human being and has rights. Though there is no party or political persuasion that is without its spin, euphemism, power dynamics, even sexual misconduct, I lean left because I think the left’s vision of democracy is closer to the latter than the former definition.

No, democracy is not efficient. If all the managers, administrators, and bosses in the world had to listen and respect others, it might be a boatload of extra work for them. I watch, in fact, as my husband tries to chair a department this way, and it’s hard. He comes home exhausted by the sometimes heated arguments of his department members. I always tell him that they are truly better off because people are willing to put it out there, in contrast to my own department, where it is all under the surface and uglier for it. So, that’s not an easy prospect. But deep and abiding democratic values, practiced daily, might be the best bet against silences that harm and kill.

The Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" was first popularized at the Highlander Folk School.


Last Thursday, I cross-posted my tenure-related musing on Daily Kos. It has since been picked up by the new blog of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Academe. There has been a lot of great discussion, here on joyouscrybaby and already on Daily Kos.

All writers want readers, right?

It is great to enter the realm of public debate, but I have to admit that I also find it a little terrifying. I recently said to my husband, “What was I thinking becoming a writer? The entire premise of being a writer is that you want to be famous. I am so not a fame-hound.” It is not that way with doctors and lawyers and graphic designers and so forth. Some gain notoriety, but it isn’t the point of their work. It really shouldn’t be the point of a writer’s work either, but often it seems that it becomes that way. I have been struggling with this issue as I pass mid-life not famous. I haven’t stopped writing, but how do I value my own work under these circumstances? My blog has been partly about exploring what I care about more than lines on my c.v.

In addition, one of those who commented on Thursday’s blog eventually accused me of greed because I make somewhat more than the median annual salary in the U.S. It’s a ludicrous accusation, but I’ve been thinking a lot about my motivations in the past week.

So it was with eagerness that I watched this 10-minute video called “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” that a person posted in response to the blog post on Daily Kos. It’s an animation based on a speech by Daniel Pink, a bestselling author on the subject of work, and is part of a project of Britain’s RSA (the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). Take the time to watch–it’s cool. Academia has operated (as least ideally) for a long time on the principles that Pink notes. It’s too bad that these ideas are catching on in the private sector at a time when they are under attack in university life.

Florida Governor Rick Scott Takes Aim at Tenure

Margaret Haley, an early supporter of rights for female teachers, including decent pay and job security.

I am a tenured associate professor at one of the largest (though, let me emphasize, not one of the highest ranked) public universities in the U.S. How can I explain why it is that this often makes me want to cry?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my work, and, although I am not an academic superstar, I’ve done reasonably well. In economic times when so many are losing jobs, my job is relatively secure. The work that I do has pleasant and meaningful aspects that I value, in spite of sometimes snake-pit politics and bureaucratic burdens that often make it very difficult to focus on the things that are actually my job.

However, the future of public higher education, and especially in my area of the humanities, is truly in question. Even though more than half of all Americans attend at least some college courses, and 30% over age 25 have a bachelor’s or higher degree, what we do in academia and the value of it is still largely misunderstood by the public. When the governor of the state of Texas can blithely call for higher education reforms that include “treating students as ‘customers,’ judging faculty by how many students they teach and how those students rate them, and de-emphasizing research that doesn’t produce an immediate financial return,” it becomes clear that our future is in the hands of people who either don’t know what they are talking about or harbor a truly vile and anti-intellectual agenda. Or both.

There are many angles on higher ed and its issues, and I hope to be able to sort some of these out in the blog in coming posts. But today I am inspired by yesterday’s article in the Orlando Sentinel that reported on Florida Governor Rick Scott’s agenda for the coming year, in particular his desire to abolish tenure for public university employees. (He’s already done it in K-12 education.)

Tenure is often resented by people outside the college and university system–because they don’t have it, after all, and therefore it’s unfair that anyone does. The largest complaint about tenure by the general public seems to be that it protects lazy and low-quality teachers. The laziness issue I will have to give its own separate post because it is one of the most offensive and false of all these claims. But part of that is the idea that tenure keeps in place bad employees.

This is an absurd claim on many levels. First, to become a tenured professor at any college or university requires years of investment. At numerous points along the way, those who are bad at what they do are drummed out of the system: they can fail to get into a graduate program; they can fail courses, which, unlike in undergrad programs, gets them booted in fairly short order; they can fail to complete language and other degree requirements; they can fail to finish or defend successfully their thesis or dissertation work; they can fail to get a tenure-track job or any job at all; they can work temporary jobs for a number of years, moving from place to place; and they can fail, after six years at a tenure-track job, to get tenure. If the system has not identified and excluded the poor quality work by this point, then something else is wrong with the system, not tenure.

In addition, the public perception of tenure is that it’s virtually impossible to be fired if you have it. That is simply not true. If a university has cause to fire a tenured person, then the university can do so. If a faculty member doesn’t show up for classes or turn in grades, if he or she behaves in unacceptable or unprofessional ways, if a faculty member violates ethics codes–or for numerous other reasons–a faculty member may certainly still be fired. Granted, it’s harder to fire a tenured as opposed to an untenured faculty member and requires a long process of documentation rather than an arbitrary decision by an administrator. Granted, it doesn’t happen very often. But maybe this has more to do with the fact that most tenured professors have already run the gauntlet mentioned above and have spent at least 9 to12 years on probation (in grad school and earning tenure) before becoming tenured than with the fact that it’s too easy for them.

There are many other reasons why tenure is important to the healthy functioning of colleges and universities, but I’m only going to mention one other here today—and that is the traditionally cited protection of faculty with unpopular or controversial ideas, aka academic freedom. Tenure was designed to protect faculty from arbitrary complaints by parents, students, and administrators who otherwise might paralyze their teaching and life-choice options. It’s only been around for about 100 years, and, I might add, it’s the 100 years when someone other than white men of a certain conservative bent could reach for the intellectual life. It prevented, among other things, administrators from firing female faculty members who married or got pregnant.

Many in the right wing these days claim that tenure, however, rather than protecting a diversity of ideas and opinions, now is a screen behind which liberal prerogative is preserved. From what I can see in the articles I’ve read, they don’t cite any real evidence for this except that professors are notoriously liberal. How it is that tenure produces this supposed effect, I’ve no idea, but it is certainly true that tenure prevents conservative politicians from exerting pressure on university administrators to just fire professors whose politics the politicians don’t like. And this is exactly why we need tenure right now.

I feel certain that if some radical right politicians have their way, and if they manage to make arbitrary, without-cause firing of faculty possible, they will create an atmosphere in which faculty will become fearful to speak their minds honestly and in which they will be punished if they rise above their fear.

Frequently, these men who speak out against tenure (they’re usually men) have spent some time in academia themselves, but have since moved on to business or conservative think-tanks for their employment. I don’t have access to the details of these changes in their lives, of course, but one of two things seems to have happened: either a) they didn’t get tenure and were thus excluded from further academic life, or b) they decided that the benefits of an academic career were not enough to offset the relatively low pay-scale and demands of the work. Either way, they are out for the blood of those who have made different choices and had different successes than they have had. Their goal is complete eradication of protections of any sort for faculty and the imposition of non-academic standards for academic work.

If I’m being alarmist, and the goal in abolishing tenure is not to clean house based on a political agenda, then the fact is that abolishing it would likely have very little effect at all. Perhaps some increased costs as faculty constantly seek to move to better positions and universities take on increased supervision, expanded evaluation tasks even for long-term faculty, and constant interviewing for new faculty. Mostly, though, we would keep doing what we do.

However, my fear is acute. It’s bad enough as it is right now. Much university funding already comes from private sources and cooperative efforts with private businesses abound. As it is, that’s often a mutually beneficial thing. But if these people get their way, public higher education will become even more a servant of private business interests, not designed for the public good.

People, private industry has one goal: profit. It and its CEOs do not have your best interest at heart. That is one reason why running universities like businesses is a bad idea.