Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Reality Behind The Rage

Last week witnessed a rather intense dispute between two bloggers whose opinions I tremendously respect, and whose blogs are actually linked on this site.  Rebecca Schuman (aka Pan Kisses Kafka) had written another biting piece about the realities of the academic job market, particularly the case of a search committee who sent out their invitations to an interview and a national conference with less than a week's notice.  Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical) took issue with Schuman's accusations, feeling that her tone was counter-productive and that the criticisms lodged by Schuman were ill-founded and not properly sourced.  It was difficult to read their heated exchanges on Twitter, since it was like having to listen to my parents fight.  (I also know people who know both Schuman and Potter and think they're good people, and I get sad when good people fight each other.  Yes, I am actually a huge softie beneath all of my bluster.)

Within Potter's critique was a strong reaction against "rage" based dialogues, and the response in the comments section of her blog and on Twitter duly  displayed the rage of many junior scholars and post-academics who are fed up with a system that has let them down.

I do not agree with Potter's criticisms of Schuman, but I can certainly acknowledge that expressions of rage are not always the most productive way to engage in dialogue.  However, I also know well where that rage comes from, and that until the powers that be in academia hear that rage, in all of its force, pain, and vitriol, contingent faculty will never have a chance at improving their conditions.  There are a lot of well-meaning tenured folks (hell, some of them are even radicals) whose hearts are in the right place, but aren't truly aware of the realities beneath the rage, and they desperately need to be, despite their good intentions.

I lived that reality for too long.  I worked two years on the contingent track as a VAP in a department where I had to use the metaphorical servants' entrance on a constant basis, and where many tenured and tenure-track faculty would not even say hello to me.  (There were, of course, some absolutely great folks that gave me a lot of help.)  My publication record surpassed that of some of the very people who treated me as beneath regard.  I busted my ass, putting in 80 hour weeks my first semester to get my classes up and running, but soon found out that my chair judged VAPs solely on the number of student complaints he heard about them.  Our job was to toil silently, STFU, and just give the customers what they want.

It took three years on the job market to land a tenure track job that turned into a nightmare of bullying, low pay, and being forced to teach a majority of classes outside of my field of study.  My publications were treated as threats rather than accomplishments.  I hoped to move on, but the 2008 crash happened, and despite three highly placed articles, several courses developed, stellar teaching evaluations (both peer and student) and a book contract, I did not get a single interview on my last go on the market.  I was stuck living in mental torture in an isolated, unfriendly town over a thousand miles away from my spouse, and the harder I worked to escape, the less success I had.

Many of my friends have had similar experiences, and I often felt like we were voiceless peons with no way to get anyone on the other side of the academic divide to understand what we were going through.  Except in rare cases (usually among former contingent faculty made good) they just didn't want to listen, or got angry or defensive in response.  I channeled a lot of the pain and frustration into my blogging.  You can read examples of my rage herehere, here, and here.

There are a lot of realities beneath the rage that established academics don't see or understand, but the shift in the job market is one of the biggest.  Many of those who have responded negatively to Schuman have repeated the handy mantra "didn't you know what you were getting into"?  One critic even callously called her "stupid" or "naive" to not realize the difficulties of the job market as a grad student.  These critics tend to assume that today's abattoir of a job market is the same as the shitty one they endured in the 1990s or even early 2000s.  It's not.  The market went from awful to impossible after the crash, and it still has not really recovered and never will, in large part because the austerity policies that followed in the wake of the crash have been used ruthlessly by administrators to slash tenure-track lines and even whole departments.  Those who were unfortunate enough to get their PhDs between 2008 and 2011 have had their careers killed, because today's search committees want what I call the "new car smell," and don't seem to want to hire candidates who have been on the contingent track for more than two years, even if they have released well-reviewed books with good presses.  (I have at least two friends in this boat.)  I repeat: the current job situation is not the crummy one I prepared myself for in grad school, but is something new where low-paid contingent labor is the norm, not the exception, for new PhDs.  Contingent jobs are no longer stepping stones to permanent positions, but are just waystations on the road to the next poorly compensated, low prestige position in another town halfway across the country.

When people are being exploited and treated like peons, when they are expected to STFU about their conditions or lose their jobs (which happened to two of my contingent friends), when they have enough qualifications to earn tenure at schools that won't even give them an interview, rage is an appropriate response.   As I wrote recently, I have made the conscious decision to let my rage go, based both on my personal health, and because I have had the extreme luck to have transitioned into a great job into an area of the country I love.  I applaud those still caught up in a cruel, unresponsive, inhumane system who are expressing their rage.  No one in power ever helped those without it out of the kindness of their hearts, and without the rage to make those in comfortable positions feel uncomfortable, things will remain as they are.

To quote Bob Dylan, there is one last reality beneath the rage that bears understanding, "when you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose."  The rage of people like me could stand to be more productive, but it is not going away until things change.  Sorry, but those who are unsettled by it are just going to have to deal with it.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Guilt And Shame At Top Prices: MY AHA Memories

The American Historical Association's annual conference is approaching, and this year it will be held in Washington, DC.  Although I will not be attending, this does bring back some strong memories of the last time it was in DC, in 2008.  That year I landed a tenure-track job (though not from an AHA interview), and had a major haul of six, that's right SIX, interviews at the conference.  I thought I was on top of the world.  In a way I was, because when I tried to escape my unsatisfactory tenure track job in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, I got a grand total of two AHA interviews over the next three years combined.

That particular conference in 2008 is a particular reminder to me of how many sacrifices the academic job market demands.  In the first place, I had to get to DC and pay the big $$$ to stay at the conference hotel.  At the time I was a visiting professor, so at least, unlike when I was a grad student, I wasn't having to sacrifice food or run up the credit card too much go on the trip.  However, I wanted to avoid paying money for plane tickets, so a visitor colleague and I drove from Michigan to DC.  This is where it gets tricky.  The day before I left Nebraska, where I was visiting my family for the holidays, and hit a nasty winter storm from the time I crossed the border from Iowa to Illinois.  By the time I got to Gary, Indiana, the roads were covered with snow and ice, and I was driving in the ruts made by the cars in front of me.  After about Benton Harbor, Michigan, I could barely see, and saw multiple cars go into the ditch.  I kept driving, against all better counsel and sanity, so I could leave for DC the next day.  When I finally arrived at my apartment in Grand Rapids sometime after midnight, I collapsed out of sheer relief of having survived about six hours of stressful driving.

Needless to say, when I finally made it to the conference, I wasn't exactly well rested.  I almost fell asleep during one interview, partly due to my fatigue, partly due to the rote, uninterested tack taken by the interviewers.  Something that has always struck me about many conference interviews (though not all), is how much of their limited funds and excess energy the candidates put into them, and how little those conducting the interviews seem to care sometimes.

Here's a scorecard of my different AHA experiences.  Feel free to compare to your own.

2006: Philadelphia
Transportation: I drove out to Philly from Illinois with a grad school friend.  Despite the fact that I come from Nebraska, and he from China, we shared our mutual love of Johnny Cash all the way across the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The drive there and back was maybe the best part of the trip.

Number of Interviews: Four.  One at an R1 in Texas, two at urban Catholic colleges in desirable locations, one at a SLAC in the South.  Three were in hotel rooms, one was at the job center.

Best Moments:  I loved going to my school's reception, it felt like I was on the cusp of finally being a member of The Club, a club I had always felt was out of my reach.  As an ABD on the cusp of defending, seeing my former colleagues who had gone on to get jobs gave me hope.  Downtown Philly also has a large number of quality Irish pubs, so it was great to eat lamb stew and down some pints with my friends in a different town for a change.

Worst Moments:  Pretty much everything else.  I failed horribly in my interviews, due to paralyzing anxiety and poor preparation.  I was scared and it showed.  Who would want to hire some bumbling weirdo who was practically whispering because his vocal cords were so tight?  I have had a total of fourteen AHA interviews, not a single one resulted in a campus invite.  Quite a record, huh?

2007: Atlanta
Transportation and Lodging: I was in my first year as a visitor, and flew from Michigan.  I did not have a roomie at the hotel, and was consequently lonely and depressed.  I have since learned that Atlanta is an amazing city, but could not discover such joys during the AHA, which was headquartered in the blandest, most corporate section of downtown Atlanta.  Looking back on it, these were some of the most depressing days of my life.  As a first year professor, I was putting in eighty hour weeks to be repaid by tenured colleagues who would not even acknowledge my presence.  I had then come to an awful, overpriced location to have my hopes crushed.  Not fun.

Number of Interviews: Two.  One at a rural Southern SLAC to replace a friend who had left it (danger! danger!) and another at an R1 in Texas whose job ad I didn't really fit, and whose standards I did not meet at that point in time.  All in all, a big, expensive waste of time to make myself feel miserable.  One hotel room interview, one job center interview.

Best Moments: None, really.

Worst Moments: Getting yelled at by Atlanta cops, paying insanely high prices for everything, lack of inexpensive dining, interviewing for one job I didn't want and another that I knew I wasn't going to get.  If there is a hell and I am sent there, it will be reliving this conference over and over again for eternity.

2008: Washington, DC
Transportation and Lodging: I mentioned the transport above.  Lodging was at one of the conference hotels with my friend Justin and an old mutual friend of ours from my Chicago days.  That cut down on the expense, and instead of going out, we ordered pizza and made ourselves Cokes spiked with a contraband bottle of Evan Williams.  It was pretty cool.

Number of Interviews: Six.  King of the world, baby!  Or maybe not.  As I mentioned, I was at this time a terrible interviewer, so frightened of screwing up that I just withdrew into a semi-catatonic state.  Two were at directional state unis in Illinois, one at a directional state uni in Connecticut, one at a Southern flagship, one at a commuter school in Indiana, and one at a state uni in North Carolina.  Three were in the job center, three in hotel rooms.

Best Moments: Six!  SIX!  It was a huge stroke to my ego.  I also had some awesome Moroccan food with some friends in DuPont Circle, and the gathering of my buddies in our hotel room on the last night fueled by pizza, cola, and cheap bourbon was one of those laid-back good times I wish I could have back again.

Worst Moments: Fucking up most of those interviews.  As I said, I had a hard time staying awake in one.  In another, I sat awkwardly while my interviewers talked amongst themselves in heated tones about the fractious politics of their department.  In another interview, one of the members of committee was shooting me daggers of hate the entire time, and one of the others asked extremely ridiculous questions based on three-decades old historiography.

2009: New York City
Transportation and Lodging: I had acquired a tenure track job in Texas the year before, but was back on the market, trying to get a job closer to my fiance (now spouse) and to escape what was fast becoming an untenable job.   I flew out to Jersey for the holidays, and stayed with my fiance in Newark.  It was by far the best lodging situation at any AHA I'd been to.

Number of Interviews: Two.  Both were SLACs in eastern Pennsylvania, in Dunder Mifflin country.  One was in a hotel room, the other at the job center.

Best Moments: Before the conference my good friend Brian stayed with us in Newark, and we took some trips into the city that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Having spent some time in NYC, I had a good time being the local expert for my friends, many of whom were present at this AHA.  I also got to see another friend present a kickass paper, and I was really happy for and proud of her.  Best of all?  I spent minimal time at the conference itself.

Worst Moments: In one of my interviews I faced an extremely hostile interviewer who made snide, snarky comments about what I had to say.  In the other, one of my friends was interviewing me, which made things rather awkward, although he did his best to mitigate it.  This was by far my least painful AHA, mostly because I already had a t-t job, and because I barely had any contact with it.

2010: San Diego
Transportation and Lodging: I flew in from Newark (where I was visiting Lori) and stayed at a cheap non-conference hotel that was surprisingly ritzy.  I roomed with my friend Brian, and we were within walking distance of much of the nightlife.

Number of Interviews: Zero.  I had two articles in print, and another accepted at this point.  I soon learned the goalposts had been moved, and hastily acquired a book contract.  That led to zero interviews the next year as well, although I got a couple of late phone interviews with R1 schools after the AHA that turned into nothing.

Best Moments: Getting together with my friends and meeting some of their cool friends who worked in the publishing side.  Getting interest from potential publishers.  Having a hilarious conversation on the rooftop of some bar where we joked about how out of touch the tenured faculty were with our struggles.  We envisioned a junior scholar revolt, and the elites grabbing jet packs to send them back to their leafy campuses.  For some reason the term "jetpack" kept us in stitches for days.  At the airport on the way home I came up with a schema for a long gestating book project that will now probably never see the light of day.

Worst Moments: Feeling like a complete loser every time someone asked how many interviews I had.  I decided to go anyway because 1. I was forced to because interview requests often come right before the conference and 2. I wanted to get a book contract.  The whole time I felt a sense of impending doom, especially when I strolled by the job center and it looked barren.  The book area was also strangely empty.  It was at this point that I began to wonder if it was worth trying to maintain a foothold in a dying profession.

The next year I did not plan ahead and go the AHA.  I got zero interviews, and pretty much decided that it was time to leave academia.  I did, and I am all the happier for it, not least because I do not have to spend my first weekend of the year blowing money on overpriced hotel room and airplane tickets, just so I can have my guts kicked in.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Taking A Drive on Springfield Avenue

I've been working like crazy on moving this week, which has also meant saying good-bye to living in Newark and the Ironbound.  Of course, I will continue to come visit, and we won't really be living all that far away.  In fact, the fastest and most direct way to get from our new house in Maplewood to our old apartment in Newark is to take a drive down Springfield Avenue.  It's a drive that also displays the grim reality of life in America today, and can bring tears of rage to my eyes.

In Maplewood, Springfield Avenue cuts through the town's lower-middle class/working class section (where we will be living) and is lined with some humble businesses, along with a few vestiges of Maplewood's trendier sections, such as yoga studios and the like.  Crossing the border into Irvington, stores remain, but are decidedly downscale.  Liquor marts and dollar stores prevail.  Irvington, because of its relatively small size, is less well-known than Newark, but is in worse economic shape.  That's reflected in its violent crime rate, among the worst in New Jersey.  As if to grimly underscore that point, early this Christmas morning three people were killed and two wounded by a shooter outside of a strip club.

Driving through Irvington can be a frustrating experience, mostly because there is only one light with a protected left turn, despite the fact that Springfield Avenue goes through block after block of commercial zoning.  It's as if someone somewhere decided that the people who lived there weren't deserving of decent traffic flow. 

That, of course, is the least of people's worries in Irvington.  Whenever I've been there (which is where my wife's grandfather lived until his death four years ago and where she lived until age ten) I've had the feeling that it's a place abandoned by the rest of New Jersey and rest of America.  Its problems and the lives taken by them don't really seem to concern anyone else.  That feeling only grows once you cross the border from Irvington into Newark.  Springfield Avenue becomes, in places, a kind of moonscape.  Derelict buildings look ready to collapse, empty lots are choked with weeds.  It looks worse the closer you get to downtown, where there are actually weed and grass covered hills that form a barren wasteland where high-rise housing projects used to be.  

Springfield Avenue had been the city's main commercial thoroughfare until the riots of '67.  It's a little known fact that many of the businesses were not torched by rioters, but were destroyed by National Guard troops who shot up businesses owned by African Americans, who had put signs attesting to such in their windows to ward off looters.  If you drive through the worst-hit parts of Springfield Ave today, you see that devastation with over four decades of neglect added onto it.  Every time I drive through this section, the anger begins to well up inside of me.  Anger over the oppression that led to the riots in the first place, anger over the abandonment of Newark by suburban New Jerseyans and Americans alike, and anger that so few people outside of Newark seem to care.  Case in point: a recent car-jacking at the tony Short Hills Mall that ended in murder has captivated the state, but the over 90 murders in Newark this year have received scant attention outside the city's borders.  You see, a rich white person isn't "supposed" to get shot at a ritzy mall, but poor black people in Newark and Irvington are expected to get shot from time to time.  Their lives are cheap.

The drive into downtown on Springfield Avenue ends with a glimmer of hope, although it may well be false.  The area right next to downtown is getting developed, complete with shiny new apartments and an Applebee's.  It appears, however, that this is a project of gentrification, rather than regeneration.  There are a lot of attempts these days to bring young people to downtown Newark, but so little to improve the lives of native Newarkers, who have pretty much been left to fend for themselves.  With the departure of celebrity mayor Corey Booker, the little positive attention that Brick City has been getting will be cut off.  Springfield Avenue will still be devastated, and will still be the street that says more about the reality of the American Dream than any other.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Leaving The Ironbound

After four years of living in this neighborhood part time, and two and a half years full time, I am moving out of the Ironbound.  This is primarily because wife and I need more space, now that we have two kids.  I think over the last year our cramped living environment, complete with a needy cat and barky dog, has been making us a little crazy.  We are moving into a house in Maplewood this week, and are doing so with a mix of excitement and elegy.

On the latter point, the Ironbound is a special place, and hard to leave.  By leaving here, I feel that in a way, I am moving back to America.  In so many respects Newark is not America, but a place abandoned by America and left for dead.  While the Ironbound is less economically devastated than other parts of Newark, its immigrant population and culture make it a place truly apart.  Portuguese and Spanish are more commonly heard on the streets than English, and I stick out like a sore thumb.  However, knowing that there was no way I was going to fit in here took a lot of pressure off of me.  People are friendly in a genuine manner that still exists in Europe and South America but is absent in this country, where a dagger seems to sit behind so many smiles.  More than the custard pastries, salted cod, Brazilian barbecue, roast chicken, and cheap and tasty Portuguese table wines, it is the manner and way of being in this neighborhood that I will miss the most.

Posts on this blog might be fewer and shorter in coming days because of this move.  This may well be an opportunity to change the blog, because its title will no longer be applicable.  In any case, expect some more reflections on the Ironbound, Newark, and the importance of place.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Track of the Week: Miles Davis "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)"

When the holiday season began, I was in a fantastic mood.  I really got into the spirit, started listening to my favorite non-shitty Christmas music (trust me, it actually exists) and sipping egg nog at the end of the day.  Now, as the day approaches, I am burnt out on Christmas.  I certainly enjoyed shopping for gifts after work today, but the public discourse around the holiday is wearing me down.  I am just sick and tired of the idiotic "War on Christmas" bullshit, which seems to be a ploy for middle-class white Christians to think of themselves as victims.

Year after year I get depressed when I hear someone say "Merry Christmas!" as a weapon or political statement.  (The way it's practically spat out of the mouths of certain Fox News viewers is a dead giveaway.)  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that so effectively drains the joy out of the season than that.  Ironically, it is the supposed defenders of Christmas like Bill O'Reilly, who have killed its spirit deader than any Scrooge or Grinch could have hoped for.

It is with that knowledge that I recommend that you listen to "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)."  It's an odd track, because Miles Davis is the last guy you'd expect to cut a Christmas song, and it has a vocal over it by Bob Dorough to boot.  The words pretty baldly criticize the consumerism, cynicism, "bad taste" and increased hassles that come with the Christmas season.  At its base, it laments the joylessness of what's supposed to be a joyful season, which is all too appropriate living in a time when the same people who get apoplectic over someone daring to wish them a "happy holidays" are more than happy to cut off unemployment benefits right after Christmas.  At least when I listen to this song I can get an antidote to all the hypocrisy, with some tasty jazz licks to go with it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Case For Diner As a Classic Holiday Film

It's that time of year again when horrible dreck like the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" invades public space and all manner of sugary, treacly holiday films and specials take over my television.  I tend to avoid this stuff by re-reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which has a truer and more political core to it.

In my quest to find holiday entertainment that doesn't give me a sugar-induced bellyache, I've realized that Diner, one of my favorite films, is in actuality a holiday classic.  In case you don't know, it's a film made in 1982, but set in 1959.  The main characters are men in their 20s living in Baltimore who are no longer teenagers, but are drifting and haven't quite yet made the transition to adulthood.  Having spent the bulk of my twenties in grad school, it's a feeling I know all too well.  They go out, hang around, and always end up at the end of the night at their favorite diner for conversation.  It really captures a certain time in life, and a life transition that is awfully tricky to handle.

There are some plot points, like one character owing money to bookies, another having troubles with his marriage, and another about to get married while feeling ambivalent about it.  However, it's mostly a character study of a bunch of guys going through their lives over the course of a week.  The week itself is significant: the week between Christmas and New Year's.  

Plenty of holiday movies use Christmas and New Year's for their setting, but Diner is the only one, to my knowledge, that gets at the supreme importance of the days between those holidays.  At the fraught, early 20s age of the characters, that week is when you visit home, catch up with old friends, and generally have time to kill with your buddies.  It's a time when I always feel, even to this day, that I am recharging my batteries and can afford to get a little silly.  

Holiday fare tends to emphasize the role of family, but the holidays are also an important time to be with your friends.  For years, every New Year's Eve I would visit a close friend in Lincoln, Nebraska, and we would spend the evening with his circle, eating an elaborate home-cooked dinner topped off with wine and a bottle of quality Irish whiskey.  We would then spend the next day watching samurai movies, preferably by Kurosawa.  Now, with my family responsibilities and the greater difficulty of journeying home, this wonderful ritual is no longer part of my life.  I've long made the transition to settling down, but what I would give for one of those New Year's celebrations with my friends.  That Diner understands the meaning of friendship in the holidays is why it ought to be screened just as much on cable TV this time of year as It's a Wonderful Life.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

America's Gun Problem Hits (My) Home

The story faded after a day, but on Friday we narrowly avoided yet another mass shooting tragedy in Colorado.  A student at Arapahoe High School in Centennial came to school armed and ready to kill, but only ended up killing himself after wounding a couple of students with random fire.  Sadly, one of the wounded students is severely hurt and in a coma.  It was fortunate, nonetheless, that he had a shotgun rather than an assault weapon.  Had that been the case, the carnage would certainly have been worse.  That might very well be due to new laws limiting gun sales in Colorado, since the gunman could not get ahold of the deadliest weapons.

This incident, which like so many others has quickly been forgotten, hit home hard for me.  One of cousins is a teacher at Arapahoe, and when I heard the news about an active shooter in the school, I feared the absolute worst.  I spent my commute home from work just trying to keep it together and felt incredible waves of relief released when I finally learned from my cousin that she was alive doing okay.

This potential slaughter came one day before the anniversary of Newtown, a truly horrifying event, and one that has exposed the complete moral bankruptcy of our society.  If a pile of dead first graders is not sufficient to change our gun laws and our sick national addiction to firearms, then nothing ever will be.  We have become so inured to school shootings that unless there is one with a high body count, we really don't even bother to pay attention.  The incident at Arapahoe is one of many of these horrible events that easily fade into the background.  Because it could have claimed the life of a loved one, I simply can't let it go.

Gun control is hardly a panacea, of course, but some sensible laws are in order, and this is hardly a matter of much dispute.  Americans overwhelmingly support universal background checks to eliminate obvious loopholes in the system, but the NRA and others have successfully fought them tooth and nail. There is no real reason for allowing high capacity magazines, either, but the 2nd Amendment crowd defends even these deadly devices.

Even where new laws exist, roadblocks remain.  In states like New York and Colorado, which have passed gun control measures, county sheriffs are now refusing to enforce the law.  Reading the comments section on this Times article on the phenomenon is a quick primer in just how active and committed gun rights advocate are.  To them, limiting 30 round clips of ammo is tantamount to tyranny.  I can only hope that in the horrible event that another shooting would happen in the Denver area, that if the shooter got his gear illegally in rural Colorado, the local sheriff would be proseccuted as an accessory to murder.

I somehow don't believe that will ever happen, though.  It all seems to boil down to an underlying cultural-political chasm that is growing ever wider in this country.  Every time I go home to my rural Nebraska hometown, the vehemence about guns and other culturally-grounded political issues seems that much more extreme.  People in these places think they are the "real America" and as such have a right to veto or not follow restrictions on guns that originate in other places, even if, in today's world, it is urban America that is more "real," since it represents a much larger number of people.

 There are only two options: that rural America is allowed to be a country in a country, withering further into irrelevance yet still having its way on gun control, or that the issue is forced and majority rule is actually allowed to hold sway.  The latter course of action is the only way our gun problem will be resolved, but it seems to be so fractious and fraught with conflict that we have decided not to bother, even when a tragedy like Sandy Hook occurs.  The dead children appear to be an acceptable price for political peace for most in this country, and I don't know if anything can change that.  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

SantaCon Is The Ultimate Expression of White Privilege

The media and blogosphere has been burning up over the last few days over Megyn Kelly's stupid and racist assertions about the whiteness of Santa Claus and Jesus.  I can't come close to skewering or analyzing her statements as well as others, so I thought I'd focus on another manifestation of whiteness this Christmas season: SantaCon.

In case you don't know about SantaCon, it is a St. Patrick's-type event where drunken revelers dressed in Santa costumes spend a Saturday bar hopping as a mob, leaving a trail of puke, piss, and disorder in their wake.  It appears to be a way for monied twenty and thirtysomethings to transform Christmas into a time for the kind of stupid drunk partying they loved in college.

Now, you would normally think that a mob of disorderly drunks might be countered by the police, but no less a personage than NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly has given SantaCon his approval.  That's right, the same guy who gives fiery justifications for stop and frisk is openly supportive of roving, drunken gangs of former frat boys.  Evidently being a black or brown person going about your daily business is reason enough to be harassed by police, but if you're white you can cause disturbances and paint the streets yellow with your urine to your heart's content.

Can you imagine the reaction of the police if 30,000 people of color in Santa suits descended on lower Manhattan, roaming from bar to bar acting in an obnoxious fashion?  It would be called a "wilding" and the cops would be sent in to break it up immediately.  30,000 predominately white people can do that, and the police actually openly support it!  Beyond the whole frat-boy groupthink party culture element of SantaCon, its reliance on white privilege leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why Pope Francis' Words Matter

There's been much hullaballoo these last two days over the fact that Time magazine has named Pope Francis its Man of the Year.  Some, like Glenn Greenwald, have lambasted the magazine for wussing out and putting Edward Snowden in the runner-up spot.  Others, like Glenn Beck, have been blowing their tops about the pontiff's supposed Marxism and the lamestream media's love of said Leftist subversion.  (He has also been uttering the Beckian oxymoron "progressive Fascism."  When are the men in the white coats finally going to come and take him home?)  I'm quite surprised that so many people still care about Time magazine.

All that said, I think now's a good time to reflect on Pope Francis' importance.  While he is known now more for words than deeds, I think his words are incredibly meaningful.  For the past forty years or so, the world has been in the throws of a vast neoliberal globalization that has funneled money into the hands of the wealthy at the expense of the many.  It has caused unaccounted misery in its rapacious, never-ending quest for lucre, the human and environmental consequences be damned.  Those who criticize this monstrous state of affairs have often found themselves to be lone voices crying out in the wilderness.  With the Occupy movement and various other rumblings, from Arab Spring to Chilean student protests, it is evident that there is a growing pushback against the neoliberal tide.

Behind the various critiques lies the belief that unfettered capitalism is fundamentally immoral.  The various religious and moral leaders of the world, however, have been much more interested in enforcing their very narrow standards of personal morality than addressing the moral economy.  Conservatives have feasted on this omission, since it has given their greed and avarice a free pass.  Pope Francis, by using his position as the most powerful religious figure in the world to criticize capitalism, has given critics of neoliberalism a tremendous amount of legitimacy.  If an institution as traditional and conservative as the Catholic Church assails economic inequality and laissez-faire ideology it gives moderates the courage they need go against the lying cant of "job creators" and trickle down.

This, by the way, is why the likes of Limbaugh and Beck wail and gnash their teeth at this pope's pronouncements.  They know, deep down, that unfettered capitalism is an affront to any real sense of fairness and morality, and that once the broader public is willing and able to see that fact, their political power is ruined.  And that is why Pope Francis' words matter.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Track of the Week: Tom Waits, "Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis"

Christmas cards are a tradition I don't engage in, but they make sense to me.  At the end of the year I too usually take stock of my life and think about all that has happened since my last go 'round the sun.  It's good to get letters from friends and family about what they've been up to themselves.  I look forward especially to my sister's Christmas card and letter each year, since it gives me a great sense of what's been going on in her life over a thousand miles away.

Of course, my private thoughts about my life over the past year would need a great deal of editing before they could be doled out for public consumption.  Some people's Christmas cards might also make for harrowing reading.  That's the darkly humorous conceit behind Tom Waits' "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis." The narrator frankly discusses destitution, pregnancy, drug addiction, and hitting bottom.  This is not a letter full of brags about children on the honor roll or vacations in Spain, so much so that anyone who sends Christmas letter like that ought to receive a copy of this song in the mail in reply to remind them that others don't have it so easy.

"Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" comes off of Blue Valentine, which is the last of Waits' 1970s jazz piano-based records.  It's never been among my favorite albums of his, mostly because he seemed to know that his original persona and musical style were getting played out.  (He previously brought it close to perfection on Small Change, and would soon switch gears in a bluesier direction on Heartattack and Vine.)  However, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, and this song beautifully combines the low-life stories, tender growl, and moody jazz accompaniment that defines Waits' best work in this period.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Progress Report On Letting The Academic Dream Die: Facing Facts

Sometime this autumn, something in my head clicked.  I finally stopped feeling shame about having left academia, stopped feeling like a failure, and mostly stopped feeling intense bitterness towards my old profession.  Perhaps it just started to get ridiculous for me to keep feeling bad about myself.  I have a job I love in a city I adore, I am married to a fantastic woman, I have two great kids, we are about the move into a home in a great community, and I have been in good health.  All in all, I'm leading a good life, and with so many people out there facing worse problems than me, it's pretty silly to continue to brood Hamlet-like over the fact that I am no longer a professor.

Hearing this click has also allowed me to be much more sober and honest about myself and my old profession.  While I still know in my heart that I got a raw deal and my labor was exploited, I also know that I prepared myself poorly for the realities of the current academic job market.  I waited too long to publish, I studied an obscure topic that nobody cares about, I did not network at conferences (I am constitutionally incapable of the kind of social fakery involved in networking), and I squandered several job interviews through my own ineptitude.  In a difficult market I did not do myself any favors.

I am also beginning to realize that I lacked a lot of things necessary for a career in academia.  My specialization didn't really stick, for one.  While I find nineteenth century Germany to be fascinating, I also know that my level of interest in the subject is not enough to sustain itself as the focus of my life's work.  It's been months since I've read a book on the topic, and I am finding myself a great deal more interested in American history.  Being a teacher allows me to still be a student of history, without the pressure of being an expert on an obscure vein of knowledge that few actually care about.  That suits me just fine.

My academic career also just wasn't consistent with what I wanted out of life.  When I finally landed a tenure-track job it was in an isolated East Texas town where, had I stayed, I would have been an outsider for the rest of my life.  While it had a few charms, I felt painfully isolated there (apart from some great friends) from day one.  In any case, my beloved spouse had no interest in moving there, and she was right.  My love of being a professor just wasn't deep enough to sustain me living in a place I did not want to live, and to live apart from the person I loved the most on top of it.  I know the ivory tower alone is enough for others, but not for me.

In fact, it's only since I have left academia that I have realized how uncomfortable I felt there from the beginning.  I forced myself to learn its bourgeois modes of sociability alien to my rural upbringing, I learned to bullshit on things I knew little about, and I learned to bite my tongue around the large number of arrogant jerks one commonly encounters in that walk of life, especially at conferences.  Even worse, when I landed my tenure-track job I found myself in an institution that did not follow the normal rules of the profession, yet replaced bourgeois affect with macho bullying.

That said, I met many fantastic friends along the way, and I feel like my studies made me a much more intelligent and interesting person.  Unlike a lot of others, I look back on grad school as some of the best years of my life.  I was poor but young enough to endure it, and living in a town cheap enough to support it.  I had many tremendous comrades, and I enjoyed spending my days immersed in knowledge.  I also know that I did not direct my energies in the right directions in those years, and that what came after grad school was a horrid descent in depression and disappointment, only mitigated by meeting some more good people.

When I face all these facts today I no longer have bitterness, jealously, and shame swirling inside me, as I once did.  My inner peace comes from the fact that after a long and difficult journey, I finally feel like I am finally where I am supposed to be.  The dream of being a tweed-clad professor writing books respected by my scholarly peers is now long dead, but I won't be shedding any tears.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Continued Political Relevance of Dickens' A Christmas Carol

My first brush with Dickens did not impress me.  We read A Tale of Two Cities in my tenth grade English class, and I came away turned off by his anti-revolutionary politics, sugary sentimentality, and ridiculous plot devices.  (How many Dickens novels are there that don't feature crazy coincidences or orphans with mysterious parents?)  Around that same time I started reading serious literature on my own, not just Stephen King novels and the Dragonlance series, but didn't pick up a Dickens novel again for about a quarter century.  Having grown many years older and more open minded about my reading choices, a close friend during my Michigan days convinced me to pick up Bleak House, saying it would change my opinion of Dickens, and he was right.

Three Christmases ago, when I was still deep in my Dickens phase (I read Little Dorrit, for cryin' out loud), I decided to finally read A Christmas Carol.  I was well familiar with it, of course, through countless reinterpretations and retellings, from the Disney version to the movie Scrooged, which was a particular holiday favorite in my family.   Reading it I fell in love, and also soon realized that Dickens' highly political message had been drained from the various adaptations.  A Christmas Carol is not just about Scrooge's redemption, but is also a critique of greed and laissez-faire capitalism.  That critique is just as relevant now as it was then, in the midst of Britain's rough transformation into an industrial society.

Near the beginning, when he is asked to give money to assist the poor, Scrooge famously roars "are there no prisons?" and notes that workhouses, the treadmill, and the Poor Law are all in full effect.  When those asking for a donation note that many would rather die than subject themselves to such cruel institutions Scrooge replies: "If they would rather die...they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."  As a historian of the 19th century I knew when I read those words that Dickens was calling out the cruel economic philosophy behind what Pope Francis has recently deemed "unfettered capitalism."  Through Scrooge Dickens was trying to expose a hard-hearted way of thinking that was only increasing the sufferings of the poor.

These days our conservative politicians are not so brazen as to openly call for the poor to be killed off for the good of society, but as my friend Chauncey DeVega has theorized, that thought may very well lay behind the recent attacks on Food Stamps and other aspects of the welfare state.  These same modern Scrooges are more than happy to spend money profusely on prisons while they slash school funding, and those of Newt Gingrich's ilk have even openly called for disadvantaged children to clean toilets.  More than one Republican has likened welfare recipients to animals.  Just as in Dickens' time, these apologists for the status quo think that all poverty is deserved, and that those who profit handsomely from the system do not owe anyone else anything.  Scrooge's rants about the surplus population have come down to us in Margaret Thatcher's infamous dictum. "there is no such thing as society."

Scrooge's attitude toward the poor is echoed in his treatment of his employee, Bob Cratchit.  Cratchit is given hardly enough coal to warm himself in a cold office, is paid the absolute minimum, and has to beg to get Christmas off.  Scrooge gives him the holiday, but only after grumbling that providing a Christmas holiday is "a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December."  Reading these words I cannot help but think of the retail workers who are now being forced to give up their Thanksgiving holidays, or the companies that are chiseling their minimum wage employees further through fee-laden debit card payments.

As the story goes on, Scrooge learns the error of his ways.  As the ghost of Christmas future reminds him, the wages of sin is death.  Make no mistake, Dickens judges Scrooge to be a sinner, and his mistreatment of his employee and his cruel attitude towards the poor to be great sins deserving of damnation.  That is essentially the same moral framework that Pope Francis has been advocating recently.  When he wrote that a two point drop in the stock market was news, but a homeless person dying of cold on the street wasn't, I heard in those words the spirit of A Christmas Story.

As in Dickens' time, we live in a society where wealth is being generated on a massive scale but is going into the hands of fewer and fewer people who have abdicated any sense of social responsibility.  Their arrogant disregard for the sufferings of those below them -the surplus population- is trumpeted throughout our public discourse under the guise of conventional wisdom.  It is time we follow the lead of A Christmas Carol, and shame those who so easily deny the needs of those less fortunate than them.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Why 12 Years A Slave Matters

This week I finally got to see 12 Years a Slave, which is no mean feat considering that taking care of toddlers makes going to the movies difficult.  I'd been wanting to see it since I first heard about it, in large part because my students read part of Northup's narrative in my American history course.  I was also wondering whether America would finally have a film from a slave's perspective about the true realities of slavery.  Hollywood has produced several fine films about the Holocaust, and many other moving accounts of horrible atrocities in other countries, such as the Khemer Rouge's genocide in Cambodia (The Killing Fields), the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsi (Hotel Rwanda), and paramilitary slaughters in Central America (Salvador, Romero).

When it comes to America's greatest historical atrocities, slavery and the genocide of its first nations, much less shows up on the screen, and if so, very rarely, if ever, is the story told from the perspective of slaves or Native Americans.  Historically Hollywood has produced potent images downplaying the violence of slavery and implicitly justifying white supremacy.  The infamously pro-Klan The Birth of a Nation was America's first epic blockbuster, and a brilliantly executed piece of racist propaganda.  Later, during Hollywood's "golden age," the Antebellum South was a commonly romanticized place, drenched in gauzy moonlight and lacy Spanish moss.  Slaves were loyal servants, treated like family and devoted to their masters.  One only has to think of Gone With the Wind or Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel.

In recent decades such glorification of the Antebellum South and Confederacy has faded from the screen, but it has not been replaced by realistic portrayals of such an important aspect of American history.  Django Unchained, for example, was essentially a cartoon that had more to say about Quentin Tarantino's obsession with 70s exploitation cinema and spaghetti westerns than with the American past.  Amistad tried to speak to this absence, but that film is about the Middle Passage, and not the institution of slavery in America as it was experienced on a daily basis by those unfortunate enough to be trapped in it.

12 Years A Slave is always locked into the perspective of Solomon Northup, so much so that when the camera goes inside of the big house, the audience feels alien there, as if they don't belong.  In older films, it was the slave quarters that were off limits.  The symbols that once showed the quaintness and beauty of the old South are twisted in 12 Years A Slave and made malevolent.  For example, director Steve McQueen shoots the paddle wheel of the riverboat close up and ominously, its churning scary in that it is bringing Solomon from Washington to the hell of the New Orleans slave market.  Nobody is singing "Old Man River."  The Spanish moss in the plantation trees looks absolutely sinister and foreboding, and the film shows explicitly how the blood and sweat of slaves went into building the quaint plantation gazebos.  McQueen captures the real beauty of the South's nature, both in the use of light as well as in the soundtrack's bird and insect noises.  However, the beauty on display is presented as an ironic contrast to the horrible acts committed in its midst.  The reversal of these symbols is nothing short of brilliant.

12 Years A Slave matters because it could, and should, bring about a permanent change in how the American past is treated on film.  Perhaps instead of delving into the crimes of other nations, we might seriously and forthrightly do the same for our own nation's atrocities.  Not only does the film skillfully reverse the meaning of old symbols, it is well-directed, finely written, and wonderfully acted.  (I'd say it's the best film I've seen in a theater in quite some time.)  I can only hope that more films of its ilk will be created in the years to come.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why Regional State Universities Are Higher Ed's Real Battleground

Over the years I've noticed a major blind spot in the public discourse on higher education, namely that it rarely touches on the situation in regional state universities.  Conversation often turns to elite private universities or the big state flagships, and may shift to community colleges from time to time, but rarely touches on the regional four-year public universities that educate many more students that the Ivy League or the flagships do.  These humble institutions, however, have become the most altered by the current forces tearing away at academia, and are in most in danger of completely losing their integrity as institutions of higher learning.

Of all the universities in the country, San Jose State has been the biggest battleground in the wars over MOOCs.  Minnesota State University-Moorhead seems poised to eliminate 18 of its academic departments.  Schools like SUNY-Albany have made news by destroying their language and fine arts programs.  The University of Louisiana at Lafayette no longer has a philosophy major, but it does have a football team.  The likes of Michigan, Illinois, and Cal have the resources to weather these storms with their integrity intact, but the Western Illinoises and North Dakota States of the world do not.

Based on my own personal experience, I think that regional state unis are am absolutely crucial element of our higher education system because they, more than any other kinds of four year school, are the bridge for so many people into the middle class.  I taught at two different regional state universities, one in Michigan, and one in Texas.  Half of the graduates at both of these institutions were the first people in their families with college degrees.  Many of them were "non-traditional" students with families and full-time jobs whose education was a path to a better life.  Others were just kids from working class families who wanted to save money on their education, since both of these schools charged low tuition, and many of these same students lived nearby with their parents.

There is an insidious assumption that the only reason that students go to institutions like this, which are not selective, is that they are incapable of getting in anywhere else.  This assumption helps justify the gutting of humanities and fine arts departments at these schools, since the students are supposedly only really fit for a kind of glorified vocational education, and not in need of the more refined things in life.  This assumption is complete and utter bullshit.  While I did have a high percentage of students who were ill-prepared for college, there were also a significant number of absolutely stellar students, including a few that I would put up against students from any university in the country, Harvard and Yale included.  These people weren't attending second tier state universities because they couldn't get in somewhere with a higher reputation, but because they did not have the financial means or unencumbered family situation to go elsewhere.  When I hear about regional universities being gutted and MOOC-ified, I think about the wonderfully smart and driven students I used to teach, and how they are being cheated.  I also think about those less prepared students who were trying like hell to improve and get ahead, and how their needs will not be met because it costs less money to turn their education into a series of computer-administered multiple choice tests.

There is a further personal reason why I care about the erosion of our nation's second tier state schools.  Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, my parents attended one of these colleges, and were both the first people in their families to get a four-year degree.  At the time my father was working multiple jobs, and my mother had elected to stay close to home.  That education brought my father out of poverty, got my mother off the farm, and cleared a path for me to have all kinds of opportunities that they didn't.  If regional state universities morph into vo-tech to train the proles to pull the digital levers of the new economy, opportunities to build a better life will not be around any longer for a lot of people in this country.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Track of the Week: Ernest Tubb, "Blue Christmas"

This month my tracks of the week will have a seasonal orientation.  In recent years I have embraced the holiday season anew in ways that I haven't since childhood.  Having a family of my own makes it more fun, and it alsoprovides a welcome festive break from the awfulness of winter's long cold nights.  That being said, I can't stand most Christmas music.  It's sappy, lowest common denominator crap and by the time December is over I will have heard the same damn twenty songs about a million times.

For that reason, I'll be highlighting songs that speak to the darker side of the holiday season.  One pitfall of the holidays has to do with their heightened meaning and emotions.  The first holiday season after a breakup is usually tough, since reminders of one's singlehood abound.  That's the theme of "Blue Christmas," Elvis' most famous holiday tune, although I prefer the Ernest Tubb version.  Country music is much more suited to such a lament, especially with a weeping steel guitar for accompaniment.

Of course, I have no breakup to lament this holiday season, but it will be a blue one nonetheless because of death's cold hand.  Since last Christmas I've lost my grandmother and one of the best friends I've ever had.  I will inevitably think back to the times we had together, and how the memories are all that remain.