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Essay on presidency and symbolic interactionism

“As nearly all scholars recognize,” we read in an article published in Presidential Studies Quarterly in 1983, “there is no apprenticeship or training an individual may obtain in preparation for the presidency. There is no convenient book or guide which provides a detailed step-by-step analysis of the requirements and demands of the office.”

How true! An acquaintance with the Constitution would surely be helpful, but it’s not as if you have to pass a test on it -- even one with simple questions, such as “Would requiring Muslims to register with the government follow the First Amendment (a) to the letter, (b) in spirit or (c) none of the above?” (It’s surprising how far you can get in public life without being able to answer that one correctly.)

But the whole point of the paper just quoted -- “On ‘Becoming’ President of the United States: The Interaction of the Office with the Office Holder” by Robert E. Denton Jr. -- is that coping with the lack of an orientation handbook is one of the simultaneous, urgent and inflexible demands over which the incoming chief executive must demonstrate a mastery, beginning almost immediately. The author is a professor of communications (and head of the department) at Virginia Tech, with a special interest in the “symbolic dimensions of the American presidency,” to borrow the title of the first of his more than two dozen books.

His vita shows that Denton has been analyzing presidential communications more or less in real time since the first Reagan administration, when “On ‘Becoming’ President” appeared. One of his earliest publications, it proves especially interesting just now -- despite having been written long before official speeches and press conferences were joined by such message-delivery formats as the tweet.

“On ‘Becoming’ President” takes its bearings from symbolic interactionism: a school of thought at the intersection of sociology and psychology, and well established even then. Its defining insight -- drawn largely from the American pragmatist philosophers, especially George Herbert Mead -- is that communication between human beings always involves considerably more than the content of a message. We also take in cues about one another’s roles, statuses, expectations and so on -- an ongoing process of learning to see oneself from other people’s vantage points.

They are doing so at the same time, of course. It can get complicated, even when the roles, beliefs and shared expectations are all reasonably clear or well established. Arguably the symbolic-interactionist researcher and the novelist or filmmaker each tries to depict and analyze the range of communicative multitasking constantly underway in life.

The Oval Office emerges as the scene where symbolic interactions of global consequence take place that are conditioned by “expectations and functions of the office [that] are often competing, conflicting and contradictory.” In addition to the president’s constitutionally specified roles (chief of state, chief executive, chief diplomat, chief legislator and commander in chief), another “five extraconstitutional roles must be recognized: chief of [his] party, protector of the peace, manager of prosperity, world leader and voice of the people.” (Denton culls these roles from the poli-sci literature of the day; the references are given in his article.)

Occupancy of the office itself confers a great deal of persuasive force in exercising any given role. But it often requires playing a number of them simultaneously, and while a certain amount of authority may be delegated, the ultimate responsibility cannot. Denton also underscores the constant burden of “vast and complex” public expectation, both to meet of promises and to exhibit a suitable combination of leadership traits and personal morality.

“Many attitudes about the presidency stem from messages received in childhood about the virtues of various presidents,” Denton writes. “Studies continually find that the president is ordinarily the first public official to come to the attention of young children. Long before children are informed about the specific functions of the presidency, they view individual presidents as exceptionally important and benign.”

He mentions researchers who found children attributing to the president qualities of “honesty, wisdom, helpfulness” and related virtues. (All of the studies Denton cites were conducted before the mid-1970s, but comparable findings appear in a book on child psychology from 2005.)

The symbolic-interactionist approach would emphasize not only presidential roles and duties (as established by the Constitution or tradition) or the pressure of public expectations (still tinged with hero fantasies from childhood, perhaps) but also the inner experience of “adopting and adapting the self to the actions of others” through years of public life. The political learning curve “is adaptive,” Denton writes, “resulting from the capacity to change self depending on political environment, beliefs, values and expectations.”

Implied by Denton’s remarks on what he calls the “political self” is some normative sense of a successful candidate’s personality and career: a self conditioned by the experience of political action and debate, informed by some modeling of another’s leadership, and skilled at anticipating the impact of both words and deeds. The tempered political self -- so understood -- will presumably be as well prepared as anyone can be to incorporate “the trappings, powers and prerogatives of the presidency” into itself. And he suggests that the process is not without its risks, even then.

Our majestic treatment of presidents causes status inequality, inflation of self-concept and distorted perception of external events. Such exposure manifests distortion of social comparison processes, ‘overidentification’ with the office and misinformed decisions …. Presidents are constantly pressured to misrepresent or distort themselves to various national constituencies. Such a continual pressure causes further misrepresentations, erosion of truth norms and self-delusion.

It appears that the author had Richard Nixon in mind as the worst-case scenario, although Nixon had more than 20 years of political experience (including one previous presidential campaign) before taking office. In any event, Denton’s paper is something to chew on this week -- and to choke down in the months ahead.

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No Confidence Vote Over Alaska System President

The University of Alaska at Anchorage’s Faculty Senate on Friday voted no confidence in Jim Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska System, 28 to 9, the Alaska Dispatch News reported. The nonbinding resolution says that faculty turnover has increased while morale has declined under Johnsen’s tenure, in part because "the issues or concerns raised by the faculty have had no apparent influence on" and are not addressed by any decisions concerning a major system restructuring.

That process, called Strategic Pathways, aims to streamline academic and administrative operations across campuses. Frank Jeffries, a professor of business and public policy, said that the restructuring didn't follow best practices, and the statewide administration appeared to make decisions while "completely ignoring financial implications,” according to the Dispatch News.

Alaska Board of Regents Chair Gloria O'Neill said the regents still have full confidence in Johnsen. "I believe this is systematic of real change and the messy environment that we find ourselves in," she added.

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Anthropology groups organize Foucault read-in for Inauguration Day

Anthropologists and other scholars plan read-in of Michel Foucault to mark inauguration of Donald Trump.

What Disney World can teach you about an effective résumé (essay)

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Some of the distinct aspects of Disney World can be relevant when it comes to thinking about your own professional branding, writes Joseph Barber.

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Gates Foundation open-access policy goes into effect, joining others

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation becomes the most recent grant-making organization to require recipients to make findings publicly available, a further shift toward transparency in research funding.

Johns Hopkins Humanities Center Will Not Close

Beverly Wendland, James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, has no plans to close the historic Humanities Center, she assured faculty members and students Wednesday. Wendland made her announcement in a cover letter to a faculty committee report on the department’s future. The report recommends one of three courses of action: keeping the center’s name while rethinking its role in relation to other humanities departments; renaming the department as something that more “clearly conveys its identity and focus”; or transforming the humanities center into a comparative literature department, “building on the expertise of current faculty and using vacant faculty lines to recruit strong scholars in this specific, interdisciplinary field.”

Wendland said Johns Hopkins will “consider carefully all of the committee’s recommendations and options in order to determine the best path forward for the humanities.” Students and faculty members objected to the possible closure of the 50-year-old interdisciplinary Humanities Center in the fall, launching a petition and website to save it. The new report calls out some of those protesters, saying, “We believe that the situation could have provided a teachable moment regarding how to engage calmly and rationally with controversy, but unfortunately, the students may not have had proper faculty guidance in doing so.”

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Learning how to avoid stress as a department chair (essay)

As a department chair, screwups are inevitable, writes Professor Plainspoken. The key is finding ways to avoid beating yourself up about them.

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Reaching your goals by keeping track of your work (essay)

Whatever your goals are, keeping careful track of your work can help you stay focused on them, writes Shannon Craigo-Snell.

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Teaching jobs for historians are down, but data suggest opportunities outside professoriate are on the rise

Teaching jobs for historians are down, but data suggest their opportunities outside the professoriate are on the rise.

Historians Reject Anti-Israel Petition

The American Historical Association Council rejected one petition from a group of historians critical of Israel and reworded another at its recent meeting. After two unsuccessful attempts to get AHA members to approve boycott, divestment and sanctions-related resolutions at the association’s annual gatherings in 2015 and 2016, a group of historians, some of whom are affiliated with Historians Against the War, petitioned the AHA’s governing body directly. The first petition called on the AHA to investigate “credible charges of violations of academic freedom in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories,” whether by “constituting a fact-finding committee, authorizing a delegation or issuing an investigative report,” similar to efforts undertaken by the American Anthropological Association.

The second petition asked the AHA Council to make a statement upholding “the right of students and faculty to engage in nonviolent political action expressing diverse points of view on Israel/Palestine issues” and condemning “all efforts at intimidation of those expressing such views. Specifically, we condemn the maintenance of blacklists, such as those on the anonymous ‘Canary Mission’ website publicizing names, photographs and contact information for hundreds of supporters of Palestinian rights, predominantly Arab-American students.”

Jim Grossman, executive director of the historical association, said the council “discussed the complicated intellectual and practical issues" raised by the first petition. And while it “benefited from the experience” of the anthropological association, he said, the council “determined that the petition is requesting investigative work that is beyond the scope and mission of the AHA.”

Instead of addressing political speech regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue specifically, as requested in the second petition, the council released a statement upholding “the rights of students, faculty and other historians to speak freely and to engage in nonviolent political action expressing diverse perspectives on historical or contemporary issues.” The statement continues, “We condemn all efforts to intimidate those expressing their views. Specifically, we condemn in the strongest terms the creation, maintenance and dissemination of blacklists and watch lists -- through media (social and otherwise) -- which identify specific individuals in ways that could lead to harassment and intimidation.”

Grossman said the more general statement reflects the AHA's concern “that any such harassment and intimidation is contrary to our values and to the generally accepted principles of academic freedom articulated by the American Association of University Professors.” He added, “We're grateful to the petitioners for raising this issue, and think that what matters is the larger problem of any entity creating what essentially look like blacklists.”

Van Gosse, chair of history at Franklin and Marshall College and a member of Historians Against the War, said AHA has “the right and responsibility” to take political stances on issues under its purview. Regarding the first petition, Gosse said he didn’t understand how the AHA could cite the anthropologists’ action, then state that the requested investigation was outside its own purview. “A small, volunteer committee vetted by council could have done that work; there is vast documentation already available,” he said. Gosse said he was not aware of anyone involved in drafting the petitions who was “disturbed” by the council’s response to the second one, however.

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