Where Did I Go Wrong? An open letter to Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL)

May 2, 2017

[After I posted this, I went to Rep. Brooks’ website so I could send it to him directly. Unfortunately, his office refuses to accept emails from anybody who isn’t in his district. Seriously? Because emails take up so much room in your office? Anyway, if anyone in Alabama who lives in his district is inclined to share this with him, I’d be grateful. Thx!]

Honorable Representative Brooks:

I read with great interest about your interview on CNN where you claim that people who live right don’t have pre-existing conditions to worry about, and so nothing to worry about if you vote up the new GOP-sponsored healthcare bill.

I hope you can help me understand, then, how I wound up as somebody who could be severely harmed by the current proposal, which weakens the guaranteed protections for those of us with pre-existing conditions. You seem very confident in your judgment of our lives, so maybe you can help me see where I went wrong.

Here’s my story: I’m 48 years old. I’d always been in good health internally up to age 40;  the only health problems I ever had were broken bones and some joint injuries I suffered because I was too klutzy to be the athlete I insisted on trying to be. Yes, I’m married a second time, but the first one ended amicably, and both people I’ve been married to have been at least as dedicated to fitness if not more as I am.

Just before I turned 40, I was diagnosed as a type-2 diabetic–not a pre-diabetic who could fix everything if I ate better and got a little more exercise, not so serious that I had to start insulin shots, but serious enough that I’ve been on a steady medication regimen and have overhauled my diet and exercise habits completely. I had never been a very careful eater, but I never had any problems that were related to diet. I smoked cigarettes for years, but there’s no evidence that smoking increases the risk of diabetes (it does amplify the harms, so I quit within a couple of months of my original diagnosis). I drank a lot in college but very occasionally and lightly since then. I don’t use any illegal drugs.

So why do I deserve to risk losing my health insurance if I have to change jobs (G*d forbid)? Is because I’m Jewish? No? Maybe because I’ve always voted Democratic? Nope! Or even worse, because I’m a liberal wacko college professor? Or because I’m a University of Georgia football fan? What is it, Rep. Brooks? I’m really at a loss here.

Since you’re so willing to put my life at increased risk based on your personal judgment of how good a person I am, the least you can do is help me be a better person by telling me what I’m doing so wrong. That seems fair, doesn’t it?

Sincerely,

Seth Kahn, West Chester, PA

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We also hurt our bargaining position when we devalue instructors of any kind

March 10, 2017

In July 2015, I wrote a post called “We hurt our bargaining position when we devalue lower-division teaching,” arguing to an audience primarily of faculty that when we denigrate lower-division teaching assignments (e.g., I wish I didn’t have to teach these boring intro courses so I could teach these more interesting upper division and grad courses!), we make it easier for decision-makers to conclude that the work isn’t worth very much because we’re the ones telling them it isn’t worth very much. That post has been about as well-received as any I’ve written.

Yesterday on the WPA-l (listserv for writing instructors and program administrators), I made a sorta ham-fisted effort to extend that line of argument. It didn’t work especially well, so I want to try again. Because that conversation got so unraveled into so many different threads and subthreads, I’m not even going to try to summarize it here. Instead, I just want to make a point or however many.

Let’s start with what I’m NOT SAYING:

  1. I’m not saying that if you hire people into bad positions, you’re a pariah or a moral failure.
  2. I’m not saying that should expect to lead the revolution that ends academic labor inequality.
  3. I’m not arguing that unqualified, untrained people should be teaching, or that advanced credentials aren’t worth having (obviously I think that–I did a PhD).

What I am saying:

  1. I recognize that in some settings, it’s reasonable to have people without terminal degrees teaching college classes. We can debate the ripple effects of that–on students, on programs, on the profession writ large–but if we’re going to have that debate, we also need to account for the tens of thousands of such faculty who already work in our departments/programs (Maria Maisto and I argued this point at some length in our review of Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth’s recent book). I’m not holding out for all tenure-track positions, and I’m not opposed to having MA-holders teaching college students, as long as other conditions hold (rigorous hiring and evaluation processes are the obvious examples).
  2. Once we have cadres of MA-holding instructors teaching college students, we have already told the decision-makers at our institutions that the MA is a legitimate qualification for the work. More on that in a minute.
  3. Once we legitimize the MA, we do the workers with MAs a grave disservice when we don’t contest paying them less than PhD-holders when they do the same work. I know perfectly well there are different kinds of jobs, and not everybody in a program or department has the same requirements/expectations and skills/training. But when faculty are teaching the same courses and the same number of them, expected to do the same amount of service, supported to the same level but not evaluated on their scholarship, the rationale for paying them differently is not clear to me.
  4. Even if the rationale is clear to you, and I can certainly believe it is since it’s clear to seemingly everyone but me, it doesn’t undo the damage we do to MA-holding faculty when we simultaneously claim that their credentials are legitimate but worth less. It’s our willingness to concede this point that puts our MA-holding faculty in the difficult position of having to argue that they need and deserve better, while we’re telling the decision-makers that they don’t.

Part of what happened in the WPA-l thread (and a couple of subsequent Facebook threads) is that I was able to think through two other points that don’t exactly follow from the rest of this, but hey, it’s my blog.

First–I didn’t really make this point clearly yesterday, but increasingly what I’m realizing is that it’s the positions that are toxic, not the hiring practices or the people who fill them. Defining a position based on the credential it takes to do it seems like bad practice on its face, especially in a profession that’s about learning! If all you ever get to do is what your current credential allows you to, where’s the space or motivation to learn to do anything else? Especially if that extra learning happens in a PhD program you have to finance yourself, with only so much hope that doing so will ever result in much besides being well-trained and bankrupt?

One B–Along similar lines, defining a position so that faculty only get to teach at one level of the curriculum also seems like a bad idea. The CCCC Statement on Working Conditions for NTT Writing Faculty recommends giving NTT faculty access to all levels of the curriculum for which they’re qualified. When we drafted that language, that was for the sake of the faculty themselves in order to keep from burning out doing the same thing forever. But now, I would argue that defining positions this way, especially when we simultaneously define those positions as low-paying and insecure, hurts not only the people in those positions, but the disciplines in which those courses exist, the faculty in those areas whose work gets less respect as a result, and so on.

Second–my expectations for what any individual faculty member can/should do aren’t especially high. I wrote on a Facebook comment this morning:

Every time you have the ear of your dean or provost or whoever actually signs off on hiring decisions, make the point as clearly as possible that positions defined by credential, and (I didn’t argue this yesterday but it’s also true) positions defined by locking faculty into one level of curriculum are bad positions. Yes, there are people who will take them, and I’m not questioning anyone’s individual motives for their decisions–but the positions, at their core, are toxic. You may not be able to change their minds about them, but if you say it enough times to enough people, you’ll have a lot better shot at winning the argument than by not saying it.

Sorry if that last part sounds pedantic; I’m trying to be quick. I just want us, collectively as a profession, to stop letting decision-makers off the hook for decisions they make that hurt people.

Keep telling them it’s wrong; that’s the only thing that even has a chance of getting it made right.


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.

Or.

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.
     Thanks!
     [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.