Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Have Always Depended on the Kindness of Internet Strangers

Greetings! Over the past weekend, I jetted to an island other than Paradise for an academic conference. It was my good fortune to be on a panel with academic blogging true believers. Historiann exchanged her rusty spurs for a series of fabulous sun dresses; Tenured Radical rabble roused among the virtual; the Madwoman with a Laptop proved once and for all that her authorial prowess was not dependent on channeling a dead canine; and the Woman Formally Known as Goose (WFKG) served as the most delightful of mistresses of ceremonies. The panel, in other words, was filled with the cool.

It came at the right moment for me – and, let’s be honest, it’s always about me in the end. I had been wondering for quite a bit of time what CoG’s future might be. It has been a bit like CoG was my child. Only ze dropped out of college and has been holding up in my basement sneaking joints and watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory. My participation forced CoG into the light of day and to rejoin society. It also marked a new step for this ol’ blog. It meant that I relinquished the last vestiges of pseudonymity and “owned” it professionally. For the first time something related to the blog will appear on my c.v. Here is an image from our panel:

I'll leave it to you to figure out which one of the others wore the silver jumpsuit. *cough* TR *cough*

I had to think hard about whether to let go of my Diana Prince alter ego. With Cheetah and Giganta on the prowl, one can never be too careful. Over time, however, my pseudonym had become harder and harder to maintain. The blog occupied an uncertain place as more people came to know of it. At some point, it became awkward that half of my friends knew of the blog and half did not. So, too, I always wondered if any academics at my usual conferences ever stumbled upon CoG.
I felt like I was in the blogging closet and all my star-spangled panties were hanging around me.
As it turns out, my anonymity could be purchased for a price. That price was a trip to an island with tremendous historical significance for Spanish and U.S. imperialism. Or maybe, even more cheaply, I was lured by the fact that the conference hotel promised Piña Coladas so good that Joan Crawford once proclaimed them more enjoyable than slapping Bette Davis in the face. On the latter I cannot say; however, having sampled the drink in question, I would say that if I were a Joan Crawford dragqueen, I would probably take the swing.* I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

Let me tell you, too, that these blogging folks can be a persuasive crew. After a few drinks with Madwoman, TR, WFKG, and a delightful Yale postdoc, they convinced me to do things that I never imagined doing. No, not tequila shots via a congo line (although. . .). Rather, I opened a Twitter account.** Man, what did they put in those drinks?

All and all, the conference required me to ask just what have we been up to on this blog since 2005? Anonymously complaining about bad behavior in academia can be as fun as slapping Bette Davis in the face (Or so I am told). It becomes much harder to write about your colleagues’ shenanigans, though, if they have you in their RSS feed. So, what can academic blogs do other than pointing out our foibles?

I found myself disarmed that so many conference participants approached me through the weekend to say they were surprised that I was part of the“Digital Humanities.” So was I. Given that I am more than a bit dense, I had never contemplated that CoG was a version of that. It was a bit like finding out that I had secret skills as a dentist that I performed only while sleepwalking. Of course, to make that analogy work for CoG, it would be like finding out I was a dentist who left people with gaping, bleeding gums thanks to my less than skillful orthodontics.

The conference made me reminisce about when the little bloggy started. Then again, I have always been prone to nostalgia. I am a professional historian after all. My blog began at a pretty low point in my personal and professional life. The truly loyal readers out there will remember that many of the early posts conveyed self pity deep bitterness my reflections on a remarkably acrimonious break up with somebody who was truth challenged. My tenuous (and not tenured) position in a poisonously contentious department in the middle of TexAss only compounded those woes. From its start, then, the blog always had a certain messiness that blurred the personal and professional in ways that did not make me as wise as Athena. Well, if the blog’s author is a bit of mess, why wouldn’t the blog be one too? The blog became really important to me to combat the personal and professional isolation that I felt in East Texas. I did not have many other gay folks with whom to hang or other Chicano/a historians with whom to chat. Thank the goddess that those times have past. I will always remember, though, and be really grateful for the generosity of bloggers like Helen the Felon, Dorian, Joe.My.God, Tornwordo, VUBOQ, and others who reached out through cold dark cyberspace to be kind. Some are now famous, some faded. Whatever the case, I’m not sure I ever properly thanked them.

Thinking about the blog and hanging out with cool bloggeres reminded me that I still love the genre after all these years. Blogging offers tantalizing opportunities for us to write frankly about things that we see transpiring both in our immediate contexts and in the larger media. That type of writing does not necessarily align with my professional publishing trajectory as a nineteenth-century historian, but it sure is fun. So much so, I just might dust off those old comic books once more. . .

* For the record, GayProf does not endorse such violence.
** For the record, Historiann does not endorse the tweeting.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The CoG Best Sellers List

Time sure is flying. With the start of the semester, I barely have time to read blogs much less write one. Apparently I am not alone in being in such a time crunch. It seems that the President is so busy that he doesn’t even have time to do those little things, like send flowers to Michele for their anniversary or prepare for a nationally televised debate. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’. . .

The good news from GayProflandia is that NERPoD is having some modest success in terms of sales. Have you purchased your copy yet? It is also available for your nook or kindle.I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'. . .

Of course, no academic book can compete with the dozens of political tell-alls or "road maps to political oblivion" that appear each election cycle. All of this political publishing has me thinking about one of my favorite recurring features on CoG: The Best and Worst Seller List. Allow me to help you navigate which books would be likely to fly off the shelves and which would be reduced to the bargain bin.

    Best Seller: Occupy Sesame Street, by Big Bird

    Bargain Bin: Mr. Snuffleupagus is Real, George W. Bush

    Bargain Bin: Horse Dressage is More Interesting than My Husband and Other Regrets, by Ann Romney

    Best Seller: The Horrors of Horse Dressage, by Ann Romney’s Horse

    Best Seller: Who Lets These People Have Pets?: An Argument for Stricter Pet Adoption Laws, by Seamus Romney

    Best Seller: Blogging for Career Success! by Historiann and Tenured Radical

    Bargain Bin: Blogging for Career Success! by GayProf

    Bargain Bin: My Indian Heritage, by Elizabeth Warren

    Bargain Bin: My Mexican Heritage, by George Romney

    Bargain Bin: Tastes Like Type II Diabetes: Favorite Southern Recipes, by Paula Dean

    Bargain Bin: Tastes Like Hate: Favorite Chic-fil-a Recipes, by Dan Cathy

    Bargain Bin: Tastes Like Gerrymandering: Favorite Recipes for a Republican Victory, by Republican Controlled Legislatures

    Best Seller: A Bunny’s Tale: My Time as a Playboy Cocktail Waitress, by Gloria Steinem

    Bargain Bin: A Dumb Bunny’s Tale: My Time as a Cosmo Centerfold, by Scott Brown

    Bargain Bin: Union Busting Ain’t Just for Republicans Anymore, by Rohn Emanuel

    Best Seller: Not Enough Money in the World: A Fair Salary for Teaching Your Spoiled Brats, by School Teachers Everywhere

    Bargain Bin: Basic Female Biology, by Todd Aiken

    Bargain Bin: Smart and Fair Immigration Reform in Arizona, by Jan Brewer

    Best Seller: My Secret Life as a Podling, by Jan Brewer

    Bargain Bin: Say Anything: My New Plan to Get the Votes of the Despicable Leeches Who Compose 47 Percent of the Nation’s Population, by Mitt Romney

    Best Seller: We’re Not That Stupid, by 47 Percent of the Nation’s Population

    Best Seller: Hope and Change, by Barack Obama, 2008

    Bargain Bin: Lowered Expectations and the Status Quo, by Barack Obama, 2012

    Best Seller: The People Have Spoken and Now the People Must Suffer, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2008

    Best Seller: My Life in Pictures, by Michelle Obama

    Bargain Bin: My Life in Pictures, by Chris Christie

    Bargain Bin: Fifty Shades of Crazy, by Michele Bachmann

    Best Seller: Tips and Tricks for Being an Effective Public Speaker, by Bill Clinton

    Bargain Bin: Cigar Aficionado, by Bill Clinton

    Best Seller: Where Am I?, by Apple iPhone 5 Users

    Bargain Bin: Where Am I?, by Jim Lehrer

    Bargain Bin: The Gym is My Closet, by Paul Ryan *cough* What? How else do you explain a self-proclaimed "devout Catholic" with only three children? Either he is risking eternal damnation by using birth control or . . . I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’. . .

    Best Seller: No Respect: My Life as Politics’ Rodney Dangerfield, by Joe Biden

    Bargain Bin: Living a Clean, Natural Lifestyle, by Lance Armstrong

    Best Seller: Hulk Smash: My Life with Lance Armstrong, by Sheryl Crow

    Bargain Bin: Derivative Dribble Sells! by Adele

    Best Seller: That Adele Bitch Stole My Act, by Shirley Bassey

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Online Learning

Some weeks ago the gentleman beau and I decided to take advantage of the sizzling merciless soul killing heat summer weather by taking a leisurely canoe ride. Doesn't that sound nice? After slathering ourselves in SPF-275 cream, we piled into a massive van of strangers to take the short ride to our launch point. Since we are both academic types, our conversation turned to online teaching as the van meander its way up the river. The gentleman beau has experience teaching online classes, but I do not. We both agreed nonetheless that online classes seem like bad news if one cares about quality education. We rehearsed the usual arguments against online courses: They reduce contact between professors and students; they reduce contact between students and students; they are often less rigorous; students are frequently left directionless and rarely put forward as much effort as a brick-and-mortar class; they compete with World of Warcraft for a student's attention; parents hate them and feel they are a “cheat” by the university. We hardly came up with novel critiques in other words. In that heat, one can’t expect me to be at my best. Just about the time that I began the inevitable claim that online classes were a harbinger of the pending demise of higher education as we know it, the stranger seated in front of me turned with daggers in her eyes. “I did my degree with many on-line classes,” she said curtly, “And they were really hard.” For a split second I swear that I could feel a slight tinge in a blood vessel in my brain as she attempted to telepathically explode my head.

Now this encounter took me back a bit and not just because I imagined that she hoped to spread my gray matter across the interior of the van. First, I don’t like to out-and-out insult people in public. That’s why I have this blog – I like to insult people virtually. Second, it dawned on me that my stance on online classes belied my status working for an elite institution.

Most professors and parents continue to consider online classes dubious at best (even those who actually teach them). Up until this point, taking a majority of online course work made one’s degree seem like a modern day correspondence course. Only you didn't have to draw the image on the back of the matchbook first. Despite this, two constituent groups really love the online courses: students and administrators. If they had their way, every university would have more of an online presence than a closeted Republican member of the House of Representatives looking to get laid. What? This ain’t a blog for children.

The stark reality is that most colleges and universities are exponentially increasing their online offerings. Cluck-clucking about it as a moral crisis might be easy (and fun too!), but it will not reverse the trend. Those who followed the recent showdown between the President of the University of Virginia and its governing board know that the latter felt the former moved too slowly in promoting online classes. If one of the original “public ivies” is about to cave into this pressure we should acknowledge that online classes are to be with us for quite some time. The impulse is there for a number of reasons. First, online classes are economical. Without needing to find actual classroom space, online classes can be as large as possible while still using just a single faculty member (or, worse, a severely underpaid adjunct). Second, liberal arts colleges and small regional universities are feeling the pressure from for-profit universities. As Republican-controlled legislatures and governors slash budgets to state-supported higher education the need to compete for every tuition dollar is getting greater and greater. Small colleges and universities have no choice but to try and accommodate the impulses that drive students to for-profit institutions.

Anybody who has a penchant for late-night television has seen the ads for these shady institutions promising the ease of a college education without ever having to change out of your pajamas or put down the tub of Ben-and-Jerry’s. Those ads make taking online classes seem like a virtual slumber party complete with intellectual tickle fights. Given what my students show up wearing in my actual class, though, I am left wondering if that is a real difference. It is no wonder that students who have to work or tend to family duties would find such an avenue to a college degree appealing. They simply need the flexibility.

This is no longer a debate about whether universities should offer online classes. The question now is what type of standards we are going to expect from them. The truth is that there are some students in online classes, like my fellow canoeist, who have the necessary motivation and discipline to make such a degree meaningful. It is also true that online classes continue to have the presumption of being easier than brick-and-mortar classes. This, in part, likely generated the defensiveness to my critiques. Those two things have to be reconciled.

To my mind, humanities professors (including me) have been slow to accept the new reality. This is especially true for those of us who teach at elite institutions that have not started pushing faculty to offer at least some of their classes online – yet. No, I am not advising that we all run out and start posting online classes like a blog troll posts incendiary comments. Rather, I am thinking that we need to cede the question over whether online classes provide good/bad learning environments in favor of considering how online classes can be taught using good, ethical pedagogies. Even if we are not directly involved in teaching an online class, we are nonetheless training graduate students who are most likely going to land a job at an institution that will expect, if not require, them to apportion part of their teaching effort to online classes. It is our obligation to them and their future students to start to model ethical uses of new teaching technologies.

To that end, we need to first identify and reject the models that favor corporate profit over learning. I was recently horrified when an acquaintance of mine reported that the nearby university where he teaches had purchased “modules” from some unknown company. He, the instructor of the class, had almost no control over the content, assignments, or lectures of the class that he was “teaching.” Instead, he became a glorified tech operator and grader. This, it seems to me, is not why we hire individuals with unique specialities to teach classes.

The reverse must also be guarded against. Academic associations and unions should proactively fight administrative efforts to own online classes generated by faculty members. There is a distinct danger that once a professor pours concerted effort into creating a novel and interesting online class that the material will then be pimped out as the aforementioned “modules’ to other universities. Or, even locally, the adminstration should not be allowed to replace the allegedly expensive professor with a graduate student or underpaid adjunct who simply takes control of the web materials. The content and structure of a course should be considered a type of intellectual property that belongs to the instructor.

On the faculty side, if we are going to venture into new learning technologies, then we also need to bring with us the best practices that we now take for granted in the brick-and-mortar classroom. Over the past twenty years, for instance, flat out lecturing has come to be seen as one of the least valuable means for engaging students. So I am frequently surprised that much of the online content created for classes simply involves videotaped lectures that have been uploaded for students to watch. Trust me, unless those videos include skateboarding kittens or substantive out takes from Modern Family, the students are barely going to pay attention. Much as we now create exercises and assignments that have students proactively engaged and talking in brick-and-mortar classes, so too should we dump the prerecorded lecture in favor of things that get students engaged online. This might mean that we call upon individuals with programming and technical skills beyond the average humanities professor. One model that intrigued me, for instance, originated in Canada. Students attempted to “solve”some significant historic crimes from the Canadian past. In that instance, the online materials became part of a larger puzzle that students needed to piece together. Along the way, they happened to learn important cultural contexts that informed each crime (racial attitudes, gender assumptions, regional bias). Doesn’t that sound more interesting to you than downloading a 50 minute talking head rambling on about the Articles of Confederation? Creative technological innovations, of course, will require technological and staff investments from universities and colleges. It seems to me, though, given that these courses will ultimately generate more tuition dollars than a brick-and-mortar class, it is the least that they can do.

Don’t let the blog fool you, though. I am remarkably unsavvy when it comes to technology and probably don’t have the best imagination to tackle this problem. Nonetheless, I do think that the time has come when humanities professors have to engage online learning in a serious way. It’s not going anywhere. Our best bet is that we take control of the conversation to show the difference between a quality online learning experience and the hasty for-profit nonsense.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Collegial is as Collegial Does

A few weeks ago, Dr. Crazy had a post about collegiality in academic departments. She suggested some pretty basic notions about how one should behave in such an environment. To crudely summarize, she suggests that collegiality involves no more than simply doing your job at its most basic level: teach, research, and serve to the best of one’s abilities as outlined in your contract.

I tend to agree with that assessment. Nonetheless, it strikes me that such a straightforward mandate still confuses many professors. So, allow me to provide a simple set of guidelines to help you gauge whether you are an ideal colleague or the professor everybody wishes would just die. Think about which of the following most closely resembles what you might say in these situations.

When it comes time to decide the course schedule for next semester:

    Best: “I am willing to teach a mix of upper level and service-oriented courses. While I certainly have preferences about scheduling, I am willing to negotiated with my colleagues to insure that we have a wide distribution of classes throughout the day.”

    Fair: “I have several courses that I teach over and over. They serve some basic requirements of the department.”

    Bad: “I will only teach classes between the hours of nine and noon. Teaching a survey class is clearly beneath my intellectual talents. Besides, I have a political obligation to offer an incredibly narrow graduate course that only appeals to two students every year.”

    Evil: “My class enrollment is by instructor permission only. That way I can make sure that only hot, fit students ever sign up. No fatties!”

When I take the last cup of coffee from the break room:

    Best: “I always make a fresh pot of coffee for the next person.”

    Fair: “I be sure to shut off the burner so that the whole office doesn’t fill with the smell of scorched coffee.”

    Bad: “I demand the secretary make a new pot of coffee.”

    Evil: “Coffee? I replaced all that with Postum© years ago.”

When it comes to time for committee assignments to be made, I think:

    Best: “Nobody likes service, but it is a necessary part of keeping any university operating. I will roll up my sleeves and serve on committees when needed.”

    Good: “If I really care about a particular issue, I am willing to serve on a committee or two.”

    Bad: “Gee, I would serve on some committees, but I think that my decision to have children means that I can neglect my basic duties for which I am paid. Selfish childless people can pick up my slack. After all, what else do they have to do with their empty lives?”

    Evil: “I see every committee assignment as a stepping stone to be dean one day.”

My thinking about new hires is usually along the lines of:

    Best: “I consider it a basic part of my job to advocate vigorously for new positions based on my particular intellectual training. Nonetheless, I also recognize that a diverse set of perspectives and coverage is required for a really solid academic department. Therefore, I am willing to yield on hiring decisions when other priorities are clear.”

    Fair: “I will work really hard to hire people in my immediate field."

    Bad: “If I didn’t get my way when a job position was conceived, I will do everything in my power to sabotage this search. It’s better to have a failed search than for other people to have won a new hire.”

    Evil: “If a candidate wants this job, they better invite me to their hotel room during the campus visit.”

When Running a Meeting:

    Best: “I have a clear agenda and will get you out of here in an hour.”

    Fair: “The agenda is set, but everybody can speak their mind on whatever topic they desire. It’s fine with me if we have to spend the whole afternoon chatting.”

    Bad: “Was there a meeting scheduled today?”

    Evil: “Let me tell you what we already decided as a committee.”

When Attending a Meeting:

    Best: “I did my due diligence and read any pre-circulated materials before I arrived. I listen attentively and will give my opinion based on a well reasoned argument about the best needs of the unit.”

    Fair: “I didn’t really have time to read up on this particular issue. Still, I’ll go along with whatever the majority has to say.”

    Bad: “I would have attended this meeting, but I needed to wash my cat.”

    Evil: “I am only here to point out how much I really, really, really hate the chair of this meeting.”

When I find that I am in the minority on an issue facing the department:

    Best: “I will voice my opinion and give my reasons for objecting. In the end, though, I must have faith in democracy.”

    Fair: “I will withhold my opinion but then complain bitterly to colleagues over drinks later.”

    Bad: “I take this decision very personally. It shows that there is a larger conspiracy at play to take away my power and agency!”

    Evil: “I pack a gun.”

When advising students about what courses to take:

    Best: “I emphasize the strengths of the department. I also take some time to consider the particular interests of the student and their own career ambitions. My goal is always to give a student the widest range of perspectives that we offer.”

    Fair: “I am vaguely aware of what my colleagues teach, but, whatever. I guess that I wouldn’t actively dissuade a student from taking a class with another professor -- if that is what they really want to do.”

    Bad: “I take the time to trash all the colleagues in my unit that I dislike. A student should leave my office knowing that my department is nothing but a snake pit of dissension filled with people who aren’t half as smart as I am.”

    Evil: “I take the time to explain the power of the dark side of the force and invite the student to become my protégé. Together we can topple the department chair and rule together.”

When serving on a masters thesis or dissertation committee:

    Best: “I read the entire thesis/dissertation. My goal is to provide strategies for the student to revise the work to the best of hir abilities.”

    Fair: “I read the entire thesis/dissertation. My goal is to get this over with as soon as possible.”

    Bad: “I read some of the thesis/dissertation. My goal is to show that I personally know a lot more about this particular topic than the student.”

    Evil: “I plagiarized several chapters of this thesis/dissertation. Nonetheless, I will still vote to fail the student just because I can.”

During the summer:

    Best: “I drink a lot.”

    Fair: “I drink a lot.”

    Bad: “I drink a lot.”

    Evil: “I drink a lot.”

When a hardworking undergraduate student tells me that ze is applying for graduate school:

    Best: “I am supportive and offer to write a letter. Still, I do provide a candid assessment of the job market and encourage the student to think about the time, energy, money and effort that goes into obtaining an advanced degree.”

    Fair: “I write a letter of recommendation and wish the student well.”

    Bad: “I write a letter of recommendation but also frighten the student with horror students about the academic world. I cite the Center of Gravitas as evidence of academia's moral bankruptcy.”

    Evil: “I promise to write a letter of recommendation but never quite get around to it. I assure the student that, even if the job market is terrible, they will absolutely get a tenure-track job because they are the exception.”

When a colleague in my field publishes a book:

    Best: “I buy and read it.”

    Fair: “I send an e-mail of congratulations.”

    Bad: “Do I have colleagues in my field?”

    Evil: “I tell anyone who will listen that I would have written a much better version of that same book.”

When editing an academic journal:

    Best: “My goal is to give authors clear and concise feedback as quickly as possible. No journal can accept everything submitted, but I work really hard to be fair and prompt. I understand that my authors often have tenure and/or promotion pressures. Any delay only harms their research agendas and makes my journal look unprofessional.”

    Fair: “I farm out a lot of my duties and depend almost entirely on others’ opinions. Still, I aim for an initial turn around of six to eight weeks. After all, I have a basic competence in my job.”

    Bad: “I decide that my journal will devote itself to publishing many, many ‘Special Editions’ so that I can reward all my friends by printing their articles. Others can submit manuscripts, but they really shouldn’t hold their breath.”

    Evil: “I regularly sit on manuscripts for over a year and a half (or longer if I can!). When I do finally get around to making a decision, it’s usually a negative one. Heck, somebody has to teach these young scholars a cold hard lesson. If the author doesn’t like it, then they shouldn’t have bothered my prestigious journal with their pitiful article in the first place.”

My office:

    Best: “Is a place where I work quietly.”

    Fair: “Is a place where I meet students from time to time.”

    Bad: “Is a place where I can really turn up the volume on my music.”

    Evil: “Smells suspiciously of sulphur.”

When a colleague in my field comes up for tenure:

    Best: “I diligently read as much of the file as possible. During the meeting, I aim to make sure that every candidate gets a fair hearing by offering well informed insights on the research, service, and teaching.”

    Fair: “I read the cover letter to the file and dip in and out of the other materials. Unless there are clear problems, my default impulse is always to vote in favor of the candidate.”

    Bad: “I didn’t really have time to read the file. I’ll go to the meeting and try to get a sense of which way the wind is blowing and then make up my mind.”

    Evil: “I met with the candidate a full year before they went up for tenure to remind them that they needed my vote to advance. If they didn’t spend the past several months groveling, it’s curtains!”

The secretary/support staff in my unit:

    Best: “Are not paid nearly enough given that they do 90 percent of the heavy lifting! I support any effort to improve their working conditions.”

    Fair: “Do their job well and I acknowledge that.”

    Bad: “Are fine, but I don’t understand why they won’t pick up my dry cleaning.”

    Evil: “Should only be paid for nine months given that is the length of the academic year.”

If I had not become an academic, I would have:

    Best: “Found another avenue to share my knowledge and research with a wider public. My goal would always be to find a way to enrich our intellectual conversations.”

    Fair: “Found a job that allowed me to earn much more money.”

    Bad: “Run for public office as a Republican so that I could dismantle higher education as we know it.”

    Evil: “Harvested the souls of the innocent.”

The role model who influenced my career:

    Best: “The hardworking professors who took an interest in me as a student. They not only taught me the knowledge that I need for this job, but also what it means to be a committed educator.”

    Fair: “Wonder Woman.”

    Bad: “I did it on my own. Nobody ever helped me and I was always falling through the cracks.”

    Evil: “Pope Benedict XVI.”

When writing a book review for a journal:

    Best: “I highlight the strengths of the book and the author’s intent. I limit my critique to one or two questions at most. It is important to recognize the hard work that goes into writing any monograph.”

    Fair: “I offer faint praise, but conclude with criticism.”

    Bad: “Most of my review is simply critique about what the author might have written but didn't. I can only think of holes in the work and imagine an entirely different book than the one that I am reviewing.”

    Evil: “Every book review is just an opportunity to ruin somebody’s career.”

When a colleague passes me in the hall:

    Best: “I greet them and ask how they are doing.”

    Fair: “I smile warmly.”

    Bad: “I avoid eye contact.”

    Evil: “I make a distinctive rattling sound.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Jolly GayProf Fellow

Aging is usually something best done alone. Or maybe with a bottle of bourbon. Whatever the case, it’s hard to conceive that I will be 38 this week. Another year probably doesn't matter too much. Fortunately or unfortunately, my gravitas has always made me seem much older than I really am. People are always pleasantly surprised that I am so much younger than they initially think. It's sorta a compliment or something.

Speaking of gravitas, I am just not ready to part with my annual birthday post here at CoG. Who does not enjoy weighing their life accomplishments against others at the same age?
    At age 38, this is the year that I would publish The Native Tribes about the East Texas Missions if I were historian Herbert Bolton. It would be my last year teaching at the University of Texas.

    If I were Gore Vidal at age 38, I would be busy writing my novel Julian.

    If I were Don Draper, this is the year that I would start a new advertising agency (Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce). Reaching the age of 38 would also mean that this is the year that I would finally divorce Betty.

    If I were Elizabeth Cady Staton I would be working with Susan B. Anthony at the shortlived Woman’s State Temperance Society. We would both decide our efforts were better spent working on suffrage.

    If I were Cher at age 38, I would be filming Mask this year.

    If I were Frederick Jackson Turner, I would have delivered my career-defining “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” essay six years ago. History grad students everywhere would come to curse my name.

    According to traditional sources, I would use an asp to kill myself this year if I were Cleopatra VII.

    If I were Sam Steward, I would be working at World Book Encyclopedia after leaving Loyola University. I would also have my last drink this year.

    If I were Dolores Huerta, I would be seated on the platform while Robert Kennedy gave his last speech before being shot minutes later.

    If I were Rudolph Valentino, I would be dead. It would have been seven years since I had sex with Sam Steward in my hotel room.

    If I were James Baldwin, this is the year that I would publish the essay “Down at the Cross” in the New Yorker. It would have been six years since I wrote Giovanni’s Room.
    If I were Jimmy Stewart, I would star in It’s a Wonderful Life this year, a heartwarming picture about an ungrateful town that drives a man to suicide on Christmas Eve.

    If I were Lolita Lebrón, it would have been four years since I led an armed attack on the U.S. House of Representatives in the name of Puerto Rican independence.

    If I were 99 percent of the U.S. public, I would have no idea who Lolita Lebrón was.
    If I were Frances Parkman, it would be another four years before I published The Pioneers of France in the New World.

    If I were Rock Hudson, I would star in the forgettable A Gathering of Eagles this year. It would have been 17 years since I had sex with Sam Steward in a freight elevator at Marshall Field’s department store.

    If I were Malcolm X, I would declare that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the “chickens coming home to roost.”

    If I were Pearl Bailey, I would release the album The Intoxicating Pearl Bailey this year.

    If I were Tennessee Williams, I would have just started my affair with Frank Merlo. It would last 14 years and ultimately be the longest lasting romantic relationship of my life.

    If I were Ann Bancroft, it would have been two years since (!) I played the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate.

    If I were Vivian Leigh, I would win my second Academy Award for Best Actress for portraying Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. My mental health would be mighty precarious.

    If I were Danny Kaye, I would star in On the Riviera this year. My alleged affair with Laurence Olivier probably didn’t help Vivian Leigh’s mighty precarious mental health.

    If I were Abraham Lincoln, I would be serving in my only term in the U.S. House of Representatives. It would have been a decade since I started slaying vampires.

    If I were Marylin Monroe, I would be dead.

    If I were William Shatner, this would be my last season on the t.v. show Star Trek.

    If I were Oscar Wilde, I would be in the first year of my affair with Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Things would not go well for me in that relationship...

    If I were Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, it would be another 29 years before I had sex with Sam Steward.

    If I were Lupe Vélez, I would be dead.

    If I were Alexander Hamilton, I would resign my position as Secretary of the Treasury because of a scandal involving an extra-marital affair. The story would have been more interesting if it had been with Sam Steward.

    If I were Gloria Steinem, this is the year that I would found Ms. magazine.

    If I were either of my parents at age 38, I would have three children. The oldest would be eighteen and the youngest would be eleven.

    If I were Mary Richards, I, and most of my friends, would have been fired from WJM last year.

    If I were Mitt Romney, I would hopefully never be President of the United States.

    If I were Jaqueline Kennedy, I would visit Cambodia as an official-unofficial ambassador for the United States at the age of 38.

    If I were Saint Anthony, I would be dead.

    If I were Michele Obama, I would be fabulous.

    If I were GayProf, I would have achieved tenure and promotion this year. My blog would have been updated so infrequently in the past year that two birthday posts would appear on the same page. I would never have had sex with Sam Steward.

    If I were Jayne Mansfield, I would be dead.

    If I were William Rufus King, I would be serving as a Senator from Alabama in Washington D.C. I would soon shack up with future President James Buchannan. Our relationship, among other things, would lead Andrew Jackson to give me the nicknames “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

    If I were Dolly Parton, this is the year I would star in the regrettable Rhinestone with Sylvester Stallone.

    If I were teen heartthrob Corey Haimm, this is the year I would die.

    If I were Che Guevara, this is the year that I would arrive in Bolivia in a doomed effort to foment revolution.

    If I were Wonder Woman, I would age another 2,453 years before joining Patriarch’s world to fight crime.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Cursed Cursive

Several years ago I briefly dated a man with young children. Anybody who knows me can well imagine why that relationship did not last more than a few weeks. I feel about children the way Republicans feel about taxes. They might be necessary for the continuation of society, but whatever. That, though, is not the point of this post. What did stick with me from that dating experience was that he once mentioned that his daughter was not learning cursive writing in school. After all, he argued, they do everything on the computer now anyway. Why would they need such an antiquated skill? Living in the shadow of Decaying Midwestern Urban Center, I figured that this astounding news was just another local failing in an already pretty dismal school system. The antipathy that the rest of the nation feels for this region had now cost students the very ability to communicate on paper! Not only do we not deserve jobs or a well-maintained infrastructure, but it appeared that we also shouldn’t be able to jot down a grocery list with speed! It always feels good to have righteous indignation about the nation’s uncaring attitude toward the industrial Midwest.

The past year of teaching, however, revealed that this was no local anomaly. You see I taught the U.S. History survey for the first time in many years. Consider it the jury duty of the history professorate. Since I do my best to give even freshman students an idea of what professionals historians actual do, I often assign some significant amount of writing. I began to notice that students took an unusually long time to complete even the most basic in-class essay. Even a paragraph took what seemed like a century. Then I observed that each of them always submitted about a page of neatly block-printed prose. Each letter of each word seemed like it had been crafted with more attention than John Hancock’s signature on a forged ship’s manifesto. Well, if John Hancock had never learned cursive writing. It brought me back to what the former boyfriend had mentioned about his own children. Had we reached the point where students no longer even knew how to write cursive? Little did I know it was deeper than that.

It really did not cross my mind again for another several weeks. In the meantime, I had assigned a document reader of historical sources entitled American History Firsthand: Working with Primary Sources. This choice proved imperfect to be sure. After all, this careful collection of materials lacked a single document from any Latina/o – ever. Apparently the editors imagined that no such people existed in this country despite the fact that they are now the largest minority population. But I digress.

I selected this particular reader, despite its implicit anti-Latino bias, because of what it did do: mixing popular culture, visual, and political documents in one binding. It also reproduced those documents as closely as they might have appeared in an actual archive. This, I thought, simulated the work of actual historians without having to march all my students to an actual archive. After all, the idea of 170 students descending on a manuscript collection would make any archivist sweat more than Rick Santorum in a gay sauna.

The students in this class performed quite well and showed that they had smart and savvy skills. One day, though, when it came time to discuss a series of letters in the reader, they became oddly silent. After using up the usual bag of tricks to try and promote conversation, I asked them what was the deal? With some hemming and hawing, a lone brave student admitted that he couldn’t read the documents because they were in cursive. The rest of the students, happy that he had released the shameful truth, all agreed that the letters were unfathomable. This blew my mind. I mean, it was one thing to have never mastered writing cursive, but reading it was now out of the question? To be clear, too, I did not assign colonial-era documents written with the fluff and frills of old English. That mess could screw anybody up with all those "f's" that are really "s's". No, no. These were something written in the twentieth century with a clear and simple penmanship. I became curious and asked if they learned any cursive at all. They acknowledged that they spent a few days or so on it back in grade school. It was enough to learn a signature, but otherwise, why bother? They could type whatever they needed.

I suppose that there is a logic in the demise of cursive. When was the last time any of us wrote an actual letter to somebody? Anything longer than a sticky note is generally done on a computer. Yet, I can’t explain my unease that cursive is leaving the world.

It is peculiar that I should think such a thing since I have actually always struggled with my penmanship. In grade school I had only one Achilles heel to an otherwise spotless academic record. After all, I played well with others, never ran with scissors, and only occasionally ate library paste. Yet, my report card always listed a “carrottop” for handwriting. For those who did not attend Albuquerque Public Schools, a carrottop was this symbol: ^. It basically meant a “D”, but apparently educational theory in the 1980s suggested letter grades would be too demeaning to a third grader. A carrottop must have sounded so much more pleasant. It’s something you would give Peter Rabbit on his report card. Well, if Peter Rabbit’s future education hung precariously by a thread because he appeared functionally illiterate.

Forever after that point teachers would usually have only one complaint about my school work: “The boy’s handwriting is so messy and small that I almost went blind trying to read it.” It would not be until my freshman year in college that my handwriting improved dramatically. Oddly enough, it was a semester of Russian that turned things around quite a bit. While I can do nothing in that language other than ask directions to the Bolshoi theater, attempting to learn Russian had an odd side effect of transforming my penmanship. Having to learn an entirely new script meant that I also indirectly relearned how to write in cursive in English. This is not to say that I now write in calligraphy (I still field many complaints about my writing), but it is a vast improvement.

This peculiar knowledge about writing cursive puts an odd generational divide between my students and me. For instance, I will have to remember when I grade their papers to block print my comments. Oh, look at me, thinking they would actually read my comments on their papers! Silly, optimistic, GayProf. Nonetheless, it feels quite weird to have such a big gap between them and me. I am not that much older.

True, there are many other things that I do that would seem totally anachronistic to them as well. I proudly drive a car with a manual transmission – Anything else really isn’t really driving. I grill only with charcoal – Anything else isn’t barbequing, it’s just cooking outside. I still pay almost all my bills with actual checks – Anything else seems like a one-way path to identity theft. I therefore long ago accepted that I fell far behind in the social/technological world of my students. I would know if I was tweeting, right?

So it makes me a bit sad to think cursive is at as great a risk as Lindsay Lohan is for a relapse. If you remember this blog then you already know that I am more than a bit inclined to nostalgia. This morning’s coffee has already become a treasured bittersweet memory of something now gone.

The loss of cursive, though, really leaves me blue. It only speeds us even faster to becoming a cyborg nation. As much as I struggled with cursive, I do remember that learning it felt like a rite of passage on the way to adulthood. My mother always had to translate the notes or birthday cards that my grandparents sent in the mysterious scroll. Learning to write (even feebly) in the same manner felt the same as breaking the code of the Rosetta Stone to my nine-year old self. Now it appears that later generations will find the code forever locked to them.