Friday, April 30, 2010

the wonder that is facnet

Facnet is a campus email list for general discussion of matters of interest to the university community, in particular the faculty. I believe it was named facnet to mean "faculty-network," but the scrip list is open and the archives are public.

Consequently, lots of faculty and staff shoot their mouths off on facnet.

For instance, facnet was a venue for complaints about Sarah Palin being chosen as a fund-raising speaker at a 50th anniversary gala for the university this summer. I weighed in on that one only to the effect that public universities' foundation boards maintain accounting secrecy in California, and so we have no right to know how much the university is paying for this event. Others expressed dismay at her choice because she's inappropriate as a speaker at (1) a public university, (2) in need of more public funds, (3) which might be achievable only with tax increases, (4) which she is apparently opposed to, given her activity with the so-called tea party movement, and, oh yes, (5) she's an idiot.

Meanwhile, several people, mainly staff members of the university rather than faculty, attacked critics for being leftists, for only wanting leftists to speak on campus, and so forth. This is both an ad hominem fallacy, and rather deliberately ignoring the context (there have been very few leftist speakers at the university, and certainly no one who represents the fringe the way Palin used to in the GOP).

Our commencement speaker (Marc Lamont Hill) was named this week, and from the same pool of staff came a weird, veiled accusation, couched not only in condescending and ad hominem rhetoric, but also an attempt at sarcasm. "Where is the outrage?" was the opening salvo. The email went on to make totally bizarre and non sequitir connections to other campus political issues, and to conclude, under a thin veil, that faculty are leftists and therefore only object to right-wing speakers because of this ideological divide.

I responded, pointing out that almost all of the email was making irrelevant points, and making the case that, regardless of all else, the choice of a speaker on campus should be open to honest debate. This morning, in another fit of attempted sarcasm, the emailer thanked me for "going the extra mile" and thanked all the faculty for not disappointing. The implication of this, I suppose, is that we confirmed the emailer's preconceptions.

I feel like posting a lesson in sarcasm, or a list of definitions of fallacies committed in this exchange. Because there's a way to use these elegantly, and then there's what the emailer did. I don't mind being the target of sarcasm or ad hominem as much when it's done well.

Perhaps I'll develop a little primer on successful sarcasm later, like the one I did years ago on the dos and don'ts of sneering. Some people, as George Carlin used to say, need practical advice.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

fatal education

I could have typed that as "fetal," and said most of what I meant.

I teach a course I designed years ago about various political, pedagogical, epistemological, and ethical issues of life in the mediated, siliconized, affluent parts of the world. It's part of a pair of connected courses on the theme of human being in the information age. For several springs now I've used a book on post-structuralist thought and information technology - Mark Poster's Mode of Information. It's not easy reading, and every couple years I seek out an alternative, only to find that there's nothing else out there that does the philosophical heavy lifting and the concentrated concern with contemporary social life that Poster's book does.

Anyway, I go through this thing every year and do more work on Baudrillard, Foucault, and Lyotard (the three chapters in the book that I have my students read). Every year I write pages and pages of stuff that is somewhere between notes and an academic paper, and sometimes I share these with my class.

But what's really striking to me at this moment about the course is that nothing in my teaching life causes me more anxiety. This class is slowly, by degrees, killing me. I feel sick and panicky right now - half an hour before class, totally prepared, not only with a main agenda but several side trips we can go on, and no fewer than two backup plans in case the whole thing goes kablooey. My respiration is rapid and shallow, my pulse and blood pressure are elevated, my skin is clammy. (I am not hyperventilating, though if were to start, it's an interesting random fact about me that I am one of the best-performing hyperventilators on record. I figure this is because I am LungBoy [TM], with a lung capacity approximately 150% of normal adult males. Another story for another time, perhaps.)

Partly, this is because this course has provided me both some of the most rewarding and exhilarating, and some of the most dismal and soul-crushing, teaching experiences. I have succeeded and failed spectacularly in the course.

I never feel entirely confident handling this course material, which I know extremely well, because I can never tell how my students will respond, how they'll take it, whether they'll take it. I never actually feel like I've mastered the course material sufficiently (as though this was a necessary condition of teaching it, and as though teaching doesn't actively construct one's mastery on the fly, but ya know what I mean...).

I never walk into the class confident that all my students won't walk out. That's a weird feeling to have. Maybe today's the day?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Is your garbage private?

The press release today from the CSU Stanislaus administration suggests that CSU Stanislaus Foundation Executive Director Susana Gajic-Bruyea's garbage is private. The press release omits the information that Gajic-Bruyea is also Vice President for University Advancement - that is, an employee of the CSU, with an office in the CSU Stanislaus administration building. That's important, because the administration is claiming that the Foundation Board and the university are really separate entities.

It's important because, in the press release, the allegation is presented that the allegedly non-existent document state senator Leland Yee acquired outlining some of the details of the university's contract with Sarah Palin was discovered to be missing from Gajic-Bruyea's recycling bin in her office.

AFTER Leland Yee's press conference, in which documents related to the Palin fund-raiser were presented to the press, the university's Vice President for Advancement (who also serves as the Executive Director for the Foundation Board) looked through the recycle bin in her office for the relevant pages of the contract, and found that they were missing. The university has launched an investigation into, basically, who could have stolen documents from the recycle bin...

Here's what I imagine happens to my garbage and what I pitch into the recycle bin in my department office, in my narrow-minded rationalistic conception of the world and causality: I imagine that people take it away and recycle it, or take it to the dump, as appropriate. When I return to my office days after having thrown something away, and find that it's not there, my first thought is not that it's been stolen. I'm not generally surprised when documents I put in the recycling bin aren't there afterwards. That's because, to me, a recycling bin is a place to put things I expect other people to take away and recycle, and a garbage can is place to put things I am throwing away that I expect other people to take away and compost, burn, or put in a landfill.

Do I retain a privacy right, or property right, or any other kind of right over the things I thus discard?

What could be the basis of the assertion of such a right? Do I have it only if I've discarded or recycled something the discovery of which is embarrassing to me? So, can I throw away, hypothetically speaking, gloves I've worn while committing a crime, and when these are later found in my trash, assert that my trash can is, as it were, my confessor, and throwing my bloody gloves in the trash tantamount to a protected confidence?

Let me offer another analogy. Let's say I've just shot Tony Danza to death in cold blood. (I most certainly did not. This is the kind of thing some philosophers like to call a thought experiment.) I then throw my pistol into a dumpster. Someone finds my pistol, and police begin an investigation, using the pistol as evidence. Do I have, at that point, legitimate grounds to say that the pistol I threw away was my private trash, not meant for anyone else to have, to see, or to use against me in legal action?

Let's say I throw the pistol away in my office (which is a place of public accommodation, where I have very little right to privacy). How legitimate are my grounds to say this is private material of my own?

I'm not at all sure I've got a good analogy going here, but I suppose I was seduced by the trope of the smoking gun.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

welcome to CSU Ionesco

I love absurdist drama - have since I saw a terrific high school production of The Bald Soprano, as part of the North Carolina high school theater competition. (My play, Escape, was being performed by my school, so I went to the regional and state competitions.)

I never wanted to exist inside an absurdist drama, but now I do.

So, the university turns 50 this year. Celebrations are planned for the summer, including what the university Foundation Board is billing as The 50th Anniversary Gala fund-raiser, starring Sarah Palin (presumably as Mrs. Smith). When this was announced, there was a tremendous backlash, some of it about Palin, but much of it about how the Foundation Board came to this decision, how it would be paid for, etc.

Ready? Here we go!

Under California law, the Foundation Boards of all public universities and colleges are not subject to the California Public Records Act. The Foundations are considered separate entities to that extent. Public money is used by Foundation Boards - sometimes a lot of it - and their purpose is, on paper, to support the public university, but the Foundation Boards themselves aren't public.

The Board has come under fire for choosing Palin, and the inappropriateness of her as a speaker at a public university has been pretty embarrassing to the university. People snicker about it.

When state senator Leland Yee filed a public records act request for documents regarding Palin's contract with the university, the Foundation Board told him there weren't any. Then they sent email to the campus assuring us that no public money was being used. If it's not immediately clear to you how you can have a contract without any documents, or how you can have a record that you're not spending public money on an event without any documents, then you're still sane and sober. Let me push you a little further into our madness.

At a press conference today, Yee broke the story that last week, during the university's spring break, and during furlough days when university employees are not working, employees of the Foundation Board were on campus, shredding documents. Documents related to Sarah Palin's fund-raising event. Including the contract.

And then they put the shredded documents in plastic bags in a dumpster. Where some students found them.

Our Foundation Board has oversight and approval authority over everything printed with the university logo on it. When I requested business cards, they had to approve them - not the issuing of them, but what was printed on the card. This is in order to protect the public image of the university.

Let's recap: Act One. Foundation Board needs to promote and protect the image of the university. Enter Sarah Palin. Snickering. Act Two. Deny existence of documents that aren't subject to public scrutiny in the first place. Shred them. Toss them in dumpster.

It's not that way, it's over here! It's not that way, it's over here! It's not that way, it's over here!

Monday, April 12, 2010

rejection season

I've received a handful of rejection letters from the various universities I've applied to for tenure-track positions. Most have been standard-issue form letters that say, more or less, "we've filled the position, we received many high-quality applications, thanks for applying." This doesn't say anything about your application, its relative merits, etc. It doesn't say whether yours wasn't a good fit.

Occasionally, they get more detailed, sometimes even telling you when something odd happened during the process. For instance, I got one this year saying that the funding for the position was reduced so that it went from an open-rank position to entry-level. (That I received that might mean that they assumed I wouldn't work for the cheaper price, which could have been true, but I'll never know.)

Years ago, I got one from a school in a very lovely place, who had put out a very general job description, that noted they received more than 700 applications.

Today I received one of the weirder ones. It had the usual form letter fare, but then included a final paragraph that said (to paraphrase): "Obviously, this is disappointing, but keep in mind that your achievements are abiding." What the ?

I have to assume everyone they rejected got this letter, and that it wasn't sent to some particular group of applicants who had either more extensive or more impressive CVs. I mean, I do have 40-some conference presentations, a handful of peer-reviewed publications, several book chapters, and so forth, but under contemporary standards I don't think that's a lot of accomplishment as a scholar. Plus, to me, "abiding" (that word is verbatim) suggests enduring, as though something I've done has significantly changed the philosophy world, and I know for fact this is impossible. Or at least not deliberate.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

text of a speech I didn't give at the CFA Assembly

The 72nd CFA Assembly was held in Los Angeles this weekend, so yes, it was our second trip down to LA in 9 days. We just drove back up through Kern County dust and windstorms (which badly scratched the passenger side door of Eddie Jetta by nearly impaling us with a tumbleweed), and hard rain through Madera, Merced, and Stanislaus counties. It was harrowing, and now I've got to try to calm myself, and get some work done for my long class day tomorrow.

Luckily, last night I hardly slept. I was up half the night thinking about what a hellish academic year this has been for us and for our families and students. In particular it's been hell on lecturers.

I spoke last night to a lecturer activist whose campus is contemplating cutting 80% of the remaining lecturers for next academic year. It brought back so much of the strife we've dealt with at Santa Claus the last couple years, and my own personal worries about the end of my job here, and of the end of my academic career - a real possibility still, but more remote for me.

It got me thinking about the relative risks, rewards, and stress levels of faculty activists who are on the tenure track versus those of us on the tenuous track. This isn't to say the tenure-line faculty have been anything less than superb in their support -- for the most part. But they haven't so immediately faced loss of employment, loss of their colleagues, and the guilt and unfair blame we feel.

At the Assembly we discussed the CSU Chancellor's latest scheme to invent a problem and impose a draconian solution that helps to blame faculty - this "deliverology" nonsense they've bought from Michael Barber. CFA brought in a Barber critic named John Seddon to speak about how deliverology has worked in the UK (a key example: their public health service is now much worse and the cost management controls imposed by deliverology have resulted in increased costs).

So, there lie in bed, thinking that after all we've done to try to help preserve as many jobs of our fellow lecturers as we can, along comes a new plan that will necessarily result (is planned to result) in even greater loss of faculty work. And I got up and wrote a few words to say at the Assembly. I wouldn't have read it, but I would have used it to speak from - so I'd be more loose and spontaneous, which I like. Anyway, since I didn't say it, here's the text I wrote:

Good morning fellow faculty activists. I wanted to say something this morning about what has been, for me at least, the elephant in the room this whole weekend. Could I have all the lecturer activists please stand for a moment?
[Presumably, they'd stand. They're about 33% of the Assembly.]

I've spoken to many of my fellow lecturer activists at the Assembly this weekend, and not a single one expressed any confidence at all of returning to work, and to our struggle, next academic year. This is important to me because all of the troubles and stress we've dealt with has been compounded for lecturers who know their jobs are even more precarious now than a year ago, despite our fighting back. I hope to see all of you next fall. Thanks, you can sit down again now if you like.

We know why our situation is as precarious as ever next year: deliverology. I don't know about anyone else here, but I think the original version of this story by Franz Kafka is much better written. It also has a happier ending.

Because all of us are exhausted, and all of us can't afford to stop fighting, and all of us are facing the potential futility of our fight, I wanted, finally, to offer something I've been telling myself all year, for what it's worth. No matter the outcome for ourselves and for our colleagues, we haven't failed. We haven't failed ourselves, we haven't failed our colleagues or students, and we haven't failed our universities. And no matter the outcome, we should have hope. I don't have hope because I think the outcome will be good - I don't, in fact. I have hope because we're here now, and because we have fought, in solidarity and in love, and no matter what happens, we still won that solidarity and that love.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

if it's not one thing, it's another

Been a long time since I've added any of

Doc Nagel's Top 100 Things

8. Old arenas. I just love 'em.

Tonight marks the very last regular-season NHL game in Pittsburgh's Civic Arena, known officially for the last decade as "Mellon Arena," because Mellon Bank (now Bank of New York Mellon) bought naming rights, but which the cognoscenti know is really the Igloo. The Penguins will play the New York Islanders. (Since the Pens are in the playoffs, this won't be the last NHL game played in the Igloo.)

Originally opened for the Ice Capades in 1961, the Igloo is the oldest arena in use in the NHL. All the old rinks have been replaced. It started in 1980 with Joe Louis Arena replacing the old Detroit Olympia. Joe Louis is sleek, ultra-modern, and therefore dated (ESPN's John Buccigross recently compared it to a K-car, which is apt). The Red Wings have been terrific in the Joe, so that's built some degree of atmosphere for the place, but in general, the modern arenas are soulless. Maple Leaf Gardens, the Forum in Montreal, the Buffalo Auditorium, Chicago Stadium - all replaced with these big box places.

I only attended one Penguins game at the Igloo, despite living there 8 years (and that's a whole nother story), and it was after having lived in California longer than that. We had seats in the very last row, right under the dome. Sound from the ice and from loudspeakers got kind of swallowed up, up there, but the feel of the place was still somehow intimate (compared to the San Jose Sharks' home arena, where a similar seat, costing a similar amount, is actually located in a virtual space stored on a series of servers distributed mainly in Quincy, Washington).

7. Post-punk alternative bands. I just love 'em.

My most recent obsession is with a band called Land of Talk. They are also yet another Canadian band (which has been a weird trend for me lately - New Pornographers, Feist - what gives?). As far as this kind of band goes, Land of Talk has some fairly predictable characteristics: high energy; discordant, angular guitar sound; occasionally screechy vocals; lots of angsty lyrics. This kind of thing can be done very very badly. Very. But when it's done well, and I submit that Land of Talk do it very well, it stomps up and down on several very important buttons in my brain. Very good accompaniment to a drive to the recycling center, for instance.