The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


For a crew that is so disdainful of the "mainstream media filter," the Bushies sure do their best to work it. First it was those prepackaged video news releases they send to news programs hoping they'll run the clips as actual reported news. Then it was paying Armstrong Williams to shill for No Child Left Behind, and paying Michael McManus and Maggie Gallagher to hype the marriage initiative.

Now they're paying the foreign press to run unattributed puff pieces. The Financial Times reports today that "the U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq." ran a good piece on this, as well.

Plan for Victory (30 Nov. 2005)

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
PLAN for Victory? Aren't we past that? I thought the mission was "accomplished."

Mission Accomplished (1 May 2003)

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.

To be fair, Bush really promises this wasn't his idea...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

noodles for breakfast

noodles for breakfast
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
The boy and his cousin/best friend at their grandpa's house in the desert. For breakfast, he prefers Dora the Explorer brand yogurt, miniwheats cereal, and milk. She likes dried seaweed, turkey jerky, and candy. The instant noodles, though, are a nice compromise, best shared over a good episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog.

new toy

new toy
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
A good friend sent this one... the boy loved it, demanded that I free it from the shrinkwrap immediately upon taking it out of the envelope.

The Vital Center

Back from Thanksgiving in Large Southwestern State. I love the desert--those saguaros never get old. The trip home was a bitch, though: planes delayed because of weather, etc. Weather delays don't bother me all that much, ordinarily, but every since I've been travelling with a child I've come to really hate delays. We stayed an extra two and a half hours in Airport #1, and the laptop I had intended to use as a DVD player for the boy didn't work off the battery. (Fortunately, we found an outlet so he could watch TOY STORY for ninety minutes before the plane boarded.) He fell asleep on the first 3 1/2 hour flight, making it easy, except for the fact of some woman in front of us who hissed "I won't be able to take that for three hours!" when the boy kicked her seat once. Landed in Atlanta, found our gate with the Steeler game playing, and the boy was hyped even though it was 10pm and ran around.

All was well until at the end of our 90 minute flight, when the boy finally gave in to the illness that's been shadowing him for weeks and vomited up all of the goldfish crackers, Burger King patty, french fry, milk, and half-digested Cheez-Its he had in his stomach. The only blessing was that the plane was entering its "initial descent" into Pittsburgh at the time. But I'm sure you can imagine the smell.

I've been thinking a lot about Arthur Schlesinger's THE VITAL CENTER these days, mostly because I read it in conjunction with my current research. The book, from 1949, was a kind of manifesto for what became known as the "non-Communist left" in the 1950s. Schlesinger ended up working for the Kennedy administration later on, but in 1949 he was a young buck intellectual trying to come up with a plan to lure the leftists who had flirted with the Communist Party back in the 1930s and get them on the American side. His plan for a "vital center" is both unremarkable and stunning today, for his "center" is located about ten steps to the left of what we'd consider "center" today. He sees the Democratic Party--which had, when the book was written, been in power for seventeen unbroken years--as a sister party to the European democratic socialist parties. More amazing, he saw this as a good thing.

What's utterly discredited in his book is the philosophy that rules the polity today: that the market and "free enterprise" is the ultimate American value. For Schlesinger, what he calls the "business class" is entirely irrelevan and intellectually bankrupt—their philosophy not having changed since McKinley, or at latest Coolidge. How appropriate that it is to these models that Bush now looks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Thanksgiving break

Off to Large Southwestern State for Thanksgiving, where the boy's grandparents, aunts, and new cousin will all be there to help him celebrate his second birthday (which was last week, but what's wrong with a party that goes on for 10 days?). We hear that there are more checkpoint lanes at the Pittsburgh International Airport now, so we hope that'll speed things up. We're also planning to check out the "Kidsport" area at the airport, which we hope will distract the boy from running maniacally up and down the terminals, getting underfoot.

I've been watching the news about the Kenneth Tomlinson/Corporation for Public Broadcasting mess. Tomlinson, who was hired by Pres. Bush to head the CPB (the semigovernmental nonprofit that administers the money that goes to NPR and PBS) and, implicitly, to provide political "balance" to PBS and NPR, went after public broadcasting with a vengeance. Tomlinson resigned on Nov. 3 after coming under investigation by the CPB's Inspector General. It's coming out that Tomlinson understood his job responsibilities perfectly, but apparently those responsibilities went counter to the stated legal restrictions of the job. Recent stories detail how Tomlinson's primary motivating principles were political, which the law forbids. Go figure.

Friday, November 18, 2005

academic blogging

More worrying about whether academic blogging is a good idea—today Slate, as part of its "College Week," posts an article about academic blogging and its potential career-killing risks. This on the heels of the "Bloggers Need Not Apply" article in the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION back in July.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


I've got to call out my fellow Burgher zp at I Hate The New Yorker: why no comment on the Casey/Santorum article in the Nov. 14 issue? What'd you think? I know you prefer to focus on film, but I'm interested to hear your comments. And I've got to disagree with you about the Ashbery profile. Although I enjoyed it, I can't remember ever reading a profile of a poet that told me less about his poetry. I got the sense that MacFarquhar doesn't really understand Ashbery. No shame in that, of course. I sure don't. But for me he's like Jorie Graham: I don't know what the hell they're talking about, but it's nice to live in the disorientation for a while.

I just realized this week that I've now hit thirteen years of religiously reading the NEW YORKER. I can't tell whether that makes me depressingly old-fashioned, hopelessly middlebrow, or happily blessed with free time. It probably just means I've spent far too much time on buses, trains, airplanes, and Stairmasters over the last decade and a half.

"A solution in search of a problem"

More about the Select Committee on Academic Freedom: the American Association of University Professors posted a story about the recent hearings looking for "bias" in university teaching held at Pitt. In the words of the AAUP story,

"Many of the minority members of the select committee criticized the very existence of the committee and wondered why it was spending time and taxpayer money on what could charitably called (in the words of several members and witnesses over the two days) a solution in search of a problem. There were repeated references to the fact that this member or that member had not heard one complaint from students or parents about restrictions on student academic freedom. And the fact remains that after one informational meeting (in Harrisburg on September 19, 2005 where David French, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave a presentation on FIRE’s take on student academic freedom and freedom of expression) and two days of public hearings in Pittsburgh not one instance of such activities have been raised."

The political donations from university employees were a particular topic of interest. Rep. Gibson Armstrong, a Republican Senator from Armstrong and York counties, who chairs the committee, was particularly interested in the imbalance of political donations from university employees: it's heavily weighted to Democrats. No word on whether he'll be investigating the balance of political donations among corporate executives or evangelical church leaders.

"Rep. Dan Surra (a Democrat from Elk County) was... impressed by the fact that there were 4000 faculty at Pitt and only 141 made donations," reports the AAUP. Well, come to think of it, this seems like poking a bear with a sharp stick: if they're all Democrats, but none of them give any money, why risk riling them up? Carry on, Sen. Armstrong.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Principled Senator

Two bits of Santorum news today.

The Beaver County (PA) TIMES reports today that Sen. Santorum is backing off his earlier stance in favor of teaching "intelligent design" in public high schools. In 2002, Santorum wrote a piece for the WASHINGTON TIMES stating that "intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes." Now, Santorum has seen a different kind of light, or maybe he's just now paying attention to election results in Dover, PA, because this weekend, in a visit to Geneva College, Santorum backed away from his earlier position. "Science leads you where it leads you," he told his audience. Apparently, he saw it leading him away from Capitol Hill and back up 495 to I-70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike...

An older story has seen the light of day, as well. Santorum has been very vocal about what he calls "medical lawsuit abuse," and has called it the #1 health care crisis in Pennsylvania. In 2003 Santorum supported a bill that would cap medical malpractice awards at $250,000. Turns out, though, in 1996 he testified on his wife's behalf when she sued a chiropractor for $500,000. She won, and got $350,000. "Of course I'm going to support my wife," he said in his defense. Funny—I thought that these guys felt that wives need to get their husbands' permission before making serious decisions.

Friday, November 11, 2005

witch hunting in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania state legislature—well, the right wing of same—has taken David Horowitz's project of vetting colleges for "left-wing bias" and put it into action. They've been "looking into" this problem and over the last two days hearings have been held at the University of Pittsburgh, to decide whether students are being graded on how well their beliefs square with left-wing orthodoxy. (Whatever that might be. If we did have a left-wing "orthodoxy" to which we could hold people, "message discipline" the political consultants call it, maybe we'd win an election once in a while.) Horowitz has been agitating for an "Academic Bill of Rights" that would ensure "fairness" in public universities, and has been peddling this idea to right-wing legislators in numerous states.

Currently, all Pennsylvania has is a House resolution, authorizing a committee to look into these matters. They'll be holding four hearings on state campuses (I haven't been able to find the schedule, but Pitt is the first, and we can safely assume they'll hit Penn State University Park as well) over the next few months, preliminary to what is almost certainly going to be the introduction of a Horowitz-authored bill.

Pitt's provost criticized the inquiry, telling the House select committee on academic freedom in higher education that Pitt already had a functional system for dealing with student complaints of bias in classrooms. I doubt this will be the end of things, though.

Groups pushing for these laws include:
The National Association of Scholars
Students for Academic Freedom
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
and of course Horowitz's group, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. (Horowitz is a "reformed" leftist from the 1960s who now makes a living through self-promotion and agitation for right-wing, pseudopopulist causes.)
Typically, these groups portray themselves as grass-roots organizations but, as this article from THE INDEPENDENT ONLINE makes clear, they are generally funded, and often founded, by national right-wing organizations.

Groups representing teachers, such as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, have come out against these specious bills.

It's clear to essentially everyone in higher education that the point of these committees across the nation is not to ensure academic freedom—I'd challenge any of these legislators to intelligently explain that concept in language not provided by David Horowitz and going beyond the idea of "liberal bias"—but to find the last place in America where lefties dominate and make sure that changes. I'd be willing to give these groups a little more credit if they actually spoke to real issues of academic freedom. I doubt any of these groups would be interested in talking about the McCarthy era, when university professors at Rutgers, Reed College, Oregon State University, the University of Texas, the University of Washington, and several other schools were fired for their beliefs, their histories of sympathizing with Communist ideas, or their unwillingness to sign various kinds of loyalty oaths. An interesting article about what can really be at stake regarding academic freedom is here.

media bias

A new book about media "bias" reviewed in the NEW YORK TIMES today: Craig Crawford's ATTACK THE MEDIA. Excerpt here.

our way of life

President Bush, today, at a military installation in northeast Pennsylvania:

"As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them."

P. Roberts, in "'All The Right People': The Historiography of the American Foreign Policy Establishment," JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 26 (1992):432:

"The enemy, be it Wilhelmite Germany, Hitler's Germany, or Soviet Russia, was depicted in Manichean terms and inflated rhetoric as the fountainhead of a global effort to wipe out democracy, civilization, and freedom."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

public schools in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh's school board announced a plan to close 20 public schools—including the middle school (Reizenstein) that the boy would probably attend—yesterday. It's interesting to be in a city that's contracting, where schools need to be closed because there just aren't the students. After years in New York, Texas, and California, I'm accustomed to schools having to import teachers from other states to cover the load. The wife and I have been debating or, better, musing over the question of public versus private schools for the boy. We get mixed reports on Pittsburgh public schools. I know that the city's magnet and talented-and-gifted programs are great, and that there are a ton of great teachers within the schools. We also hear that Pittsburgh also evidences the worst sins of big-city schools: time-killing teachers, unsafe facilities, bizarre incidents (last year, the principal of our chosen elementary school was killed by her husband), rote learning, teaching to the test... it's a tough choice.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

academic conferences

I spent the week in beautiful, sunny (at least until Saturday night) Chicago attending an academic conference. I've now been to twenty, twenty-five of these, and I'm trying to be more professional about things--stop treating these trips as partially expense-paid junkets to cool places, start attending more panels, meeting people in the field, taking advantage of conference discounts to buy books, etc. It's easier, definitely, to be more comfortable at these things now that I've got a job and am no longer scheming to land a slot with every waking moment.

Professional conferences are pretty common, but in talking to my wife and others I've discovered something interesting: in most, the primary activity is NOT sitting in small hotel assembly rooms for ninety minutes at a time while three professors sit and read from a piece of paper. This may be limited to the humanities, but I'm more and more amazed that this is standard practice. I just can't do it anymore. I won't give these kinds of papers anymore (I add on a rudimentary slide show or powerpoint, neither of which I do particularly well, and at this week's conference I couldn't even get the powerpoint to work because the hotel didn't have the right cable!). Some people do it well--my fellow-panelists, for instance, made their 20 minutes interesting. I just can't.

And now, I won't attend a panel that consists of people just reading. At this conference, I only attended panels that included slides, movies, music, etc. This had its drawbacks; I did have to see a film from 1898 of a man having his right leg amputated. But because the lights were off, nobody could see my expression. In those other kinds of panels, I embarrass myself by falling asleep.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

the spoils of victory

dinosaur 3
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
So you go to a house, knock on the door, and they give you candy. Why does this not happen every day?


dinosaur 1
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
mmmm.... dinosaur.