Archive for the academe Category

Chicago

Posted in academe with tags , , , on January 7, 2008 by jv

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Chicago. Freezing days, below-freezing nights. On Friday morning a blast of horizontal fargohat2.jpgsnow slashed like razorblades across the river. There I was limping down Upper Columbus in my lined trench coat, scarf, gloves, and Fargo hat only to creep down the iron stairway to Lower Columbus, at which point only the open bridge could stop me. It nearly did. Despite the earmuffs, scarf, and collar, the right side of my face was badly clawed. And I nearly fell. How long would I have lain there on the icy sidewalk–this is supposing of course that I would not have fallen over the rail and into the Chicago River–before I was spotted and rescued, or before one of the teeth-chattering homeless folk stripped me to the bone? Yet I could not turn backmlachicago1.gif, not now, having come so far for a cause both noble and good, namely the annual glimpse into academic hell known as the MLA Convention.

It is a long story that begins long long ago in the bosom of the Provost’s family. Do we all remember his dedication to diversity? Let me refresh our memories. In one of my first encounters with our Top Academic Officer, the Dean Himself at his side, he asked rhetorically: “You know, I’m always being asked how a white man from the whitest state in the Union came to be just so determined to bring real diversity to the college campus.” This is an interesting statement that University Diaries could shred to bits far better than I. First, the obvious: why are folks always asking the man this very question? When he picks up his dry cleaning, for instance, or when he’s washing his hands at the sink in the men’s room, or sitting around the backyard pool, who exactly runs up and demands an answer to this question? Next I must point out that the word Union in this context bespeaks the arrogance of the Yankee in the South. Finally, I leave real diversity to its own futility.

The answer is: (1) his parents instilled in all their children, etc.; (2) his older brother once marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [Hear the awed collective gasp from the academic bobble-heads.]

Now, had my older brother robbed a bank, say, despite all the wonderful core values instilled in him by our folks, would I be entitled to any of the money? Or conversely, should I go to jail? On a more positive note, if my older brother performed an act of heroism on the battlefield, could I claim some of his medals? On the other hand, if my older brother is a rank coward and deserts his command, do I get shot?

What kind of–ahem–man seeks to justify a sincere commitment to a moral or ethical imperative through a kind of Six Degrees of Martin Luther King? Too many questions, I know, but at the moment I am a bitter, bitter man. And I’m distracted by Down by the River by Neil Young.

I will write more on the “real diversity” process instituted that day, but at the moment I must connect my rant to the MLA Convention. The Department sent me and a team of experts to interview candidates for a post left open last year. We were told to think outside the box (yes!), to examine our thoughts like Jesuits in search of hidden racism, sexism, and other isms, and to come back from the hunt with a pedigreed minority in tow. After three days of interviews, only one minority diverse enough for the Provost met with us. One. Naturally, there were many women–in fact, the majority. Only they weren’t the right kind of women. That is to say, we will hire one of the them if at all possible, but unless we win the bidding war for the one “real diverse” minority, we will have failed in our trek through the winter wastes of Chicago.

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Provosting

Posted in academe, provost on October 30, 2007 by jv

The asylum has a new provost who may at heart be a very nice man and is making the academic rounds to introduce himself and—ahem—to get to know us. Provost means the chief academic officer, although in all fairness the “academic” should provost3.jpgfall in third place, being a CYA or even better a fig leaf to hide the shame of such pupenda as grade inflation, poor teaching skills, worse learning skills, and the fact that we accept fully 25% of students who have no business taking university courses in the first place. But I digress…

In a large department like ours by the time we’re done introducing ourselves, the meeting is pretty much over. Nothing of course is truly exchanged in an exercise in futility. The Head and the Provost indulge in triumphalism (“we being a first-class research institution and rated number 253 by US World and Weekly Coupons”) and a menacing exordium (“but we have GOT to do better”), and then the P for Provost looking at his watch asks if any of us have a concern or two he can address in three-point-two seconds. An instructor invariably speaks up saying she has taught in this department for nigh on thirty years now, OK? and it seems to me having been here that long, that students in general—now I’m not talking about your majors and your minors, OK? some of whom I am told are just fabulous—but being an instructor I teach the required first-year courses exclusively, so I cannot speak personally to the performance of students at the higher level, OK?—but in my almost thirty years of service to this department and to this university, I have never seen a sorrier group of individuals than my 101 students this semester and I—

This, says the P, is a concern that I’m sure we all share. And whether it’s that Generation X has now given way to Generation Me… the one thing to remember is that the world has changed since you and I were students… for the good and for the bad, I suppose… which is one reason technology has become so important in the classroom, so important… but the students and their families want to know, for example, what are we doing to keep up with the times? They see themselves now as consumers and us as offering a service, and the old subject matter doesn’t cut it anymore… they’re not interested in all that… what one student once told me was a bunch of dead white guys. So if we are to remain diverse and on the cutting edge, we’ve GOT to do better, people. We have got to do better…

One time I had the good fortune of sitting at the Twin Oaks with a pork chop sandwich when a church group piled in for barbecue, Disciples of Christ, I think, or maybe Nazarenes. I didn’t know but one or two by name, the point being that here comes Slick Weems who’d been in the legislature since God was young, and leaving his long black Cadillac in the shade he shook hands with everybody before plopping down at one of the picnic tables with the Nazarenes, or maybe they were Foursquare Gospel. It turned out to be some kind of more or less official visit arranged ahead of time by somebody, and Slick shoveled down the barbecue and beans and made the chit and the chat with the folks at his table, managed to squeeze the waitress by the wrist from time to time and call her darlin, and eventually they church group prevailed upon him for a speech. Up he went on his toes before rocking back on his heels, one thumb hooked in his shirt pocket, which was sky blue, and staring at the remains of the dead pig on his plate, he was thinking what to say, you could tell. He smoothed his red-white-and-blue American flag necktie and began to orate like I had never heard before. Every phrase had been honed to perfection, and every phrase had been set like a jewel into its sentence, and there was not one sentence that unrolled through the Twin Oaks without a gulp or a nod from the audience. Slick Weems knew how to say all the right things. Trouble was, the longer he orated, the more it struck me that none of those right things had much to do with all the other right things. He was just reaching way deep into his oratory pocket and pulling out handfuls of lint. And if I had interrupted my pork chop sandwich saying, Scuse me, Slick?—because everyone called him Slick, you had to—what is it exactly that you stand for? He would have bowed his head again, breathed mightily, looked up through his bushy eyebrows, and said with conviction: Absolutely!

I have marveled at such a strange and wonderful gift, and not talking Hitler here hypnotizing the masses or whatever, but the Babbitting of platitudes. And yet Babbitting sounds so pedestrian, so Sunday School and Rotary lunch. Slick did you proud, at least at first. But somewhere between Babbitt and Slick, there is a kind of academese I discovered the other day. And its name is Provosting.