Monday, January 24, 2005

The dangers of exporting democracy

Guardian Unlimited | Guardian daily comment | The dangers of exporting democracy by Eric Hobsbawm. Courtesy of Jan.

Informal Professionalization

Informal Training In Grad Schoolis a new blog mentioned in the last edition of Footnotes. It is promoting discussions on the ways in which we graduate students are supposed to be trained to behave in a professional environment.

I can't help but laugh about their chosen milieu for discussing this issue, because blogging so totally transgresses the professionalization rules and practices. Hence, many people (including myself often times - I can't tell you how many posts I've written and never posted) aren't always comfortable with the medium.

While I initially disliked the use of anonymous pseudonyms, I now see George Eliot's genius. There are so many things you can't get away with saying as someone on the lower portion of an extremely hierarchical institution (i.e. academia). C.Wright Mill's also, as a freshman at one of those TX school's (A & M?), wrote to the upper classmen as an anonymous freshman. He probably would have been literally beaten up otherwise.

In the blogging milieu, graduate students, anonymously or not, and professors anonymously or not, are in many ways transgressing the predetermined hierarchical relations between the conferred and the trainees. Granted, some departments are more hierarchical, and some professors for that matter, than others. But there is comparative equality (of access) in the blogosphere. No one here is a captive audience. You may read or leave. You may comment or not (mostly not). You may post or not (mostly not). But, more or less secretly, we can all watch the previously accepted practices of professionalization dismantling at certain points in a blog during certain conversations.

So I wonder, how does blogging fit into informal graduate student training? Has it affected some of the top down dynamics by giving some of those with less influence a forum? Has it created more of a community between the bloggers within an academic department? or academic disciplines?

It seems those on the lower tiers of academic hierarchies are less vested in the hierarchy themselves and therefore are more willing, or less professionalized, to discuss issues critically about the hierarchy itself than those already more professionalized. Additionally, it seems those less professionalized are also more willing to partake in the off-the-cuff, less serious and less professional milieu of blogging. So once again, how does academic blogging fit into this picture of informal professionalization?

[Update: I see this post needs editing as usual, but for the sake of keeping it off-the-cuff, I'll leave the errors alone (cringe).]

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"Columbia Unbecoming"

Today I came across a NYTimes article about the controversy going on at Columbia University, involving allegations of intimidation of Jewish students by professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages department. The professors in question all hold pro-Palestinian viewpoints. The controversy began when 14 students and a Rabbi at the university filmed "Columbia Unbecoming" , a documentary about the intimidation of the Jewish students, funded by The David Project.

As I read the article, a few questions came to mind. They are the same questions which are now facing a panel at the university whose job it is to get to the bottom of these allegations. Of the three professors who are being accused, one incident in particular left me a bit uneasy. Two of the professors are accused of making anti-Israel or anti-Jewish comments. However, Professor Hamid Dabashi was mentioned for having cancelled class to do his "moral duty" to attend a pro-Palestinian rally, but as the article mentions, he is chiefly being accused due to his published political viewpoints. As an academic, the idea that my published political views could cost me my job because I am intimidating students (possibly without even having any form of verbal communication with them) is frightening. Where does academic freedom end and intimidation begin?

Another issue to consider with this issue is the status of both the accused professors and the students. I think we can all agree that professors are usually seen as the power-holders in a student and teacher relationship. A detail worth noting is that none of the students are accusing the professors of capricious grading. I think we also must consider that students are not completely powerless, especially before a professor has tenure. In this case, one of three professors does not have tenure, and this controversy could cost him his job. I don't think Columbia is at a loss for new job applicants, so his position could easily be filled with someone less controversial. My question is: Could these students be using their victim status to their advantage? Also, if universities begin to go after less "controveresial" professors to fill jobs, what will the university community as a whole lose? What happens if political debates in academia stop or are deemed unacceptable?

After reading the article, I tried to see the issue from both sides. No student should have to feel intimidated or uncomfortable in a classroom due to their racial or ethnic background. And a professor certainly should not make racist or prejudiced comments about any group. However, from a professor's perspective, they should be allowed to have political views, even if they are at odds with their students views. As a TA, I can certainly understand that when discussing a hot button issue, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even the last election, my political views will not always match the views of my students. I may not bring up my views during class, but I certainly will express them outside of class, and attend rallies supporting causes I believe in. The world is full of people with differing opinions, and I believe its naive to think the classroom should be void of debate.

I am really interested to see what other people know about this controversy, and what other opinions are on the topic. As I said above, I can see a case for both sides. Discuss...

PS - Thanks to Erin for helping me work through this one.

Monday, January 17, 2005


PBS aired an episode of American Experience, Citizen King,* last week. It focused on the later years of King's activism in which he became more radical as far as the relationship between economics and social change, rather than the major emphasis on creating change through the state. Only recently has King's opposition to Vietnam War and support for a "poor people's movement" been a point of focus. I highly recommend it if it is replayed.

An Alternet article MLK Jr. In His Own Words highlights some of King's sentiments on violence, war, American values, and American foreign policy. King still has lessons for us today, especially with regard to the discourse on values.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. ... A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: 'This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

*If you go to this site, you can see video of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and a personal hero of mine, James Baldwin**
**"We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it."--James Baldwin

Monday, January 10, 2005

Du Bois Review

My laptop has returned. So back to work. Here is some sociology for those who study issues of race. A new journal, the Du Bois Review, has the first issue available online for free. It has contributions from Lawrence Bobo, Eduardo Bonillo-Silva, Henry Louis Gates, Douglas Massey, and more. Check it out.

Community and Music

Since my laptop has been in the shop, I’ve rediscovered radio in the community. I already knew we had a really interesting community radio station, WEFT, run by volunteers and not-for-profit. But another not-for-profit, WPGU, which used to be great (like I could hear The Pretenders, Cowboy Junkies, PJ Harvey, Midnight Oil, etc.) when I was in high school, is again on the road to greatness if you like alternative rock inspired by the 80s Punk scene. I’ve heard Cat Power, Wilco, The Lemonheads, The New Pornographers...need I go on? Then, they’ve also played the classics The Cure, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, The Clash, RadioHead. They take requests, so I’ve given them a few names, like Rachel Yamagata, Patty Griffin (Grammy nominee for her album this year), Ozomatli, Sam Phillips, Sonic Youth, and last night I heard Bright Eyes (with My Morning Jacket) on Austin City Limits. I will soon be suggesting Bright Eyes. You can stream the station, which is why I’m blogging about their “no rules radio” programming, and give them your suggestions. I know Brayden likes good music.

Also, there is a new saga going on in the community (the old being the chief mascot controversy, over which there is now a boycott of book stores selling chief paraphernalia – nothing like a racist mascot to taint a #1 ranked team), also related to music. There is a billboard going into campus town that reads, “HIP HOP ROTS YOUR BRAIN, Sponsored by the Coalition of Responsible Attentive Parents” – CRAP. The billboard has been (apparently) vandalized, crossing out “HIP HOP” and underneath adding “STEREOTYPES, RACISM, IGNORANCE.” So it now reads “STEREOTYPES, RACISM, IGNORANCE ROTS YOUR BRAIN.” So this billboard will continue to have changing messages, which appear to be staged. This story was covered in a weekly paper, but there is nothing on their site for me to link to, unfortunately. The billboard saga has sucked us in. I wonder what's next.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Making Budgets and Avoiding Debt

I have a personal relationship with my laptop, as we spend quite a bit of time together. So I’m going through withdraws (but will stay out of debt since I have Apple Care) with it away at the repair center. I now realize how reliant I am on my laptop to get work done. I can’t (or don't want to) do research or writing without the laptop. I also can’t go do the archival research I planned on doing this week, without my laptop.

So I’m left to do things that don’t require my little friend, laptop – alas, also keeper of music - like a budget for a grant application. Doing a personal budget is probably good for the cleansing and planning that some attempt at the New Year. But if you are a graduate student, what’s the point? Certainly, it’s good to be careful about incurring incomprehensible amounts of debt. But, for a savings plan...that’s funny.

Even if graduate students don’t do a personal budget it’s likely, if we want grants, we’ll have to do a research budget. It’s a useful exercise to think about the cost of hotel rooms, plane tickets, copier costs (how do you estimate this?), etc. But what is interesting for me, at these beginning stages of applying for grants, is the arbitrariness, at worst, and educated guess, at best, of making a budget. When dealing with money, I prefer precision, but an educated guess will have to suffice.

Like I said, I do think it’s important to have some educated idea about the costs of research, of living, or say, running a government – once again, especially when it comes to incurring incomprehensible amounts of debt. In my “Introduction to Sociology” course as a first semester freshman, one of the assignments was a cost of living budget for a single mother, with two kids, making $17000/yr. We had to figure out how to make ends meet, without an extended network of support, because our friends and families were struggling as well (so the assignment went). I know Heather does a similar assignment in her class on social stratification. It’s a great assignment for debunking the meritocracy myth, as well as illustrating a host of other issues (i.e. feminization of poverty). Whether it’s personal, for research, or for a class assignment, making budgets is useful, even if painful.