Semiotics 101

Every semester I hear the same shopworn appeals for special dispensation for missed deadlines, even though my syllabi specify that only written requests from a dean or a doctor will be considered. Referring students to the syllabus usually evokes astonished assertions that surely it was an oversight to exclude their particular circumstances, which, in the sweep of Western civilization, are unique.

It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve heard an original excuse, and I was beginning to suspect that the hip-hop generation was imagination-challenged. My mistake! New students simply don’t have the semiotics background to understand the difference between the sign (message sent) and the signified (message heard) of academic discourse. It’s not until the sophomore year that students begin to grasp this, thus I offer this humble Semiotics 101 lesson for first-year students, lest they inadvertently offend their professors. 

Message Sent Message Heard
"I was so busy with classes in my major that I simply didn’t have time for your assignment." "Your subject is so irrelevant I’m surprised it’s even offered at reputable schools.  Did you lack the requisite skills to become a garbage collector?"
"I work full-time, care for small children, and am involved in community charity groups. It’s hard to find time to juggle all of this." "Unlike slothful bums like you who just show up to class, put in an occasional office hour, and then bugger off to drink coffee, and nap in the faculty lounge."
"I was completely done with my paper, tried to print it, and found out that my processing system is incompatible with that of the college." (Variants: "My ink cartridge ran out," and, "The computer erased everything on my diskette.") "I haven’t started this paper and I’m hoping you’re a big enough sap to fall for such a lame excuse."
"This assignment was unfair and your instructions were unclear." "I have never misunderstood anything in my life. The problem is that you’re a sadist. How did you escape the Nuremberg trials?"
"I had a 24-hour stomach virus and was so sick that my roommate got scared and took me to the infirmary. Doctors said it was probably just food poisoning." "My roomie and I went out drinking at a local bar. The local fauna was looking fine, the music was loud, and I got plastered. But I wasn’t going to work on your silly assignment anyhow."
"A close relative died last night." "It was actually the aunt of my fourth cousin thrice removed and last night was the 14th anniversary of her death."
"You’re too demanding. I’m spending all my time on your course and neglecting all my other classes." "That’s because yours is the only one I have a prayer of passing."
"I’ve been under a lot of pressure and am seeing a therapist who suggested that extra time to do my work would be helpful." "OK, it’s not a real therapist, but my friend did get a B in Psych 101 so I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about."
"I have a learning disability." "Others seem to get things right away, but I have to study so I must have an LD. If you don’t pass me I’ll get someone to certify I do and sue your butt under the ADA."
"I’m sorry I missed the deadline, but I couldn’t get back from break because of the snowstorm." "The parties on Aruba were so good that I stayed an extra three days. Did you know that ‘snow’ is a synonym for several classifications of powdered controlled substances?"
"If you give me a break this time, I promise I’ll never miss another deadline and that I’ll put extra effort into all other assignments." "Yeah, and Bambi’s mother will come back to life, dodos will roam the wild Australian plain, and cold fusion will power every American home."

I could go on, but these humble examples should suffice to make first-year students realize that all utterances are texts and that they cannot privilege their interpretations over those of their professors. Armed with that knowledge there is but one failsafe response: Meet the deadlines!


Author's email: 

Robert Weir teaches humanities and American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at Smith College. He is the author of four books, numerous articles, and has been teaching for 26 years. He has fielded approximately 47,311 excuses.

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Class Dismissed

It is a commonplace that academic discussions of culture and society always pay homage to the unholy trinity known as Race, Class, and Gender. There is something calcified about that expression, which is a pretty good sign that we are in the realm of the cliché. The three terms are always recited together, and always in that order. While class may occupy the middle spot, it actually comes in dead last among the topics for analysis and debate. The other forms of "difference" somehow prove more urgent, or less awkward, or something.

And even when class does come up for reflection, there is the problem that Eric Hayot has recently pointed out in an article appearing at Printculture (a group blog with somewhat magazine-like qualities.) Hayot describes what you might call a certain lack of reflexivity by academics about their own class position. To be more blunt, it could be called an evasion of self-knowledge.

"Though academics are good at theorizing class when it happens to other people," as Hayot puts it, "in my experience they're not great at explaining or even seeing it as it operates in their own world.... Class in the American university is a subject that fades continually into the background, like a photograph that wishes incessantly the return to its condition as unmarked, unfixed film."

Such forgetfulness has consequences. It means that scholars are shirking the responsibility "to analyze, discuss, or attempt to alter their own community's class structures."

It's easy to imagine a reply to this -- namely, that higher education never really does "attempt to alter ... class structures," even if it does help some individual move up a notch or two. Rather, it serves to reproduce them, to reinforce them, even to fine-tune them. Inequality is not incidental to what a university does. Its real purpose is to sift, sort, and certify. No amount of egalitarian purpose will change that. (Please note that these assertions could be made with just as much conviction by either the most cynical or aristocrats or the lowliest of commonfolk.)

If so, the difficulty of thinking about where academics themselves fit in the class system would not be an accident. It would be, rather, a blind spot -- more or less like the one in the eye. A blind spot, in that literal sense, is the area on the retina that has no receptors. It's where the big nerve connects all the sensitive parts back to the brain.

The eyeball works as well as it does, not in spite of the blind spot, but precisely because of it. And so it may be that scholars tend, at best, to see class as something that "happens to other people," to borrow Hayot's nice turn of phrase.

Now, my own interest in this matter is not, as the saying goes, academic. Several years of moving along the boundary between the worlds of academe and of publishing have inspired (indeed, obliged) me to do a certain amount of reflection on the unstated assumptions about class that operate in each. And in large measure, this has been a matter of necessity. I grew up in a Southern, evangelical, working class family -- with part of that time spent living in, yes, mobile home communities, to use the most euphonious (if not euphemistic) expression available.

Social mobility is not always pleasant. As T.S. Eliot put it: "To be educated above the level of those whose social habits and tastes one has inherited may cause a division within a man which interferes with happiness." In spite of the chilly diction, or perhaps because of it, that is the one line from Eliot that has ever brought me to tears.

Don't worry, there's no memoir just ahead. The very thought of writing one feels like an ulcer announcing its debut.

Instead, I want to run through a very personal -- which is to say incomplete, skewed, and unsystematic -- list of recommended readings on the topic of class and intellectual life, academic and otherwise. None of the following titles offer the final word on anything. But all are useful for thinking, and they have kept me from yelling at people, at least for the most part.

Pierre Bourdieu is the one figure who Eric Hayot cites as an exception to the general rule that academics don't look at class as a factor within the academic world itself. In particular, he refers to The Inheritors, the sociologist's classic analysis of high-achieving students in France. That's a good place to start. But by all means also read Bourdieu's study of their professor in Homo Academicus, and his investigation of the nexus between higher education and government in The State Nobility. (See also this interview with Deborah Reed-Danahay, author of a recent study of his work.)

In Bourdieu, the examples are, for the most part, French. Hence they may seem very specific to a situation in which one city, Paris, serves as the hub of academe, politics, high culture, and business for an entire country. But in some ways, that just makes it easier to show how the power-grid of class works.

Bourdieu himself rejected any comparison of his thought to that of Thornstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class is now probably more often read as a work of literature than as sociology. Still, the points of resemblance are conspicuous. Reading Bourdieu on class and the university always reminds me of The Higher Learning in America, which Veblen originally wanted to subtitle "A Study in Total Depravity."

At the other extreme from the dense sociological prose of Bourdieu and Veblen, there is Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, a literary scholar with a certain knack as elitist curmudgeon.

When the book appeared in 1983, it was a best-seller, perhaps because it fit so perfectly the tendencies of the moment. After all the cultural leveling of the 1960s and the economic anxiety of the 1970s, the pop culture of the first Reagan administration reflected a yearning that indicators of hierarchy and status might prove both legible and stable. It was the time not just of The Preppy Handbook, but of prime-time soap operas about rich people ( Dallas, Dynasty, etc.)

Fussell offered a nine-rung version of the class ladder -- marking off the gradations from the top (those with inherited wealth) to the lower depths (people in jail), treating each level as its own social world and cluster of attitudes and expectations. His exercise in pop sociology was not just witty, but also perhaps a bit cruel in the game it played.

In part, it aggrandized the American fantasy of ascent: Why else call the book a "guide"? But at the same time, Fussell was merciless in showing how impossible this fantasy really was. Acquiring the mannerisms and commodities preferred by one's "betters" would never really work. Signs of effort would always give the game away. And preferences would shift accordingly -- just enough to keep everyone in their proper place. (Fussell himself had no problem with that.)

But far more interesting than the chapters on the lifestyles of the rich and famous was Fussell's conclusion, which described what he called "category X." This was a cohort that didn't really fit into the status hierarchy he had just described.

You are born into a class. But nobody is born into X: "You become an X person," wrote Fussell, "or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensible....If, as [C. Wright] Mills said, the middle-class person is 'always somebody's man,' the X person is nobody's, and his freedom from supervision is one of his most obvious characteristics. X people are independent-minded, free of anxious regard for popular shibboleths, loose in carriage and demeanor. They adore the work they do, and they do it until they are finally carried out, 'retirement' being a concept meaningful only to hired personnel or wage slaves who despise their work."

In keeping with his method throughout the rest of the book, Fussell went on to write about the taste of X people -- their need to live in a neighborhood with good bakeries, wine stores, and "a sophisticated newsdealer, for one needs British, French, German, and Italian periodicals." In short, he summed up everything David Brooks ever had to say about the "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians). And he did in just under nine pages, written almost two decades before Brooks published his book.

Academics were only part of category X. (Other members included "actors, musicians, artists, sports stars, 'celebrities,' [and] well-to-do former hippies....") But I noticed something about the list of concrete pointers that Eric Hayot gave in his article for anyone planning on an academic career: It overlaps closely with Fussell's description of the X sensibility.

"It helps to have some sense of the geography of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco," advises Hayot, adding, "Paris and London are nice, too." He also suggests knowing something about wine.

"There's one surefire way, other things being equal, to identify an X dinner party," wrote Fussell. "All the wine brought by guests, no matter the quantity, is inevitably consumed, and so is more of the host's stock than he's probably anticipated." As for geography, "X people tend to be unostentatiously familiar with the street layouts and landmarks of London, Paris, and Rome -- and sometimes Istanbul and Karachi."

Along the way, Fussell draws something like the idealized self-portrait that scholars might well prefer to imagine for themselves: "X people constitute something like the classless class. They occupy the one social place in the USA where the ethic of buying and selling is not all-powerful. Impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit, X people have escaped out the back doors of those theaters of class which enclose others.... And it's in the X world, if anywhere, that an American can avoid some of the envy and ambition that pervert so many."

Well, OK, so it sounded like academe right up until that last line. Even so, Fussell does supply a concentrated image of the ideal. For a more hardnosed look, you have to turn elsewhere. Fussell's book is still in print; at least, I could find a copy at a chain bookstore recently. But you might have to look around a bit for Terry Caesar's collections of essays on class and status in academic life, Conspiring with Forms: Life in Academic Texts (University of Georgia Press, 1992) and Writing in Disguise: Academic Life and Subordination (Ohio University Press, 1998).

Caesar is a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, but I have been reading his work since long before this online publication was so much as an improbable brainstorm. Probably the best place to start is his essay "On Teaching at a Second Rate University" (reprinted in the earlier collection). There are moments when Caesar has the wild candor of a Dostoevsky character, which can be either exhilarating or terrifying. Either way, you feel that unwelcome truths are being spoken with an unnerving indifference to the listener's comfort.

"Teaching at a second-rate university," Caesar writes, means "knowing, at least, that you're not worth knowing." It creates "a ceaseless condition of structural exclusion from any decision about what can and cannot be authoritatively said." It might be nice to imagine that academic life -- with its ideally "category X" outlook -- will foster a cosmopolitan generosity. Caesar writes of wishing for "a world where universities were more like towns, some, at least, so obscure that so much as to hear of their existence would prompt charm and wonderment." But no, not quite.

"Professionally," Caesar writes, "we move across a surface where only certain routes count, only certain places are comprehended as having depths, and only certain destinations can be found on the map."

Bitches, Good Soldiers and Golden Boys

I'm a bitch. I realized this about six months after I started on the tenure-track at my small Midwestern liberal arts college. It took me a bit longer to figure out what the others in my cohort were. But gradually we all took our turns under the sorting hat. By the time I earned tenure last year, I had figured it out. There are three ranks of junior faculty: bitches, good soldiers and golden boys.

Despite our sexually progressive campus, bitches must be women, and golden boys will be boys. Good soldiers alone promise equal access to all.

Bitches and golden boys needn't work very hard to earn their titles. Often, the die is cast before heels or oxfords touch down on sod. A woman, rumor has it, might have asked for too much start-up money upon receiving her offer. Golden boy status is often earned far, far earlier -- frequently, birth, does the trick. While many bitches belie the canine etymology of their label -- many of  our local brood are quite stunning -- for men, being golden often means, well, being golden. And tall.

After a few faculty and departmental meetings and the scuttlebutt from students circles up to faculty, cementing your title in the gendered categories requires only a few token gestures. A suspected bitch might express strong opinions about curriculum, hold only four office hours a week or grade tough. You can practically hear the sizzle upon flesh.

Golden boys will shine bright if they have some innovative ideas  about revising the curricula, travel to conferences frequently and ask for lots of start-up money upon receiving an offer.

There's nothing much surprising about the above -- these are just gender stereotypes, after all. What's surprising is that they're really true. This, despite the fact that we're not stuck in the past here: scholarship by women is assigned in class without having  to make a point of it, many departmental chairs, administrators --  well-nigh the highest administrators -- are women. We hire as many women as we do men and, overall, do well at helping with the work/family balance. On paper we've left those stereotypes behind.

But this is a place where buying a house before tenure can still raise eyebrows and where most junior faculty are to be seen but not  heard. When it comes to that all important tenure criterion --  being a good colleague -- gender still gets in the way.

You might think, resentfully or aspriationally, that the best thing to be is a golden boy. Not so. Sure, when they're assistants,  golden boys are the top of the class. But remember, we're a liberal  arts college in the Midwest, so golden boys are both flattering and threatening. They smell too Research I. It's like when someone more good-looking than you asks you out -- you can't shake the suspicion that you're being played. And while golden boys make the senior  faculty look good (we hire the most promising graduate students) and never have any problem getting tenure, once they become senior, the gilt falls off quick. Suddenly they become washed-up middle-aged guys who never fulfilled their promise.

If you're in this for the long haul, then, it's a good soldier you really want to be, and what I now advise recruits become. Good soldiers are the meat on our bones, the soul of our institution, our bread and butter, what makes the place tick. They're married to the institution; they're, well, they're us.

Unfortunately, unlike becoming a bitch or a golden boy, becoming a  good soldier requires work. Grunt work. Serving on committees.  Going to student plays. Taking on new course preparations. Asking good questions at departmental meetings. It means raising your hand when the question is "who can help?" not "what should we do?" Good soldiers are in town when you are hosting a dinner for a speaker, and they keep their office doors open, should anyone want to chat.

When the tenure enclave commences, golden boys, of course, sail through. No rules are broken, but mediocre teaching and a few less articles than promised are overlooked. It's the period after tenure golden boys need to worry about. Rumor has it, the therapists in town see them a lot. Good soldiers, though, are rarely done deals come tenure review time. Service is no problem, of course; they've already entered the ranks, have perhaps already served a tour of duty as temporary chair or on a major committee. Superior teaching evaluations are required. Research is usually fine but not great (guess why?).  However, having earned the love of students and lessened the senior faculty's workload for seven years, good soldiers will, usually,  sweatily, receive their medals.

Bitches? We're tricky. We tend not to even make it to tenure. Some of us get better jobs -- we may not smell Research 1 on this  campus, but we do on those. A surprising number leave academia  altogether. A good number read the writing on the wall early --  unlike golden boys, bitches can't sail through, and the senior faculty let us know that in yearly reviews. So those who aren't producing quite enough, or never could find a comfortable seat in departmental meetings, make lateral moves before tenure. You might say that bitches are smart.

As for me, I spent a few years holding my tongue, raising my  students' self-esteem and volunteering for thankless tasks. I was being good, if not exactly a soldier. Some of this, I freely admit, was salutary: I stopped fighting losing battles, learned the value of the phrase "buy in," and relaxed during debate-filled faculty meetings. knowing I wouldn't be contributing.

I made it through, and to those who sorted me upon arrival, earning tenure meant that I had, at long last, arrived. In the photocopying room one summer afternoon shortly after the results had been posted, a  career soldier congratulated me, shook my hand and welcomed me aboard. "It's nice to have you with us," he said, seven long years  after my arrival on campus.

Still, it's lonely. I miss my bitches. However, I'm also, suddenly, thrilled. I'm not washed-up, I'm not stuck in the mire of the foxhole, and I can finally say, without impunity, what I think this institution should do to improve, hold my students to high standards and pursue an independent research agenda. And isn't that, after all, what being a professor at a liberal arts institution is all about? Maybe being a bitch isn't all that bad after all.

Author's email: 

Ruth Haberle is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.

Necessary Evils

  "In a time of war," wrote Cicero, "the laws are silent." (That's "inter arma silent leges," in case some nuance is missing from the usual English rendering.)

Well, perhaps not quite silent. Marouf A. Hasian's In the Name of Necessity: Military Tribunals and the Loss of American Civil Liberties, available next month from the University of Alabama Press, revisits more than 200 years of American argumentation for and against the legitimacy of "military justice."

That phrase merits the scare quote marks because it is very much open to question whether they quite belong together. You don't need to be a pacifist, or even to harbor any doubt about liberal democracy, to have such concerns. The role of the military is, of course, to fight; and the legitimacy of its monopoly on violence derives (in modern societies anyway) from its subordination to a lawful order. At best -- so the argument might go -- the military can pursue a just policy, as subject to oversight and review by outside institutions. Hence the rise of what is called the "civilianization" of military law.

That's the theory, anyway. The actual record is a good bit messier, as Hasian, an associate professor of communications at the University of Utah, shows in some detail. His book presents a series of analytic retellings of events from the Revolutionary War through the detainments at Guantanamo Bay. To some degree, then, it overlaps with William Rehnquist's All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime, (1998, which focused mainly on cases from the Civil War and the two World Wars.

But the difference is not simply a matter of the opening of a whole new chapter in history over the past four years. Hasian's book is the work of a scholar who has taken "the rhetorical turn" -- drawing on the toolkit of concepts from one of the founding disciplines of humanistic study. A social historian or a law professor might also cover, as he does, the 1862 U.S-Dakota war tribunal, which led to the execution of a group of Native Americans -- or the 1942 trial of several German saboteurs, captured shortly after they had been deposited on the coasts of New York and Florida, along with bomb-making materials, by U-boat. But Hasian treats these cases neither as events (as a historian would) nor as precedents (the lawyer's concern).

The emphasis in his book falls, rather, on how a particular element of persuasion took shape in each case: the argument of necessity. In each case, the claim was made that circumstances demanded the suspension of normal legal procedures and guarantees, and their replacement by military tribunals that practiced the warlike virtues of secrecy, efficiency, and swiftness.

A philosopher or legal theorist might want to dissect the validity, coherence, or applicability of "necessity" as a principle applied in such cases. Hasian's approach treats it, not as a concept, but as what rhetoric scholars have in recent years called an "ideograph" -- that is, "a key evocative term or phrase that illustrates the political allegiances of an individual and a community in a major social, political, economic, or legal controversy." Other ideographs include such terms as "equality," "progress," and "freedom."

The range of definitions and of emotional charge for each term varies. They have a rather timeless sound, but a complex history of mutations in meaning. And in the heat of debate, they can be made to perform a variety of functions. The meaning of an ideograph in a given context is marked by that context.

Perhaps the strongest version of the argument from necessity is the one that Lincoln made against those who criticized him for suspending habeus corpus during the Civil War: "Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" In other words: Moments of extremity can require the temporary sacrifice of some civil liberties to preserve the rest.

Rehnquist signaled his basic agreement with this line of thought by titling his book All the Laws But One. "It is neither desirable nor is it remotely likely," he wrote there, "that civil liberty will occupy as favored a position in wartime as it does in peacetime."

But even the fairly straightforward affirmation of necessity as a legitimate ground for suspending civil liberties is the result of (and a moment of conflict within) a complicated history of arguments. In tracing out the history of necessity, Hasian identifies two strands of -- well, it's not clear what the expression would be. Perhaps "ideographic DNA"? One he calls the "Tory" concept of necessity; the other, the "Whig" version.

In the Tory framing, there are "many times when a society is called upon to defend itself against riots, revolutions, and rebellions," as Hasian puts it. It is the responsibility of the monarch or the executive branch to recognize the danger and respond accordingly. "Since this is an issue of survival, the military authorities should be given a great deal of discretion. In these situations, the 'will' of those in authority will be of paramount importance."

(In other words, an element of sovereign authority is handed over to the military. The commanding officer is then in the position to say, "I am the law." And legitimately so.)

By contrast, the Whiggish conception of necessity sees "relatively few times when a society has to worry about exigent circumstances." Responsibility for judging whether or not a real emergency exists should fall to the parliament or the legislative branch -- to which the military must remain accountable.

Appropriately enough, given a Whiggish sensibility, this means a certain degree of guardedness and jealousy about the degree of judicial authority delegated to the military. There will be a tendency towards suspicion that the trust might be abused. The Whig discourse on necessity wants to keep to a bare minimum the scope, duration, and degree of secrecy that military tribunals may claim.

The classic formulation of the Whig conception in American history is Ex parte Milligan, from 1866, in which the Supreme Court found that the Union military authorities had overstepped by arresting and trying a Confederate sympathizer in Indiana -- a state where the normal functioning of the court system had not been interrupted by the war.

Of course, Ex parte Milligan fans have taken some hits lately. We had a good run there, for a while. But lately all the swagger comes from enthusiasts for Ex parte Quirin (1942), which denied the claim of German saboteurs to appeal for civil trials.

What makes Hasian's account of Quirin so interesting is his suggestion that some Supreme Court justices "actually thought that their decision would be construed as falling in line with the precedents that placed limits on military commissions and executive power." But if that was the intention 60 years ago, you'd never know it to read the newspapers today.

This is an aerial overview of In the Name of Necessity. The real provocations are in the details. Perhaps the analytic category of ideograph sounds a trifle thin -- turning bloody arguments into something rather anemic. But Hasian's book is ultimately more polemical than that. The framework is only just technically "value neutral." He's got a position to stake out.

"In the very, very rare cases of extreme necessity," he writes, "when Congress and the United Nations have decided we need to impose martial law or have commissions in occupied lands, we may have situations where all of the civil courts are closed and where the military may need more discretion."

That much, Hasian will concede to the Tory worldview, and no more. But even then, such assertions of power "need to be held in check by recognizing that most of the time we should begin with the baseline 'Whig' assumption that we want to maintain the civilianization of the military, and not the other way around."

OK, fair enough. Now how will that play out in the courts under Chief Justice Roberts? And particularly under a circumstance in which the Tories are so powerful that nobody really doubts that Chief Justice Roberts will be presiding?

That Whig in extremis John Milton said that necessity is "ever the tyrant's plea." But we might be entering a period when the plea doesn't even have to be made -- when war doesn't silence law, but writes it.

Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Saying No

If there's one thing I don't like about the first week of classes, it's the task of saying "no" over and over again.

Like many community colleges, mine has far more students than we have slots available in most of our classes. It's a very rare course where I am able to accept everyone who shows up the first day trying to "crash" a class. More often, as with the three classes I met on my first morning of teaching this semester, I have wait lists of one- or two-dozen for classes that typically  have a maximum of 40. I generally do lotteries for available seats, and ask all those not selected to leave.

I'd like to enroll everyone, of course, and be the "nice guy." But if I did that, I'd be left with a classroom too tightly packed for anyone to move, and in serious violation of city and state fire and safety codes. I'd also be overwhelmed with papers and tests and journals, and my grading load -- with seven courses a semester and no teaching assistants -- is already immense. So for reasons of both safety and sanity, I have had to get very good over the years at saying "no."

Students beg and plead and, invariably, explain why it is that without this particular class, their entire academic career will be ruined permanently and the dreams of their parents dashed. Some students get teary with frustration at the depressing process of huddling in doorways and squatting on floors and ingratiating themselves to be admitted to over-crowded classrooms. A few try flirtation or flattery; on one or two occasions long ago, various bribes were rather openly proffered -- and politely refused.

College administrators have told me, on more than one occasion, that professors are not to use any method other than random lotteries to choose students for available spaces.  Apparently, the concern is that if students are asked to write an essay, or demonstrate a high degree of need for the class, then professors open themselves up to charges of bias or favoritism. After all, we are not truly in a position to judge the actual needs of our students. It is axiomatic that each semester, I will hear, over and over again, “Professor, yours is the last class I need to transfer. If I don’t get in, I’ll be set back an entire semester.” Is it possible, even likely, that many of these students are telling the truth? Of course. Is it equally likely that some students are exaggerating? Yes. Is it part of my job to evaluate the veracity of their claims and the urgency of their need? I don’t think so.

I find that saying "no" to a student who wants to get into a class is much harder than saying "no" to a student who has asked me to rethink a deservedly poor grade. When I've assigned a low grade to sub-par work, I generally feel quite confident in my assessment of the student's product. But the way in which students get into classes seems so arbitrary (and unfair, as returning students get priority) that I have a hard time defending the system that leads to the composition of any particular class.  And yet, any system where I am called upon to make judgments about a student’s suitability for a particular course seems an even worse prospect.

It's no fun for the students to put themselves through this. I honor them for doing it. The smart ones continue to call and visit every day, hoping that some enrolled student has dropped and a space has been freed up. Often, but not always, I am able to accommodate them once students start to drop after the first week, but I won't do so if it means a dozen bodies on the floor and students barely able to breathe. (I tend to pace around while I teach, rather than cling to a podium; I need a bit of walking space!) I’m also aware that the college can get cited for safety code violations by the fire department if we overcrowd the classroom.

Two true lottery stories: One year, I had about two dozen names on a list for my women's studies course in which five spaces were available. There were perhaps 17 women and 7 men trying to get into the class; by strange chance, all five of the slips of paper I drew had men's names. It was completely random, but as one of those women who wasn't selected left, she muttered in disappointment, "God, even in a women's studies class I'm fucked over by men." Lots of people heard her, and it set an awkward tone for the remainder of the morning.

Another year, I had three spaces available on a lottery list for a modern Europe class; one of the women on the list (of some 15 hopefuls) was a very pretty, bubbly scantily-dressed blonde. Her name was the first name that appeared -- at random -- when I pulled slips of paper out of a manila envelope. After the class, two students who weren't selected publicly accused me of rigging the lottery to pick the "hot girl," and they complained to the dean. (Who laughed them out of her office; incidentally, the "hot girl" ended up one of the top students in that particular section.)

There’s little prospect of this over-crowding changing any time soon. Community colleges, at least here in California, have an open-admissions policy. The fact that a student has been admitted to the college does not guarantee a space in a single class. Invariably, that means that more students are enrolled in the college than we have classroom (or parking) space available. Students report that in many cases, their academic careers are extended by one or two years because they are unable to get into all the classes they need in a timely fashion. The obvious answer is that we need more professors, more courses, and more buildings in which to do our teaching. But until, by some budget miracle, all of those resources are available, I will continue to have to say “no” to the hopeful, the ambitious, and the deserving.

I'm not asking for pity, mind you; saying "no" and dealing with the justifiably frustrated and disappointed is part of the job description. But it's pretty damn near my least favorite part of what I do.

Author's email: 

Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.

The Žižek Effect

My ambition to write a musical about the arrival of Lacanian theory in Tito-era Yugoslavia has always hinged on the zestiness of the intended title: Žižek! The music would be performed, of course, by
Laibach, those lords of industrial-strength irony; and the moment of psychoanalytic breakthrough that Lacan called la Passe would be conveyed via an interpretative dance, to be performed by a high-stepping chorus of Slovenian Rockettes.

Alas, it was all a dream. (Either that, or a symptom.) The funding never came through, and now Astra Taylor has laid claim to the title for her documentary, shown recently at the Toronto Film Festival.

Žižek! is distributed by Zeitgeist, which also released the film Derrida. The company provided a screener DVD of Žižek! that I've now watched twice -- probably the minimum number of times necessary to appreciate the intelligence and style of Taylor's work. The director is 25 years old; this is her first documentary.

It's not just her willingness to let Slavoj Žižek be Slavoj Žižek -- responding bitterly to an orthodox
deconstructionist in the audience at a lecture at Columbia University, for example, or revisiting some familiar elements of his early work on the theory of ideology. Nor is it even her willingness to risk trying to popularize the unpopularizable. The film ventures into an account of Žižek's claim of the parallel between Marx's concept of surplus value and Lacan's "object petit a." (This is illustrated, you may be relieved to know, via a cartoon involving bottles of Coke.)

Beyond all that, Žižek! is very smart as a film. How it moves from scene to scene -- the playful, yet coherent and even intricate relationship between structure and substance -- rewards more than one

In an e-mail conversation with Taylor, I mentioned how surprising it was that Žižek! actually engaged with his theory. It would be much easier, after all, just to treat him as one wacky dude -- not that Žižek quite avoids typecasting himself.

"I wanted very much to make a film about ideas," she told me. "That said, I think the film betrays a certain fascination with Žižek's personality.  He's got this excess of character and charisma that can't be restrained, even when we would try to do an interview about 'pure theory.'"

Žižek! isn't a biography. (For that, you're probably better off reading Robert Boynton's profile from Lingua Franca some years ago.) Taylor says she started work with only a hazy sense of what she wanted the documentary to do -- but with some definite ideas about things she wanted to avoid. "I didn't want to make a conventional biopic," she recalls, "tracing an individual's trajectory from childhood, complete with old photographs, etc.  It's not even that I have anything against that form in particular, it just didn't seem the right approach for a film about Žižek."

Her other rule was to avoid pretentiousness. "Especially when dealing in theory, which has quite a bad name on this front, one has to be careful," she says. "I decided to veer towards the irreverent instead of the reverential. Granted, this is fairly easy when you're working with Slavoj Žižek."

Fair enough: This is the man who once explained the distinctions between German philosophy, English political economy, and the French Revolution by reference to each nation's toilet design. (Žižek runs through this analysis in the film; it also appeared last year in an article in The London Review of Books.)

Just to be on the safe side, Taylor also avoided having talking heads on screen "instructing the audience in what to think about Žižek or how to interpret his work." The viewer sees Žižek interact with people at public events, including both an enormous left-wing conference in Buenos Aires and a rather more tragically hip one in New York. But all explanations of his ideas come straight from the source.

In preparing to shoot the film, Taylor says she came up with a dozen pages of questions for Žižek, but only ended up asking two or three of them. Having interviewed him by phone a couple of years ago, I knew exactly what she meant. You pose a question. Žižek then takes it wherever he wants to go at the moment. The trip is usually interesting, but never short.

One of the funniest moments in Žižek! is a video clip from a broadcast of a political debate from 1990, when he ran for president of Yugoslavia as the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party. At one point,
an old Communist bureaucrat says, "Okay, Žižek, we all know your IQ is twice that of everybody else here put together. But please, please let somebody else talk!"

Taylor says she soon realized that her role was less that of interviewer than traffic director, "giving positive or negative feedback, telling him when to stop or when he'd said enough, and directing the flow of the conversation as opposed to conducting a straightforward interview with stops and starts."

She kept a log throughout the various shoots, "summing up everything he said in what would eventually be a one hundred page Excel spreadsheet. That way, I knew what subjects had been addressed, in what setting, and if the material was useful or needed to be reshot." About halfway through the production, she and Laura Hanna, the film's editor, assembled a rough cut.

"At that point," Taylor recalls, "I began to choose various passages for the animated sequences. I knew there needed to be some recurring themes and a broader theoretical argument to underpin the film.... But that makes it sound too easy and rational.  The majority of choices were more intuitive, especially at the beginning when we were trying to cut down eighty hours of raw footage. When you're editing a film it is as much about what feels right, what flows, as what makes sense logically."

One really inspired moment came when Taylor learned of Jacques Lacan's appearance on French educational television in the early 1970s. She obtained a copy of the program and sat down with Žižek in his apartment to watch it.

The transcript of Lacan's enigmatic performance is available as the book Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment (Norton, 1991). But to get the full effect, you really have to see Lacan in action: Self-consciously inscrutAble, yet also suave, he utters short and gnomic sentences, looking for all the world like Count Dracula ready for a nap after a good meal.

The contrast with the stocky and plebeian Žižek (a bundle of energy and nervous tics) is remarkable; and so is the highly ambivalent way he responds to hearing his Master's voice. Žižek takes pride in being called a dogmatic Lacanian. But the video clearly bothers him.

"I think Žižek reacts to the footage on different registers at once," as Taylor puts it, "which is what makes the scene so interesting.  He's obviously disturbed by Lacan's delivery, which seems very staged and pompous. Yet he attempts to salvage the situation by discussing how the very idea of a 'true self' is ideological or by arguing that the substance of Lacan's work should not be judged by his style."

The scene is also plenty meta. We are watching footage in which the most psychoanalytic of philosophers watches a video of the most philosophical of psychoanalysts. And yet somehow it does not feel the least bit contrived. If anything, there is something almost voyeuristically fascinating about it.

Taylor told me that the sequence "evokes what I see as one of the film's central themes: the predicament of the public intellectual today, and Žižek's strategies for coping with it."

Early in the documentary -- and again at the end -- he denounces the fascination with him as an individual, insisting that the only thing that matters is his theoretical work. He gives a list of what he regards as his four really important books: The Sublime Object of Ideology, For They Know Not What They Do, The Ticklish Subject, and a work now in progress that he has provisionally titled The Parallax View (a.k.a. the  sequel to Ticklish).

There is a clear hint that his other and more popular books are negligible by contrast; he speaks of wanting to kill his doppelganger, the wild-and-crazy guy known for obscene jokes and pop-culture

"And yet," as Taylor notes, "Žižek, despite his frustrations, continues to put on a good show, albeit one quite different in demeanor from Lacan's." That is what makes the final images of Žižek! so interesting.

I don't want to give the surprise ending away. Suffice it to say that it involves a spiral staircase, and makes explicit reference to Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's great meditation on Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (Whether or not Hitchcock ever actually read Freud is sort of beside the point, here.) The scene also harkens back to earlier comments by Žižek -- and yet it really comes out of
left field.

Taylor says they improvised it at the very last moment of shooting. She calls the scene "fantastically head-scratching," and not just for the audience.

"Over the last few months," she says, "I have come up with all sorts of pseudo-theoretical justifications and interpretation of it, all the different layers of meaning and resonances with Žižek's work and life and the intersections of the two. But all of these, I must admit, were created
after the fact ( après coup, as Lacan would say)."

So what are her theories? "I feel like I would be ruining the fun if I elaborated on them," she told me. "That is, after all, precisely what people are supposed to debate over a beer after seeing the movie."

For more on Žižek! -- including information about its availability and a clip from the film -- check out its Web site.

Author's email: 

Teaching a Disaster

For you academic types who watch television like myself, the images of the evacuees in New Orleans and other places along the Gulf Coast are seared into your brain. Our students also are ingesting these images and stories, and some are personally affected. Disasters, from whatever cause, can become redeeming moments to unhinge us from the syllabus and lesson plans that we have so carefully contrived, and to allow current events to enter into the classroom. I’d like to share some of how I am approaching Katrina in two very disparate classes, what I hope this will achieve, and make some suggestions as to how others might consider doing the same.

My two courses this semester -- African American Religious History and Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism -- both provide entry points into interrogating and discussing this disaster with my students. The African American religion class lends itself obviously to this endeavor. Since my course starts off with religion and the slave trade, I have already introduced students to the importance of the port of New Orleans as a place in which enslaved Africans entered America. It is perhaps no small irony that their descendents who were living in New Orleans were confined to almost slave-ship like conditions in the convention center and Superdome.

New Orleans is also home to a large number of African American Catholics, in part because of the Code Noir that required slaves to be baptized into the Catholic church within 30 days of purchase in Louisiana. The dead that slip into the view of the camera also conjure up images of religious belief and meaning. Newscasters hoping to exploit the cultural angle have invoked voodoo, a large part of the religious and social lore of New Orleans, improperly. The images of  people fleeing, of family members trying to reconnect, all bring to mind the Freedmen's Bureau, post-Civil War, and the endless newspaper advertisements during the Reconstruction period to find loved ones. More than a century later, their counterparts are on Internet lists of missing family on the Red Cross and various news outlets. How best to bring all of these issues and images together for students to see the connections?

In order to provide a touch point for students to discuss these issues, I am using many of the current images alongside historical images of slave ships, with descriptions of the conditions that slaves lived in prior to arriving in the port of New Orleans. In the weeks following, I will revisit the issue of the cultural losses that have occurred in New Orleans by talking about the development of religious life and culture of both African Americans and the free Creole population of New Orleans. Whether its food, jazz music, religious beliefs or Mardi Gras, African American culture and religion permeate these iconic images of New Orleans. Finally, the great migration of African Americans out of New Orleans is strangely reminiscent to the Great migration, which provided religious renewal to cities like Chicago and Detroit. One wonders if the same will occur with the New Orleanians taking their African based cultural identities with them.  Fundamental to all of these is race, class, and gender. The historic hesitancy to come to the aid of African American populations because of the confluence of these constructs is core to the understanding of the tragedy unfolding in New Orleans and the gulf coast region affected by Katrina.

Similarly, my Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism course provides a place for some cogent discussion about New Orleans as well. The perception by many right wing Christians that this is God’s punishment or mercy will brook much conversation of Evangelical beliefs and public policy. Pat Robertson, fresh from his call to assassinate Hugo Chavez , sent Bibles to the Astrodome. The Bush Administration and FEMA have looked to faith-based organizations as a way to disseminate assistance for disaster victims during this time. Bush has even called for a national day of prayer for the victims of Katrina.  What does it mean religiously, politically, and for public policy issues that the administration is using these avenues to dispense aid, as well as sympathy? How do evangelicals and fundamentalists process the racial components of the disaster?  Will Fundamentalists and Evangelicals regard for New Orleans as a sinful city impede the rebuilding process? In this class, in addition to discussions, we are reading Web sites from various religious organizations, tracking the manner in which aid is being given, and chronicling the administration's "appeals" to faith during this time of national crisis.

Students in both classes have already warmed up to my initial use of hurricane Katrina’s  aftermath in conjunction with their respective courses. We have already discussed briefly whether Bibles or bread was the appropriate response for the Astrodome (bread wins 2-1). In my African American Religion class, several students said that they were upset about the images and commentary on African Americans as “refugees” in New Orleans. Students seem to appreciate the mention of current events, even if their everyday campus worlds are seemingly unaffected by these external events. Tying in current events to historical events is a no-brainer in terms of both retention of information and ideas, as well as a way for students to expand their thinking and knowledge base. If that discussion turns into some type of activism, (whatever the flavor) I know that the discussion struck a nerve. I am also hoping that the connections to the historical narrative in both classes will provide students with a touch point to engage the various assignments and readings throughout the semester with a bit more fervor than usual.

There is also, of course, the issue of becoming personal in the midst of a crisis or disaster situation. I have opted to “keep it real” by sharing with my students the fact that my family was personally affected by Katrina. Nine of my family members from New Orleans were missing for a week, and as of this writing, I have re-established contact with 8 who were evacuated, and spread across Texas and Oklahoma. I too, am living in a vacuum not knowing if a relative has survived this tragedy or not. In the midst of my anger and frustration at the government's handling of aid to New Orleans, I consistently remind myself that my students’ opinions may differ vastly from my own. What I strive for then, is a classroom in which students feel comfortable in expressing opinions different than my own. I encourage that atmosphere by stating upfront that I will not grade them on “opinions” and that I hope that they in turn trust me enough not to evaluate my effectiveness simply on personal opinions that I may occasionally share with the class.

How can you then, effectively use this disaster in your courses this fall and subsequent semesters? Since we all cover a broad range of subjects, from liberal arts to business, to the sciences and humanities, here are several basic tips.

1. Don’t force yourself to be current. In other words, if you can’t think of a logical connection to the course material, don’t do it. Students can smell a rat from far away, and if you are straining to fit the material in (although Katrina wrath spans the gamut from arts, to engineering, to religion and even zoology!), it will come off as contrived and backfire on you. For instance, Kanye West’s outburst that “Bush don’t care about Black folks” on an NBC show raising funds for Katrina victims may be newsworthy, but it doesn’t have enough heft for a historical discussion in my religious history course. However, if I were teaching a communications or journalism course, NBC’s censoring of his statement on the West Coast feed of the show would fit the bill perfectly for an in-class discussion.

2. Use material from various news sources. With some exceptions (as in my case, where I am wanting to find the more radical viewpoints as contrast) many news outlets have posted photos, articles and op-eds that help to illuminate the connections you are hoping students will make. Anne Rice’s piece in The New York Times, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” is a masterpiece of both writing and historical knowledge about New Orleans African American culture, as well as a scathing critique of how the country has responded to New Orleans historically.

3. Don’t overdo the disaster. Spending an entire semester, month, or even week on the disaster will fatigue your students, and they will just grow to resent it. Use your head about how much, in what section, and when you mention the disaster.

4. Don’t throw out your original course content. It is very tempting to get rid of some of the more boring elements of the course in favor of the current "sexy” topic. Keep in view your original goals of the course, and inject current events into that content.

5. Be open for the unexpected. Bringing up current events like natural disasters can open up all sorts of issues, such as students who are directly affected with deaths or displacements in their families. If you are uncomfortable with students coming to you with these concerns either in the classroom or privately, make sure you know the resources to turn them to on campus so that you do not have to bear the responsibility of “fixing things” alone.

Despite any misgivings you may have, I believe that it is an invaluable asset for professors and instructors alike to be prepared to bring the “real world” into the classroom. It not only changes our students, but it changes us, and helps all of us to process the vagaries and vicissitudes of life.

Author's email: 

Anthea Butler is assistant professor of religious studies and a member of the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies at the University of Rochester. She is also co-editor of The North Star: a Journal of African American Religious History.

The Outsourcing Solution

Everyone is abuzz about the rising price of college, and the resulting student loan debt that America’s college students are accumulating. Students and their families wring their hands and complain loudly, while the politicians, for the most part, place blame and pass the buck.

As head of College Parents of America, a national membership association dedicated to advocating on behalf of current and future college parents, I would prefer to discuss solutions. One of the ways that businesses gain productivity, and save money, is by outsourcing certain functions -- an approach that colleges and universities, in searching for ways to keep their own expenses down, should consider.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about sending thousands of university jobs to India.

Instead, I am referring to the practice of contracting with an outside company to provide a service or product that otherwise might be too expensive, complicated or time-consuming for the institution to do internally. I suggest that some non-academic functions on campus could be much better, and more efficiently, accomplished by a contractor. Parents are fed up with price increases and insist that campuses operate more efficiently. In order to hold down costs without sacrificing academic quality, why shouldn't colleges outsource non-academic functions? 

What sorts of functions? Information technology is at the top of the list.  Trained technology professionals, battle-scarred from decades of creating connectivity solutions for businesses, seem uniquely well positioned to help forge similar solutions for college and universities. After all, it is on those same campuses where many of these pros were trained.  

But information technology functions are far from the only non-teaching areas that a school might consider for outsourcing.  For instance, certain back-office functions of financial aid, such as loan certification or disbursements, can be effectively outsourced and create win-win situations, where schools can save money and still serve students and their families more effectively.

Human resources is yet another function that institutions may be able to manage more effectively when outsourced. Items such as payroll services, workplace training and staffing solutions are transparent to the college or university customer, but critical to keeping the institution running smoothly. 

College Parents of America applauds any effort to reduce institutional costs; we also advocate that cost savings in non-teaching arenas be passed on to those of us who are customers of colleges and universities, namely students and their parents, in the form of lower tuition or lesser fees or, at the very least, less dramatic increases in both of those billable areas.

In addition, we believe that these dollars saved by schools should be dedicated to more human investment “in the classroom” through the recruitment and training of the best professors, and more capital investment in the “learning environment” through the building of clean, safe, technically sound structures where the ability for teachers and students to interact is mutually enhanced.

We recognize that our young people are being served by the greatest system of higher education in the world and our goal is simple: to make our system even better, while keeping it affordable for families.

And simply put, colleges could do a lot more with less by outsourcing some functions, providing a much-needed break to bill-paying parents in the process.

Author's email: 

James A. Boyle is president of College Parents of America, a nonprofit advocacy group for parents of current and future college students.

White-Collar Hell

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, published this week by Metropolitan Books, is a return to matters that Barbara Ehrenreich has written about in the past. And no, I don't just mean the world of economic hard knocks.

In obvious ways, the new book's narrative of trying to get a white-collar corporate job (say, as a public-relations person) is similar in method and tone to Nickel and Dimed (2001), her account of the lives the working poor. Both are works of first-person reporting a la George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier -- treading the fine line between investigative journalism and participant-observer ethnography, with the occasional dash of satire thrown in.

But Ehrenreich's new book also revisits a world first explored in her early work on "the professional-managerial class" (often abbreviated as PMC). In papers written during the late 1970s with her first husband, John Ehrenreich, she worked out an exacting Marxist analysis of the PMC as "consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production" (hence aren't capitalists) but whose "major function in the social division of labor may be broadly described as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist relations." Ehrenreich revisited the topic, in a more popular vein, with Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989).

You don't hear any trace of sociological diction in Ehrenreich's latest book, in which she goes undercover as "Barbara Alexander," a homemaker with some work experience in writing and event-planning. (Alexander's resume is a more modest rewriting of Ehrenreich's own background as academic and journalist.) Her search for a new job puts her in competition with other casualties of downsizing and midlife unemployment. She spends her time reading, not Louis Althusser.

But some of Ehrenreich's old theoretical concerns do pop up as she tries to land a gig on the lower rungs of the PMC hierarchy. More than a quarter century ago, she had written that the private life of the middle class "becomes too arduous to be lived in private: the inner life of the PMC must be continuously shaped, updated and revised by ... ever mounting numbers of experts." And so Barbara Alexander finds teams of "career consultants" ready to help her adjust her outlook to fit into the new corporate culture. How? Through the modern science of psychobabble.

After reviewing Bait and Switch for Newsday, I still had some questions about where the book fit into Ehrenreich's thinking. Happily, she was willing to answer them by e-mail.

Q:  Nickel and Dimed has become a standard reading assignment for undergraduates over the past few years, and some of that audience must now be entering the white-collar job market you describe in Bait and Switch. Is there anything in the new book intended as guidance for readers who will be facing that reality?

A: I'd like to reach undergraduates with Bait and Switch before they decide on a business career. I'm haunted by the kid I met at Siena College, in N.Y., who told me he was really interested in psychology, but since that isn't "practical," he was going into marketing, which draws on psychology -- though, as this fellow sadly admitted, only for the purpose of manipulating people. Or the gal I met at University of Oregon who wants to be a journalist but is drifting toward PR so she can make a living.

Right now, business is the most popular undergraduate major in America, largely because young people believe it will lead to wealth or at least security. I want them to rethink that decision, or at least do some hard thinking about what uses they would like apply their business skills to.

There's not much by way of individual guidance in Bait and Switch, but I do want to get people thinking more about corporate domination, not only of the economy, but of our psyches. Generally speaking, the corporations have us by the short hairs wherever you look, and of course, one source of their grip is the idea that they are the only or the major source of jobs. I'm asking, what kind of jobs -- back-breaking low-wage jobs as in Nickel and Dimed, or transient, better-paid jobs that seem to depend heavily on one's ability to be a suck-up, as in Bait and Switch?

Q:The pages in Bait and Switch devoted to New Age-inflected business-speak are quite funny -- but in an angry way. How much do you think people really buy into this ideology? Do they take it seriously? Or is it just something you have to repeat, to be part of the tribe?

A: Well, someone must believe it, or there wouldn't be any market for all the business advice books spewed out by career coaches and management gurus. I had the impression that the job seekers I was mingling with usually thought they should believe it all, or at least should act as if they believe it all. There certainly seems to be a lot of fear of being different or standing out in any way.

Q:What's the relationship between the world you are describing in the new book and that of the professional-managerial class? Are business professionals fully fledged members of the PMC? Or are they clueless and self-deluding mimics of it? All of the above?

A: Sure, they're bona fide members of the PMC as John Ehrenreich and I defined it in the 70s; they are college-educated and they command others or at least determine the work that others will do. But your question makes me think that an update on the PMC is long overdue.

In the late 80s, when I wrote Fear of Falling, it looked like the part of the PMC employed as corporate operatives was doing pretty well compared to the more academic and intellectual end of the PMC, which was beginning to get battered by HMOs (in the case of physicians), budget cuts (in the case of  college professors, social workers, and others), etc.

Starting in the late 80s, though -- and insufficiently noted by me at the time -- the corporate operative-types began to lose whatever purchase they had on stability. First there were the mergers and acquisitions of the 80s, which inevitably led to white collar job loss; then there was the downsizing of the 90s; and now of course the outsourcing of many business-professional functions. So no one is safe.

Q: Do people in this sphere have any way to win a  degree of real control over their economic condition? If they don't have some regulation of the market for their labor via certification (i.e. real professionalization) and they find it unimaginable to be unionized, does that leave them any options?

A: No. As a blue collar union friend of mine commented: They bought the line, they never had any concept of solidarity, and now they're sunk.

Q: In reporting this book, you created an alter ego, "Barbara Alexander," who is not the same person as Barbara Ehrenreich. But she's not totally different, either. There is a degree of overlap in age, background, work experience, etc. The job search proves fairly humiliating for Barbara Alexander. Was it hard to keep some distance from the role? It felt like she might explode a few times. 

A: Remember, "Barbara Alexander" was just my cover; I only distanced myself enough to be a fairly low-key observer/reporter. Hence no tantrums or crazed rants. So yes, a certain amount of self-control was necessary, and it did take its toll. I often felt extremely soiled, compromised and generally yucky about the whole venture.

By which I don't mean I'm too pure to be involved in the great corporate money-making machine (my books, after all, are published by a large corporation and I happily accept my royalties) but that I was trying to act like someone I'm not and that I suspect very few people are, i.e., the endlessly upbeat, compliant, do-with-me-what-you-will corporate employee.

Q: Some aspects of the labor market you describe in Bait and Switch sound comparable to trends emerging in parts of academe. Any thoughts on that score? Have you considered writing, say, Ivy and Adjunct?

A: You want me to go undercover as an adjunct? No way. First, I've been an adjunct, years ago, at both NYU and the College of New Rochelle, and I understand the pay hasn't improved since then. So sorry, that option is no more enticing than another stint at Wal-Mart.

Someone should write about it though. The condition of adjuncts, who provide the bulk of higher ed in this country, is an absolute scandal. I've met adjuncts who moonlight as maids and waitresses, and I've read about homeless ones. If the right is so worried about the academy being too left wing, they should do something about the treatment of adjuncts (and many junior faculty.) There's something about hunger that has a way of turning people to the left.

Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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