Submitted by David Galef on September 16, 2011 - 3:00am
As recently as a dozen years ago at U of All People, the music department chose its new director by arranging a set of wooden chairs in a row, with one too many potential sitters. The outgoing director would put Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the record player, and while the violins stabbed the air, the candidates circled the chairs. When the music stopped, everyone grabbed for a chair to sit in, leaving one person standing. Some years, this process was repeated until one chair was left for two people, and the person who managed to grab the last chair succeeded to the post. Other years, depending on the whim of the outgoing head or the exigencies of the search, the first person left standing was drafted for the position. One year, the chair was awarded out of sympathy to the person who fell on her butt halfway through the proceedings.
Though this chair-selection process was deemed by the dean of inhumanities “too whimsical for the 21st century,” as a chair of a neighboring department who will remain nameless (but it’s Ed Courant of psychology) remarked, “Not a whole hell of a lot ever changes here, y’know?” Those of us in the history department think about this observation as we prepare to select a new chair for 2012. Here are our choices:
“Who amongst us will come forth?” muses Professor Manley Davenport, matching his fingertips together in what he hopes is a chair-like mannerism. “The brightest lack all conviction while the mediocre are full of passionate intensity.” He strokes his wispy beard, which he has been encouraging like a Chia Pet. “And then there’s me.” Where does he locate himself? Perhaps somewhere in between, but the incontrovertible part of Davenport’s claim is that no one really can pin down his political talents or beliefs, since his only foray toward activism was a six-month stint in the Faculty Senate, during which he attended no sessions at all.
Professor James Septa still considers himself a maverick in the department, mainly to explain why few people say hello to him in the hall, but also why he’s had such trouble getting published. “They’re all afraid of me,” he confesses to anyone who’ll listen, including, lately, the increasingly uneasy students in his Brilliancy class. “I’m what you call a Young Turk.” His rallying cry is “It’s time to shake up this department!” His ideas include abolishing exams, holding weekly faculty meetings, and revising the major to include reading ability in one archaic language.
The reasoning behind Professor Sidney Lento’s bid for the chairship is, alas, all too clear. In a prophylactic maneuver, he cheerfully announces it to everyone. “Fact is, I’m nearing 70 and staring retirement in the face. Fact is, it’d be nice to go out with a higher base salary for my pension. Am I qualified? Fact is, I know this department better than anyone.” He doesn’t discuss his brief but disastrous term as interim head of graduate studies, and in any event, the lawsuit was finally dropped because the student in question dropped out.
"According to Plato, a philosopher-king should lead the state, and the best leader is someone who doesn’t really want the job.” Professor Thomas Vance makes this pronouncement with a superior smile, hoping you’ll follow his logic, according to which Professor Vance would make a superb chair. He’s been playing this act -- with the chairship and with his marriage to his now-ex-wife -- for seven years.
Other candidates include Professor Dorothy Danto, a member of the rear guard that lost its majority voting power after a flock of retirements in the late 90s. She wants a return to normalcy; i.e., when she could quash any upstart suggestion by summary dismissal. There’s also Nina Frudd, an adjunct who argues that it’s time for an adjunct to hold the post, but since no one listens to adjuncts -- “That’s precisely my point,” she claims -- her bid hasn’t even been recorded. It’s even been suggested that our office assistant, Rweilla Smith, be the chair, since she already runs everything. But Ms. Smith has already decided to leave academia once she gets accepted to a graduate program in social work.
Perhaps we should conduct an outside search, though that would mean 1) the administration would have to deliver a salary and course-release commensurate with the post, 2) we’d be hiring someone not from U of All People, i.e., someone who doesn’t understand all our arcane regulations and can’t be trusted. In the end, the administration may decide this matter for us. At the last School of Humanities meeting, the provost announced that the university intends to replace department chairs with a dean who oversees an entire division. Where the dean will come from is an open question, but it’s rumored that the music division is already lining up a row of chairs.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, coming out in November.
The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year’s Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.
That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favorite mistakes and misunderstandings.
Cell phones are intrusive, not because they sound off during lectures, faculty meetings and commencement -- not even because they blur the line between home and work, with calls chiming at all hours -- but because university policy just about requires them.
I direct the journalism school at Iowa State University and am author of a technology book documenting the interpersonal divide caused by digital gadgetry. So I should have known better when my institution recommended cell phones as an option in a new policy prohibiting in-office personal long distance calls, which used to be allowed, as long as employees reimbursed the university -- a practice dubbed labor intensive and unproductive.
Of course I know why the new policy was instituted: The old reimbursement system made secretaries monthly bill collectors put in the position of challenging the occasional employee making dozens of work-related calls to cities where families and partners just happened to reside. Cell phones cause other personnel problems. Because employees foot the bill, many feel they can use the mobile gadget on university time in off-limits settings like restrooms.
We won’t go there.
We live in a brave new digital world where ivory towers have been replaced with cellular ones. Each new high-tech gadget paid for by employees resolves one ethical issue and creates a dozen more hitherto unanticipated conundrums. Some days it seems anything requiring human trust and interpersonal communication can be declared labor intensive and unproductive, what, with e-mail, computer networks, teleconferencing, digital television, pocket cameras and wireless Internet at our fingertips, all of which, incidentally, assimilated of late by the cell phone.
Administrators want to be good institutional citizens. So I gave each professor and staff member a copy of the new long-distance policy. Because I had recommended cell phones, I felt obliged to upgrade mine and along with that of my spouse. Diane, a journalism lecturer, heeding offers by Cingular, which had recently absorbed our carrier AT&T Wireless.
After last year’s $41 billion merger, Cingular informed us about its calling plans and focus on customer service and technical support -- both of which seemed like AT&T Wireless oxymorons. Reminders about the merger came with bills and bulk mail touting rollover minutes. A skeptical consumer, I had researched the allusion of individuality reflected in the Cingular brand, as if it cared about each single 46 million customers.
Like many of those customers, I could have ordered new phones and plans online and tried to migrate -- a curious word, as if consumers flock like ducks in cyberspace -- from AT&T to Cingular. Instead we visited our local Cingular Wireless vendor in Ames, Iowa, and bought two phones with rebate savings (another oxymoron) and a $59.99 calling plan with $9.99 additional line. This was cheaper than my $69.99 AT&T Wireless plan with a $39.99 line for my spouse.
The salesperson, Kevin, switched our phones, charged the appropriate fees, wrote up bills and outlined plans meticulously. What follows is a narrative of what happened after Diane and I left the sales office. True, our story may simply be an anomaly, a bit of lousy cellular luck. So I’ll be reading the posted comments to see if mine is a Cingular experience.
Two weeks after placing our order I received my official welcome from Cingular Wireless -- my final AT&T bill with a $175 early cancellation fee for switching carriers. I called “customer care.” On its Web site, Cingular Wireless aspires to provide best-in-class sales and service.
Keeping with that shared vision, an AT&T Wireless representative told me that I would have to pay the cancellation fee. This was company policy. I asked for his supervisor. On hold, I listened to a female voice sing the many virtues of the recent merger offering rollover minutes and more. Her silken voice was interrupted by the supervisor’s. Like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, she was adamantine. “When you break a contract, sir, you are obligated.”
This was a teachable moment. “That would be true,” I remember replying, if I had left AT&T for Sprint. But I left it for Cingular, “which owns you now.” I paused. I had meant that in a good way.I would have to pay, she said.
I called back later and spoke to a more helpful supervisor. She contacted the Ames wireless store and learned that a glitch occurred because my old cell phone had an Ohio area code. (Yes, I kept my old number, even though Diane and I had migrated to Iowa.) It took six weeks to fix that bill, about the time for rebate offers to be honored.
Remember those rebates? To get them, consumers fill out a form, copy serial numbers, enclose copies of receipts and cut barcodes from boxes. I did those chores on the day I purchased the cell phones with the kind of concentration I usually reserve for income tax itemization. I received two copies of a form letter from the rebate center in Young America, Minn. “We regret that we are unable to process your request as received. The cash register receipt enclosed was either not dated or not dated within the time period designated for this offer.”
I made several calls to rebate center representatives who gave conflicting instructions. At last I learned that in addition to getting a dated receipt from the local wireless story, I would have to return original barcodes cut from the box.
Did I mention that the customer care department did not send them back?
A snippy rebate representative told me to dismantle the cell phones and locate the serial numbers behind the batteries. Then I was to photocopy the cell phones so that the numbers were legible. I opened the cell phones and photocopied the serial numbers in the main office of the journalism building, telling the secretary that these were personal copies. There’s a policy on that, too. Then I mailed new rebate materials during the lunch hour and placed my personal cell phone next to my office phone in case I needed to make an emergency long-distance call.
My first emergency call was to Cingular Wireless when my new bill arrived showing two separate calling plans -- a $59.99 one for me and another $59.99 for my spouse (rather than the $9.99 additional line that I was promised). With fees, the bill was $138.85 I had kept the original documentation of our calling plan -- as precious as copies of IRS 1040 forms in an audit.
“We apologize for the billing mistake,” the Cingular Wireless operator said.
“Please send me a new bill then.”
“That would cost an additional $5.”
I asked why I had to pay for Cingular’s mistake.
“Because that is our policy,” he replied, perhaps without sensing the double meaning.
I asked for his supervisor, Stephen, who also apologized for the mistake and told me to forget a new bill. “Just pay online with a credit card.”
But I wanted documentation.
He said that the company was not equipped to provide that.
At that moment I beheld a core truth about the state of customer service in today’s high-tech global media environment. The world’s largest digital calling company lacks a function to send, e-mail or fax a new bill without a fee.
By now I was whimsical. “Do you have a minute?” I asked, realizing that he had plenty of minutes, sold by the plan. I shared with him my cell phone saga that began with a university policy, continued with early termination fees, included denied rebate offers and now was approaching denouement. “When will this end?” I asked.
“Just cross out the $138.85 on the Cingular bill and send the correct amount,” he suggested.
By now I was anticipating the next glitch, an outsourced bill processor in Carol Stream, Ill., confronted with the conundrum of a $138.85 bill with an $82.17 payment.
“It’ll be fine,” the supervisor said. He didn’t say “trust me,” but I intuited that in his tone.
“Let’s make a bet,” I replied, predicting I would get another $138.85 charge.
“No, you won’t,” Stephen said. He gave me his full name and offered additional rollover minutes if the bill wasn’t corrected in the next cycle.
My next bill arrived stating that I still had two $59.99 plans and charging me another $138.85. I put in three calls to Stephen and left messages that he must make good on his bet. But he did not return messages even though he has my e-mail, cell phone, home phone, work phone, text messaging, fax and other digital means of access.
During my last call to Cingular, an operator apologized for the latest bill, telling me to cross out the $138.85 and just pay the $82.17. That is the same bad advice that the elusive Stephen gave, I explained.
“I know what I am doing, and I’ll fix this for you,” she said.
The next week I received my rebate checks. Cingular eventually sent me a corrected statement. I remember opening the envelope and feeling a rush of relief, a curious emotional response that occurs when justice is served, along with the consumer.
That evening in my home office my Eudora pinged with a message from Sprint that somehow had circumvented the university’s spam filter: “Great news! Due to the affiliation with the State of Iowa, All University Faculty and Staff are now eligible for huge discounts with Sprint PCS. You now receive a 15% monthly discount on all rate plans, and a free phone with new activation. You are also now able to take your phone number from another carrier to Sprint PCS at no charge. For details on phones and rate plans please call Customer Solutions @ 877-777-4680 or 888-727-2003.”
Was this truly great news, this corporate affiliation with the state? Would I enjoy huge discounts and a free phone with new activation? Could I really take my Cingular Wireless number to Sprint at no charge?
I remain skeptical. But I no longer make personal calls on my university phone, although I still feel that I make monthly restitution.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford, 2005). He writes a monthly technology column for Inside Higher Ed.
Submitted by J.P. Leary on August 12, 2005 - 4:00am
The 19th-century Welsh novelist Henry Clairidge (1832-74) stood firmly in the British eccentric tradition, publishing only two novels during his lifetime, __________ and [ ], each consisting of 200 blank pages. A posthumously published volume was put out by his sister, Ethel, in 1876: “******,” a heavily annotated work of 200 pages, also blank.
These three books constitute the Clairidge oeuvre and his claim to literary posterity. Apart from a few contemporary reviews in The Gleaners’ Gazette, Clairidge remains mostly a tabula rasa. No critic has adequately addressed this master of Victorian minimalism, who so clearly anticipated the work of the Parisian livre vide movement in the 1890s and the pared-down appearance of late Beckett some decades later.
Occasionally, commentators have projected their own preconceptions on Clairidge’s admittedly scanty plots. New Critics had a field day filling in the gaps and differentiating between hiatuses and lacunae.
Barthes proposed 53 distinct readings of page 100 in [ ], whereas Derrida declared, “There is nothing inside the text.” Greenblatt links the genesis of Clairidge’s corpus to a blank diary found among the effects of a drowned sailor from Bristol in 1835. Several attempts by white studies scholars to claim Clairidge’s pages as an oppressed majoritarian cri de coeur have been largely ignored by multiculturalists.
These previous approaches miss the mark. Clairidge’s grand emptiness, prefiguring the existential void of the 1950s, mirrors life itself -- or at least the life of Clairidge, who spent his last 20 years at the ancestral estate in Ffwokenffodde, staring gormlessly at the hay ricks. His sister, Ethel, who doubled as his amanuensis and nurse, would occasionally turn him toward a prospect of furze, but the shift seems not to have affected his subject or style.
I contend that Clairidge’s hard-won nullity is temperamentally different from nihilism, which is to say that believing nothing is not the same as Belief in Nothing. Moreover, if Clairidge’s art takes the blankness of life as its premise, its slow-building conclusions represent a sort of après vie. Though reconstructing a writer’s faith from his art is a dicey business (and Ethel burned her brother’s blank notebooks after his death), one of the few remaining social effects sold at a charity auction in 1876 is a hay-strewn, slightly warped Ouija board. In short, this project involves the unacknowledged fourth estate of the race, gender, and class trinity: creed. Any committee members in sympathy with the current political administration, please take note.
Nothing is familiar to me. As a blocked but tenured faculty member for the past 14 years, I can attest to the power of the blank page. The study I propose would be as infinitely suggestive as Clairidge’s own work. Having already compiled over 150 blank pages of my own, I estimate that I am about halfway through a first draft.
My spurious timeline, suggested by my university’s internal grant board to indicate progress, is as follows: chapter one by March, chapter two by April, chapter three by May, and so on. More specifically, I hope to have the large autobiographical or “life” section done by May, so I can go on vacation with my family, and the “after-life” section should be done before my department chair calls me in to discuss that tiresome annual faculty activity report.
I already have papers and books strewn impressively around my office, as well as a graduate assistant to help me sort through them. An NEH grant at this stage would not only help to renovate our breakfast room, but also answer the querulous looks that the dean of liberal arts has been giving me at public gatherings. Considering the projects you people have been funding lately, I -- but as with Henry Clairidge, words fail me. As Wittgenstein concluded in his Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Clairidge, Ethel. The Selected Letters of Ethel Clairidge to Her Brother, The Corresponding Grunts of Henry Clairidge to His Sister. Eds. Renée Clairidge and Friend. Metuchen, N.J.: Methuen, 1965.
"We only wake you up for the important meetings." --N.Y. Yankee co-workers to George, on an episode of "Seinfeld"
In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a group of people is seated together at one end of a table with upraised hands. The caption reads: "It's unanimous: effective immediately, we spread out around the table."
One of the things that has always most fascinated me about meetings is the agreement that must be already in place before the meeting takes place. Surely not, whatever else, including the arrangement of seating itself! And yet another of the things that has always fascinated me about meetings is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted about them. Not even seating, as confirmed by meetings that begin -- much like classes -- with everyone present bid to either spread out or form themselves in a circle.
Who does the bidding? Not only the chair. Indeed, one could make a case that academic meetings are distinctive either because authority is regularly delegated (in departments, to the heads of other committees) or else always open to decentralized procedures of various kinds (often the establishment of sub-meetings). To whom is the bidding to be seated made? Not only to departments -- just to continue with this organizational "unit." Or rather not only to departments whose membership is fixed; for many years I was part of a department that fudged the question of whether the secretary could attend meetings and fumbled the question of whether adjuncts were part of the department by requiring them to leave before voting on anything began.
What about the meeting's agenda? Surely at least these are agreed upon? In theory, agreement is secured by publishing or circulating an agenda beforehand. In practice, though, consideration of anything during a particular meeting is often not limited to the agenda. Just as often, the meeting really heats up when something additional is either added or something unforeseen erupts.
I still recall my very first department meeting. I don't remember whether it had an agenda. I do remember the moment when a senior member jumped up from his seat and began cursing the chair. The subject wasn't some new disciplinary perspective. (I had assumed this was what departmental meetings were about.) It was about a private quarrel between the two men, involving the fact that a student had fired a gun into the living room window of one of them.
Later I found out that the senior man was a retired CIA agent. The person who told me this was himself a former CIA agent. What? How could I find myself in a department, two of whose members were CIA? I thought this was the sort of circumstance that happened in academic novels! These were the same novels, of course, in which meetings were mentioned, but not described.
If a department is not reducible to its meetings, are its meetings reducible to the department -- or is the department, in turn, reducible to its members? For many years in my own former department, I used to feel that we would have better meetings if we had a better department, and we would not have a different department until we had different members. In time, we did. But the members were arguably worse. However, the department meetings were occasionally better.
Now I'm not sure what to think about such meetings, except that when all is said and done, on the part of just about any group, meetings are inherently boring, forever driven by a few people who like to hold forth about curriculum planning or the latest Vision Statement from the administration. Everyone else -- especially the untenured -- feigns polite interest, unless something of personal consequence appears. If it doesn't appear, well, there is always the next meeting.
Once I knew a woman new to American academic life who professed herself stunned at the sheer tedium of so many meetings during which so little was accomplished. One day she was near tears. "Most of what's discussed is completely superfluous!" I blurted out in response: "Don't forget: the purpose of the meeting is to have another meeting." It was suddenly as if somebody else had uttered these words. Maybe somebody else once did to me -- after a meeting.
After a meeting: ah, this is a golden time, when frank talk can ensue with intimates about what really happened, how predictable it was that so-and-so said such-and-such, and whether -- given the administration, the chair, the union, the alignment of the planets -- the final vote would ultimately mean anything. Meanwhile, too bad there had to be a meeting at all, that exquisitely formal affair in which much was considered and little decided.
I once had a colleague who told of a friend who had counseled him thus: the best way to endure meetings was to smoke a pipe. People saw the pipe, not you. For better or worse, these days are now gone. We who must continue to meet today have fewer weapons at our disposal to do battle against the inevitable fatigue. Idle scribbling on a print-out of the agenda or the last minutes: Is this the promised end?
Of course I appear too cynical. Some issues of course demand meetings. Just don't ask me to give examples. Some meetings prove to be absolutely necessary. Blame me if it seems these particular ones are usually the most boring. Lastly, we must agree at least that a department simply cannot conduct itself without meetings. Yet is there no better, more efficient way for it to do its business?
I've heard of departments that try to do so exclusively through e-mail. This might work, especially in excessively factionalized departments. But then the department deprives itself of a chance to be visibly recreated as a collective whole. Such deprivation is not accomplished without peril. Another way to put the issue: the purpose of meetings is to have a department.
Members may teach alone. They usually research alone and they certainly write alone. But each belongs to a department (and through it, to an institution). Meetings are crucial in assuring members of their own common cause, ranging from curricular change to tenure votes.
We can bemoan meetings. We can't easily give them up. Consider the situation of adjuncts. Most departments are virtually forced to dream up occasions for adjuncts to meet, under the auspices of "professional development" or institution-specific "strategies."
Here the purpose of the adjunct-only meeting is not so much to have another meeting. (Many in attendance could be gone by next semester.) The purpose is to have the meeting (and therefore a "department" of sorts) in the first place! Are adjuncts thereby constituted as a group? Of course not. Not only do such matters of high moment as curricular change fail to concern them.
Adjuncts are excluded from even such lowly questions as the selection of new textbooks. Indeed, consolidating ideals of any sort -- apart from the scandal of there being adjuncts at all -- are not available to them; adjuncts are paid to teach, not to attend meetings about teaching -- or anything else. And yet, there must be meetings for them to be "encouraged" to attend, lest their professionalism itself be endangered. Of course, once they do, just once, another meeting is theoretically possible, and then all seems well.
No matter, somewhat paradoxically, that freedom from meetings, in fact, is the usual virtue of their lot regularly invoked by adjuncts themselves! Everyone is expected to smile knowingly. (Unless full-timers suspect sour grapes. ) Nobody, it seems, is expected actually to like meetings. Just so, though, all are expected to acknowledge their abiding necessity, therefore to attend the next meeting.
In sum, one cheer for meetings. Readers will recognize my allusion to E.M. Forster's famous essay, "What I Believe," wherein he gives democracy a grudging two cheers. One is because it admits variety. The other is because it permits criticism. The departments of my experience admit variety, but far more grudgingly than in Forster's democracy. Worse, they permit little real criticism. Nothing is harder at a meeting than to raise some fundamental objection to an item or an issue, and then expect to have it thoroughly treated.
Forster's democratic model is Parliament, whose deliberations, I suspect, would put most academic departments to shame. Not only because Parliament abides the individual "nuisance" intent on exposing some abuse. Not only because Parliament is virtually mandated to "chatter and talk." But also because Parliament's "chatter," claims Forster, is "widely reported." In comparison, a department's deliberations are of course impeccably -- not to say, preciously -- private.
One cheer for meetings seems to me quite enough. There had better be one because, academically, we're all in it together, and we somehow manage to remain so (unless we're adjuncts) even through our mostly dreary, ill-starred meetings. Also, one cheer gestures at the existence of more departments than an individual can easily imagine, where variety actually speaks on a regular basis (even without tenure!) o where criticism remains an animating voice. Meetings, finally, are just one of those fateful things about academic life that most of us have to tolerate, when all is said and done (though preferably not at another meeting), like non-committal deans, rude office staff, and students who won't turn off their cell phones. Meetings we will always have with us. But please God, not next week, and not too late in the afternoon.
Terry Caesar's last column was about college presidents.
If intelligent design gets taught in the college classroom, here are some other propositions we can look forward to:
Was Shakespeare the author of all those plays? Competing theories suggest that the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, or even Queen Elizabeth herself penned those immortal lines. You be the judge. Henceforth, the prefaces to all those editions by “William Shakespeare” should be rewritten to give equal time to the alternate-authorship idea.
Does oxygen actually support that flickering candle flame, or is an invisible, weightless substance called phlogiston at work? First suggested by J. J. Becher near the end of the 17th century, the existence of phlogiston was eventually pooh-poohed by supporters of the oxygen hypothesis, but, as they say in the legal profession, the jury’s still out on this one.
Drop a candy bar on the sidewalk, and come back to find ants swarming all over it. Or put a piece of rotten meat in a cup and later find maggots in it, having come out of nowhere! This is called spontaneous generation. Biologists eventually decided that airborne spores, like little men from parachutes, wafted onto the food and set up shop there, but does that make any sense to you?
In the morning, the sun rises over the tree line, and by noon it’s directly overhead. At night, as the popular song has it, “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” Then why do so many people think that the earth moves instead of the sun? Could this be a grand conspiracy coincident with the rise of that Italian renegade Galileo, four centuries ago? Go out and look at the sunset! As they say, seeing is believing.
Proper grammar, the correct way of speaking, the expository essay model -- how rigid and prescriptive! There are as many ways to talk as there are people on this good, green earth, and language is a living organism. Or like jazz, an endless symphony of improvisation. No speech is wrong, just different, and anyone who says otherwise is just showing an ugly bias that supports white hegemony.
“History is bunk,” declared the famous industrialist and great American Henry Ford. All those names and dates -- why learn any of that when not even the so-called experts can agree on exactly what happened? Besides, most of those historical figures are dead by now, so what’s the point? From now on, all history departments must issue disclaimers, and anything presented as a narrative will be taught in the creative writing program.
Speaking of which, creative writing itself has long been controlled by a bunch of poets and fiction writers who determine who wins what in the world of letters. But who really knows whether the latest Nobel Prize winner is any better than, say, that last Tom Clancy novel you read. It all boils down to a matter of taste, doesn’t it?
Or what about that "Shakespeare"? Was he/she/it really any better than the Farrelly brothers? Let’s all take a vote on this, okay?
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
It's that time again. Sometimes it's about the next class. Sometimes it's about the last class. There are semesters when you are told in person. There are semesters when you are informed through email. You can be sure only that it will happen in virtually every undergraduate class -- the larger the first or second-year student population, the more certain: grandmothers will begin to die.
Last week my first succumbed, around the usual time, just past the semester's midpoint. Her grandson informed me in an e-mail, which contained only one problem: the date of the class meeting for which he would have to be absent was mistakenly given to be two days earlier than in fact the class meets. Was this in fact the day of the funeral? Is the student so overcome with grief that he can't even get his dates straight?
Or was there no funeral? Maybe there's not even any grandmother! What should I do? Insist upon a death certificate? (I've heard of some teachers who have.) At least seek clarification about whether the excuse has to do exclusively with the day of the funeral or else with some longer shadow of either family obligation or mortality itself?
You never know with student excuses, especially the most common ones. "There are 50 or 60 countries fighting in this war," protests a character in Catch-22. "Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." In the world of student excuses, there are a lot more than 50 or 60. They're all worth missing class for.
I wish at least there could somehow be a moratorium on dead grandmothers. (Why normally only them? Don't grandfathers die, too?)
"Oh, no," I exclaimed several years ago, when a student in a composition class stepped out afterwards to explain that she had been absent because her grandmother had died. "Another dead grandmother!"
The girl immediately burst into tears.
Of course I wished I was dead. The student's grandmother really had died. Or else her granddaughter was a good actress. But you want to try to avoid being too cynical about excuses, especially those involving death. Question these particular excuses and you may as well be questioning respect for the dead or the suffering of those left behind.
Indeed, death-driven excuses are the best ones because the mere mention of death is commonly uttered with the unspoken understanding that no more need be said; a teacher is expected to believe the excuse as a function of honoring the deceased. Objecting to one is like objecting to the other -- and of course each is ratified by the sheer fact of death itself, whose utter seriousness demands its own recognition and brooks no skepticism.
And yet after awhile it's simply impossible not to be skeptical about student excuses -- all of them. Not only does any one fit into some classification, having to do, say, with such things as technology (especially popular since the dawn of computers), health, or law. Worse, it becomes positively garish to hear them from students who speak as if their particular excuse has never been given before.
This can lead to a sort of paradox: the most exceptional the excuse, the more believable. Who would not be likely to credit a student who stepped up to disclose that his family feared he might be kidnapped by the Mexican Mafia, and so he would be absent the next two weeks? This excuse was given to a colleague of mine last semester. Early one afternoon, she also heard from a student who couldn't make it to class because the roof had just collapsed at the apartment house to which she had just moved.
To be fair, the colleague apparently knew each of these students, and already trusted them. In these circumstances, all credulous bets are usually off. Although many teachers would not like to admit it, the whole problem of student excuses in fact applies only to students whom one either does not know or cannot know.
Granted, this means most students. Part of the reason everybody is so uncomfortable about excuses is because excuses register education in terms of its sheer numbers as well as its inescapable routines and necessary rules. We're all happier when education is instead manifest as a more intimate, flexible affair.
Insisting, as many teachers do, that excuses will only be acceptable, if at all, when given beforehand, is really a way of trying to establish another model of education entirely. Too bad the shadow of dead grandmothers, like mortality itself, has to fall over this model. "Students recur," quoth a celebrated Oxford don. So do their excuses. They know not their recurrence. But we do.
Finally, what to do? The solution the profession seems to have settled on, if only by default, is this: treat student excuses under the sign of comedy. There is of course some justice in this (as a hundred Web sites attest). So many students are utterly naive; how is a teacher not to laugh upon being told that "my best friend's father died?" Also, the very situation of having to give an excuse is so solemn that a comic rhythm is not easily refused.
In a way, the best solution to the situation is one I heard from a former colleague. He fondly remembered an early afternoon undergraduate class where the teacher told the students that if they missed class, they had to explain why during the next class. The whole class would judge whether they believed the explanation. This led, it seemed, to riotous fun, with each student trying to outdo the last in creativity and inventiveness....
In effect, what the teacher had done was to transform the deadly serious matter of absences into something wholly ludic. Yet was such a thing only possible in the late 1940s, in what must have been a small upper-division class, among a group of largely men, most World War II veterans? My colleague usually brought up his experience when the students we were given to teach, in largely service courses, seemed bent only on manipulating or outwitting us. A class such as the one he remembered seemed inconceivable then.
It still does. I love outrageous excuses as much as the next person -- and the general aspect of student follies of various kinds still delights me. Sometimes, bracing myself for a student who is going to step up with an excuse about some past or future absence, I try to project an aura that suggests: "All right, since we know what's going to happen, let's see if we can get through this with some wit and intelligence as well as sympathy."
But it seems to me we seldom do. Usually it's another dead grandmother, or some uninteresting variants. Frank McCourt describes one encounter in his recent memoir, Teacher Man. Bored with patently false student excuses in his high school classes, he had students write out better excuses. It was fun until the assignment evolved into writing excuses for such people as Hitler's mistress and then the administration got wind of it.
I admire this solution. But only from afar. Were there no students who stepped up to McCourt with, er, dead serious dead grandmothers, despite all? And would such play be possible in today's no-nonsense, grade-driven college atmosphere? Always, regarding absences, the teacher is in the inescapable position of someone-supposed-to-accept (a grimmer version of Jacques Lacan's celebrated formulation of the teacher as "someone-supposed-to-know"). I can only haplessly try to transpose the terms of the acceptance into a cooler emotional register.
It's not satisfactory, though, and it's not satisfying. Finally, I believe no response on my part is. The excuses are amusing to read about on Web sites. The howlers may be wonderful to recount to friends and colleagues. But nothing really changes back in the classroom. The site of excuse-making is static, timeless. Classes to attend and tests to take we have always with us, and therefore students who are, alas, absent, but with good reason. In a pinch, any reason will do, despite the fact that some are more plausible or more urgent than others, or that still others appear so true that they may as well be judged artless, and therefore become false.
As teachers, it seems to me we finally have a choice with respect to student excuses: to become cynics or fools. Cynics disbelieve all excuses. (It's as if they all dissolve into dead grandmothers.) Fools believe them all. Myself, I'm probably incoherent by now, since, although I write about the whole question of excuses like a cynic, in practice I actually shrug over almost all of them like a fool.
In fact, it's worse. Each excuse-laden student who appears recalls to me a remark by Mary McCarthy, at the end of a chapter in The Stones of Florence. She quotes a Florentine who has recently remarked "that the pictures in the Uffizi had grown ugly from looking at the people who looked at them." By now I simply feel ugly from staring at so many lies. How rightly to regard a student who is lying to you? No question about teaching is harder to answer because no question is less attractive.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the image of violence in the classroom.
I go to the gym to exercise wearing a maroon T-shirt from the University of Minnesota. I've had it for years, long before I ever visited the campus. Then I come home, shower, and put on another grey T-shirt from Montevallo. Again, I've had it for many years -- and I've never visited the actual campus. I just trusted there was one, somewhere, until a few years ago, when I chanced to learn where.
First response: disappointment. I never cared about the "real" Montevallo, any more than I did about the real Minnesota. Indeed, Montevallo has -- or had -- one immense advantage over Minnesota: It could be the product of pure fancy, as if in fact it was a college of the mind or the imagination. Its location was nowhere, like More's Utopia.
Maybe it lacked a football team. Maybe it didn't even have an administration building! My inclination (just to use this word) toward college and university sportswear goes back to my sophomore year in college when I decided to order a sweatshirt from the University of New Hampshire, in order to substantiate my possession of a false driver's license from that state.
I no longer remember how I came by the license. But I still remember opening the package and pulling out the brand new, navy blue sweatshirt, short sleeved. New Hampshire! A pretty exotic place if you're going to school in Southern California. The sweatshirt never really helped with the license, which was such a poor imitation that I had to throw it away after a waitress at a pizza joint refused to accept it. The sweatshirt, though, was an immediate hit. I felt special wearing it. Nobody else had a genuine short-sleeved sweatshirt from New Hampshire.
I never claimed to have gone there. If anybody, seeing me, wanted to think so, fine. If in one sense wearing the sweatshirt was a means to call attention to myself, in a more important sense, though, it was a way to efface myself. People saw the shirt, not me. Wearing a sweatshirt from the University of New Hampshire, after all, declares some sort of affiliation with the university but does not specify its nature insofar as any individual wearer is concerned.
Fast forward fifteen years. I am standing inside the front entrance to the University of Oregon library. I am wearing a T-shirt from the University of Vermont. I bought it there, two or three summers earlier. Suddenly, a girl steps up to me and says, "Wow, Vermont. Do you go there?" I'm shocked, embarrassed, confused. "Well, no," I manage, "I don't really go there. I just, er, like the place." The girl just stares at me, and then turns away, disappointed.
How could she have assumed that just because I was wearing a T-shirt from a particular university I went there? But the more I thought about it, the more disingenuous this objection became. How could she not have assumed this? The T-shirt was a signifier after all, and what it signified was the most standard meaning, not the most wayward one: I was wearing a T-shirt from the University of Vermont because I had been or was a student or a teacher there.
Fast forward six more years. I am teaching at a provincial university in China. Alas (to me), the university has no T-shirts, sweatshirts, or sportswear of any kind. But I can wear a little circular red pin from China's railroad, given to me by a student who used to work for it as a conductor. He gladly got me a pin but can't quite understand why I would want to wear it. No Chinese can. "Why do you wear the pin if you don't work for the railroad?" Although everybody is too polite to say so, some undoubtedly think me just plain stupid. The T-shirts I've brought along, in particular the orange one from the University of Florida I'm always wearing, don't begin to clarify the matter.
How to explain to the Chinese that in the West membership in organizations is not as stable or fixed, as in China? Not only do people change jobs or affiliations. They identify with groups, teams, or institutions to which they do not actually belong. Nay, meaning itself is not so fixed. Signification itself can be (as theorists say) "floating," and an individual can be content to drift in various ways among several different organizations, sometimes ironically, sometimes fervently, at all times ludically. How to explain to the Chinese that wearing the railroad pin is to me a form of imaginative play? To them it is a means of employment identification, period.
By the time I came to teach in China I had succeeded in accumulating more college and university T-shirts and sweatshirts than I could wear. Many were given to me by a friend who was a salesman for a sportswear company. He traveled to campus bookstores all over the South as his company tried to take advantage of how so many other products -- ranging from coffee cups to sweaters and jackets -- were being merchandised in order to take advantage of the fact that institutions of higher education had become "brands."
Some institutions, like Montevallo, still mean something to me. (If only as an "empty" sign; I have another T-shirt, from Harding University, wherever that is.) Some, like Minnesota, don't mean anything. (So why keep this one? The color? The fit?) Yet by now I've gotten rid of more T's and sweats than I've owned. The shirt from Harvard -- that transcendental signifier -- shrunk. But I never liked the improbable strawberry color. The shirt from the University of Alabama was discarded because I never felt any emotional connection to the state. My beloved short-sleeved New Hampshire sweatshirt? It just basically disintegrated.
I still keep too many, one from the University of Washington, which I attended as a grad student (but the shirt no longer fits comfortably), or another from the University of Michigan, which I bought in Ann Arbor (during a moment when it suddenly felt like an improbable foreign village). Perhaps what's changed is not so much my relation to these items as their relation to the society at large. Some years ago in Pennsylvania I saw a kid wearing a UCLA T-shirt. As a teenager, I watched the Bruin basketball team on local TV. UCLA represents my oldest academic affiliation. How in the present to compare my lived experience with this kid, for whom UCLA represented -- well, exactly what?
Idle question. Both of us are ourselves products of an economy where everything is now up for grabs, ready for sale, and already in play, including the paraphernalia of colleges and universities. It's as if the imaginative identification once possible to make with these institutions on a personal level has already been accomplished by the economy itself. UCLA? It's famous. No need to concern yourself with more than this, unless you're concerned about its possible style or fashion relation to other famous institutions, much less to professional sports teams or the very latest rock stars. UCLA? Just finally a name brand on -- or of -- yet another T-shirt, like Prada or Tommy Hilfiger.
To put the same point differently: I've lately seen UCLA T-shirts being worn on the streets of Japan, during the time I was teaching at a Japanese university which lacked any sportswear of its own featuring an institutional logo. (At the five foreign universities at which I've taught, only the one in Brazil had a T-shirt with such a logo -- just one T-shirt, with merely the university's initials, amid a profusion of T-shirts filled with political slogans and poems.) How to explain the lack? The powerful global presence of American popular culture? The absence of any comparable cultural space in these respective nations where colleges and universities could manifest themselves? Or are institutions of higher education in most other countries simply more exclusive and remote -- literally walled and gated -- than any of their counterparts in the United States?
In any case, many are the individual ruses regarding T's and sweats. But they are not infinite, not even to an American, and they all abide in history. The exotic University of New Hampshire sweatshirt of my undergraduate years was only possible at an earlier historical moment, where the referent of the garment remained so to speak in place. Today, even if it remains true that you can still only buy the same garment through the UNH campus bookstore, you can do so in an instant online. Moreover, it is even conceivable you can come upon either a copy or the genuine article at a used clothing store in your area, even if your area happens to be in Texas. And what would a UNH T-shirt signify in Texas? You name it. Maybe just a dis-identification with the oppressive burnt orange UT T-shirts.
So we reach a point where college and university sportswear, once so special and institution-specific, now signifies everything and nothing at the same time. A few years ago I taught a couple of classes at Palo Alto College. At the beginning of the first semester, I almost bought a T-shirt -- on sale -- at the tiny bookstore. But then I paused. Was it because the identity of the community college was just too obscure, or else too real? Why didn't its possible confusion with Stanford strike me as amusingly ironic (as it usually would)? I don't know. But I failed to buy a T-shirt. It just seemed beside the point. What is the point? Perhaps the current American imperative to buy a T-shirt in order to confirm anything -- your team's victory, your trip's destination, your favorite this or that, the proud significance of you, you, you.
I'm still not sure what I've been doing throughout my adult life in accumulating college and university T-shirts from near and far. But it hasn't been primarily a form of self-assertion. Instead, I believe, it's been repeatedly fantasizing an identification with all sorts of institutions, both real and imagined. I haven't wanted to study or teach at any one. Somehow, I've wanted to claim them all, or, perhaps better, have each one claim me.
However, this only works if signification remains, well, purely academic. No more. Years ago in Brazil I saw an apparently homeless beggar wearing a filthy, pocket-marked T-shirt that read, Harlem University. Who created this T-shirt? Why? Could it have represented an object of fantasy to the man, whether or not he knew there is no such institution? Or was it something he just picked up on the street?
Today, all our T-shirts are subject to such questions -- the more so, the more globally marketed. Furthermore, the identifications they declare -- including the academic ones -- are now prey to all manner of ironies. Our personal imaginations can't govern them all, even if we are pleased to recall a time when such a thing felt possible.
Terry Caesar's last column was about dealing with unacceptable student behavior.
For years, the terms early decision and early action have meant binding and non-binding college acceptances before the usual notification date. With Harvard striking down its early admissions system, and other universities scurrying to follow, these old labels have become suspect -- even though, as recent articles have shown, universities may still practice some forms of early acceptance.
What schools really need now, though, is an end-run around the old terms. Here are some proposals now on the table at admissions offices across the country:
oily admissions: for those acceptances with a certain slimy feel, necessary to the school’s financial welfare but best not to discuss. May derive from Texas-based alums who kick in oil company money to expedite the acceptance of their kids to business school.
eerie admissions: a term meant to cover those unaccountable acceptances, such as the athletic scholarship extended to the chess whiz, or the offer made to a high school student with no extracurricular activities.
only admissions: the new, no-frills form of acceptance, without any fat welcome packet or additional literature sent through the mail; the academic equivalent of an airline e-ticket.
early submissions: a label for those eager beaver applicants who just can’t wait 'til fall of their senior year in high school and start bombarding colleges with material as early as July.
yearly remissions: not technically an admissions matter, but these represent the annual tithing from wealthy graduates who will one day expect their offspring to apply to and be accepted by their alma maters.
early revisions: this curious term signifies that percentage of accepted students who , well before the deadline, decide that they want to matriculate elsewhere.
late action: a polite term for what used to be called the waiting list, or those applicants who have no reasonable hope of getting in unless someone else opts out.
early faction: any admitted students likely to become a cohesive group, such as the College Republicans.
proactive admissions: the new term for offers extended ahead of time to athletes who’ll be snapped up by other schools if another day goes by.
early derision: a cover for those admitted students who in retrospect were ludicrous choices, such as those with bad debts or probation officers.
easy submissives and early emissions: don’t go there.
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.