Saturday, August 28, 2010

college Faculty Professionalism – Ethical Responsibility and Precarious Work Pt. 4

4. Ethical responsibility in the context of contingency and bureaucratization

In his contribution to the AACU report, Gaff discusses the erosion of the professional claim of the professoriate, and develops a set of general proposals for restoring the social contract underwriting the professionalism of college faculty. In this regard, the effort parallels studies of professions that have appeared for over a decade. Among the factors contributing to the decline of the academic profession, Gaff notes in particular the heavy reliance on temporary and contingent appointments of college faculty. Indeed, institutions of higher education at every level rely on contingently appointed non-professor faculty workers to do the bulk of undergraduate teaching, throughout the United States.

Without considering here the question of why contingent, temporary appointments have become the overwhelmingly most common employment status of college faculty, I would like to conclude by further discussing the paradoxical status of the majority of college faculty, and what it could mean to state principles of ethical responsibility for “the profession” as it really exists today. I am borrowing from Michael Davis the notion of “bureaucratized” labor, as he developed it in a discussion of engineers’ ethical responsibilities. In the Epilogue to his book, Thinking Like an Engineer, Davis considers the impact of large organizations on the work and ethics of engineers:

Large organizations exist to do large jobs, doing them by dividing them into manageable parts. If these parts are too small, engineers assigned one of them could not determine what effect their work would have on the public health, safety, welfare or even on their employer. Their work would be “bureaucratized,” in one of the uglier senses of that ugly word. If most engineering work is bureaucratized in this sense, engineering ethics must either be irrelevant to most engineers or consist of matters tangential to engineering as such – for example, treatment of other engineers. Engineering ethics – as now constituted – presupposes a world in which engineers generally know what they do. (Davis, 177f)

I argue as follows: colleges and universities are large organizations under whose auspices the routines and conditions of faculty work take place. The 40-year trend of college faculty deprofessionalization, increasingly precarious employment status, and so forth, corresponds with what Davis calls “bureaucratized” work. The full scope of the work of college faculty – teaching, research, scholarship, curriculum development (through faculty governance), peer review – has been divided. For instance, at most elite research institutions, the large number of teaching faculty are outside the tenure-track, while the “professors” teach little, supervise some, and do a great deal of research. At for-profits, faculty are often hired to do piecework, not paid for research or scholarship at all, and have no control over curriculum.

The AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics addresses “professors” of 1966 vintage, and not the bureaucratized faculty of the present. If we must abandon the fantasy of professorial authority and autonomy imagined in that document, because that document’s presuppositions about the world are false, must we also abandon the notion that there could be a meaningful professional ethics for college faculty?

Davis suggests that under conditions of bureaucratization, engineering ethics would either be irrelevant or “tangential” (and, it seems from Davis’ tone, superficial in both scope and intention). For the majority of college faculty, I believe the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics is indeed irrelevant, in its present form. It is hard to imagine a situation in which a conflict between a precariously employed faculty member and a well-paid administrator would be resolved by reference to the Statement’s principles. In any case, no prudent lecturer would take that chance.

Yet I don’t believe we can, or should, abandon the notion of a meaningful professional responsibility for college faculty, one that would realistically address contemporary working conditions. In Davis’ discussion, I see two areas for potential development of a new faculty ethics. The first draws from his wording about the presupposition built into codes of ethics, namely, that members of a profession “generally know what they do” (Davis 178). I would like to make the provocative suggestion that many members of “the profession” are ignorant of what they do – that is, ignorant of the real working conditions of faculty, including themselves. This is doubly significant. On the one hand, since any reasonable claim to professional status depends on a claim to expert knowledge, a profession whose membership does not know what the profession does has a weak claim. Facing, studying, and understanding what faculty do – what faculty really do, and how they do their work, and under what conditions they do their work – would be fundamental to further claims to be able to judge that work, to know how to use that work for the public good, etc. On the other hand, it is difficult for the majority of college faculty to acquire this knowledge, not only because of their difficult working lives and institutional obstacles to organizing and learning about and from one another, but also because of the difficulties of organizing across the US, across disciplines, and so on. The more faculty know about faculty work, the more strongly we can assert a claim to expert knowledge, the more we can substantiate a claim to work for the public good, and the more we can demonstrate that we do indeed serve that good.

The second area for development I see in Davis’ discussion regards the “tangential” ethics of how professionals treat other members of the profession. The status of people who work as faculty in colleges and universities is significant for their working lives and their relationships to one another. For faculty, how we treat other members of our profession could not be more significant both as an ideological force and as a factor in developing solidarity. Accepting that there are worthies and unworthies who work as faculty serves the division and bureaucratization of faculty work, and dismisses the demoralization of the majority of the faculty as somehow merited. On the other hand, faculty addressing one another as peers, as members of the same profession, would constitute the faculty – the whole faculty – as just that kind of self-consciously organized group who could speak with genuine authority about who they are, what they do, what they value, and to what standards they hold themselves.

As William Sullivan has stated, the renewal of the social contract between professions and the public must involve dialogue. In the case of college faculty, there has been precious little of this, and most of that driven by the same ideology that has led to the deprofessionalization of faculty in the first place. My observation is that the public in the United States is generally ignorant of the working conditions of faculty, but also of what exactly it is that faculty do. Only if college faculty, at all levels, have and avail themselves of opportunities to understand and articulate that for themselves as well as in dialogue with the public, can there be any meaningful notion of professional ethical responsibility of college faculty.

album of the day: Grogshow

I believe I found Grogshow on one of my routine ventures to find new music by following link after link on the All Music Guide site. I start with a band I like - say, R.E.M. - and look at what somebody connected with AMG thinks are similar musicians. I proceed through each of those to further links, and usually by the third or fourth degree of separation I find something I haven't heard of before.

Nobody's ever heard of Grogshow before. They were around for a couple years in the middle 1990s, a two-piece band from Duqubue who were trying to break into the Portland music scene when the guitarist and singer, Marc Kisting, died of some kind of pulmonary illness (as far as I've been able to work out - information about the band is extremely hard to find).

The only posterity left by Kisting and drummer Jason Williams is an EP of 8 demos they recorded in somebody's basement, and that was cleaned up by a producer in the Portland scene and released, sort of, in 2005 on future appletree records (sic). It's basically proto-emo alternative music, and the key difference is in their instrumentation, and the benefit of the lack of production on the EP.

Kisting played 12-string acoustic-electric guitar, played with amplification to give a sound halfway between acoustic and electric. He also played tuned mainly down a step, and I believe on some tracks even lower, so that his bass strings give a bit of a bass-guitar sound. It's easy to imagine their live sound from the recording - jangly, loose, looping melodies and rhythms tangled up with each other, with the strains of Kisting's pained (and occasionally whiny) tenor over the top.

My favorite thing about the music is its unfinished, unpolished character. It hasn't been cleaned up, slicked up, and made ready for the big time. We're capturing Grogshow at a creative high-point, not after the recording industry has chewed on them and spat them back out.

Everything I've read on teh Interwebs about Grogshow was written by the same guy. It's all just quoting the same handful of paragraphs that, along with these demos, is all that remains of the band. It was a labor of love, but also a labor of misinformation. The notes on the album insist that it was recorded with only Kisting on guitar and Williams on drums, with no bass. This is clearly false - there is undoubtedly bass on most of the tracks, and on one without bass, the most jangly "Here to Corner" which closes the album, there's two guitar tracks.

Friday, August 27, 2010

college Faculty Professionalism – Ethical Responsibility and Precarious Work Pt. 3

3. Am I an academic professional?

All of this is, for me, largely a matter of academic interest (pardon the pun), because I am not a professor, even though I work as a faculty member of a university. Indeed, I’m tempted to say that nothing in the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics applies to my work, since the only persons whose rights and responsibilities are named in the Statement are people who bear the title of professor. For the Statement also shares in common with other professional codes of ethics that it addresses members of an occupational group who assert for themselves a high level of professional authority, autonomy, and self-regulation. It speaks to a relatively powerful group about the appropriate use of its power. Not being a “professor,” I may ask to be forgiven if I suppose I need not seek and state the truth, nor encourage the free pursuit of learning by my students, nor accept a share of responsibility for the governance of my institution, nor abide by its policies. To take up the gambit of Hamilton’s criticism of professors’ “failure,” I may assert, on my behalf, that since I am offered none of the job security so jealously defended by the tenured minority, that I shall not be governed by any professional ethical responsibility.

Strangely, I am generally mistaken for a professor, by students and by professors. To most outside observers, too, I look almost exactly like a professor in almost every way.

I hold a Ph.D. degree in Philosophy. Before completing my degree, and in the years since, I have engaged in multiple long-term scholarly projects, published several peer-reviewed articles, as well as book chapters, conference papers, and book reviews. I have also presented several dozen papers at academic conferences, mainly at the international level. I have taught numerous courses in the philosophy major, many general education courses, including courses in the university’s honors program, and I have designed several courses. I have served as a thesis advisor, and written numerous letters of recommendation for students aspiring to enter graduate and professional schools. I have served for many years on my university’s academic senate, and participated in numerous committees. I have been on editorial boards for journals and scholarly societies, and of course as a peer reviewer as well, including writing letters of support for colleagues at other institutions pursuing tenure, promotion, even a Fulbright fellowship. I have performed as much of the work of a professor as many tenured professors — and if I may say, much more than some.

I have also never held a tenure-line appointment. For the past 12 years, I have taught at a campus of the California State University, an institution whose primary mission is decidedly teaching and preparation of graduates to serve in professional positions – though, in most cases, admittedly not elite professional positions. Our university graduates large numbers of future teachers, nurses, management personnel, and a handful of future professors, doctors, and lawyers. My teaching course load has never been less than eight courses per year. Officially, my workload includes nothing but classroom instruction, meaning that any scholarly work or work on university committees is not only strictly voluntary (i.e., unpaid), but also unrecognized by the university. In common with the vast majority of my non-tenure-track colleagues at colleges and universities throughout the United States, I am also deemed ineligible for many forms of support for my academic work, in particular support for research and scholarship — monetary support for travel, access to grants, allocation of paid workload to research, etc. The protection of academic freedom and of the integrity of academic work provided by tenure is expressly and permanently forbidden to me in this position, as is the rank and status of “professor.”

I am in a paradoxical position. I meet any reasonable minimal standard of academic professional prerequisites. I have engaged actively in the academic and other professional pursuits at the core of the ideology of the professoriate. Yet clearly, the perquisites of professionalism are in large measure denied to me. If it is the case, as Hamilton and Gaff suggest, that the social contract of academic professionals is based on the proposition that the educational and research mission of academic institutions requires that the professoriate be assigned the rights and responsibilities of professors, then I believe I must conclude that my work is not governed by this contract.

Nonetheless, I have also been extremely fortunate that the union representing all faculty employees in the California State University – the California Faculty Association – has successfully bargained an agreement that provides among the very best working conditions for non-tenure-track faculty in the US. The vast majority of my similarly deprofessionalized colleagues across the US have much lower salaries, less generous or no benefits, worse teaching workloads, and even less institutional support. To some degree, at the CSU, the similarity of our working lives to those of our tenure-track colleagues has led to broader recognition of our commonality of interests, and even of the right of lecturers to be treated with respect. This respect for lecturers is rarely expressed by CSU administrators, and in other systems, lecturers, adjuncts, part-timers, or whatever they are locally known as, can generally count on a permanent working condition of demoralizing, dehumanizing treatment. We know a great deal about some of the worst conditions this majority of the faculty face. They must scramble to make ends meet, often teaching at multiple institutions, not all of which provide them office space, a phone, a computer, or other basics. They wait until days before – or even after – the beginning of academic terms for their work assignments and contracts (contracts they have no power to negotiate without collective bargaining, where that is legal and available to non-tenure-track faculty). They are often asked to teach courses for which they have limited academic or professional preparation, but just as “warm bodies” in the classroom. Their work is subject to oversight, but almost never peer review; evaluations, if any regular system of evaluation is in place, are generally in the hands of department heads or administrators. They must be wary constantly to avoid offending students or administrators, so as to avoid instant termination. Even when able to handle all of these problems, these faculty are, in the phrase repeated by many contingent faculty activists, never more than 15 seconds from complete humiliation.

Under these conditions, not only is there no institutional or collegial support for upholding any of the professional ethical obligations in the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics, it is often the case that a lecturer’s job and livelihood depend on that lecturer’s failure to observe those well-meant principles. I do not mean to suggest that these worst-treated college faculty become unscrupulous; they simply know, as an everyday part of their working lives, that they cannot afford to seek and state the truth as they see it; that they can only encourage their students’ free pursuit of learning to the limit of each student’s comfort and each administrator’s whim; that they are largely forbidden membership in the community of scholars and prohibited from taking part in faculty governance; and that academic freedom is not their right, but a privilege enjoyed by the tenured elites.

Certainly, these faculty experience the failure of the social contract to sustain college faculty professionalism. Contrary to Hamilton, it does not follow that the failure of the social contract is the faculty’s failure – at least, not this faculty’s failure, not the failure of the vast majority of faculty in the United States. The majority of the faculty never had a chance to fulfill this social contract.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

album of the day: Astral Weeks

Simply stated, Astral Weeks is among the very best albums of popular music in the rock idiom ever recorded. And what's most amazing about that fact is that it isn't really a rock album. It's just music.

Even if you don't know who Van Morrison is, you know him, because, unless you've been exiled to a part of the world without electricity, pop music, radios, or people, you've heard something, something, Van Morrison recorded in the 1960s or 70s. You've got to have heard "Brown Eyed Girl," or "Moondance," or "Jackie Wilson Says." If not, I strongly suggest reconsidering the question of your own existence.

Oddly, you may not have heard anything on Astral Weeks, except maybe "The Way Young Lovers Do," the big production number with the horn section.

It's impossible to pigeon-hole this album in any genre. By turns, the songs are like British Isles folk, contemporary hippy-psychedelia, blues, or a mixture of all that and more. My favorites are the simpler recordings, of Morrison belting away with his own guitar accompaniment and Richard Davis' bass, or maybe a bit of flute, as on "Cyprus Avenue" and "Madame George."

People consider Morrison, and the album in particular, to be "spiritual." I have no idea what that means. It's a bit ethereal - the title track opens the album on that note, to be sure. But the mood shifts in and out of that. What's consistent in the album has a certain feeling, but I would call it something like "organic." I sorta think the album just grew wild. It feels like you found it, like the meadow that opens up in the middle of a forest. Something like that. Call that spiritual?

Van Morrison is another hero of mine. If I could sing, or do whatever it is he does, not only would I, I wouldn't do anything else. No more teaching. No more cooking. I'd just sing, or whatever it is he did back then. Holy jumpin'.

college Faculty Professionalism – Ethical Responsibility and Precarious Work Pt. 2.2

2.2 The crisis of professionalism

A foremost proponent of the social contract view of professionalism, William Sullivan, is well-known for his discussion of the erosion of what he calls the “professional ideal” experienced in certain fields over the last 40 years or so. Sullivan’s analysis focuses on two key factors in the decline of professionalism. One is the rise of public doubt that professionals in a field are truly committed to benefiting the public. Public perception of the negligence or greed of physicians, for instance, led to widespread mistrust and demands for greater client autonomy, bureaucratic regulation of the field, cost containment, etc. A contemporaneous shift in political and economic understandings of the role of professionals has had as much, if not a greater part to play in the changing circumstances of professional labor. Public suspicion of professional peer review and tenure has been both aroused and exploited by those driving the agenda of “frictionless capital,” “privatization,” and “market solutions” (Sullivan, 17) – the economic ideology that considers all goods to be essentially private interests to be pursued by private means and actions. Under that “simplistic” (Sullivan, 17) conception of human interests and professional work, professional self-regulation appears illegitimate, and only bureaucratic regulation or market-driven competition appear as legitimate principles for the organization of the labor provided by members of “professions.”

As a result, many professions have entered a period of crisis. Through a rough and unstable compromise between ideological factions in US political life, bureaucratic regulation of some sort, often subjected to measures serving the interests of market-driven owners of corporations, has come to rule many formerly more autonomous professions. The demand for oversight and control – in particular control of costs – made by the mistrustful public is made to appear to be somewhat satisfied by hierarchical control over the work of individual professionals. For example, managed care now sets limits on physicians’ conduct as part of a complex new arrangement of authority, autonomy, and resource allocation. What has not come to pass is any restoration of public trust, or renewal of the social contract of medicine. Modern medicine faces a paradox, one that Sullivan generalizes to other fields: on one hand, public mistrust continues; on the other hand, the technical advancement of medicine and increasing demand for medical care force the public to continue to rely on physicians. The result for doctors has been a trend of deprofessionalization — loss of control over their work, loss of independence, and the creation of working conditions and limitations on provision of service that conflict directly with serving the public good (Hafferty and Light, 1995). Ironically, bureaucratic measures imposed in the name of serving the public interest by controlling professional behavior have created institutional conditions of work that make it all the more difficult for professionals to serve the public interest, leading to still more decline in public trust (arguably now misplaced on professionals instead of bureaucratic constraints). For instance, legal changes demanded by consumers of medicine, but written largely under the direction of lobbying from the health insurance industry, led to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (1996). The Act’s Privacy Rule imposes restrictions on individual practitioners’ sharing of patient information, satisfying public demand for greater control over how doctors and nurses discuss their cases, but, unbeknownst to many US citizens, the Privacy Rule provides health insurers wide latitude in sharing that same information, in large part to determine whether to provide, or continue to provide, care to patients.

Sullivan argues for the need to restore professionalism as a civic ideal, through public dialogue in which the purposes and expectations of a professional field come under rational and open inquiry. For him, the crisis of professions is a wide-scale social crisis. The public still needs – in fact, increasingly needs – the services provided by technical experts, yet it mistrusts those experts, and mistrusts the bureaucratic regulatory apparatus they themselves have demanded to oversee the work of professionals.

The parallels between professional fields in crisis, and the contemporary professoriate, have been explored by Neil Hamilton, most recently along with Jerry G. Gaff in the AACU report. Hamilton’s basic account of the professional crisis of the professoriate is that “[t]he continuing failure of the academic profession adequately to socialize its members has resulted in a steady erosion of the profession’s rights of academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance” (Hamilton 1). Hamilton claims that this socialization has failed on the individual level to develop “personal conscience” and on both the individual and collective levels to lead to “professional identity formation” (Hamilton 6). Instead, Hamilton claims that the professoriate has not merely passively but actively undercut its claim to serve the public good, by corrupting tenure. According to Hamilton, in practice, the professional rights of peer review and academic freedom have been used by professors as a system of employment protection: “Job security and self-interest concerns undermine effective peer review” (Hamilton 11, citing Hamilton 2007). Hamilton also suggests a parallel between the public demand for increased bureaucratic regulation of finance, accounting and medicine with the apparent demand for similar regulation (and concomitant loss of self-regulation – i.e., academic freedom and tenure) of faculty (Hamilton 9f).

Taking the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics as a guide for determining faculty’s responsibilities, in what specific ways has the professoriate failed to uphold its social contract? Has peer review resulted in widespread academic fraud? Has faculty self-interest led to dishonest evaluations of students? Have professors abandoned their collegial responsibilities or become lawless rogues in their institutions? Certainly there are a few who make these claims — quite often politically-motivated persons with little or no relevant and reliable evidence (Gaff, 23). In fact, the only substantial claim regarding direct failures to uphold faculty ethical responsibility in the AACU report is Hamilton’s discussion of research misconduct and the role of peer review in either failing to catch it or (more seriously) looking the other way (Hamilton, 15). Further, Hamilton cites, as a reason to doubt that faculty uphold their social contract, the existence of “only three national, multi-institutional socialization initiatives” (Hamilton, 13) — two of them federally mandated research oversight programs, the third an AACU program from 1993-2003. In addition, Hamilton claims that “[a]cademic ethics is not a significant field of study,” and this fact leads to greater public mistrust (Hamilton, 14). Gaff elaborates that the AAUP’s committee investigations of academic freedom violations is an “antiquated and increasingly ineffective” mechanism, largely because it does not enforce standards for conducting research in addition to addressing violations of faculty academic freedom. What is needed to restore the integrity of faculty work, Gaff says, is for institutional trustees, executives, and administrations to take fiduciary responsibility for faculty work, joining with faculty leaders “to recommit” to the principles of faculty ethics (Gaff 27).

Another aspect of the social contract must be discussed in order to fully comprehend the current situation. In Hamilton’s view, the social contract of the professoriate depends on a three-pronged mission of institutions of higher education, involving teaching critical inquiry along with knowledge-creating and knowledge-disseminating. It is beyond my scope here to critique the tacit and clearly positivist epistemology underlying this view, but I would like to consider its implications for the problem of identifying to whom and for what the social contract of “the professoriate” ought to apply in institutions of higher education. For Hamilton, apparently, these institutions can be distinguished into those who have the full mission of higher education and those which lack either a significant commitment to teaching critical inquiry or to knowledge-creation. In the sort of institution that lacks these elements of the mission, “it is difficult to identify a transcendent public good its teachers are serving that is different from that of high school teachers” (Hamilton, 16). In such an institution, the social contract would not apply: “without a substantial reason to justify occupational control of the work by the professoriate, such an institution may decide to manage its teachers in a way similar to the nonprofit organization model typical in a competitive market. The institution may decide to employ an inadequate number of tenured faculty to provide effective peer review and shared governance” (Hamilton, 16). In such institutions, where there are inadequate numbers of tenured faculty to advance a claim for peer review or academic freedom, the social contract of the professoriate is null and void.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

College Faculty Professionalism – Ethical Responsibility and Precarious Work Pt. 2

2. Social contract professionalism in crisis
2.1 The social contract model of professionalism

The basic conception of professionalism as a form of social contract is likely familiar. Briefly, under the model of the social contract, a profession is an organized labor group that claims to have technical expertise necessary to perform very specialized work that fulfills a public need. The profession claims, further, an exclusive right to make judgments about the work done by its members, based on this expertise. In exchange for social recognition of the legitimacy of these claims to the exclusive right to practice and to judge practice — sometimes referred to respectively as monopoly over service and peer review — the profession pledges to employ its collective expertise to serve the public good. On the social contract theory of monopolistic, peer-review professions, sustaining the claim of professional status depends on making a convincing case to the public that the profession serves the public’s vital interest, by marshaling the technical expertise of a specialized knowledge base, through the independent judgment of practitioners, in service to the public’s needs. In pursuit of that case, most professions promulgate codes or statements of ethics.

The social contract between professors and the public has been articulated in various documents published by the American Association of University Professors, principally among them the 1915 Declaration and the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The basic bargain of the professoriate’s social contract seems to be that professors are to pursue and disseminate knowledge for the sake of the public good, in exchange for the public’s acknowledgement of the expertise and the right of professors to do so – hence, the emphasis on academic freedom, peer review, and tenure in discussions of faculty work. In his contribution to the AACU report, Jerry G. Gaff explains that the justifying rationale for academic freedom and the authority of faculty is that “[t]hese principles are essential to scholarly integrity and to providing students a sound education…; that is, they are essential for the fulfillment of the professoriate’s responsibility to the larger society” (19f). In short, the professional rights claimed by academics are justified by an ethical responsibility they incur as part of a bargain that establishes their specialized role and status.

The AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Professional Ethics (revised 1987 and 2009) expresses professors’ obligations and rights with respect to disciplinary knowledge, their students, their colleagues, their institutions, and finally the society at large. The Statement on Professional Ethics is fairly ordinary, in comparison to other professions’ ethics statements, regarding the general language and tone used to state principles. For instance, the first principle begins:

1. Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence.

One perfectly ordinary feature of this statement of principle is its banal, yet high-minded, rhetoric. On one hand, the “professors” sound superbly principled; on the other hand, given that most “professors” become “professors” by having already devoted their energies to their scholarly pursuits, this principle is hardly self-sacrificing. Interestingly, the address of this statement is not simple to pin down. It seems clearly enough to address “professors” regarding their ethical responsibilities to their disciplines and to the pursuit of truth. Yet it also announces to all who would care to read it the intent and the right of “professors” to declare the truth “as they see it.” That is, the statement seems to have a complex audience, and to address either, or both, professors and the public, regarding professors’ claims of responsibility. A lengthy excerpt follows of the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics, highlighting particular rights and responsibilities I will want to reflect on later.
2. As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline. Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors. Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit…
3. As colleagues, professors have obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars… Professors accept their share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of their institution.
4. As members of an academic institution, professors seek above all to be effective teachers and scholars. Although professors observe the stated regulations of the institution, provided the regulations do not contravene academic freedom, they maintain their right to criticize and seek revision. Professors give due regard to their paramount responsibilities within their institution in determining the amount and character of work done outside it. When considering the interruption or termination of their service, professors recognize the effect of their decision upon the program of the institution and give due notice of their intentions.

Any experienced academic professional will know that adhering to this set of responsibilities, which is to say exercising these rights, requires rigorous intellectual exertion. Demanding though they are, given the proper setting, preparation, and commitment to responsibility, they appear to be reasonable expectations for persons of ordinary moral feeling to meet. No one needs to be heroic or saintly, or of astounding individual genius, to succeed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

College Faculty Professionalism – Ethical Responsibility and Precarious Work Pt. 1

I'm posting this in multiple parts. This is the current draft of a paper on the precarious nature of college faculty work (70+% of us work without tenure eligibility, 50+% work part-time) and what happens to ethical responsibility in those work conditions.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
To view a copy of this license, visit

Draft completed August 15, 2010

1. College faculty as professionals

In graduate school, I heard no end of discussion of how our educations and apprenticeships were preparing us for entry into “the profession.” For the past two decades, disciplinary groups like the American Philosophical Association (the general professional association of academic philosophers in the US) have dedicated resources to consider the status of their various “professions” as well. Professors appear to possess typical markers of professionalism: expert knowledge, a high degree of self-control of their work, social prestige, and a conception of their work as providing a public benefit. By these measures, at least, professors seem to be professionals, or at least seem to regard themselves to be professionals.

The status of college faculty as professionals is destabilized when we unpack the concept of professionalism, and in particular when we consider the widely varied working lives of the people who, in one condition or another, serve as college faculty. My intention in this paper is to articulate briefly the social contract model of professionalism as it applies to the work of college faculty, and in particular how that model helps describe a contemporary crisis in college faculty professionalism, before considering the significance of that crisis for the working lives and careers of college faculty in the United States. The occasion for this discussion is presented by two events — the publication of the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ 2009 report, The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Shared Governance (hereinafter AACU report); and the surpassing of majority part-time employment status of college faculty in the United States, probably some time in 2008.

My focal interests in considering the professional status of college faculty arise from my academic interest in professional ethics as well as my experience as a college faculty member in an ambiguous work status (an issue I’ll clarify along the way). Though one primary concern in this paper is the professional ethics of college faculty, I take that in an expansive sense and a deliberately provocative direction. I will attempt to articulate a critical question about faculty professional ethics, namely, what is the relationship between faculty employment status, the social contract between academic labor and society, and faculty professional ethics responsibilities. I must admit that in this paper I will not be resolving any fundamental issues, but merely presenting them as I see them. The situation for those who work in the crisis professions is dynamic, and possibly historic, and there is to my way of thinking no way to establish what the next phase will be.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I think any good dinner party should be followed be recovery time. I may never eat again. Below is the menu, in French, of course, because I'm silly like that. I'll post pics some time.

The first entrée course, "tiramisu" savoreux, is basically insane. I had the idea to make something that looked just like tiramisu, but out of savory ingredients. Instead of ladyfingers, mine had thin slices of foccacia. Instead of painting those with espresso, we concocted a mixture of reduced balsamic vinegar, melted bitter chocolate, and various spices. The sweet marscapone layer was replaced with a cheesy custard layer made with fontina, mozzarella, and blue cheese. The top is the intensely silly bit: instead of shavings of chocolate or sprinkled cocoa powder (as per the dessert), I sprinkled the top with minced black truffle, grated nutmeg, and a teeny bit of cocoa powder. It looked exactly like tiramisu. Insane.

The best dish was, in my estimation, the second entrée, salmon fillets marinated with sesame oil and crushed coriander, seared up, and served with beurre françoise, a French butter sauce with cream and chicken stock and a couple tablespoons of parsley.

The dessert was pear halves oven-braised in a bed of grapes and sweet wine, with the braising liquid reduced to a thick syrup and drizzled over the pears. Freaking awesome.

Much wine was drunk, much merriment was had, we didn't get to bed much before 2 am. Nothing like an 8 hour meal to prepare one for a busy academic year.

Here's the menu:

Amuse gueule

amandes rôties
noisettes rôties

tarte d’oignon et fenouil avec gorgonzola
tarte des champignons avec parmigiano reggiano
tarte de Swiss chard et gruyère


velouté des épinards


“tiramisu” savoureux



saumon avec beurre françoise


sorbet de citron et lavande

Plat principal

London broil aux herbes de provence avec legumes d’été grilles


poires rôti avec raisins

And here is the recipe for the tiramisu. Madness.

Savory “tiramisu”

Base: foccacia strips

balsamic vinegar reduction:
½ cup balsamic vinegar
pinch of sugar
a few drips of fruity booze (apricot brandy, e.g.)
Vinegar in pan, medium-low heat. Add sugar, booze, stir. Reduce to thick syrup
chocolate sauce:
1 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted
3 tbsp chicken stock
2 dashes cinnamon
1 dash red pepper (cayenne)
2 grinds white pepper
8 specks of clove
Mix vinegar reduction and chocolate sauce: 1 part reduction to 2 or 3 parts chocolate

2 egg yolks, beaten, sprinkled with generous pinch of flour, beaten in
2 cups of milk
3 oz. crumbled blue cheese
5 oz. grated fontina
5 oz. grated mozzarella
several grinds of white pepper
several gratings of nutmeg

Heat milk in saucepan over medium heat. Meanwhile, separate egg yolk, beat, add flour, beat. Add some of the nearly-boiling milk, dribble by dribble, to the egg, while whisking. Pour egg-milk mixture slowly and evenly into milk pan, stirring with whisk. Whisk vigorously, allow to thicken. Add cheeses, Kirsch, pepper, nutmeg, and allow to thicken until it resembles pudding. Take off stove, pour into thick glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap, chill in fridge.

Minced black truffle
Grated nutmeg

Foccacia strips in dish. Shmear. Add custard. Layers can be achieved: Foccacia, shmear, custard. Then top.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

album of the day: Concierto

Jim Hall is one of the great guitarists in jazz. He has a subtlety and grace to his playing, and a musical sense that matches it perfectly. He tends to work in very small groups, as a lot of guitarists of that stripe do, since a larger band, and particularly horns, usually overwhelm quiet, lyrical guitar lines.

This album is an exception, sort of. While there is a horn section, it consists of Chet Baker on trumpet and Paul Desmond on alto sax - both players of quiet melodies in their own right. It's like chamber jazz. The liner notes suggest that the players were brought together by the arranger, Don Sebesky, but that doesn't mean Sebesky's a genius (though maybe it does - it could have been, at the time of its initial 1975 release, the kind of obviously good idea that only seems obvious in retrospect because it worked out so well).

Regardless, what does speak to Sebesky's genius is the title track of the album, Sebesky's arrangement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, a piece of Spanish classical music with hints of flamenco influence and a Ravel-esque bolero thing going on. This is really a feat, not because of the nature of Rodrigo's Concierto itself, so much as the fact that in the 50s, Miles Davis had made jazz history with his recording of Gil Evans' arrangement. It was typical of Evans' arrangements for Miles: lushly orchestrated, with sweeping horn sections, prominent pulsing rhythm, and with Miles very prominently on top of the whole sound, bleating and blaring his little trumpeter fool's head off. It's a tour de force, as well as a career-defining moment for Miles.

Now, obviously, that simply wouldn't work for Hall, Baker, and Desmond. They'd sound like lost kittens in a wilderness full of ravenous wolves. But imagine having the temerity to take on this same composition after such a colossal and iconic performance. (Ironically, the original is a concerto for guitar!) Sebesky stripped down Rodrigo's work, provided almost none of the orchestral accompaniment so central to Davis/Evans' version, and left space, lots of space, for Hall, Baker, Desmond, and from time to time bassist Ron Carter and pianist Rolland Hanna, to play solos that weave into one another. Davis and Evans' version sounded like it was wearing iron armor; Hall, Baker, and Desmond sound like they're weaving fine lace.

I bought the album online the night after a fairly bad class session in Stockton. Driving home, feeling miserable, I had on KUOP, based in Stockton. Somewhere around the Stockton airport, "Concierto" came on. I was instantly in love. For some reason, maybe the weather, I started to lose the signal near French Camp Road and the Delicato winery, so I pulled off the freeway, parked at Delicato, turned off the engine, and just listened. I was about 15 minutes later home, but in way better spirits.

In addition to "Concierto," the original album tracklist* features two Jim Hall compositions, among them the sprightly and angular "Two's Blues," with nice solo work by Baker, and the interesting "The Answer Is Yes." There's an old Cole Porter number I've never heard anywhere else, "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," and an old Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn tune I've never heard anywhere else, "Rock Skippin.'"

That's what typifies this album, really.

I have a recurring dream of discovering among my cds an album I'd long ago lost and nearly forgotten. On this dream disc is music like nothing else in the world, totally incomparable and astounding, breathtaking music - not just virtuoso playing, but unreproducible and completely captivating melodies, utterly unique instrumentation, brilliant composition. This album does not exist, but one that does is Concierto, and it's incomparable in its own way.


* The re-release I have includes additional tracks, as most jazz re-issues do. They include alternate versions of "You'd Be So Nice," "The Answer," "Rock Skippin,'" and an outtake of Hall playing acoustic guitar with Desmond on alto, doing some lovely fiddly things with a set of changes Desmond apparently brought with him.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

album of the day: Mermaid Avenue

Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora contacted left-leaning British songwriter/celebrant of the working class Billy Bragg about some finished lyrics Guthrie left behind, among hundreds of songs the astoundingly prolific Guthrie wrote. Bragg went through a ton of them, chose a few, and got Wilco and Natalie Merchant to write and record them with him.

The result is this tremendously warm, humane, spirited album, named for the street on Coney Island where Guthrie owned a house for many years and where he generally failed to raise a family.

Don't get me wrong. I love Woody Guthrie. I love his songs, his witty writing, his populism, and the fact that he wrote "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS" on his guitars. He never really did, nor wanted to do, anything but write and perform, meet new people, have sex, and drink. He left behind loved ones in several states, and children, and jobs, and spent a great deal of time wandering, practically homeless, with practically no possessions or prospects. He treated a lot of people without much care, but I tend to think it was more out of being determinedly carefree, not careless.

One could debate the authenticity of Guthrie's music and voice until the cows come home. I imagine Woody would dismiss that debate, in a lengthy Oklahoma drawl containing no terminal Gs, with a sophisticated political and moral argument. To me, what Woody learned and unlearned over his life is what makes the humanity of his music ring true. He grew up the son of a speculator in real estate, politics, and whatever else came around. His family boomed, then busted, then bankrupted, then dispersed. He also grew up in a two-bit racist Oklahoma town in a two-bit racist Oklahoma family, that mistrusted any initiative but self-interest. Woody unlearned his racism and learned his (albeit relatively ungrounded) solidarity with the working class by aimlessly ending up in one Depression hellhole after another, including some truly rotten dehumanizing experiences in Tracy and Turlock. (I think most people have had lousy experiences in Tracy, but I, for one, was never forced to crawl out of town by a sheriff, three days since my last meal, in the chill of the arid night, without water.)

What these experiences did in defining Guthrie's lyrical voice is also a matter of ongoing musicological speculation. Just taking the songs as they stand, however, they propose some wonderful and tragic things about human life that are worth listening to.

The songs here range in emotion from deathbed confessional on "Another Man's Done Gone," sung low by Bragg with backing from Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, to the nonsensical child's amusement of "Hoodoo Voodoo," sung with abandon by Tweedy. Some of the best of these songs are the gentler, quieter, less overtly political ones. "Birds and Ships," sung by Natalie Merchant with solo guitar accompaniment from Bragg, is a love song in dialogue between two lovers separated by the sea, and, I believe, by the war the seaman is heading for. "California Stars," performed by Wilco, thanks the heavens for their offer of repose and peace to the exhausted.

Not that the political songs aren't any good. "Christ for President" is a proto-Green Party call for taking all the money out of politics, but admits that the only likely way that'll happen is if Christ is elected. "The Unwelcome Guest" tells a Robin Hood story, expressing Guthrie's (admittedly naive) sense of distributive justice.

One of my favorite aspects of the album is the multiple voices and approaches the performers take. The material is varied, and where they wrote music for the words Guthrie left behind, they did a masterful job matching tone and bringing them to life. Today, listening as I walked through Turlock, I was especially interested in the couple of songs ("She Came Along To Me" and "The Unwelcome Guest") that have backing vocals very reminiscent of the old Woody Guthrie recordings made by Alan Lomax.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

album of the day: Rust Never Sleeps

Neil Young, 1979. Needs no description.

Sometimes, if you can't help yourself, you can't be helped.

Monday, August 09, 2010

album of the day: Eastern Sounds

Yusef Lateef was a multi-instrumentalist, world music pioneer, and student of culture before any of that was at all cool. This 1961 album wasn't all that early an entry into world jazz (the Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz vogues had had their day in the 1950s, and bossa nova was in full swing, if you'll pardon the pun). Lateef had spent several years already working middle Eastern and Asian influences into jazz, as well - though no one had much followed along. But really, the main accomplishment of Eastern Sounds is that Lateef has made "Eastern" intervals and rhythms sound so much at home in jazz, or else jazz to sound at home in them, I'm no sure which.

If you're a foodie, you might even be tempted to call this music "fusion," but that means something else in jazz than it does in food. Call it beautiful, sweet, and a little sad, and that'd be more accurate.

The album starts with the inquisitive, sprightly "Plum Blossom," which has something very floral about it, actually. Ernie Farrow's bassline, played on a rabat, plunks more than walks, and Lateef introduces the quiet theme on a kind of Chinese flute that only plays 5 notes, before Barry Harris on piano and Lex Humphries on drums fill out the sound. It sounds rather alien, rather outside of the shape and scope of cool jazz (which is sort of Lateef's home territory), and with just 5 notes, it's remarkable how much Lateef gets from the flute.

Every tune on the album has some hint or suggestion of this Eastern theme to it. Nothing is played in quite the conventional Western way, either by progression or by melodic conception or by rhythm. Or by instrumentation. How many other jazz oboists can you name? Me neither.

After "Plum Blossom," for me the highlights of the album are "Don't Blame Me," a fairly heartbreaking ballad, and the one tune played at all conventionally; "Blues for the Orient," a blues on oboe; the robust "Snafu;" the somber "Purple Flower;" and the subtle, exploring "The Three Faces of Balal." These capture best, aside from "Plum Blossom," the things I love most about this record, and about Lateef's music in general.

For one thing, in his prime, as presented here, he was a tremendous player with great range, terrific sensibilities and a lot of emotional depth. If I have one demand of a jazz saxophonist, it's to break my heart. The quavering vulnerability of "Plum Blossom," and the cry or break in a note on the more mainstream tenor songs, fulfill that demand.

Lateef was also far more successful than most, especially in this era, of not only playing "Eastern" music in jazz settings, but of making it work as jazz and as something alien to jazz. If that seems a little paradoxical, then good, I mean it to be.

While his music career continued, in the 1960s and 1970s, Lateef studied music and music education, and earned an Ed.D. His focus throughout has been on his own theory of music as well as comparative understanding of world music. I'm biased, I supposed, because he's one of my favorites, but I think you can hear a sort of intellectual respect and interest in his approach to non-Western music as well, an open and completely genuine curiosity, that's refreshing to at least one cynical academic.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

album of the day: Who's Next

The Who are overplayed on classic rock radio, especially "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," the bookends of their undeniably superb 1971 album. In fact, these are two of the Who's best songs, and two of the best rock songs ever - I think you'd really have to be deranged to disagree. If you sit down and listen to them, rather than have them come at you from the car radio, mixed in with revving engines and car horns, they really still have a lot of force, overplayed as they may be. (We have divergent opinions, locally, on which is better. I'm a "Won't Get Fooled Again" man. Lauren is a "Baba O'Riley" devotee.)

So, I don't need to tell you anything about those songs. But I will tell you this: on the version of the album that I've downloaded from teh Internets, their order is reversed, and the album starts with "Won't Get Fooled Again." I don't know if that matters.

The second tier of songs, not quite as great, include "Bargain," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Going Mobile," and "The Song is Over," all of which are better than at least 80% of all rock and roll songs ever. "The Song is Over" sounds a little precious to me now in 2010, but it's still a lovely tune. "Bargain" describes a lover's abject submission and freaking rocks out, which is an odd combination. Daltrey sounds angry and defiant singing

I'd gladly lose me to find you
I'd gladly give up all I had
To find you I'd suffer anything and be glad

I'd pay any price just to get you
I'd work all my life and I will
To win you I'd stand naked, stoned and stabbed

I'd call that a bargain
The best I ever had
The best I ever had

"Going Mobile" is a frolic about automotive autonomy and being irresponsible. "Behind Blue Eyes" you know.

The weakest three songs on the album, "My Wife," "Getting in Tune," and "Love Ain't For Keeping," are still better than 62% of all rock songs ever.

This isn't a perfect album. It's barely an album, in a way. There's nothing really connecting the songs, not really a thread between them, and even the order of the songs (whether in the released or my screwy version) doesn't make them relate to one another in any way. It's just a bunch of songs all recorded more or less the same time period, beginning right after Tommy was released, and ending after Townshend had a nervous breakdown trying to write a grander, more artful follow-up to Tommy and also became obsessed with synthesizers. (This is one of the earliest rock and roll records to feature synthesizer prominently. It's what makes "Baba O'Riley," of course, but it's also a major instrument throughout. For my money, nobody ever really topped Townshend's use of synthesizer on Who's Next.)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

experience and signification
flesh, blue, colorless ideas, and other shit

[A long post. I'm starting to sum up what I've been thinking about this summer. Even though it's long, it's worth reading, because there's some funny bits, especially at the end.]

In the end, Merleau-Ponty hopes to bring us face-to-face with an ontological mystery that appears to lack a solution. This is the mystery of flesh and meaning, the mystery of the two invisibles and the one, endlessly differentiated, visible. It is the mystery Merleau-Ponty finds in Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, of how mute experience becomes, for us, and genuinely, signifying. This is an ancient mystery, and has been dismissed by proponents of two fundamental, and fundamentally dogmatic and erroneous, false solutions. One is called, variously, empiricism, naturalism, realism, scientism: true meanings are faithful copies of original, tangible, fleshy things. The other is known by names like idealism, rationalism, Platonism: true meanings are pure significations that refer to fleshy things. Merleau-Ponty considers Husserl’s attempts at fundamental ontology to be failed efforts to solve the ancient mystery without resorting to either of the dogmatisms. Most of Merleau-Ponty’s commentators consider Merleau-Ponty’s own efforts also to have failed.

What it comes down to, I believe, is the question itself: How does mute experience become genuinely signifying? I have come to think this is the wrong way to frame the question. It belies humanistic and philosophical prejudices; first of all, that experience is mute for us, and has to be “translated” by us to become signifying for us, informs us that experience and meaning or signification are human affairs. (I don’t intend to argue that many intelligent animals devise conceptual apparatus, nor do I intend to talk about dolphins’ language or whales’ songs.)

What is meant by the presupposed notion that experience is mute? What is experience? What does mute mean?

The trope of visible and invisible that Merleau-Ponty deployed in his last, unfinished book is a new metaphor for the ancient mystery. What is visible is the flesh, the sensible/sensing/sensed flesh which is the element of our embodiment, and which chiasmatically folds (nearly) upon itself in the narcissistic relation of intertwining. What is invisible is meaning/signification, and absolute reality in itself. I wrote earlier that there are two invisibles. I mean that there is an invisible conceptual apparatus which is our translation of flesh into words, and that this invisible is founded upon the visible flesh and upon the invisible absolute. I interpret Merleau-Ponty’s visible and invisible in this way because it appears to me that his (failed) solution to the ancient mystery depends on a double founding of our invisible conceptual apparatus. This is because, for meaning/signification to be genuine (and not arbitrary, not scientistic, not dogmatic), it must be both the translation of our fleshy sensuous life, and the meaning of that life. If it is only translation, our conceptual apparatus must be subjective-relative, expressionistic rather than expressive (i.e., of “the things”). If it is only pure meaning, it fails to address subjectivity and perspective. This second-order invisible is language or logos itself. To explain one step further, keep in mind that Merleau-Ponty does not follow Heidegger in saying that die Sprache spricht; language does speak, but we speak the language, and neither language itself nor our speaking suffice to be-speak experience.

In his effort to avoid the binarism of the long tradition of metaphysics, through the flesh, Merleau-Ponty leaves us a bifurcated binary. That is, if the visible and the invisible really name two poles. Re-reading The Visible and the Invisible, and working on evocations of flesh, I’ve become convinced that we don’t need this binary solution. I’m prepared to say that I don’t think experience is mute, and that, whatever it is we’re doing when we speak, it’s not giving voice to voiceless experience.

First, let me say what I think is meant by mute, and why I think it’s incorrect to say that experience is mute. In Husserl’s account, and in Merleau-Ponty’s version, experience is mute because something we undergo in embodied life does not say itself, it just is itself. If I stub my toe, I undergo a fleshy, painful event. The meaning of that event is not identical to that event: I can tell you about it later, or I can (as I am now) simply imagine it or present it as an example, and its meaning, or a meaning, the meaning “experience of a stubbed toe,” still takes place. The meaning is reiterable, can be the object of various phantasy-variations, the theme of bad poetry, and so forth. There you go: “stubbed toe” ≠ stubbed toe. Yet “stubbed toe” must = stubbed toe qua meaning, or else everything we say is gibberish. There is the unspoken “meaning of event of stubbing a toe” in every occasion of stubbing a toe, whether in fleshy presence or in imaginative absent presence.

Here is the humanistic prejudice at work. The presupposition about meaning and experience central to this version of the ancient mystery is that phantasy-variation, bad poetry and so forth, being the kind of activities only human beings do, such reiterable meanings must be our translations of experience. For humans, stubbed toes have meanings as “stubbed toes.” And nobody else means “stubbed toes.” They just have them. Well, we don’t know that, and we have some evidence to the contrary. But more importantly, I don’t think it actually solves the ancient mystery. (Approximately here is where I am omitting any reference to how my cat Alexander could somehow mean “stubbed toe” in his feline way, expressing it, reiterating it, and writing extraordinarily bad poetry about it. I don’t seriously believe any cat could mean “stubbed toe;” and although I’m convinced cats can mean, and express, and as we say have concepts, my argument thankfully doesn’t depend on that. It’s funny, though.)

Undoubtedly, David Hume was wrong about most things, but one thing I think he was partly right about was the relationship between color experience and the ideas we have about color. And he’ll excuse me if I say that by “partly right,” I mean almost entirely wrong without being completely wrong. Recall Hume’s claim that all of our ideas of color come ultimately from our visual experience of colored things. Someone who has never seen color (who is blind from birth, for instance) could never have an adequate or genuine idea of “blue,” no matter how much poetry he or she read about blue things, or how much a sighted person tried to describe blue things (contrasting them with green or red things, metaphorizing, or however else one might try to do this). As for a sighted person who has seen all but one particular shade of blue, Hume’s notion of the relations of ideas explains how that person would in the first place recognize the shade was missing and then have the power to “fill it in” imaginatively. That imagined idea of that shade of blue is not the experience of that shade of blue, and, we could say, is not that blue, but only the imagined idea of it. Why? Because blue, the genuine article, is always blue in the flesh, blue in person. Live, in full color. That is to say, blue is something we just have. We don’t conjure it up. It happens to us. The thrust of the idea of blue comes from blue happening to us.

That’s even more obviously true about stubbed toes, which I expect some people reading this would imagine in extremely visceral and unpleasant ways (assuming you don’t like to stub your toe). If stubbed toes or shades of blue happen to us, and if their meanings as reiterable, imaginable ideas have their origins in happening to us, then, I would like to say, meaning arises from experience itself, from what befalls flesh. Our reiterations of what befalls flesh are less like translations than like echoes. And our experience isn’t mute or dumb, it’s meaningful all the way down. We’ve just made a bizarre assumption that meaning or signifying is something minds do because they have access to language, that is, that whatever sensation is, it isn’t an idea, and whatever experience is, it isn’t self-expressive or self-divulging.

I don’t need language to announce the being of the event of stubbing my toe. I do need flesh, and commingling of flesh.

When I stub my toe, I often blurt out an expletive. “Shit!” I might yell, or “fuck!” Are “shit” or “fuck” how die Sprache spricht my stubbed toe? Does “shit” or “fuck” say “stubbed toe”? The interesting fact is that we have such wonderfully all-purpose and meaningful words for stubbed toes to elicit from us. While “shit” or “fuck” don’t say very much about stubbed toes, they certainly address the event, and are certainly expressive. The other day an aggressive driver cut me off on the freeway at 75 mph. “Shit!” I yelled. “Motherfucker!” Now, this “shit” isn’t the same “shit” as when I stubbed my toe, and yet it still addresses the event expressively. In a way, this is simply another shade of “shit,” which has at least as many gradations as “blue” has. It is meaningful, as you are no doubt aware, because shit happens.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

album of the day: Further In

I first encountered Greg Brown as a fairly frequent guest on Prairie Home Companion in the late 1980s. His style of playing and singing, his stage presence (radio presence, I suppose), and even the songs themselves, had the warmest, most inviting, comfortable, hospitable quality. Unless you simply have no patience whatsoever for anything resembling folk music, it's got to be very hard not to love his stuff.

Perhaps Brown's hospitality and warmth became central to his style when he had a gig playing for mentally disabled and shut-ins in Iowa. I don't know. But unlike what my mental stereotype of such a singer-songwriter would be like, Brown is never treacly or preachy or any of that.

Years later, when I started listening more deeply to folk music, I fairly randomly picked this album up at some record store somewhere. I can't recall where or when. It was produced in 1996, so my guess is that I got it out here in California rather than in Pittsburgh, which means I spent nearly a decade with a Greg-Brown-shaped void in my life. This is very hard to fathom now, ten years or so later, because I have played this cd to pieces. There are approximately three reasons why.

The first is the aforementioned character of Greg Brown's music. Every track on this album has that feel. He pulls it off with his rough warm baritone, his laid-back but not inert playing, and his felicitous and studiously cliché-avoiding lyrics.

Second is that this album is perfect. Well, alright, close. Every song is well-turned, sounds great, is played wonderfully, and presents genuine recognizable human emotions and situations from a mature, intelligent, adult perspective that never condescends. And it sounds like these are a bunch of guys hanging around your living room who just happen to be excellent musicians. The production captures the Greg-Browniness of Greg Brown perfectly.

Third is that the songs address a range of states of being wide enough that it's a lovely album to play in practically any mood that isn't accompanied by an extreme of one agitation or another. Saturday morning, relaxing over coffee and orange-flesh melon? Sure. Thursday night around 9:30, just finishing a stack of urgent grading? You betcha. Taking the scenic route over the Altamont to avoid the maniacs on 205? Righto. After or before a tense meeting? Yup.

I suspect my favorite track is the rather sad opening track, "Small Dark Movie," which uses diurnal details of the addressee's life as a lesson in the mundanity of evil and the futility of existence. No kidding. My second favorite is likely "Hey Baby Hey," which is about being so full of love and adoration that you're left stupidly unable to say anything else. I think Lauren's favorite is "Where is Maria?" My favorite lyric from that goes:

there's a young fellow rockin' in a thump thump car
and he's smug as a commentator on NPR
and our foolish government tries to save face
while the whole world struggles to become one bland place

but where is maria?

there's a millionaire singing about nothing at all
but he looks pretty good and he's knocking 'em dead down at the mall
there's a woman weary of the look in men's eyes
when they don't look she just turns away and sighs

but where is maria?

The cover art is by Greg Brown, by the way. It seems to be called "Couple."