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the “incident” at UT

September 29th, 2010 by slewfoot

I recognize a lot of folks are checking this blog for commentary on the events that took place here on Tuesday. A young man here at the university fired an assault rifle into the air, then entered the library, and took his own life. I have a lot to say—but things have been so crazy here I’ve had little time to say it. I hope to reflect on these events soon—I just have to find the time to do so. This week has been, in a word, “crazy.”

Until I have a moment to really take time to reflect, I will report that I’m currently prepping my class discussion for tomorrow. I have decided to scrap what I woud have talked about on Tuesday or tomorrow in class, instead opting for an open discussion about the “incident” (as it has come to be referenced). I want to provide my students (and myself) a forum to “work-through” this in class—I’m just not sure, even at this late hour, how to do so in a responsible and ethical way. I have been reading-up on the events here in 1966 (the tower shootings) and revisiting the work done on Columbine, VA Tech, and Northern Illinois University. I sense there is an imperative to talk about what happened, and to provide a space and forum to “work through” the issues—I’m just very confused about how to frame this productively. There are so many issues that this incident of violence raises, and these issues are so far out of bounds—of my training, of the norm, of what we know how to talk about.

I’m posting this as a placeholder, then. There is a pedagological imperative here. I’m not sure what it is. We have to think hard and critically about issues of violence, of depression, of media coverage, and of existential questions that college should really be the place to address. And there is this nagging voice that we should not overreact to “the incident”—that at some remove the drama of trauma plays into a machine of spectacle that organizes affect for this or that political end. How does one provide a space for critical thinking and reflection that does not collapse onto melancholic scripts of enjoyment? I worry that even my desire to have the class engage it participates in a maudlin cultural repertoire of collective injury. Gosh, I don’t know. I have to figure this out by 12:30 tomorrow. I will. I’m going to revisit the report produced by the Northern Illinois University for help. If the classroom is not THE place to discuss this with students, I don’t know where it is. (Well, it’s not cable news). From a historical vantage, this sort of thing is not “new”—violence erupts. But how to engage the complexity of the drama in a way that does not reduce it to a video-game, in a way that recognizes the rupture as a symptom, that is the challenge? My leaning is just to say exactly this—that I don’t know exactly how to adress it, and let that be the starting point for discussion.

Crap. I have to figure out how to get to sleep; and then, I have to figure out how to teach. I recognize walking into class and teaching as I normally would is not an option–is not responsible. Oh, but how to respond?

it’s synth-pop friday!

September 24th, 2010 by slewfoot

(american home shield blues) x (infinity)

September 18th, 2010 by slewfoot

Music: A Sunny Day in Glasgow: Ashes Grammar (2009)

Last I left off on my air-conditioner repair drama, Dave from Dave’s Heating and Air finally—after weeks upon weeks of stalling—came by to inspect the air-handler his folks installed in June (the one leaking water into my ceiling). He hawed and hemmed, initially saying that he wanted to install another drip pan to catch the condensation. When I pointed out this really wasn’t the “right” fix and that I would hire a carpenter to patch up the ceiling if he did it right, he agreed that installing a new air handler was the proper course. It was something of a Yogi Berra moment: the diagnosis and solution was the exact same thing Dave said back in June.

Meanwhile, American Home Shield’s “Customer Relations Research Department” had been assigned my case.

1. Wednesday, August 25 (2:54 p.m): Evelyn called and left me a couple of messages, but school had just started and I was not home very much to return her call. Here is her message.

2. Thursday, September 9 (3:12 p.m.): For many days I tried to contact Evelyn. I left her three messages every other day beginning the next week. I never managed to catch Evelyn. Nor did she ever return my calls. I know she’s playing hard to get. Here’s the first message I left her.

3. Thursday, September 9 (3:20 p.m.): After failing to connect with Evelyn, I decided to check with Dave’s Heating and Air to see if they had some news for me. Kim took my call, and noted she would call me back in fifteen minutes. Hard to get, yes, but with promise. Presumably, she needed to check-in with Dave for permission. Here’s the call.

4. Thursday, September 9 (4:17 p.m.): Kim phones back—in her soothing tones of seduction—to report that Dave is yet to contact the AHS representative, and that I need to give him another week. You can tell she’s very pleased I didn’t give her a hard time; just listen to that ecstatic “ok” at the end. Here’s her call.

5. Monday, September 13 (10:00 a.m.): I was having dreams of Evelyn at AHS. Her seductive voice, her recorded blessings, I just know if we made a Jesus connection I could get my air cooled, without drippage. I couldn’t resist trying to catch her again. But alas, I missed her yet again. She’s definitely playing hard to get. Here’s the message I left her.

6. Tuesday, September 14 (8:50 a.m.): Evelyn Whittaker’s voice keeps wafting through my mind’s ear. She haunts me, with her promise, with her tones of comfort. I had to try her one last time. But I’m growing tired of games. Why can’t folks just be honest? I decided to give her up. I know I said I’d try to catch her again, but that was a lie. I knew better. She just won’t have me. Here’s the message. Goodbye, dear, sweet Evelyn. We had such promise. God bless.

7. Tuesday, September 14th (9:06 p.m.): It happens on Monday I received yet another bill from AHS noting a past-due service charge $60 for Sheldon’s Pride’s visit way back when. Sheldon’s Pride, however, was called out to “reassess” what Dave messed up, and there was not supposed to be a service charge. I called once before about this, and I was told my account was “up to date” and the bill came in error. Yet I got another bill. Knowing, in my heart of hearts, that Dave would stall as long as possible and that Evelyn was really a playa, I decided I would call about this bill and use it as an opportunity to inquire about the status of my case. After an eleven-minute wait (which was supposed to be “less than five minutes”) Jill took my call. The lovely, southern-tongued Jill deduced that there was a data-entry error on my account. When she asked if there was something else she could do for me, I filled her in on my case, Evelyn, and the delay with Dave. Trying to save Jill some reading, I explained what had happened to date, adding that Dave said AHS was the one who ordered the wrong size. According to her records, however, Jill reported that Dave actually put in an order for the 1.5 air handler (not the 2.0 ton, which is the correct one). “Let me see what I can do,” Jill says, “and let me get back with you.” Here’s the call.

8. Tuesday, September 14th (9:33 p.m.): Well, Jill must be the shit. In less than a half-hour after we spoke guess who called? That’s right, Kim from Dave’s Heating and Air. She phoned to set up an appointment to have my air handler replaced. It looks like my new, correct-size air handler will be installed on Friday, September 24th. That’s a big day for me, because I’m seeing the Drive-By Truckers that night—if disaster strikes I’m gonna be one unhappy puppy. Here’s the call.

Will Josh’s five month air-conditioner drama finally end? Will Dave’s Heating and Air finally do what they said they would do from the beginning? Will American Home Shield honor their contract? Stay tuned for the next, exciting episode of Thirty-Something Academic Has Domestic Dramas!

it’s synth-pop friday!

September 17th, 2010 by slewfoot

the job market (for grads)

September 14th, 2010 by slewfoot

Music: Rufus Wainwright: All the Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu (2010)

The smell of anxious grads on the job market is thick in the hallways of CMA. Today my colleagues and I dispatched the first wave of what will be many recommendation letters fanning their way out across the land. I sense the mood is more hopeful among us than last year, since the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse—a.k.a. Recession—was unleashed by the Great Satan Finance Capital. This year the other horses didn’t follow, and it appears many schools now have a sense of what their budgets are (except, er, here in Texas). That there seems to be a little more out there is encouraging, although I know this doesn’t make any of our good folks less anxious. Ya’ll hang in there.

Barry and I were comparing notes about trends we have been noticing in the job ads. As I predicted last year, the calls for generalist positions are up. A number of ads feature a pairing of unusual specialties—usually combos of qualitative and quantitative methodological approaches (e.g., “to teach courses in rhetorical and argumentation theory, was well as interpersonal communication and interviewing). This is a signature of needing one person to cover two or three specific needs because of a strapped budget. Barry pointed out that letters are no longer going to specific folks as much as they are committees, or an EEOC department, or the dean’s office, and so on. We’re not sure what this means. One might speculate this represents a decrease in a department’s autonomy to select their faculty—that when financial times are not so good, higher ups are asserting “quality control.” Don’t know for sure, though.

Anyhoo, my first Rockin’ Ph.D. advisee is hitting it hard this fall and has been asking me very good questions about the process. I thought I would share a bit of what we discussed in the event someone out in the hot blue yonder finds it helpful.

WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS AD MEAN? SHOULD I APPLY?

Ads are written in code, and this in large part because every word in a job ad costs the department money. That is, the codes are less devious than, well, cheap. The problem is that these “codes” differ depending who is writing the job ad. First, there are field-specific codes. In my discipline of communication studies, for example, here are some common ones: “Human Communication” often means more social scientific in orientation, while variations of “speech” signify more of a humanities orientation. “Political Communication” has come to mean something closer to political science; when you see that term, it frequently does not mean “rhetoric”—unless it’s mentioned in the same breath with “social movements.” It’s always good to check the faculty on the department’s website, which can help to pin it down. If the term “critical” is in the job ad, that signifies more a theory savvy humanities desire. If the ad mentions “film,” careful if you primarily identify as “rhetoric.” If the ad says “new” or “social media,” that means “studies what is sexy now, and if you’re dissertating about Wikipedia or Facebook, please apply.” If the ad says “Communication Theory,” that means social science (sorry rhetoric folks), same goes for “Interpersonal Communication.” I could go on, but the best way to know if a job is something you may have a shot at, ask a faculty member who has been in the field for a while.

Second, there are administration and dean codes. The job ad that results from these folks is often mystifying, especially if the dean or person who wrote the ad is from a different field. The ad may say something like, “Such and So Department seeks a humanities scholar to teach courses in communication processes.” There’s just no tellin’; it’s always cool to email the chair of a search or a department head to ask, “I’m writing for a more information about your position. Can you tell me what the department’s vision is for this new hire?” That word, “vision,” can evoke more detail. And, after all, it doesn’t cost much money for someone to clarify a position in email.

Third, there are the codes to be wary of: these are “we don’t know what we want” codes or “we have so many holes in our curriculum, we want a genii!” codes. For example, a colleague passed on this ad, which I promise is a real ad and not something Shaun or I made up for Spectre:

State University—Satellite City (Deadline, Oct. 30)

Assistant Professor, Communication

[Address removed for anonymity]

Ability to teach at both the undergraduate and graduate levels: new media and media convergence; journalism; public relations; research methods; communication theory; interpersonal communication; small group communication; and corporate communication.

Ok, one thing I can tell you is that all of these different specialties have a quantitative side, so this is not a rhetorician friendly ad. But even then, I could not imagine how to advise, say, a social scientist how in the world to apply (much less interview) for such a position. As the colleague said who sent this to me, “and the kitchen sink.” Wow. Just wow.

Finally, there are institutional codes for religious conviction or the desired race or gender of a candidate, and these are more conspicuous. Sometimes an ad may say the position is for someone who studies African American rhetoric, or American Indian rhetoric, or queer theory, and so on. I know of stories in which someone who actually studies such things and was invited for an interview, but then was treated strangely because such areas of study really reflected a desire for a person who identified as African American or American Indian or queer. That’s wrong, frankly, but it happens (this thorny issue demands a post in itself). And if an ad says “Holy Roller University is a religious institution; all faculty must make a proclamation of faith and handle a snake before employment,” then you probably shouldn’t apply if you are not of this faith. However, many religious institutions (e.g. Jesuit) do hire faculty without an expectation of faith (or snake handling, unless it’s Hogwarts). Depends on the faith.

WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO REQUEST LETTERS?

My Rockin’ advisee asked this before he started. Everyone you ask is different in terms of what s/he expects, so asking ahead is a good policy. You know, “so, how would you like it?” Don’t say it in a dirty way, though. Well . . . a-hem. In general, you want to make it as easy and “fool proof” for your letter writer as possible. Once you secure a “yes” (getting on one knee, bringing cake, or just asking nicely), I recommend the following:


  • Make requests in batches of five jobs or more. Try to space the batches out in terms of deadlines. So, for example, ask for letters for the five jobs whose deadlines are in September in late August or early September; those due in October later September, and so on. In general, the daily emails of “oh, and another one” can be very difficult to keep up with for a letter writer (they are probably writing for many people, often for the same positions, so batching keeps YOU together for THEM).
  • Send your letter writer two kinds of batches: a hard copy, on which all the job positions and addresses are listed, and then a follow-up electronic copy (for vice versa). On your list, write a sentence or two with the ad text explaining how you see yourself fitting the job—most especially if it’s a stretch. Include any backchannel information you might know, too. For example, the ad may say nothing about the debate team, but if you know they would love the applicant to work with debate (but perhaps they were not allowed to put it in the ad), tell your letter writer.
  • Provide pre-addressed envelopes to your letter writer. This step is moot if the letter writer is in another place (so don’t worry about that), but if you’re asking faculty at your university, go ahead and given them an addressed envelope. It saves them time. You might also stamp it too. Many universities and colleges don’t pay for postage on these kinds of things—don’t assume your letter writer will, either.
  • Don’t apply to positions for which you have no expertise. If you are a qualitative person, it would not be a good idea to apply to a job that asks for teaching the graduate level statistics class. If I am asked to write a letter for such a situation, my second sentence is usually something like, “although Dashland has no training in quantitative methods, he is a quick study and resourceful.” I say that because I also have a reputation to hold up, and folks looking at applications may not respect me if I paint you too much like a round peg for their square hole.


Of course, these are general guidelines and not rules. Job ads are always coming out late with quick deadlines—and often for reasons that were beyond the control of the department (usually bureaucracy). Letter writers, in general, understand this (especially if you explain it). If possible, though, try to give letter writers many weeks before a deadline.

There’s much more to say, but I see it’s past my bedtime and I’ve a few chores to accomplish before I woo the Sandman. As the job applying season moves along, I hope to blog some more on these issues.

Before I go: there is a Communication and Media Studies Job Wiki here. Anyone can come on and update the status of hires, gossip about who is interviewing where, and so forth. I’m ambivalent about its use for many reasons, but some of you may find it helpful. The potential for misinformation, however, is medium.

Good luck, job seekers!

“his name is allen. guess where i found him?”

September 12th, 2010 by slewfoot

the anniversary

September 12th, 2010 by slewfoot

Music: Marconi Union: 13 (2009)

It’s difficult to let this day pass without acknowledging the life-changing events of this day nine years ago. After a fitful night (I had trouble sleeping) I awoke today to a long-list of to-dos, most of which involved sitting in front of a computer writing, or reading. I hit “send” on the last bit of work about ten minutes ago. Yes, I realize it is Saturday night and I have been working, but when you are naughty on one night you have to “make up for it.” As I was working today, however, the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001 did come to mind frequently. Since that time I’ve come to refer to the totality as, simply, “Nine-eleven.” That day changed my life—frankly, all of our lives.

I don’t have anything particularly poignant to say, just the nagging guilt I should say something. I went over my vita briefly just now to see how much of my scholarship concerns the events of that fateful day. Five articles. I’ve written five things since Nine-eleven that reference the events of that day explicitly. And while I want to hold fast to the notion that my life is not reducible to my scholarship, I also know that my thinking-aloud-in-print is one of the many ways in which I process the world around me. All of us have “moved on” and mourned whatever it is that Nine-Eleven represents, but still: for my generation, Nine-eleven is a defining moment.

Much of my formative adult life has been spent in the wake of Nine-eleven. It’s a strange dividing point. I remember what traveling was like before it. I was on the job market right after it happened; 22 airplane flights right after that fateful day. Turbulence in flight before the WTC fell was something of an amusement, like a roller coaster ride. After they fell, turbulence was a terror and reason for nightmares. I used to love flying; today I loathe it.

Like life defining moments of older generations—wars, JFK’s assassination—I remember exactly where I was when the news broke. Prior to Nine-eleven, the life defining public event was OJ’s car chase with the police. I was home for the summer during college, and my friend Jennifer called me and we watched a split screen television broadcast: on the right was president Clinton delivering an address to the country; on the left was an aerial shot of Simpson’s black Bronco.

But Nine-eleven sticks even more vividly. I was writing my dissertation. My routine was to proofread what I had written the day before while swilling coffee and watching NBC’s The Today Show. I remember Matt Lauer and Katie Couric reporting the confusion above them; initially the reports were that a small hobby aircraft had crashed into one of the towers. Then things become more ominous. When the second plane hit, my friend (and frequent commentator on this blog) David Beard phoned me. We had an essay in review about “real time” news coverage, and we were talking about how everything we had said in that essay was happening on television. We watched the television, on the phone together, and . . . just watched. At times silent. Slack-jawed, to be sure.

Nine-eleven has changed so much of what is “important” and affected our lives in so many ways, and much of that is ugly. In some sense, there’s no way to disarticulate Obama’s election to a collective need to mourn and move on. It seems like so much of the Bush regime was tied to milking that crisis and sense of anomie for this-or-that political end. While I’m critical of the Obama presidency, at the same time, I’m very thankful for the page-turning his election represented. The recession surely sucks, the cultural political stuff could certainly be better. Upon reflection, however, today (now September 12, 2010) I’m grateful that our collective obsession has shifted from warmongering to jobs. I’m grateful that it’s possible to be reflective.

I’m grateful it is permissible to be critical again.

it’s synth-pop friday!

September 10th, 2010 by slewfoot

accounting for teachers

September 6th, 2010 by slewfoot

Music: Fields of the Nephilim: Revelations (1997)

To be an educator in these times requires one to navigate a certain apocalyptic mood. I don’t care who you talk to—primary, secondary, or post-secondary teachers—these days the good folks who decided to make education a career choice have had to weather waves of dire news and tidings of doom. Much of this mood can be traced to the spooks of finance capital, of course, and the way these deceitful shadows have poltergeiszed state governance. Because education is a component of the commonweal, and because the weal is not well (financially), cuts in public education funding are now widespread. This has resulted in all sorts of “bad news” for educators, from public high schools to universities.

Most of us in education know that there is a tacit understanding about teaching: because it is bodily and interpersonal, because so much of teaching occurs in that strange, ineffable space between bodies and minds and feelings, it cannot be reduced to a science. Teaching is often compared to magic, as so many “inspirational” Hollywood films attest. The labor of teaching is often invisible. The tacit, cultural agreement about teaching has thus been “measured” in terms of results: let me alone with your student and, if all goes well, she will be educated. Of course, that’s not how education actually happens, but the cultural fantasy of education is nevertheless akin to magic (a very, very bad movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer comes to mind, as well as a good but troublesome one titled Precious). This fantasy flies until the economy goes south—then accountability measures come into play, and these come, almost always, from those who are not teachers. When the world is uncertain, we retreat to the solidity or certainty of the number.

To preview: doing politics means that one must intone the motto, “never waste a crisis.”

Back when Adam Smith was contemplating The Wealth of Nations, and long before this well-meaning (and by most accounts a decent) chap could have ever witnessed what Marx did, “political economy” was considered a bad thing. The notion meant that civil society had been infiltrated by the political (understood as state regulation) and thus had been sullied. Today, of course, “political economy” refers to a perspective on media and culture that examines the way in which the economic, broadly construed, participates in the production of culture (or superstructure). “Political economy,” in other words, no longer has a negative connotation. All of us start from the premise that economic matters are shot-through with the political—that questions of power are unavoidable. Today, political economy represents a particular perspective on cultural production keyed to economic influence (quite the 180, I reckon). We have yet to come to terms with the fact that education is similarly political.

Education has never not been “political,” however, in recent times one might say the meaning of “political education” has been in negotiation. Most teachers would take the notion of “political education” as a given—that politics, broadly construed, is deeply embedded in educational policy. A cursory review of educational policy from the nineteenth century in this country reveals that politics and education are something like an Oreo cookie: the act passed in congress that established land grant institutions in the 1860s was unabashedly political and tied directly to the Civil War (it was part of an economic recovery strategy, to be sure!). Somewhere along the way both educators and the “public” alike came to position that education is an apolitical pursuit, that teachers would somehow be “transmitting” pure knowledge devoid of power. This notion is absurd, of course, but there is no denying that the ideology of “objectivity” dominates our educational fantasy in the United States; all of us who teach, from Kindergarten to the college classroom, labor under the ideal that what we present to students is in some way, fashion, or form a version of the truth.

Of course, anyone who has spent time in the classroom knows that “the truth” is not what we’re teaching. We’re teaching thinking, or styles of thought. We’re teaching skills. Most teachers subscribe to a certain ideology of “independent thought,” meaning that we are concerned with teaching students to think for themselves. Educators come from across the political spectrum, but in my experience all of us are generally concerned with the well-being of students and their ability to adopt and use the tools human beings have developed to navigate daily problems. For example: in a fifth grade classroom, a teacher is probably much more interested in having a student solve a mathematical calculation than identify what president passed a progressive reform. This is a political interest, undoubtedly: it’s about empowering someone regardless of class affiliation or racial or gender affiliation. There’s no doubt in my mind that teachers inflect their own cultural politics in the classroom; teachers are human beings—that’s gonna happen. You cannot “hide” that—people, especially young people, are very perceptive and they’ll smell out your cultural politics no matter what you do. But regardless of a given teacher’s cultural politics, at the end of the day, we all aim toward engendering thinking. If Jack and Jill are reading, we’ve done our job.

This is to say, I think most folks who want to pursue teaching as a career are idealists. Teachers are not rewarded with money. Period. Everyone knows this. And most who teach know this (and those who don’t are quickly weeded out). We see ourselves as doing an important kind of cultural work that isn’t measured in terms of number or degree or money. There is a certain romanticism to teaching that entices new teachers. That romanticism involves, I think, precisely this ineffable “magic” that is not reducible to the number, to “the account.”

With these assumptions in mind, I’m troubled by two trends. First, I’m troubled by the ascent of the “for-profit” university in the United States, like the University of Phoenix. The educational model of for-profit universities is that one can “purchase” an education—that you pay money and endure an online series of courses and emerge with a degree. Notwithstanding the fact that for-profit universities are actually more expensive than traditional universities (or community colleges), there is simply no way one can equate an in person, classroom experience with a virtual class or words on a screen. Learning is bodily; so much of what is “taught” in a classroom in not reducible to words (on a screen). The assumption underwriting for-profit education is that feeling, something experienced by bodies in space, is not part of the educational experience. Call me sentimental, but love, broadly construed, is part of teaching. When I think about the most transformational classroom experiences in my education, it had something to do with love, the kind of feeling of care a teacher imparts to a student that is not possible in an email message. Hell, you can blame my conviction on Ruth Bailey, my third grade teacher. She’s the teacher who taught me multiplication tables in third grade, and who made me want to come to class after recess because she was going to read James and the Giant Peach aloud.

Second, I’m troubled by the ways in which politicians believe teachers should be made “accountable” economically. The inspiration of this post is a new policy that has apparently went into effect at Texas A&M University this fall. Goaded by a “conservative” group in Texas politics—and apparently with ties to state Governor Rick Perry—faculty at my neighboring university will now be judged on the basis of their economic viability. As this story details, professors at A&M will now have a “bottom line” assessment: monies professors have brought it from grants will be added to the amount of tuition revenue their teaching brings in. Their salary will be subtracted from this sum, yielding their value for the university as a corporation.

When I first read about this new measure of “accountability,” I thought it was some sort of satire from The Onion. That it is true is, well, astonishing and simply hard to believe. Yet, that it is true is also cause for deep concern among those of us who have chosen education as a profession: when teaching is reduced to the number, when the idealism of teaching is evaporated into degrees, when what we do is reduced to the dollar, who will want to teach? Or rather, when “accountability” is reduced to the account, what does teaching become? In primary and secondary education, “no child left behind” has transformed education into teaching for the test. Is higher education going to become teaching for the dollar? I don’t mean to be alarmist, but, such a measure of a teacher’s worth at the university level seems to me, in a word, absurd.

I don’t disagree with the notion of accountability, in general. But to use the measure of the dollar seems antithetical to the reason teachers become teachers in the first place.

it’s synth-pop friday!

September 3rd, 2010 by slewfoot