No, Really and Truly – The Absolutely, Positively Worst Ideas of 2012

Copernicus_-_Heliocentric_Solar_SystemFor some reason, The Washington Post prematurely nominated its worst ideas of 2012 way back on October 1. All the Post’s bad ideas had to do with sexual indiscretion by powerful men, political incorrectness, hubris, or all three. The one bad decision in the bunch made by a woman was the failed ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, which was spearheaded by that self-appointed defender of vision, the unfortunately-named Helen Dragas.

Speaking of hubris, though, the Post left out almost three months of bad ideas and almost an entire gender – which is sort of amusing, considering that some of the worst ideas of the year were about women. Here goes:

Do-it-yourself birth control: First, Foster Friess, a billionaire and mutual fund manager, kicked off the war on women when he suggested Bayer aspirin could prevent pregnancy: “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” In case we excused Friess’s comment as anomalous, Missouri Republican Todd Akin – also known for trying to eliminate school lunches for embryos that make it to grade school – defended prohibitions on abortion for rape victims by declaring, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Rape as God’s will: Not to be outdone, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock argued – several times! – that any life resulting from rape was “something God intended to happen.” His idea manages to be terrible on several levels: first, that (despite its frequent appearance in the Bible) rape is acceptable because the ends justify the means; second, that God means to torture women; and third, that Mourdock somehow knows what God intends.

Ayn Rand: From Rand’s excruciating prose, eugenically-selected protagonists, contempt for acts of generosity on the grounds that they enable helplessness, and glorification of selfishness, we learned that the Romney-Ryan defeat stemmed from the triumph of mediocrity rather than Romney’s staggering ignorance of the world inhabited by the ordinary riffraff. (Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post, “At Romney Headquarters, the Defeat of the 1%” does the best job I’ve seen to show that Romney’s insensitivity comes straight from the heart.)

Teachers bearing arms: If I actually have to explain why this is a terrible idea, please stop reading now.

The Second Amendment: If you skip the “well-regulated” and “necessary to a free state” parts, assault weapons make perfect sense.

Jonathan Franzen’s opinion of Edith Wharton: Based on Wharton being unattractive and sexless, America’s most popular purveyor of unpleasant characters dismisses her entire body of work. The bad idea – which you really might expect someone at The New Yorker to question – is the entire assumption that women have no artistic legitimacy without sex appeal.

New Yorker cartoons: Looking for sexism? Women carping at their downtrodden husbands? Gender dynamics that haven’t changed since the 1920s? I love The New Yorker, but I wish it would reconsider its tradition of phallocentrism.

Women are helpless, except when they’re not: Okay, I’m supposed to believe that the general of the most powerful military in the world was prostrate before the siren song of Paula Broadwell? Either he couldn’t resist – which I highly doubt, given that Petraeus was entrusted with our national security – or he could have resisted, but didn’t bother since the popular press would blame the woman anyway.

Voyeurism. Maybe Invisible Children was a showcase for the arrogance of Jason Russell, but when TMZ broadcast him staggering naked through the streets of San Diego and ridiculed what was clearly a mental breakdown, it didn’t exactly show the public in a flattering light when we played along. Same with the photograph of a man about to be hit by a NYC subway car. And same with the anguished photo of a woman trying to find out the fate of her sister, who had already been killed by the Sandy Hook shooter.

Illusions of privacy. Yes, my privacy has gone the way of the Twinkie, without the anti-union rhetoric. I value privacy, but not when it gets in the way of seeing the cartoons and photos my friends post or being able to avoid entering twice as many addresses into Google Maps on my phone.

The end of the world. The true bad idea here is that I didn’t plan an end-of-the-world potluck holiday party; I hosted one in 1999, asking guests to bring the dish they would want to eat if the world really ended at the turn of the millennium. Good times. P.S. Runner-up: blaming the prediction on the Mayans.

The end of the list. And if you believe that these are the only worst ideas of 2012, I have something I want to sell you. Close your eyes, hold out your hands, and count to ten.

Bad Books Don’t Get Banned

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Today marks the last day of the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which, according to the website, “celebrat[es] the freedom to read.” The ALA site makes a distinction between challenged (someone tried to get a book removed from a curriculum or library) and banned (the petition for removal was successful in at least one place) and explains that the most common reasons for censorship are sexual content, explicit language, and “unsuitab[ility] to any age group.”

The ALA’s list for 2010-11 includes a wide range of books, from Sherman Alexie’s devastating National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to Anne Frank’s classic Diary of a Young Girl. The list also includes Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, banned in a Pennsylvania town for supposedly promoting socialist ideas; and a book about pit bulls and guard dogs, banned in Logan, Australia, because the breeds themselves are prohibited, and, in true Stalinesque spirit, readers should not be allowed to learn anything about them.

Well, there is someone for everything. It is marvelous to live in a country where some people value the 2nd amendment more than the first, and where some people are more afraid of libraries than they are of semi-automatic weapons. One thing I’ve noticed about the banned book list, though: I’ve never read a book that made the list and wasn’t well-written. (Full disclosure: There are plenty of books I haven’t read from the list.) So-called “classics” are popular targets, because they’re assigned in school, although last year someone challenged Kate Chopin’s perennially banned book The Awakening, not because it contains an unremorseful portrait of infidelity or a mother’s abandonment of her children, but because the cover of the book showed a woman with a little too much cleavage.

However, I’ve observed that books so poorly written that I want to hurl them across the room never seem to make it to the banned books list. For example, The Bridges of Madison County, which features a treacly plot involving a photojournalist who swoops into a small town to rescue a woman with no personality from her life of mediocrity, has never been challenged, at least as far as I know. Neither has Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is so historically important and uniquely disturbing, and so filled with clumsily written sentences. Black writers are disproportionately represented in the list of frequently-banned classics, especially considering that novels by women – already barely represented in the so-called “canon” – are only a sliver of the total list.

I can only conclude that if a book isn’t worth reading, it’s not worth banning or challenging. Books that have been challenged, on the other hand, were good enough to be recommended or read by someone who was affected enough to be offended. So many books deemed too challenging for school curricula or bestseller lists are so amply worth reading that I would never want to suggest that the ALA list should be the definitive guide to worthwhile literature.

I will say this, though: If you read something worth banning before next year’s Banned Books Week, I doubt you will regret it.

Mommy Issues and the War on Teaching Faculty

First of all, thank you to everyone who read, forwarded, and commented on “The Shelf Life of Total B.S.” I am awed and honored.

When I wrote my response to David C. Levy’s salvo against teaching faculty, I expected that its readership would be limited to the same dozen or so long-suffering friends who’d hung on for the last few entries. I had even thought of retiring the blog, and I might have done so were it not for the encouragement of these readers.

I would absolutely never have predicted that journalist Kaustuv Basu would call my office the next morning to interview me for an article in Inside Higher Education – my first thought was, “Do these people know what a nobody I am?” – nor that my blog entry would gain support from higher ed colleagues across the country, and certainly not that I would seem worthy of ridicule in Gawker.

The Gawker article, “College Professors Find Plenty of Time to Be Outraged About Being Called Not Busy,” was dwarfed by a photograph of a balding, disheveled white man evidently snoring in a recliner, cat by his side:

True? Untrue? It doesn’t matter. (Except to academia [=boring].) When it comes to winning these public debates, all that matters are the “optics” of the thing. From Inside Higher Ed:

Jill Kronstadt, an associate professor of English at Montgomery College, was in the middle of grading papers Sunday when she came across a Washington Post opinion piece questioning whether college professors work hard enough.

She was upset.

Kronstadt spent the next few hours writing a rebuttal to the piece

“I am so outraged about your piece insinuating that I do not have way too much work to do that I just stopped doing my little bit of work and spent hours crafting a response to you, because hey, I have the time for that,” is what I imagine her intro said.

Apart from author Hamilton Nolan’s not bothering to link to – or, it seems, even read – my response, and apart from the fact (which I emphasized to Basu several times when he interviewed me, but which he nevertheless misrepresented) that I finished grading and then wrote the blog, not the other way around, I find a much bigger and arguably more sinister message.

Since when does it show a poor work ethic to take a few hours on a Sunday to do something not strictly work related? The underlying assumption is that teaching faculty are not working hard enough unless they are working every single minute of every single day and weekend. On the other hand, Levy’s article argues, “The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules.”

Levy’s Ayn Rand-like contention that researchers and not teachers are central to national prosperity – carrying with it the idea of trickle-down prosperity rather than robust education for all – is arguable at best. In Levy’s formulation, researchers deserve unquestioned reverence, whereas teachers, teaching teachers, should be followed around with stopwatches. But why is the stereotype of Ivory Tower slackers so enduring?

In pondering this question, which Basu also posed to me in our interview, and to which I then had no answer, it occurred to me that there is another group of people who are disparaged and even hated unless they work incessantly, give infinitely, and sacrifice endlessly without crass hopes for things like compensation, appreciation, or societal supports. And, in the likely event that life is not 100% certifiably perfect, members of this group are the first ones assigned blame.

That’s right: mothers.

It so happens that Levy’s double standard falls along gender lines. According to a 2006 study, “AAUP Faculty Gender Equity Indicators,” full professors at doctorate-granting institutions – the faculty Levy singles out for particular reverence – are only 19.3% female even though women earn nearly 50% of doctoral degrees awarded. At community colleges, by contrast, women compose 50.8% of full time faculty and 51% of part time faculty.

The gender breakdown of K-12 teachers, however, dwarfs the disparities in higher education. A 2006 Harvard University report, “The Segregation of American Teachers,” states that women occupy 75% of the teaching positions in public schools. Based on these statistics, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to say that the word “teacher” conjures images of women, and the word “professor” elicits images of men. A 2000 article in Teaching Sociology (Oct 2000: 28.4) confirms this suspicion. Perhaps coincidentally, the public has assigned the majority of the blame for the higher education crisis to K-12 teachers, with undergraduate faculty making rapid gains, as documented in the oft-quoted book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

In fact, many studies have documented gender bias in student evaluations of faculty. For example, one study conducted by researchers at Harvard University, Clemson University, and the University of Virginia found, “In biology and chemistry, male students tended to underrate their female teachers, but female students did not. In physics, both male and female students tended to underrate their female teachers.” An October 2008 article in Political Science & Politics, “All-Knowing or All-Nurturing? Student Expectations, Gender Roles, and Practical Suggestions for Women in the Classroom” (41:4) lists multiple studies showing gender bias and offers advice to female faculty for mitigating the effects of this bias on their own evaluations.

These many student evaluation and demographic studies seem to imply that systemic gender bias is a factor in perceptions of the value of teaching faculty. In my cursory, inexpert view, attacks on educators and educational institutions seem to be directly proportional to the percentage of women in these institutions. If students unconsciously expect their female professors to act like mothers, it seems plausible that the average unreflective, media-saturated member of the general public would impose his or her expectations of mothers onto teaching faculty as a group.

Gender bias could also explain how Levy’s unqualified endorsement of research over teaching faculty found publication despite a lack of factual and logical support. Men contribute to society; women nurture. Male faculty conduct important research; female faculty teach.

It is true that we have a higher education crisis. Enrollments have skyrocketed, particularly in community colleges like Montgomery College, and counties and states, who have lost revenue in the economic downturn, have underfunded education, and especially higher education. Consequently, the cost of education has been offloaded onto students in the form of increases to tuition, class size, and hiring of underpaid part time faculty (a population which, incidentally, tends to be balanced by gender).

Recently, we have seen the devaluation of women play out everywhere from Arizona’s legislative attacks on contraception and reproductive choice to Hilary Rosen’s spurious claim that Ann Romney never worked a day in her life. If students routinely perceive female faculty as less competent than males, is it wrong to wonder whether the public perceives female-dominated institutional roles to be less valuable than male-dominated ones? And, as we try to control education costs and improve outcomes, are we letting societal mommy issues obscure the real solutions?