Pass It On

One sign of the great flexibility of American English -- if also of its high tolerance for ugliness -- is the casual way users will turn a noun into a verb. It happens all the time. And lately, it tends to be a matter of branding. You "xerox" an article and "tivo" a movie. Just for the record, neither Xerox nor TiVo is  very happy about such unauthorized usage of its name. Such idioms are, in effect, a dilution of the  trademark.

Which creates an odd little double bind for anyone with the culture-jamming instinct to Stick It To The Man. Should you absolutely refuse to give free advertising to either Xerox or TiVo by using their names as verbs, you have actually thereby fallen into line with corporate policy. Then again, if you defy their efforts to police ordinary language, that means repeating a company name as if it were something natural and inevitable. See, that's how they get ya.

On a less antiglobalizational note, I've been trying to come up with an alternative to using "meme" as a verb. For one thing, it is too close to "mime," with all the queasiness that word evokes.

As discussed here on Tuesday, meme started out as a noun implying a theory. It called to mind a more or less biological model of how cultural phenomena (ideas, fads, ideologies, etc.) spread and reproduce themselves over time. Recently the term has settled into common usage -- in a different, if related, sense. It now applies to certain kinds of questionnaires or discussion topics that circulate within (and sometimes between) blogospheric communities.

There does not seem to be an accepted word to name the creation and initial dissemination of a meme. So it could be that "meme" must also serve, for better or worse, as a transitive verb.

In any case, my options are limited.... Verbal elegance be damned: Let's meme.

The ground rules won't be complicated. The list of questions is short, but ought to yield some interesting responses. With luck, the brevity will speed up circulation.

In keeping with meme protocol, I'll "tap"a few bloggers to respond. Presumably they will do likewise. However, the invitation is not restricted to that handful of people: This meme is open to anyone who wants to participate.

So here are the questions:

(1) Imagine it's 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

(2) What is the strangest thing you've ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to "Professor X" or "Ms. Y" if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.

(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don't seem to be on many people's radar?
Feel free to discard anything you don't care to answer.

To get things started, I'm going to tap a few individuals -- people I've had only fairly brief contact with in the past. As indicated, however, anyone else who wants to respond is welcome to do so. The initial list:

Okay, that should do for now.

An afterthought on the first question -- the one about getting a chance to look things up in a library of the future: Keep in mind the cautionary example of Enoch Soames, the minor late-Victorian poet whose story Max Beerbohm tells. He sold his soul to the devil for a chance to spend an afternoon in the British Library, 100 years in the future, reading what historians and critics would eventually say about his work.

Soames ends up in hell a little early: The card catalog shows that posterity has ignored him even more thoroughly than his contemporaries did.

Proof, anyway, that ego surfing is really bad for you, even in the future. A word to the wise.

Author's email: 

Crossing Over

About 10 years ago, while reading a well-known medieval chronicle, I stumbled across an amazing crime story. The case involved a Norman knight, his beautiful young wife and the squire who allegedly raped her in 1386. 

The two men fought a celebrated judicial duel before the French king -- a fight to the death with lance, sword and dagger that also decided the lady’s fate. The affair was still controversial in France at the time I stumbled on the story, and many original documents survived, but no one had ever written a full-length account. Fascinated by the story, I started researching it and eventually began work on a book.

I also began talking with editors, literary agents, and even people connected to the film industry. At one point, I registered some material with the Writers Guild of America to protect my intellectual property. The book was represented briefly by a well-known Hollywood talent agency -- until the firm reorganized and my agent left, orphaning the project. Other literary agents read the proposal and sample chapters, only to turn the project down. Editors at highly respected trade houses read my material but politely rejected it, or hesitated indefinitely. An editor at a leading university press told me my book had "little commercial potential," while an editor at another top academic press read my proposal and offered me a contract right over the phone. Disappointed with the book’s commercial fortunes so far, I was nearly ready to accept the offer.

But around this time a very good literary agency took on the partly completed book, and within three days of putting it on the market they sold it at auction to a division of Random House. Foreign rights sales soon followed, and the deal notice in Publishers Weekly brought new film interest. The book was published last October, became a History Book Club selection, and was featured on NPR’s "Weekend Edition." After its January release in Britain, it was serialized on BBC Radio 4's  "Book of the Week." A BBC television documentary is now in the works.

Although I had published two previous books with university presses, this was my first venture into commercial publishing. Talking with editors and agents, as well as colleagues who had also “crossed over,” taught me a lot about trade publishing, which many scholars regard as the evil twin of the academic press. Some stereotypes are well-founded, as the cautionary tales below bear witness. Others are not, and academic authors can be in for pleasant surprises, as I also found.  Here is what I learned from my experience, arranged in the form of a Q&A.

Do you need an agent to publish with a trade press? No, not absolutely. Some trade presses do not accept "unagented" manuscripts, as a rule, and so it’s hard to get a foot in the door at those houses. But as I found from my own experience, some very good trade editors will look at unagented material, if you can get them interested in it with a good pitch letter (see below). But if you can interest an agent in your work, the agent will get an editor’s attention, probably with faster results and more money. That’s what agents do: use their knowledge, experience, and connections to market your work more effectively and with greater rewards than you could yourself.  

Which brings up a common misconception about agents: that they take your money and give little in return. First, legitimate literary agents never charge a fee up front but work on commission (usually 15 percent). Second, good literary agents always more than earn their commissions by getting you more money than you would ever get on your own. In fact, many agents pride themselves on securing advances that make up for their commissions several times over. If you begrudge agents their well-deserved 15percent, perhaps trade publishing is not for you.

How do you find an agent? Before an agent can sell your book to a publisher, you have to sell your book to an agent. To do that, you have to figure out what kind of book you’ve got. This is harder than it sounds. Most authors consider themselves the world’s expert on their own book, but often they have only a hazy idea of what it is in marketing terms. As the author, you see your book from the inside, but agents (and editors) see it first from the outside. What kind of book is this? What other books is it like? How can I sell it? Will the public buy it? The better you know your book from the inside while seeing it from the outside, the better you’ll be at selling it to an agent. In pitching my commercial book, The Last Duel, to agents, I described it as “the true story of a notorious episode in fourteenth-century France -- a fatal triangle of crime, scandal, and revenge that will excite and fascinate readers with its larger-than-life characters, its air of mystery and intrigue, its many contemporary echoes, and the fact that ‘this really happened.’”

Once you’ve figured out what kind of book you’ve got, you’re ready to look for an agent. Referrals are one way, if you know an author willing to vouch for you and your project. Another way is by sending an unsolicited pitch letter "over the transom" to likely prospects. How do you find prospects? By figuring out who has sold other books like your own. (If you skipped the previous step, figuring out what your book is, go back.) Draw up a list of books like your own -- in topic, genre, approach -- and find out who sold them, and to whom. How do you get this kind of information? By reading the acknowledgments pages of books similar to yours. By attending book talks or writers’ conferences and picking up useful leads. By subscribing to trade magazines or industry Web sites, such as Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch, which report on the latest book deals.

I found my own agent not by referral but by reading up on the industry, studying the acknowledgments pages of other books, and sending an over-the-transom pitch. But when I’ve told colleagues who’ve asked my advice about breaking into the trade market that they should read Publishers Weekly and research the industry, they’ve rolled their eyes, as if to say, "You mean this actually involves some work?" If you can’t be bothered to find out about the business you want to join, don’t bother to join the business.

How do you sell your book to an agent?  You need to write a short, punchy pitch letter that brings an agent bolt upright in his or her chair as though a gorilla just charged into the room. That’s a good rule of thumb, anyway. The pitch sells the proposal, which in turn sells the book. To change metaphors, you might think of the pitch, proposal and book (either sample chapters or full manuscript) as the top, middle and bottom of a pyramid, respectively. Since each part must sell the next, each has to embody your best possible writing. A sloppy or half-baked pitch won’t garner a request to see your brilliant proposal. And a botched proposal won’t attract an ounce of interest in your masterpiece of a book. Write every sentence of each part as if your publishing contract depends on it. Because it does.

Will I have to change my writing style to do a trade book? Yes, you’ll have to lose the scholarly jargon and the tangles of theory, presenting the results of your research in clear, exciting prose that people actually want to read. Remember, with a trade book, unlike many academic titles, readers generally will buy your book only if they want to, not because they have to.

The most readable books usually have a narrative thread. They tell a story that draws the reader in with intriguing events and vivid characters. Often they belong to a familiar genre, or they combine multiple genres. For example, Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (an academic press title that had great crossover success and even became a film) is not just history but also a kind of detective story.

Whether your book is about a historical event, a scientific discovery, a famous person or a not-so-famous person who lived a remarkable life, you need to make the reader want to read the story that originally moved you to write the book. To do this, you have to learn everything you can about your subject, and then forget everything you know -- or at least the fact that you know it -- in order to tell it afresh for others.

A friend of mine -- a very successfully published scholar with a string of popular trade titles -- told me that a literary agent once told him that there’s an important difference between telling the reader what you know, and telling the reader that you know. If academic authors have a fault, it’s the almost irresistible urge to tell readers that we know things. But popular readers are generally a lot less interested in the fact that you know something, or how you know it, than in simply knowing what it is. In early drafts of my own book, I often wrote sentences that began, “According to one medieval chronicler....” My editor finally said, “Just tell us what happens and leave the citation for the notes.”

What if a trade publisher likes the book but asks for major changes of genre, approach, etc.? This is where figuring out your own book, well in advance, is very important. You need to know your book better than anyone else, including your agent, your editor, and the marketing people who eventually get involved in selling and promoting it. Otherwise you run the risk of losing control of your own project, and finding your name on something you wish you hadn’t written.

When The Last Duel was on the market, one publisher weighed in with a nice bid but also said they wanted me to change the title and “make it more of a romance.” Now, my book was a fact-based historical account of an alleged rape that resulted in a legal case and finally a trial by combat -- not a subject that could be turned into a “romance” and still maintain its integrity. I told my agent that the "romance" idea was unacceptable, and that I would not consider this offer, although at the time it was the high bid.

On the other hand, you also have to be able to recognize good advice when you get it -- from your agent, your editor, your spouse, colleagues or anyone else with whom you share your work prior to publication. For example, my editor suggested that I divide my originally 5-chapter book into 10 or even 12 more bite-sized chunks to make it more manageable for readers -- advice I’m glad I followed.

A future article will deal with the writing process, working with a trade editor, and creating a book with the structure and style that a popular audience will actually want to buy and read.

Author's email: 

Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he teaches medieval literature. He is the author of three books, most recently, The Last Duel:  A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France ( Broadway, 2004).

I, Meme, Mine

Until recently, you got two sorts of responses if you plugged "Intellectual Affairs" into Google. One, of course, is a list of sites where that phrase appears -- including quite earlier numbers of this column, but perhaps an equal number for Benjamin Barber's memoir "The Truth to Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House."

The other result was a string of advertisements for online services offering to hook you up with married people in your area. For now, anyway, those ads have disappeared -- perhaps as the result of some tweak in Google's famous algorithms. In any case, they came as a surprise. But my wife (who has forgotten more about search engines I will ever know) rolled her eyes and said, "I knew it was going to happen when you named the column that."

Ex post facto, it does seem obvious. After all "intellectual" doesn't count for much,  product-placement-wise. In the American vernacular, it is a word usually accompanied by such modifiers as "pseudo" and "so-called" (just as the sea in Homer is always described as "wine-dark").
No doubt the Google algorithm, if tweaked a bit more, will one day lead you right to the personals ads for the New York Review of Books. For now, at least, the offers for a carnal carnival cruise are gone.

Meanwhile, Inside Higher Ed has now launched a page with a running list of Intellectual Affairs columns from February to the present. It has more than three dozen items, so far -- an assortment of essays, interviews, causeries, feuilletons, and uncategorizable thumbsuckers ... all in one central location, suitable for bookmarking.

It's also worth mentioning that Inside Higher Ed itself now offers RSS and XML feeds. (The editors are too busy or diffident to announce this, but some public notice of it is overdue.) To sign up, go to the home page and look for the buttons at the bottom.

This might also be a good time to invite readers to submit tips for Intellectual Affairs -- your thoughts on subjects to cover, books to examine, arguments to follow, people to interview. This column will strive, in coming months, to be equal parts Dennis Diderot and Walter Winchell. Your brilliant insights, unconfirmed hunches, and unsubstantiated hearsay are more than welcome. (Of course, that means I'll have to go confirm and substantiate them, but such is the nature of the gig.) Direct your mail here.

Word has it that IA is going to be tapped by Emily Gordon, of the Emdashes blog, for the current "book meme" -- a circulating questionnaire that invites participants to list what they've bought and read lately.

As you may recall, the field of memetics came into a certain short-lived prominence some years ago - one of those cases of an extended metaphor morphing into something like a school of thought. It rested on an analogy between ideas and genetic material. Concepts, ideologies, and trends were self-replicating "memes" that propagated themselves by spreading through cultural host populations, like mononucleosis at a rave.

Memetics itself hasn't had all that much staying power; it seems, by and large, to have gone the way of the Y2K survival kit. But the term "meme" has, paradoxically enough, proven much hardier -- particularly in the blogosphere. (One theory is that it appeals to bloggers because it has "me" in it, twice.)

So anyway, my responses to the meme, forthwith.

How many books have you owned?

This I cannot answer with any confidence. At present, I have somewhere between three and four thousand. Over the years, I have made regular efforts to clear room by selling or giving large numbers of books away. A few months ago, for example, I parted with about a thousand of them. 

Such a purge feels good, once the initial hesitation is overcome. There is even a kind of giddiness, as the herd begins to thin. But afterwards, I always have pangs of regret. When you need it, a missing title is like a phantom limb. There's a maddening and persistent itch you can no longer scratch.

The remaining volumes are arranged alphabetically by author's name - with certain exceptions. For example, there is about half a shelf containing collections of papers on postcolonialism, post-Fordism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. These are planted right next to some titles by the neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz. (I like to imagine that these books make each other really uncomfortable.)

What is the last book you bought?

That would be a set of eight rather hefty pamphlets called The Key to Love and Sex (1928) by Joseph McCabe, whose 40-volume series The Key to Culture (1927) is proving somewhat more difficult to collect. I am also awaiting the arrival of McCabe's autobiography Eighty Years a Rebel, first published in 1947 -- and, like most of his work, long since out of print.

McCabe is now all but completely forgotten, but in his prime he was a force of nature. Born into a working-class family in Manchester, England, McCabe entered a Franciscan monastery at the age of 15 and became a professor of philosophy for the order. After years of private dialectical wrangling, he
concluded that God did not exist. That meant starting over at the age of 27. Whatever anguish his years as a monk cost him, the experience left McCabe with a command of languages and powers of concentration that almost defy imagining.

Apart from translating about 30 volumes of literary, scientific, historical, and philosophical work, McCabe wrote a staggering array of books and pamphlets. Many of his books were works of popularization, but several were specialized works of scholarship in their own right. He was also a tireless lecturer and debater -- as aggressive a spokesman for secular rationality as one can imagine.

H.G. Wells called McCabe "the trained athlete of disbelief." That was, if anything, an understatement. For an admiring (indeed, almost hagiographical) account of his life and work, see Bill Cooke's recent biographical study A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism (Prometheus Books).

Name five books that mean a lot to you.

The list would come out differently with a little more thought. But off the top of my head, and in chronological order of their discovery, I'd name:

  • The Modern Library edition of Franz Kafka's short stories. How this ended up in a rural high school in the Bible Belt is still something of a mystery. I started reading Kafka in the best possible way - that is, with no idea who he was, or what reputation he might have. (Of course, he had no reputationat all in East Texas, come to think of it.) This made the shock of revelation that much more keen.
  • Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation. Same high school, different year. (Escape plans forming.) Apart from the cool grace of her own style, Sontag's early essays provided a reading list of figures such as Barthes, Benjamin, Lukacs, and Foucault. It was a much more lively engagement with their concerns than anything I've encountered at, say, MLA over the years.
  • Seymour Krim, Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. Part old-fashioned New York intellectual, part Beat hipster, Seymour Krim wrote this batch of critical and personal essays in the 1950s, long before the term "creative nonfiction" made its inexplicable appearance on the creative-writing scene. (Nothing he published afterwards was even half as good.) I'm almost reluctant to mention this volume in public. Rereading Views has been an occasional private ritual of mine for almost 25 years..
  • Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change. There is scarcely a word that begins to describe this book from the 1930s. Burke tried to fuse Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Veblen, George Herbert Mead, and who knows what else into a theory that would help him understand what was going on (1) in the world at large and (2) between his own ears. (Not long after the Great Depression started, his marriage disintegrated. Burke had a lot to theorize about, in other words.) This is in the category of books that I keep around in two copies: one filled with annotations, the other kept unmarked for reading without distraction.
  • C. L. R. James, Spheres of Existence. This anthology of political and cultural writings (the last of three volumes of James's selected works) was my first introduction to a revolutionary activist, historian, and thinker whose legacy only looks more important with time. (For a biographical overview, go here. [ ) Sinceencountering Spheres, I've spent years on research into James's life and work, and edited a couple of volumes of his writings, neither of which was half as good as Spheres. It really ought to be back in print.

What are you reading now?

Various things by and about Joseph McCabe, that freethinking workaholic. Not long ago, I bought a pamphlet by McCabe called The Meaning of Existentialism (1946). At lunch last week with some mutual friends, I showed it to Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber, who seemed amused by the work's long, explanatory subtitle: "The New Philosophy, Founded by Sartre, That Has Made Quick Progress Among the Volatile Young Men of Paris' Latin Quarter."

After hearing my thumbnail biographical lecture, Henry started reading the booklet. After a couple of pages, he looked up and said, with evident surprise, "This is pretty good! It isn't hackwork."

Indeed not. As an overview of Sartre's thought, it was probably as good as anything in English at the time. And McCabe was nearly 80 years old when he wrote it. (He was down to publishing only a few hundred thousand words a year.)

That's why I have adopted a new motto to get through each day. It's short, simple, and easy to remember: "What would Joseph McCabe do?"

The nature of this sort of meme is that I should, at this point, invite four or five people to answer the same questions. Please note the comments field below, and consider yourself invited.

Author's email: 

Of Chivalry and Convention Badges

At the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Western Michigan University, I received a mild surprise when I opened my envelope of conference materials: My badge had my name, the Congress logo, and a large blank space below my name where I was accustomed to seeing my college’s name.  

That’s right; contrary to the norms of academic conferences, the badge said nothing of where I was from. Wondering if this were a mistake, I quickly glanced around the room where confreres came and went and saw that no one had an institutional identity on his or her badge. Mirabile Mirabilis! Was this a new custom of the castle?

Well, at least there was now something to talk about at lunch. Of course, instead of glancing at a lunch partner’s badge and asking, "So what do you do at …?" I would have to ask, "So where are you from?" after which I figured the conversation could slip into safe, familiar channels (I’m used to this: The badges at the Conference on College Composition carry the conventioneer’s hometown rather than institution, so conversations quickly go the same way). If nothing else, there would be the topic of the blank spot below our names.

I imagined there would be inconveniences. This is a conference where many foreign accents and languages are heard, and it helps to know if someone is from Gröningen, Gdansk, or the Gutenberg Press (hey, some of us have book proposals to pitch). And sometimes one is happy to run across another who works with out-of-touch friends and schoolmates, something that can only be discerned from seeing a university name upon the badge.

These nuisances aside, the blank space below my name seemed downright chivalrous, as befits a medieval studies conference (and there were a few sessions on chivalry). It was one of the polite fictions of chivalry that all knights were fundamentally equal in their knighthood regardless of whether one was the Holy Roman Emperor or a pauper who couldn’t afford to keep his charger in oats. As in chivalry, so it was here:  we’re all medievalists. Does anything else matter?

Well, yes, it does, and the polite fiction that all professors are created equal runs about as far as the selfsame fiction about knights.  

At a scholarly conference, almost everything conspires to convey the notion that research is the privileged activity of our profession, and that, ergo, those whose badges say “I research” are the worthiest -- a good reason, I suppose, for the conference organizers to gamely try to suppress that signifier (and, to its credit, the medievalists’ group regularly offers a handful of sessions exclusively devoted to teaching – more than any other research-oriented conference I’ve attended).

It isn’t just the fact that we’re all here to exchange scholarship. When I catch up with a former professor from my prestigious grad program and begin waxing effusively about what I’m teaching, she cuts me short with, “But you are still writing, I hope” (I must be, since you are reading, but perhaps this isn’t what she meant). When my dissertation director asks me what I’m working on now, I know instinctively he’s not all that interested in how I taught the freshman research writing course.

Even at a session on “Teaching the Middle Ages at the Small Liberal Arts College,” a pleasant 90 minutes in which a tiny band commiserated and exchanged tricks for Monday morning (and got in the castle gate by disguising those tricks as scholarship), I felt a sense that we were huddled together, putting up a brave front against the profession’s real priorities. Other sessions discussed the hermeneutic practices of Cistercian monks and the play of signifiers in Chaucer. We discussed how to get our students to use the dictionary.

While, in the end, all of us at that session have found contentment, identity, and even a sense of calling teaching 12-credit loads at small liberal arts colleges or second-tier state institutions, nary one of us sits at table or in session across from a nametag advertising “Harvard” or “U. California” or “Carnegie Mellon” without a touch of envy and an anxious vacillation between self-affirmation and self doubt. But this is what I wanted, I tell myself. And I’m good at it. Teaching -- that’s what matters, anyway, not those obscure articles almost no one reads. Then again … could I have done something differently? Was it bad luck, or bad timing? Did I compromise too readily? Was I really not good enough?

As I popped my badge into its plastic holder, I mused that pride was the deadliest of deadly sins (there were sessions on those, too, for anyone who hasn’t yet mastered them) and wondered:  how long could this comity last? Not very, it turned out. I signed in Thursday morning, but by Thursday afternoon pens had been drawn and ink had been spilled. The first sighting was of a young lady who had written in large, legible letters under her name, “U. Toronto.” Then a few more popped up: Cornell. Yale. UCLA. All were sported by young adults who seemed to be grad students preening in their quality coats of arms, and I mused, "Flaunt it while you’ve got it. It won’t be long before you’ll be grateful to sign a contract to teach remedial writing at the Jonathan Edwards School for Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God." (I admit it. I’m prone to envy, with its accompanying bitterness and spite.)

And indeed, as a few more nametags popped up with handwritten university names upon them, I remarked that no one was advertising that he was from The Diminutive College of the Magna Mea Culpa, That Affordable Place across Town, or the Jim Bowie College of Cutlery Science. The handful who wrote in their colleges all touted names that suggested prestige, privilege, and class. And that’s chivalry. Where you’re from is who you are. Descent is destiny. Some knights are more equal than others.

On Friday I lunched with my dissertation director and some fellow medieval drama folk. One among us, this time a senior professor, had written “UCLA” under his name. He was engaged in an animated discussion about the trials of running department meetings with 65 members, when I interrupted: "My department has only six."

There was a moment of surprised silence and astonished looks, after which he asked me, "And where would that be?"

I told him.  He smiled and reached into his pocket, pulled out a nylon-tip pen, and offered it to me, saying, “Would you care to write that on your badge?” It was gracious. Courteous. Chivalrous.

I accepted, borrowed his pen, and wrote, “The College of St. Elizabeth.”  

"I’m leading a rebellion,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Against what? I had to wonder, as I returned his pen. The new custom? The whole game of signifying prestige?

So for the rest of the conference, I happily bore my coat of arms, for which I received a few strange looks. Was it for violating the custom of the castle? For daring to advertise such a lineage? For mocking a prerogative of the prestigious? It may, of course, have merely been for my sloppy handwriting. Perhaps I was a curiosity of sorts as I entered the lists, my visor up and my heraldry fully visible, armed with nothing but a fresh bag of tricks for Monday morning.

And yet, revealing my origin was mostly to my benefit. It led to conversations with other small Roman Catholic college teachers who wanted to compare notes. One priest struck up a conversation about a nun of the order that founded my college whose spiritual conferences he had read. Monks and nuns looked kindly upon me. And conversations tended to begin, “So what do you do at the College of St. Elizabeth?” or “Where exactly is that?”  

Folks largely behaved as if seeing my college name was normal -- because it is, I suppose.

Author's email: 

John Marlin is a professor of English at the small but spirited College of St. Elizabeth, in Morristown, New Jersey. He teaches writing, journalism and literature -- from Aeschylus to Austen.

Going Through the Motions

(to all poets, who must navigate through academia, and Robert’s Rules.)

If only the rules were usual,
I’d stand a chance
of nailing them down.
Motions do not move me, nay,
it is the view from my window
that summons—as now
melting frost mists
outlines of apple trees
that whited-out
stubborn, cloudy days,
but brought no fruit to bear.

No matter, the pear tree
eluding this view
spangled branches with its knots
of furied gold.
All summer I watched
the steady ripeness
of unchecked hearts.

But when readiness was all,
gathering time set,
limbs were stripped—
not just the load lowered for deer,
windfall for the wanderer,
clear to the topmost bough,
not a single fruit left.
I was struck
blaming jays or squirrels.
How can I call that question?

Elsewhere, seeking approval
is high risk.
I’d rather wallow
in fine-lettered ambiguity,
let the debate roll on
 until the cows come home.

And if there are no cows,
let every member
of every department
stand and give chase
to the existential implications
of the lack of cows—
that bourgeoning sense
of angst, since no matter how
we dress it up,
we must peer over
that vertiginous ridge
of self. Dare we table
a review of what awaits
on the other side?

Nevermind how a projected lack
(of cows, that is, mind you,
it all comes down
to the absence of cows
who took up the cello
shortly after weaning,
split infinitives
with cleft hooves,
so the bellows we hear
when udders are over-full
and barns become lush
with letting-down,
is the deep internment
of lovely, plaintive Bach,
nothing more, and when
they are let out to pasture,
we hear another movement,
for music is, after all,
a portable art).

So, that projected lack
spun from apocryphal sources
that are said to exist
(and who here knows the etymology
of fiction? Latin- fictio- a shaping,
a counterfeiting),
and the sensitive few
who have descended  
resurfaced, changed
inexplicably, changed
irreparably, so I hereby
proclaim there are
no friendly amendments.
For once I sidestep
our need for closure.
This opens the door (literal barn
or metaphorical, you get to choose),
for considering
how a probable past lack
was already revisited
(redundancy intentional)
on a blue sheet
that no one has seen.
Thus, there is no room
for bovine broodiness here—
only my own.

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Mary Fister is an assistant professor of English at the University of Hartford. Her poetry has appeared in Cream City Review, Jabberwock Review, The Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares and other publications.

The Case of the Censored Newspaper

In what may be the worst decision for college student rights in the history of the federal judiciary, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit this week turned back the clock a half-century and reinstated the old discredited doctrines of in loco parentis and administrative authoritarianism.

In Hosty v. Carter, the Seventh Circuit ruled by a 7-4 majority that administrators at public colleges have total control over subsidized student newspapers. But the scope of the decision is breathtaking, since the reasoning of the case applies to any student organization receiving student fees. Student newspapers, speakers and even campus protests could now be subject to the whim of administrative approval.

The case seemed like an open-and-shut example of unconstitutional suppression of dissent. On November 1, 2000, Patricia A. Carter, dean of student affairs at Governors State University, in Chicago’s south suburbs, called the printer of the student newspaper, the Innovator, and demanded prior approval of everything in the paper, which had annoyed administrators with its criticism of the university. Prior restraint is a classic violation of freedom of the press, and the editors Jeni Porche and Margaret Hosty soon sued the university.

Student press groups were alarmed when the Illinois attorney general’s office argued that the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier should apply to college newspapers. The misguided Hazelwood decision has been an unmitigated disaster for high school journalists, and the possibility of extending it to college students is terrifying.

Terrifying, that is, for anyone who cares about freedom of the student press. But for the majority of the Seventh Circuit, Hazelwood was a legal opening for conservative judges who wanted to reach a predetermined result. If the majority opinion by Judge Frank Easterbrook had merely extended the censorship of Hazelwood to colleges, it would have been a principled decision; a terrible principle, but a principle nonetheless.

However, because Dean Carter’s action violated even the Hazelwood standard, these activist judges had to rewrite the Hazelwood precedent to justify the censorship of all student newspapers and activities. The judges had to eliminate Hazelwood’s restriction to curricular-based newspapers, and then had to eviscerate any constitutional protections for a “limited public forum” such as a newspaper. It took the judges 18 months from the time of oral arguments, and some convoluted reasoning, to achieve their goal.

The Hazelwood case declared that high schools could only censor student newspapers that were created as part of the curriculum. However, the majority decision in Hosty goes far beyond this, expanding censorship of high school papers as well by eliminating the “curricular” limit.

Jettisoning the Hazelwood standard restricting only curricular-based newspapers was merely the first of Easterbrook’s violations of precedent. He also annihilates the common understanding of “limited public forum,” a term created by the Supreme Court to provide a middle ground between the unregulated public forum (such as standing on a soapbox on the quad) and a non-public forum (such as a university-controlled alumni magazine).

“If the paper operated in a public forum, the university could not vet its contents,” Easterbrook wrote. He then asked, “was the reporter a speaker in a public forum (no censorship allowed?) or did the University either create a non-public forum or publish the paper itself (a closed forum where content may be supervised)?” Of course, a newspaper isn’t a public forum like a soapbox. It’s limited to the students who run the newspaper. By declaring that only a pure public forum is entitled to Constitutional protection, Easterbrook eliminates the First Amendment on college campuses for any limited public forum, including any student-funded activities.

“What, then, was the status of the Innovator?” Easterbrook continued. “Did the university establish a public forum? Or did it hedge the funding with controls that left the university itself as the newspaper’s publisher?” By his logic, the only speakers or newspapers on a public college campus that fall under public forum protection would be those that receive no funding from student fees or university funds (a rare commodity indeed). Any funding “controls” are directly tied to ideological controls. 

Easterbrook concluded, “Freedom of speech does not imply that someone else must pay.” This is the philosophy of “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” and the Supreme Court has rejected it over and over again at public colleges.

Easterbrook is claiming that if the university can require student groups to follow funding rules designed to prevent fraud (and demand that student fee money be spent on a newspaper rather than, say, a private party), then the administration must be granted total control over the content of the newspaper.

A Break With Precedent

This is a bizarre conclusion, considering that the Supreme Court has repeatedly banned such control by colleges in funding cases.

In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Court ruled that a public university cannot ban funding for a newspaper based on its religious content. Now the Seventh Circuit has declared that a public university may be obliged to fund a religious newspaper, but it can impose any control over its contents. In Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, the Supreme Court ruled that public colleges must ban all viewpoint discrimination in funding student groups. It would be bizarre if college administrators were granted the direct power to control the viewpoints expressed in student newspapers, while by expressly banned from making funding decisions based on viewpoint. Yet this is what Easterbrook’s opinion permits.

Any non-public forum that is funded by the university to any degree could be controlled and censored by administrators. Any use of campus space by a student organization is subsidized by the university, as are all registered student groups that receive any benefits or funding. Therefore, all of these groups are subject to total control by the administration under Easterbrook’s ruling.

In essence, Easterbrook argued that there is only one kind of censorship that is impermissible on a public college campus: banning someone from speaking for free on a soapbox on the quad. In all other cases, under the Hosty v. Carter ruling, college administrators across the country now have a green light to ban anything they want, from controversial campus speakers to critical student newspapers.

Although the Hosty ruling itself only applies to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, the states covered by the Seventh Circuit, the “qualified immunity” test allows any public college administrators to avoid damages in any case where the law is unclear -- and the Hosty case certainly makes freedom of the student press an unclear idea.

The Hosty decision could also affect faculty academic freedom. If college students have no more Constitutional protections than first graders do, then college professors may have no more rights than elementary school teachers. Decades of cases establishing the unique legal status of colleges and academic freedom, based on the maturity and rights of college students, might be wiped away if Hosty is upheld.

Easterbrook also hauled out the dubious idea of institutional academic freedom: “Let us not forget that academic freedom includes the authority of the university to manage an academic community and evaluate teaching and scholarship free from interference by other units of government, including the courts.” If “academic freedom” means only the power of administrators to “manage an academic community,” then students and professors alike will be subject to censorship by the administration.

The Innovator has been shut down for almost five years, replaced by the administration with a more pliable newspaper where students never investigate or criticize their college. Unless the Supreme Court reverses the Seventh Circuit’s unprecedented act of conservative judicial activism, the Innovator may only be the first among many newspapers and student organizations silenced by administrators at public colleges, with the blessing of the courts.

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Locating Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu had a way of getting under one's skin. I don't mean his overtly polemical works -- the writings against globalization and neoliberalism that appeared toward the end of his life, for example. He was at his most incisive and needling in works that were much less easy for the general public to read. Bourdieu's sociological research kept mapping out the way power, prestige, and exclusion work in the spheres of politics, economics, and culture.

He was especially sharp (some thought brutal) in analyzing the French academic world. At the same time, he did very well in that system; very well indeed. He was critical of the way some scholars used expertise in one field to leverage themselves into positions of influence having no connection with their training or particular field of confidence. It could make him sound like a scold. At the same time, it often felt like Bourdieu might be criticizing his own temptation to become an oracle.

In the course of my own untutored reading of Bourdieu over the years, there came a moment when the complexity of his arguments and the aggressiveness of his insights suddenly felt like manifestations of a personality that was angry on the surface, and terribly disappointed somewhere underneath. His tone registered an acute (even an excruciating) ambivalence toward intellectual life in general and the educational system in particular. 

Stray references in his work revealed glimpses of Bourdieu as a "scholarship boy" from a family that was both rural and lower-middle class. You learned that he had trained to be a philosopher in the best school in the country. Yet there was also the element of refusal in even his most theoretical work -- an almost indignant rejection of the role of Master Thinker (played to perfection in his youth by Jean-Paul Sartre) in the name of empirical sociological research.

There is now a fairly enormous secondary literature on Bourdieu in English. Of the half-dozen or so books on him that I've read in the past few years, one has made an especially strong impression, Deborah Reed-Danahay's recent study Locating Bourdieu (Indiana University Press, 2005). Without reducing his work to memoir, she nonetheless fleshes out the autobiographical overtones of Bourdieu's major concepts and research projects. (My only complaint about the book is that it wasn't published 10 years ago: Although it is a monograph on his work rather than an introductory survey, it would also be a very good place for the new reader of Bourdieu to start.)

Reed-Danahay is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington. She recently answered a series of questions by e-mail.

Q: Bourdieu published sociological analyses of the Algerian peasantry, the French academic system, the work of Martin Heidegger, and patterns of attendance at art galleries -- to give only a very incomplete list. Yet his work seems much more focused and coherent than a catalog of topics would suggest. Can you to sum up the gist of his work, or rather how it all holds together?

A: Yes, I agree that, at first glance, Bourdieu's work seems to cover a seemingly disparate series of studies. When I read Bourdieu's work on education in France after first being exposed to his Algerian peasant studies in my graduate work in anthropology, I wondered if this was the same person. But when the entire corpus is taken together, and when one carefully reads Bourdieu's many texts that returned to themes brought up earlier in his work, one can see several underlying themes and recurring intellectual questions. 

One way to get a handle on his work is to realize that Bourdieu was interested in explaining social stratification, and the hierarchy of social values, in contemporary capitalist societies. He wanted to study systems of domination in a way that held some room for social agency but without a notion of complete individual freedom. Bourdieu often evoked Althusser as an example of a theorist who had too mechanical a view of internalized domination, while Sartre represented the opposite extreme of a philosopher who posited free will.  

Bourdieu believed that we are all constrained by our internalized dispositions (our habitus), deriving from the milieu in which we are socialized, which influence our world view, values, expectations for the future, and tastes. These attributes are part of the symbolic or cultural capital of a social group. 

In a stratified society, a higher value is associated with the symbolic capital of members of the dominant sectors versus the less dominant and "controlled" sectors of society. So that people who go to museums and like abstract art, for instance, are expressing a form of symbolic capital that is more highly valued than that of someone who either rarely goes to museums or who doesn't like abstract art.
The person feels that this is "just" a matter of taste, but this can have important consequences for children at school who have not been exposed to various forms of symbolic capital by their families.

Bourdieu studied both social processes (such as the French educational system, Algerian postcolonial economic dislocations, or the rural French marriage system), and individual figures and their social trajectories -- including Heidegger, Flaubert, and an Algerian worker. Bourdieu was trying to show how the choices these people made (and he often wrote of choices that were not really choices) were expressions of the articulation of habitus and the social field in which it is operating.

Q: Something about his career always seemed paradoxical. Sartre was always his worst-case reference, for example. But by the time of his death in 2002, Bourdieu was regarded as the person who had filled Sartre's shoes. Has your work given you a sense of how to resolve this seeming contradiction?

A: There is a lot of silence in Bourdieu's work on the ways in which he acquired power and prestige within the French academic system or about how he became the most famous public intellectual in France at the time of his death. He was more self-reflexive about earlier periods in his life. I have trouble defending Bourdieu in this contradiction about his stance toward the public intellectual, even though I applaud his political engagements. 

I think that Bourdieu felt he had more authority to speak to some of these issues than did other academics, given his social origins and empirical research in Algeria and France among the underclass. Bourdieu repeatedly positioned the sociologist (and one can only assume he meant himself here, too) as having a privileged perspective on the "reality" of systems of domination.

Bourdieu was very critical of Sartre for speaking out about the war in Algeria and for championing a sort of revolutionary spirit among Algerians. Bourdieu accused him of trying to be a "total intellectual" who could speak on any topic and who did not understand the situation in Algeria as profoundly as did the sociologist-ethnologist Bourdieu. When Bourdieu himself became more visible in his own political views (particularly in attacks against globalization and neo-liberalism), he does seem to have acted like the "journalist"-academics he lampooned in Homo Academicus. Nevertheless, when he was criticizing (in his essay On Television) what he saw as the necessity for "fast thinking" on television talk shows in France, where talking heads must quickly have something to say about anything, Bourdieu did (in his defense) refrain from pontificating about any and everything.

There is still a huge controversy raging in France about Bourdieu's political engagements. His detractors vilify him for his attacks against other intellectuals and journalists while he became a public intellectual himself. His defenders have published a book of his political writings ( Interventions, 1961-2001) seeking to show his long-standing commitments, and continue to guard his reputation beyond the grave.

I cannot help but think that Bourdieu's public combative persona, and his (in his own terms) refusals and ruptures, helped rather than thwarted his academic career. The degree to which this was calculated or (as he claimed) was the result of the "peasant" habitus he acquired growing up in southwestern France, is unknown.

Q: So much of his analysis of academic life is focused on the French university system that there is always a question of how well it could apply elsewhere. I'm curious about your thoughts on this. What's it been like to move between his concepts and models and your own experience as an American academic? 

A: I see two ways to answer your question. Certainly, in the specifics, French academia is very different. I have experienced that directly. My own American cultural values of independence (which may, I am aware, be a total illusion) conflict with those of many French academics. 

When I first arrived in France to do my dissertation fieldwork, I came with a grant that opened some doors to French academia, but I had little direct sponsorship by powerful patrons in the U.S. I was doing a project that had little to do with the work of my professors, none of whom had done research in France or Europe, and it was something that I had come up with on my own. This was surprising to the French, who were familiar with a patron-client system of professor/student relations. Most of the graduate students I met in France were involved in projects related to the work of their professors.

French academia, still centralized in Paris despite attempts at decentralization, is a much smaller universe than that of the vast American system. There is little room for remaining "outside" of various polemics there. I've learned, for instance, that some people whom I like and admire in France hated Bourdieu and that Bourdieu followers tend to be very fierce in their defense of him and want to promote their view of his work.

This is not to say that American academia doesn't have similar forces operating, but there are multiple points of value and hierarchy here. Whereas Bourdieu could say that Philosophy dominated French academia during the mid-20th century, it is harder to pinpoint one single dominant intellectual framework here.

I do, however, feel that Bourdieu's critique of academia as part of a larger project of the study of power (which he made very explicit in The State Nobility) is applicable beyond France. His work on academia provided us with a method of inquiry to look at the symbolic capital associated with academic advancement and, although the specific register of this will be different in different national contexts, the process may be similar. Just as Bourdieu did in France, for example, one could study how it is that elite universities here "select" students and professors.

Q: We have a memoir of Sartre's childhood in The Words. Is there anything comparable for Bourdieu?

A: Bourdieu produced self-referential writings that began to appear in the late 1990s, with "Impersonal Confessions" in Pascalian Meditations (1997), a section called "Sketch for a Self-Analysis" in his final lectures to the Collège de France, Science of Science and Reflexivity (2001), and then the stand-alone volume Esquisse pour une Auto-Analyse, published posthumously in 2004. [ Unlike the other titles listed, this last volume is not yet available in English. -- S.M.]

A statement by Bourdieu that "this is not an autobiography" appears as an epigraph to the 2004 essay. I find his autobiographical writings interesting because they show us a bit about how he wanted to use his own methods of socio-analysis on himself and his own life, with a focus particularly on his formative years -- his childhood, his education, his introduction to academia, and his experiences in Algeria.

Bourdieu was uncomfortable with what he saw as narcissism in much autobiography, and also was theoretically uncomfortable with life stories that stressed the individual as hero without sufficient social analysis. He had earlier written an essay on the 'biographical illusion" that elaborated on his biographical approach, but without self-reference. These essays are not, then, autobiographical in the conventional sense of a linear narrative of a life. Bourdieu felt that a truly scientific sociology depended on reflexivity on the part of the researcher, and by this he meant being able to analyze one's own position in the social field and one's own habitus.  

On the one hand, however, Bourdieu's auto-analysis was a defensive move meant to preempt his critics. Bourdieu included a section on self-interpretation in his book on Heidegger, in which he referred to it as "the riposte of the author to those interpretations and interpreters who at once objectify and legitimize the author, by telling him what he is and thereby authorizing him to be what they say he is..." (101). As Bourdieu became increasingly a figure in the public eye and increasingly a figure of analysis and criticism, he wanted to explain himself and thus turned to self-interpretation and auto-analysis. 

Q: In a lot of ways, Bourdieu seems like a corrosive thinker: someone who strips away illusions, rationalizations, the self-serving beliefs that institutions foster in their members. But can you identify a kernel of something positive or hopeful in his work -- especially in regard to education? I'd like to think there is one....

A: Bourdieu had little to say about how schools and universities operate that is positive, and he was very critical of them. The hopeful kernel here is that in understanding how they operate, how they inflict symbolic violence and perpetuate the illusions that enable systems of domination, we can improve educational institutions.

Bourdieu felt strongly that by de-mystifying the discourses and aura of authority surrounding education (especially its elite forms), we can learn something useful. The trick is how to turn this knowledge into power, and Bourdieu did not have any magical solutions for this. That is work still to be done.

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Serving Time: the 6-Year Rule

When she interviewed at the university, my friend Jill asked very few questions. During the first year, she found a mentor and worked on improving her teaching techniques. She received excellent reviews from the chair, her peers and even her students. Frequently described as "thoughtful" and "amusing," a number of students followed her throughout the English sequence.

Inspired by her ability to take even dry subjects and make them seem lively and relevant, the chair began asking her to teach other courses in the humanities. By her fourth year, Jill was teaching a graduate course each semester, in addition to the "nuts and bolts" English courses in which she was an expert. Confident that she  would be teaching at this Midwestern university for some time, Jill bought a house. Although it was no mansion, this duplex would allow her to keep her two dogs downstairs while she had a paying tenant upstairs. She loved the old-fashioned trim dividing the walls, the creaky wooden stairs, the octagon shaped window in the front room. She imagined that she would grow old here.

She had found her paradise. She had a job she loved, a campus  that valued her, students that would stop her outside the Buehler’s Buy-Low to say hello, canine companionship and a group of close-knit friends. She belonged.

What happened in the sixth year of her employment was a shock. The chair of her department told her that although she had excellent reviews and the campus had no complaint about her work, she was being let go. Her initial three-year contract had lapsed into a yearly renewal; after this coming year, she would have no job. She had sat  there, hands trembling, refusing to cry. She asked what had happened. The chair had said dryly, "Haven’t you heard of the six-year rule?" At home she found her faculty handbook and flipped to tenure. Buried on the fourth page of that section were the terms that would now crush her future:

"Tenure… is acquired de facto in the seventh year of a faculty member’s full-time service in the tenure-accumulating ranks, unless the faculty member receives notice during the sixth year that the seventh year of employment will be 'terminal.' Tenure de facto is automatic. It is conferred without a tenure review solely by reason of the faculty member’s appointment."

Because Jill did not have a Ph.D., she was not eligible for tenure; indeed, she had never hoped for tenure. With this rule, she saw that the campus had never intended to keep her for any time; it was one thing to be renewed every year -- it was another to find that for the administration she was a temporary employee, bound to be terminated.

She felt angry. She felt betrayed. She had built her life around her teaching schedule there. She had invested her time, her energy and her heart. Her reward was six years of paid work and a notice not to return.

Bitterly, she was moved to action, readying her résumé and making phone calls. By the time she had packed her office, she had a part-time job with another local university preparing high-schoolers for college. She ate at home every day, packing a thin sandwich to carry in her eight-year old car when she worked during the day. When her health insurance ran out, she simply prayed not to get sick. After her tenant upstairs moved out, she walked the floor, realizing that she did not even have six dollars to replace the ruined baseboard by the front door. The house where she had hoped to retire had suddenly become a luxury that she would surely lose.

I met Jill at the coffee shop she used to frequent. Although she sat in front of the bookshelves that day, there was no colorful ceramic mug of coffee on the wobbly table next to her chair. When I offered to buy her a cup of tea, she adamantly refused. Proud, she would rather sit thirsty than accept charity from another. We talked for hours. I could see how students and faculty would be drawn to her. She was unpretentious, thoughtful -- even funny as she reflected on the process that has left her pocketbook empty and her soul disappointed.

I never felt awkward around her -- even though I could see that, in effect, I was the enemy. The Midwestern university that had been her home for her formative teaching years was to be my newfound employer. In two months time, I would be walking those same halls, talking to the same faculty members, teaching the same population and answering to the same department chair.

Like her, I was hired as a non-tenure track instructor. Like her, I have only an M.A., and no Ph.D. Like her, I was not told of this limitation that would result in my shortened career there. If I thought this was bad, the worse news is that this "six-year" rule is enforced at universities all over the United States. Not only had Jill and I unwittingly become fixed-term instructors, but tens of thousands of non-tenured instructors all over the United States will find themselves on the street at the seven-year mark.

Initially I had been thrilled about the offer, and thought of this town as a place to retire. One of the reasons I had accepted a job there was not only because of the prestige of working for a university, but because the  department chair and dean had gone out of their way to treat me with kindness before and during the interview.

Months later when they made me an offer, I had presented them with an awkward situation -- I had  already accepted an interview with a community college on the East coast. Both the dean and department chair told me that if I did decide in favor of their university, they would simply reimburse the other campus for any expenses already paid out. At the time, I was impressed. These administrators didn’t even know the folks at this small community college. Yet, they were taking the high road. Considering the impact of my decision on another, they had sought to make it right. It was a heady moment for this applicant. It made my decision very easy. Go with the campus that takes care of their own.

Now, I feel cautious. Yes, even though I have been asked on no less than 13 other interviews since I signed a three-year contract with the Midwestern university, I have decided to stick with my original decision. In August, 2005, I will be there, working to teach freshmen- and sophomore-level English composition.

Before I found out about the "six-year rule," I'll admit that my attitude was noticeably different. I had planned to decorate my shared office: posters for the walls, a rug for the floor, a bookcase for my favorite  texts. I had also surfed the house-for-sale sites online, frequently printing out "zero percent down for first homebuyers" and "low down for first-time qualifiers" advertisements. I had investigated the town with a fervor that I had never felt for my own town. I had three historic books on the area and loads of sites bookmarked that described the small zoo, the combination science and art museum, the used book store, the mall, the weather -- everything.

I really thought of this move as my last in education. After six years of adjuncting in California, I was finally going to make a home in the Midwest. With the  terrific reviews I had always received, I was convinced that I would be renewed until retirement; this stability would allow me to develop as an instructor and really work at retaining students year after year. The idea of a place to really contribute (and to retire) made me smile.

Now I think of this university as a place that I will park myself for three years. I have been forewarned by colleagues not to wait until the axe falls to move on -- but to start looking at the end of each academic year. To turn down no offers to interview, to take every chance to make my résumé look good, but not to stick my neck out for the campus that will provide me with only a limited chance to teach.

It’s a sad turn of events. Yes, I will teach as well as I can, but I will not be thinking of aligning myself with a particular pedagogy, with a carefully chosen mentor, with one lucky student population. In effect, I will be an adjunct again -- gauging time spent on each project or assignment, time spent with each student during an office hour, minimizing preparation time when I can, and most importantly, always thinking of where I will work next. The rolling contract system has ensured that knowledgeable, qualified (even inspired) instructors such as my friend Jill and myself will not find a home in the university system.

I understand that in 1940, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges were thinking of keeping instructors from being strung along when the associations adopted the policy that set up six-year rules. In a superficial way, I understand that non-tenured instructors would be judged on merit at the end of their probationary period (although my friend was given no such review). I applaud the concept of tenure; someday, too, I will have the security, the freedom to teach as I see fit, to interject the controversial opinion now and then, to really give all that I have to one campus, knowing that I will be rewarded with a career lifespan of support.

Of course, this will not happen for me in the university system proper; instead, I will be shopping at community colleges for a long-term position. Should I be able to afford a Ph.D. at some time, I  may consider the university system again; perhaps not.

Some have suggested that the tenure system be abolished. I don't agree. But "de facto tenure" was created 60 years ago to protect contract employees from abuse. The idea was to force the university system to actually give tenure to long-term instructors who had served good time and produced viable results. Now, with a bulging market of a hundred applicants (even thousands) for each full-time teaching position, universities no longer hire on contract with the idea of giving tenure later. Instead, they lure desperate non-Ph.D.s with an initial three-year contract with the vague promise of renewal year after year.

Part of my argument is with the university administrators who allow this "six-year term" information to be buried in 157-page documents rather than having it clearly stipulated in the job description. I know from experience that there are a few faculty members on hiring committees who feel poorly about deceiving inexperienced university candidates. In an online forum, one departmental secretary confessed that she felt "like part of a conspiracy" when the chair specifically told her not to inform potential candidates of this term limit.

A staff member I know in Human Resources confided that she "could almost feel an audible exhale" when she lifted stacks of six-year term faculty from the "active" file cabinets to the archives. She says that she feels badly, but knows there is nothing she can do. "These are people, you know," she told the student assistant whose job was to load files into cardboard boxes to be filed in an almost-abandoned building a mile away.

Information breeds responsibility. But then, I’m an instructor who withholds nothing in my syllabus. On the first day of class, students know exactly what is expected of them and how to earn a winning grade. They even know how many minutes into the class hour constitutes a tardy, as well as a bi-monthly accounting spelling out what their in-class grade is and how they achieved that. It’s also clear to my students how the essays count -- exactly how they count -- into their final grade. Although I may parcel out assignments in English composition, I do not hold back on information about how my students are expected to perform. Though it means lots of thought, working and reworking of syllabi (and an extra sheet of paper), I believe that assisting adults in making solid decisions involves informing them rather than letting them stumble across the information when it is too late to do anything to influence the outcome. But then, that’s just how I work.

Flawless reviews and gushing letters of recommendation may suggest that others find my techniques (and underlying belief system) appropriate for higher education. The good news is that this budding file-folder will ensure that I continue to work in academia -- wherever I am valued.

Perhaps I am naive in my evaluation. But I know there is a heart out there somewhere. In tapping it, I ask that the American Association of University Professors consider abolishing or rewriting the "six-year rule." Let's stop the creation of a roaming, transient "third-class" of full-time adjuncts and return to the meaning of "de facto tenure" -- protecting our professors rather than allowing them to be abused.

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Shari Wilson is the pseudonym of an adjunct at several colleges in California. In the fall, she will join the ranks of untenured full-time instructors at a university in the Midwest where she will stay, of course, no more than six years.

Ambiguous Legacy

There will be a meeting tonight in Washington to celebrate the life of James Weinstein, the radical historian and publisher who died in Chicago last Thursday. The news was by no means unexpected. But the gathering is impromptu, and it will probably be small.

I suppose one thing we will all have in common is an inability to refer to the deceased as "James Weinstein." He was Jimmy. It's a fair guess that the turnout will include union organizers and progressive lobbyists and a few journalists. There will undoubtedly be an academic or two -- or several, if you count the defrocked, the ABD's, and the folks who otherwise decided (contra David Horowitz) that university life is not necessarily conducive to being a leftist.

Many people know that Weinstein's book The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 (first published in 1967 and reprinted by Rutgers University Press in 1984) started out as his dissertation. After all this time, it remains a landmark work in the scholarship on U.S. radicalism. But only this weekend, in talking with a mutual friend, did I learn that he never actually bothered to get the Ph.D.

Diagnosed with brain cancer, Jimmy spent the final weeks of his life in bed at home. He gave a series of interviews to Miles Harvey, an author and former managing editor at In These Times, the progressive magazine that Jimmy founded. The body of reminiscences is now being transcribed, and will join the collection of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University.

"We both knew we were in a race against time," Miles said when we talked by phone over the weekend. "We mined a lot of interesting stuff. Jimmy was the Zelig of the American left."

The son of a prosperous businessman, he worked for years in electronics factories as a rank-and-file Communist union member. One of his anecdotes from that era is something of a legend -- has become, even, a part of history. One day a comrade asked Jimmy to give a ride to a taciturn fellow doing party business of an undisclosed nature. A few years later, he recognized the passenger as Julius Rosenberg. (Suffice it to say that Weinstein's future biographer will probably find a day-by-day account of his life during the early 1950s in the FBI surveillance files.)

Jimmy left the party in 1956, as part of a major exodus in the wake of Khrushchev's denunciation of the crimes of Stalin. He was never apologetic about his membership. But neither was he even slightly sentimental about it.

Well before massive documentation from the Russian archives settled the question, he dismissed the arguments of those who insisted that the American CP and the Soviet spy apparatus in the U.S. had to be considered as completely distinct entities. Any good party member would have been glad to help out, he said: "We would have considered it an honor." (Jimmy himself never received that distinction. According to Miles Harvey, the request that he chauffeur Julius Rosenberg has less to do with Jimmy's reliability as a revolutionary than it did with the fact that he was one of the Communists on hand who owned a car.)

The fact that he once said this at a public event, where non-leftists could hear him -- and that he did so during the Reagan administration, no less -- is still held against him in some circles.

The usual pattern, of course, is to abandon a rigid, dogmatic political ideology -- and then to adopt another one. People spend entire careers boldly denouncing other people for their own previous mistakes. It's easy work, and the market for it is steady.


Jimmy followed a different course. To begin with, he had never been all that keen on the ideological nuances of the Communist movement. He certainly knew his Marx and Lenin from studying at the party's famous Jefferson School of Social Science, in New York. But somehow the doctrinal points counted less than what he'd picked up from all those years as a union activist. At least that's the impression of his friend Jim McNeill, another former managing editor at In These Times. (McNeill, who is now an organizer for the Service Employees International Union.)

Nearing 30, Weinstein decided to go to graduate school to study history; and his instinct was to dig into an earlier period of American radicalism -- when it spoke an idiom that was much less purely Marxist, and a lot more influential. Up through World War I, the Socialists successfully fielded candidates in local elections and even get the occasional member into Congress. And Eugene Debs, a figure beloved even by those who didn't share his vision of the proletarian commonwealth, could win nearly a million votes for president while imprisoned for an antiwar speech.

Weinstein's research was, in short, a glimpse of an alternative that had been lost. It wasn't simply a matter of government repression, either. There were streaks of doctrinal puritanism, of apocalyptic revolutionism, that eventually proved corrosive. "In large part," as he later put it, "the failure of the American left has been internal." (Whether or not he made the connection isn't clear, but his own experience in the CP would tend to confirm this. As bad as McCarthyism had been for the party, members started quitting en masse once they had to face the truth about Stalin.)

Boiled down, his conclusions amounted to a demand for a major upheaval in the culture of the left. What it needed for the long term, in effect, was a healthy dose of pragmatism. It would also mean learning to think of reforms as part of the process of undermining the power of the profit system -- rather than implicitly seeing reforms as, at best, a kind of compromise with capitalism.

Had he done only that initial study of the Socialist Party (finished in 1962, though only published five years later), Jimmy Weinstein would merit a small but honorable spot in the history of the American left. But in fact he did a lot more.

Today's academic left is very much a star system. Jimmy never had a place in it. If that bothered him, he did a good job of keeping quiet about it. But just for the record, it's worth mentioning that he was present at the creation.

He was part of the group in Madison, Wisconsin that published Studies on the Left between 1959 and 1967. It was the first scholarly journal of Marxist analysis to appear in the United States since at least the end of World War II, and an important point of connection between the American New Left and international currents in radical thought. (The first translation of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," for example, appeared in Studies.)

Jimmy's brief memoir of this period can be found in a volume edited by the radical historian Paul Buhle called History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin, 1950-1970 (Temple University Press, 1990). There has long been a tendency to treat the intellectual history of the American left as unfolding primarily in New York City. This is understandable, in some ways, but it introduces gross distortions. It's worth remembering that one of the major publications serving to revitalize radical scholarship was the product of a group of graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. It appears that Buhle's anthology is now out of print. But what's more surprising, I think, is that more research hasn't been done on "the Madison intellectuals" in the meantime.

In keeping with Miles Harvey's characterization of Weinstein as "the Zelig of the American left," we next find him at the Chicago convention of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969. That was the one where -- just as the antiwar movement was starting to get a hearing on Main Street USA -- rival factions waved copies of the Little Red Book in the air and expelled one another. (Want evidence that the left's deepest wounds are self-inflicted? There you go.)

Repelled by the wild-eyed hysteria and terrorist romanticism of the Weather Underground (of which, one of his cousins was a member), Jimmy helped start another journal, Socialist Revolution, which was always more cerebral than its up-against-the-wall title might suggest. In 1978, it changed its name to Socialist Review. (This abandonment of "revolution" inspired a certain amount of hand-wringing in some quarters.) It was the venue where, in 1985, Donna Haraway first published her "Cyborg Manifesto." For years afterward, the rumor went around that SR was about to drop "Socialist" from its title, to be replaced by "Postmodern." But in fact it continues now as Radical Society -- a distant descendant of its ancestor, by now, though it still bears a family resemblance to the publications that Jimmy worked on long ago.

Jimmy's last major venture as a publisher -- the culmination of his dream of converting the lessons of radical history into something practical and effective, here and now -- was In These Times, which started as a newspaper in 1976 and turned into a magazine sometime around 1990. A collection of articles from the magazine's first quarter century appeared in 2002 as the book Appeal to Reason -- a title echoing the name of the most widely circulated newspaper of the old Socialist Party.

Pat Aufderheide, now a professor of communications at American University, was ITT's culture editor from 1978 through 1982. She writes about the experience in her book The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). A whole generation of people were entranced by the countercultural idea that "the personal is the political" -- or its academic doppelganger, the Foucauldian notion that power was everywhere and inescapable. These were recipes, she notes, for "self-marginalization and political fundamentalism" on the left.

"For In These Times," writes Aufderheide, "politics is the prosaic complex of institutions, structures and actions through which people organize consciously for social change.... Richard Rorty would put it in the reformist left category. It is read largely by leftists who do organizing or other practical political work, through labor unions, universities and schools, churches, nonprofit organizations and local and regional government. These are smart people, many of whom are not intellectuals, and who mostly come home late and tired."

The importance of reaching that public -- indeed, the very possibility of doing so -- tends to be overlooked by many people engaged in left-wing academic discourse. ("Our comrades in armchairs," as activists sometimes put it.)

In her book, Aufderheide recalls dealing with "a vocal contingent of academics" who were "always ready to pounce on lack of subtlety, creeping cheerleading, or sentimentality" in the magazine's cultural coverage. "Their critical acuteness, however, often seemed exercised for the satisfaction of intellectual one-upmanship," she writes. "When I begged them to write, to point me to other writers, to serve on the board, there was almost always a stunned silence."

The problem is self-perpetuating, Perhaps it comes down to a lack of good examples. And in that regard, Jimmy's death is more than a personal loss to his friends and family.

It's worth mentioning that, along the way, he wrote a number of other books, with The Long Detour: The History and Failure of the American Left  (Westview, 2003) being his last. It was also his favorite, according to Miles Harvey, whose series of deathbed  interviews will, in time, serve as the starting point for some historical researcher who has perhaps not yet heard of James Weinstein.

To be candid, I didn't care for his final book quite as much as the one he published in 1975 called Ambiguous Legacy: The Left in American Politics. The books are similar in a lot of ways. I'm not sure that my preference for one over the other is entirely defensible.

But it was Ambiguous Legacy that Jimmy inscribed when we met, about 10 years ago. My copy of his first book, the one on the Socialist Party, he dedicated "with hope for our future." Only later did I look at the other volume. Beneath the greeting -- and before his signature -- he wrote: "The legacy is more ambiguous than ever."

Author's email: 

Scott McLemee was a contributing editor for In These Times between 1995 and 2001. His column Intellectual Affairs appears here on each Tuesday and Thursday.

Fear of Phishing

I direct the journalism school at Iowa State University, where professors are among the most astute about the increasing specter of online risks, including "phishing." But even in this informed, digital environment, one of my journalism professors was lured by a fraudulent e-mail message and came close to having his bank account drained.

Phishing is an attempt at cybercrime. It is also a subgenre of spam -- replete with logos from such corporations as Pay Pal, eBay, and Wells Fargo -- typically notifying e-mail recipients about "suspicious" use of an account and directing them to a link so that they can input personal data, including account numbers and passwords. Despite the investment in spam filters and procedures at college technology centers, phishing e-mail still manages to bypass IT watchdogs at some of our most security-minded institutions, including my own.

When I complained about this to our Solution Center, I was told to adjust my spam filter. So I and other professors obliged. As a result a few timely e-mail messages got sent to the digital trash heap, including one with the subject header “Wolfgang’s Offer,” in reference to a grant opportunity from Wolfgang Kliemann, our associate vice provost for research.

The spam filter probably associated the subject line with a pitch to buy music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

We readjusted our filters accordingly, and the phishers infiltrated our e-mailboxes.

All of us have received this kind of e-mail, of course. And most are easy to dismiss until the right set of circumstances combine: a message carrying the logo of a bank where you happen to do business and a service that you happen to use, which hooked our professor with a subject line that read: “Possible fraud to your account. Please answer.”

Here is the message that he received:

Our department recorded a payment request from Expedia - Online Travel Agency to enable the charge of $619.49 on your account. This amount is supposed to cover the cost of a 5 days reservation (25-30 October / 2004) at a Five Stars Hotel located in New Delhi / INDIA.… THE PAYMENT IS PENDING FOR THE MOMENT. If you made this reservation or if you just authorize this payment, please ignore or remove this email message. The transaction will be shown on your monthly statement as "Rama Bangalore-Hotel". If you didn't make this payment / reservation and would like to decline the $619.49 billing to your card, please follow the link below to deny the payment. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and appreciate your assistance in helping us maintain the integrity of the entire Wells Fargo system.

He bit the bait. He also agreed to tell his story to Inside Higher Ed, but without use of his name. "As you read the message," he says, “you’ll see the sense of urgency it conveyed. Without thinking, I opened the message” which led to “an official looking Wells Fargo page, with the colorful stagecoach banner across the top and a request for my account number and password.

"I typed both in. I immediately received a message saying my password was incorrect, please try again. Which I did. I must have attempted to use in every password I have ever used in my computer life. After about the fifth rejection," he says, "a light went on in my brain—I shouldn't be giving out my password!"

Panic set in. He envisioned his checking account being cleaned out. He contacted Wells Fargo, which issued a fraud message. A representative urged the professor to close his bank account.

Michelle Scott, vice president of public relations for Wells Fargo, says the company takes phishing seriously. It has an ongoing public education campaign and last year launched a comprehensive Web site for fraud prevention, detection and resolution.

"Thankfully, I didn't lose any money," the journalism professor and Wells Fargo customer says, "but I did have to throw away two boxes of checks and open a new account. I also had to reissue a couple of checks I had written to pay bills."

Our professor acted quickly and lost no money. But that isn’t always the case at research institutions with large online populations. For instance, five students and two staff members at the University of Michigan fell victim to a phishing scam, as reported by The Michigan Daily.  The student newspaper, in another article, noted that "people reported having large sums of money disappear from their bank accounts."

In the aftermath of these incidents, Paul Howell, chief information security officer at Michigan, received dozens of inquiries asking what people can do to stop the e-mails. "The answer to this question usually lies in anti-spam technology," he says. "And when that fails, awareness and education are the next best defense."

Most of us believe we will never succumb to a phishing ploy, especially since so many of them are easy to spot as frauds, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the English language -- which can be more effective in filtering spam than current high-tech methods. A quick sampling:

  • "Please follow steps for verification process" and "visit Regions Bank Security Center,” from a cyberthief who has yet to master use of definite articles.
  • "If your account informations [sic] are not updated within the next 72 hours, then we will assume this account is fraudulent and will be cancelled [sic].… We apreciate [sic] your support and understading [sic], as we work together to keep eBay a safe place to trade” -- from a cyberthief who cannot spell or do syntax (the grammatical kind).
  • "It came to our attention that your account may be suspected of fraud. We ask our users with exposed accounts to confirm their identity with PayPal every once in a while, in order to upkeep the safety of our environment," from a cyberthief who opened his thesaurus to “periodically” and chose “every once in a while.”

We can chuckle about such e-mail, especially if we do not do business with these corporations. On the other hand, says Jane Drews, information technology security officer at the University of Iowa, “Some of these phishing e-mails are amazingly believable.”

In fact, one from eBay looked remarkably genuine up until this sentence: "Please update your records by the 15th of Mai."

“Mai” is German for “May.”

I asked our computer support specialist, Jeremy Haubrich, to trace the path of the e-mail message, betting it came out of Germany.

The message, he said, was sent through a California-based direct marketing firm that has an anti-spam statement on its Web site. "So they would probably be interested to hear that one of their customers or some illegitimate user is sending phishing mail through their system," he added, noting that "all of this is conjecture" since domain names can be forged. "By the way," he added, the message claims to be from the California firm, but the address it was sent from "appears to be some sort of German communications company with a Web site that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the mid-90s."

I sent the phishing email to the California firm, receiving this reply: “This definitely looks like it was masked by the company in Germany.”


We may have located the country whence the offending emails came, but there was little anyone could do immediately about the situation.

Fred B. Schneider, a computer science professor at Cornell University and director of the Information Assurance Institute, states, "It is notoriously difficult to trace a forged e-mail’s return-address back to the actual sender, because the Internet protocols were not designed to protect against return-address forgery."

In light of that, Schneider believes that spam filters are the answer (at least in the short term). "To prosecute phishing requires finding the perpetrator, whereas to filter and remove phishing e-mail at receiver sites do not -- it just requires that spam filters be installed and kept current." Moreover, he adds, using filters "is a local action, which can be taken by IT technical staff," whereas prosecuting phishers is external and complicated. "Self-determination is a comfort."

Other IT security chiefs concur with that assessment, including Michael Bowman, information security officer at Iowa State. "We try to keep the community aware of phishing schemes and the problems with spam in general," he says, putting security notices on university Web sites and occasionally working with student journalists at the ISU Daily. Nevertheless, Bowman admits, "It is a challenge to publicize a new scheme before someone receives the phishing e-mail."

Michael G. Carr, chief information security officer at the University of Nebraska, notes that his institution also treats phishing as spam “and tries to prevent such communiqués from ever reaching an e-mail inbox.”

While phishing is a subgenre of spam, Carr concedes, and "may very well be statutorily defined as a type of fraud or attempted fraud," reporting such activities to law enforcement has not been effective because of:

  • Jurisdiction. “Generally, phishing originates outside the state of Nebraska and, usually, outside the United States. Consequently, local law enforcement and the state Attorney General’s office, while interested in preventing these types of crimes, do not have jurisdiction over the culprits.”
  • Amount of damages. "If end users are alerted to phishing schemes and are aware of how to not become victims, then there are no actual monetary damages. The result is an attempted fraud similar to an attempted burglary where the crook jiggles the door knob, finds the door locked and moves on. Right or wrong, most security professionals see phishing as a ‘no harm, no foul’ issue."
  • ROSI. "The Return on Security Investment does not necessarily warrant the time, cost and energy to research the phishing origins and report the incidents to law enforcement because of the aforementioned reasons."

The ROSI factor can increase along with the level of risk if the phishing process -- little likelihood of prosecution, a lock-your-door philosophy, and a proved method to bypass filters -- is used to tap fear instead of a person’s bank account. Would IT security respond more vigorously if the same process was used to disseminate messages en masse that affected institutions psychologically rather than a few individuals financially?

I can’t get too specific here because of ethical reasons. Suffice to say that in the past institutions have acted swiftly to track racist threatening e-mail messages sent within the United States; but other scenarios from abroad, where most phishing e-mail messages emanate, now are possible. After all, sparking fear in the populace is a priority of enemies of the state, and as such, research institutions might contemplate securing grants from Homeland Security to patch the breached spam filter system before it is used against universities with sensitive government contracts.

Paul Howell at Michigan and Jane Drews at Iowa agree.

"I think your question is a good one," Howell states, "in that it would likely prompt more discussion around preventative measures.

"I don't know what the ultimate solution is," Howell adds. "Perhaps digital signatures will be implemented and people will not accept e-mail from those (whose identity) they can't authenticate."
Jane Drews believes that the “answer has to be ‘yes’ to your question” about the phishing process afflicting fear instead of financial loss. What you are suggesting,” she continues, “is where, what, and how shifts in the equation occur.” An increase in “fear, uncertainty, doubt or other psychological issue, or for that matter any kind damage,” is likely to spur “an increase in resources to detect, track, prevent, and prosecute.”

“Don’t misunderstand,” she concludes, “people are working hard to counteract this threat. But I believe the most successful way today is through education. Technology solutions to counteract the threat will surely become more successful, too.”

Michael Bugeja is the author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press). His last column examined Duke's iPod experiment. For news and information about phishing, visit the Anti-Phishing Working Group and the Phishing Chronicles.


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