Tenure and complicity: one quick point

March 7, 2017

Yesterday, former MLA President (among other titles) Michael Bérubé posted a piece on the Academe blog that contributes to the ongoing (as he points out) discussion of the place of tenure-track/tenured (TT/T) faculty in the system that enables the exploitation of contingent faculty. Titled “Tenure-Track Responsibility and Adjunct Exploitation,” the piece picks up on Kevin Birmingham’s contention in his Truman Capote Award acceptance speech that TT/T faculty benefit from adjunct inequality even if we don’t intentionally create or cause it.

The responses to Birmingham’s and Bérubé’s pieces in substance is pretty much identical: NO I DON’T!!!!! (And before you react to this by assuming I’m talking about you individually, only if you’re one of hundreds I actually saw say this–that is, it’s a pretty common reaction.)

I’m not going to speak for Michael B, an ally with whom I sometimes disagree about details, but I think it’s worth talking about what the word complicity entails. In short (for me at least), the claim is that once your privilege has been pointed out to you, you’re propagating an injustice by refusing to acknowledge and address it.

More specifically: when we deny that the system is tilted in our favor, and that we have access to aspects of the profession that most contingent colleagues don’t (like sabbaticals, reassigned time–I won’t use the term “release time,” travel funding, schedule flexibility, etc), we sound an awful lot like white people sound when somebody points out white privilege, or men sound when somebody points out male privilege. If you’ve ever noticed how defensive people get when somebody observes for them that they have structural advantages that come at other people’s expense, you know what I’m talking about.

Or as Eddie Vedder once put it (in the only Pearl Jam song I still really love), “If you hate something/Don’t you do it too.”


Again with this indoctrination crap

February 24, 2017

By now, if you’re an academic or socially-networked with any, you know our Secretary of Education Deform, Betsy DeVos, unloaded the sad old song about college faculty “tell[ing] students what to think” in her speech at CPAC.

Friend and comrade (see what I did there?) Steve Krause posted a fine response to this nonsense on his blog, which says among other smart things:

This is not to say that everything is fair game, that I’m all about students (or anyone else) saying and thinking whatever they want. Climate change is a real thing. Black lives really do matter, and there are good reasons to support that movement. We should base the arguments and claims we make in academic essays (and really, in the world in general) on research and reason and not “gut feelings.” CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and other news outlets that report things you don’t agree with are not “Fake News.” None of these statements should be controversial, though I suppose each is now in dispute with a group like CPAC and in the era of President Donald Trump, who has only been president for a little over a month but it already feels perfectly reasonable to describe these times and his presidency as “an era.”

That’s the idea I want to pick up on (again) to make two further points.

First, my version of Steve’s passage:

There is such a thing as reality. The right wing’s willingness to deny it for their own political and economic gain doesn’t make it less real. And those of us who don’t want to watch them steal and pillage by lying to everyone all the time must take every single opportunity we have to fight back.

I can do that more or less combatively, and I can do it for lots of different purposes as a teacher, a scholar, an activist, a voter, or what have you. How I talk about it here and in social media is different from the hallway of my building, and different again from a gen-ed writing course, and  again from my Propaganda course, and so on. Because I understand purpose and audience and ethics. Duh.

Second, as I commented on Steve’s Facebook page where he linked to his blog post:

Here’s a distinction the wing nuts will never acknowledge. Telling students what I think is not the same as telling them what to think. I trust students enough to be confident that they can hear a point of view and not automatically adopt it.

Maybe Betsy DeVos thinks so little of college students that she can’t imagine them not automatically believing anything they hear. Maybe she’s so used to people automatically kowtowing to whatever she says that it doesn’t occur to her other people don’t expect (or even want) the same. Maybe she’s just singing this song (on endless repeat) because that’s what people like her have been saying for decades, and she absorbed it exactly the way she fears students will absorb anything they hear.

Anyone who has ever taught at any level knows how bizarre it is to think that students will simply absorb whatever we tell them–even if we wanted them to, which almost nobody ever does. Of course, since Secretary DeVos has no experience teaching, she wouldn’t know.

Should she ever decide that she actually wants to see what professors do, I’m happy for her to visit any time. Come to any of my classes and see what happens there. If she were actually willing and able to learn, it might be a useful experience.


Republican Presidents Say the Darndest Things!

February 11, 2017

[Alternate Title: Open Letter to Senators Who Sat and Listened to Donald Trump call Elizabeth Warren Names]

Dear Sens. Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Tester, Lamar Alexander, Chris Coons, Shelley Moore Capito, John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Joe Donnelly and Michael Bennet:

Today’s news includes a story that you attended a meeting yesterday with Donald Trump that was intended to canvass your support for his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Gorsuch. During that meeting, according to several reports, Trump referred to Elizabeth Warren, once again, as “Pocahontas” in the midst of one his tirades about voter fraud we all know didn’t happen.

The lies about voter fraud are one problem, but at least those can be investigated and dismissed by anyone actually willing to believe that such things as evidence and truth exist. I’m much more frustrated by your failure to respond to the name-calling. In hopes that nobody has to explain why it’s so problematic for him (anyone) to call (her) or anyone a name that he clearly intends to be an insult, let’s fast-forward to what I would hope is the obvious response when somebody with so much power and authority says such a thing.

Stop. Right there. You cannot talk like that about another human being, much less one of our colleagues. Until you apologize and agree to stop saying it, we’re not listening to anything you say.


Bye, Mr. Trump. We’re done here.

Every time people with the kind of stature and authority you have let him get away with acting like a petulant six-year-old racist, you make it that much harder for all the rest of us to stop him. And if this seems a trivial matter to you, think about this: if you found out one of your kids (or nieces or nephews or a friend’s kid or whoever) had called one of their teachers a name like this, you’d be appalled and embarrassed, wouldn’t you? (Or would you? I guess I’m making the assumption that you’re offended by outright racism.)

It would have taken only one of you to make the point loud and clear: people at your campaign rallies might have eaten that up; the “liberal media” might have amplified your racism for the sake of profits; but if you’re going to talk to grown-ups, you have to be one.

Let’s chalk this up to a missed opportunity. Next time try a little harder, OK?

Open Letter to Senator Patrick Toomey about your vote to confirm Betsy DeVos

February 3, 2017

Senator Toomey:

Just a few minutes ago, I was finally able to stomach reading your statement explaining your Yes vote for Betsy DeVos’ nomination to serve as Secretary of Education.

I’ll set aside my substantive disagreements with your claims about her. I think you’re wrong about every one of them. And you know that, since you sent me a letter almost two months ago making essentially identical claims, to which I responded substantively.

What’s more important at this point, as far as I’m concerned, is to call attention to what many Pennsylvania citizens must recognize as a simple truth–your constituency voiced strong and sustained opposition to this nomination, which you simply refuse to listen to, or even to acknowledge. Social media documents thousands and thousands of phone calls, letters, tweets, office visits, faxes, and more to make clear that we wanted you to vote against Betsy DeVos. Of course, neither does your statement acknowledge the more than $60,000 in campaign contributions you’ve received from the DeVos family, or the fact that you were away from town last weekend in Florida collecting massive amounts of money at a Koch Brothers’ organized event.

It’s clear who you believe butters your bread, Senator Toomey, but it’s time for you to start wrapping your head around this: we will not forget this. We will not forget that you hung us out to dry in favor of serving your paymasters, that you made a profoundly reckless decision about one of the most important positions in this country, and that you pretend not even to know how wildly unpopular that decision is.

Or put another way, if you’re waiting for the Memory Hole to swallow this moment, you’d better think again about that. We won’t forget.

Seth Kahn, West Chester PA

When you complained about “the government,” you asked for this

January 29, 2017
     I sincerely hope that any one of you who, over the years, has lobbed generalized complaints about the ineptitude of “the government” understand how your empty generic complaint has enabled exactly what the Trump regime is doing right now.
     Trump’s entire campaign was built on two precepts: (1) outright racism and bigotry in all its vile glory; and (2) an assertion that anyone who actually understands government is corrupt. Maybe a third, too: that anyone who observes the connection between the first two is just being “politically correct” (excuse me while I take a break to wipe the vomit off my chin at actually having typed that phrase, even in scare quotes).
     They were able to capitalize on 50 years of whining about inept “the government” (as if it were a unitary, consistent institution) in order to pull that off. Not only have people been making that argument for them for decades now, but it also provides cover for the bigotry of these anti-government-until-they’re-in-charge faux libertarians.
     So yes, Trump has thrown open the door to the hallways of power to outright white supremacists and white nationalists and anti-Semites (and LGTB-haters and and and and….) because he’s vile bigot, AND ALSO because none of them has the first or last idea what they’re doing. In other words, Steve Bannon (for example) and Betsy DeVos (for example) are products of the same logic. Their bigotry and their incompetence aren’t separate problems–they’re mutually reinforcing qualifications. And they’ve been able to win that argument because you’ve helped them by complaining every time a government agency didn’t do something as quickly or efficiently as you’d have liked.
     [UPDATED FRI FEB 3: (1) One of my favorite bloggers, Mike the Mad Biologist, is fond of this line and it’s perfect for this moment–“It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” (2) Another piece of the discourse that’s gotten us here is the “disruptive innovation” trope, which almost always brings along with it a tacit assertion that expertise in an area makes experts unlikely to be receptive to change. Of course what advocates of disruptive innovation fail to recognize is that sometimes rejecting change happens because the ideas suck. And we know that because we’re freakin’ experts.

On free speech and hate

January 27, 2017

Before anybody rushes to remind me that there’s already scholarship, legal theory, and jurisprudence on these issues–I know. I’m not making a legal argument.

Two precipitating events have me thinking about this topic.

The other day, our colleague and friend Sid Dobrin posted a photo on Facebook of somebody with a swastika armband bicycling around the University of Florida campus. He came back yesterday and drew a crowd. The swastika-wearing cyclist swears (O! Dear me! How could anyone think I have bad intentions?!?) the “protestors don’t understand my intentions” and that he doesn’t “mean to hurt anyone.”

Yesterday, at West Chester University where I teach, two “preachers” showed up on campus (this happens periodically) spewing incendiary bigotry at anyone and everyone within shouting distance. Unfortunately, a couple of students reacted strongly enough that they were arrested and are likely to be charged with assault.

So here’s the thing.

I understand what the First Amendment says, and that the jurisprudence around free speech has historically protected groups like the KKK and their right to speak. I understand as somebody who studies rhetoric and activism that sometimes groups need to create very uncomfortable spectacles and situations in order to mobilize people on behalf of issues. As somebody who was deeply involved in organizing our faculty strike last fall and has been doing activism of various kinds for 30+ years, I get it.

But I want to challenge people who defend the Nazi-bicycle-guy and the two “preachers” (who I refuse to acknowledge as Christian based on how explicitly hateful they are) to explain something to me.

The presumption free-speech laws and jurisprudence make is that such speech is necessary to the healthy functioning of democracy. Explain to me how riding a bicycle around a campus with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, waving a swastika around at people, is positively contributing to democracy. Explain how we’re advancing public deliberation about, um, anything at all by standing in the middle of WCU campus telling women that they’re sinning just by being at college, or that calling people “faggots and whores” accomplishes anything useful at all. And “because if we don’t use our free speech rights, we lose them” isn’t an answer. And “because they can” isn’t an answer either. The question is: what do those hateful incendiary utterances do to advance public discourse about anything at all?

I’m listening.

Why I Support the WCU Sanctuary Campus Letter

November 30, 2016

Ten days ago, out of concern among WCU students and faculty that the post-election wave of violence and threats against marginalized people will likely our campus, a group of faculty decided to join a nationwide movement called #SanctuaryCampus that calls on colleges/universities to become havens for community members who may be in danger under the new political regime. Among other provisions, the campaign asks campuses to declare their unwillingness to participate in sweeps or raids fishing for undocumented people.

I helped to circulate the letter and organize this effort–i.e., I didn’t just sign but have recruited other signers–not because I want to “tell the university to break the law” or “demand non-compliance with federal policy” or other such nonsense, but because I want the university/system leadership to take a proactive stance on behalf of threatened populations before a new administration tries to execute policies that would harm people we’re supposed to support.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think the letter asks the university to break any laws–and it certainly doesn’t demand anything of the sort. The letter does ask the university to resist efforts at harming our students as strongly as we can–or more to the point, it asks the university’s leadership to commit to not enabling miscarriages of justices that we fear are likely given the campaign and post-election ethos. PASSHE spokesperson Kenn Marshall (who lost my trust based on his active propagation of disinformation during our contract negotiations and strike) thinks it might.

That’s what dialogue is for, y’all. If the university/system made the case that they can’t commit to certain terms in the letter but can do ___ instead, I think most of us are listening.

I also support the campaign because it asks for other commitments from the university as well, largely redoubling our commitments to diversity and inclusion in ways that are more than hortatory. There are students and staff and faculty who feel directly endangered, and we need to make sure they feel as safe as we can make them.

Yesterday the West Chester Daily Local ran a story about the sanctuary campus effort. Dr. Nadine Bean, who did most of the drafting of the letter, was the only faculty member who spoke to the reporter and has, unsurprisingly, become the focus of predictably nasty troll attacks against her as a result.

I’ve looked at the comments, one of which I responded to (the commenter “wondered” how Dr. Bean would feel when one of those “rapists” attacked a female student: I replied that his comment demonstrates precisely why we needed to do this), but anybody who’s been publicly visible for doing any kind of social justice work has probably been here or nearby before. Getting flamed sucks. People who are willing to say the things those folks say (usually behind a wall of pseudonymity, which is probably a conversation for another day) are usually pretty good at being intimidating–which is what they’re trying to be.

If you read this blog back in 2007, 2008, you’ve seen what this kind of flaming looks like. I learned then, especially as it relates to threats about my job, that the best response for me was to invite flamers to watch my teaching and read my scholarship. If any of you trolls wants to scare me by threatening to “turn me in” to WCU and PASSHE bigwigs, they already know who I am. They know what my politics are. They know I’m a union thug. Now they know I’ve not only signed the Sanctuary Campus letter but helped to circulate it. If you want to have a conversation about how well I fulfill my professional obligations, let’s do, but you have to play by my rules:

  1. It happens here so it’s visible and archived for anyone who wants to see it.
  2. You know my real name, so I get to know your real name too. If you say the nasty things, you have to own them.
  3. I get to decide if you cross a line such that I won’t approve a comment. It’s my blog. If you want to say something I won’t publish, start your own blog. It’s free and easy.