The Square Circuit

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

Monday, January 30, 2006

Pennsylvania Academic Freedom

State legislator Gib Armstrong hadn't been in this blog much recently, and I missed him. His Select Committee on Academic Freedom--the David Horowitz-inspired task force looking to root out "bias" in higher education, because of all of those liberal professors indoctrinating their students--met at the University of Pittsburgh back in November to investigate the climate here (Pitt's provost's presentation is available here), but what they turned up was... nothing. They did find out that Pitt faculty and staff went for Kerry over Bush like 9 to 1, but that on average these flaming liberals gave almost no money to their candidates. So, a wash, I'd say.

Earlier this month Armstrong took his road show to Temple University in Philadelphia. The turnout was much like it was at Pitt: sparse, with well-prepared administrators and AAUP representatives. Temple's outgoing president David Adamany reported that there had been no complaints of harassment, intimidation, retributive grading, or bias that had come through his office. The Temple NEWS added that "The only student scheduled to testify before the committee was Logan Fisher, a senior business major and vice-chairman of Temple's College Republicans. Fisher said professors have made him and friends of his feel awkward when voicing dissenting opinions during class. He read nearly a half-dozen anecdotes from anonymous students he said feared retribution for testifying, with most stories detailing professors degrading the Bush Administration, conservatives, or the Iraq war."

On the second day of testimony, Horowitz himself took the stand. Calling himself a "scary guy," Horowitz used no specifics in alleging pervasive liberal bias and a "climate" of political correctness, and talked 40 minutes beyond his deadline. (Desperate for publicity, Horowitz is a kind of Ann Coulter without the blond hair and friends on cable news shows.) In response, the Temple NEWS reported, "William E. Scheuerman, president of United University Professions at the State University of New York, and William Cutler III, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals, said unsubstantiated claims have been used to "hurl allegations" against professors who "live and die" by professional standards. "Horowitz's picture of higher education is as incorrect as it is insulting," Scheuerman said."

This committee has to finish its work by Nov. 30 and report back to the House. There are two more hearings planned before then.

What comes out from a close look at this farce, and what comes out when we compare Pennsylvania's experience to that of other states (Colorado, Florida) where Horowitz-inspired or -authored legislation (the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights") shows up is that it is autochthonous--it grows out of itself, nothing brought it into being. Armstrong has barely been able to produce ten complaints of bias or intimidation. It is, in the strictest possible sense, McCarthyism: loudly and self-righteously denouncing a threat whose actual existence is dubious. Even one of the committee members--Dan Surra, from Elk County--called the committee "a colossal waste of time" and "a resolution in search of a problem," and Rep Dan Frankel of Pittsburgh (my rep!) said that "for us to pretend there is widespread abuse going on is problematic."

And then, as any prof could tell you, the whole issue is foolish. Would that I could be so influential as to sway my students' political opinions! I can't even get them to do their reading when they know they have a quiz! If either Horowitz or Armstrong has actually met a prof that can produce that kind of lockstep obedience and ideological uniformity from his or her students, I'd like to bring that person here to teach me how to do it--I'd really like to figure out how to brainwash my freshmen to learn the difference between "its" and "it's". And as for grading students on what they believe, I challenge anyone to look at my grades or the grades of our first-year writing program and compare them to the political beliefs of the students--we have about a 3.0 average for the FYW classes (yeah, it's too high, I know) and I'd estimate that at least 50-60% of our students would self-identify as conservative, and less than 25% would self-identify as liberal.

In his often wordy but generally thoughtful blog, Penn State prof Michael Bérubé has posted a 5000-word response to this academic-freedom issue in Pennsylvania.

Friday, January 27, 2006


Because my sister has been good enough to come out here and take care of the boy, the wife and I are taking a weekend vacation, to nearby (and apparently quite nice) Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Apparently the restaurant Tari's has fantastic crab cakes. I'm looking forward to a good restaurant (although I did discover first-hand last night that downtown Pittsburgh's Trilogy is genuinely good, not just good-for-Pittsburgh). It's the first time we've ever left the boy for a night (and this will be two!) so we're a little apprehensive.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Support Your Nation! Advertise Santorum

In an address to the Centre County (PA) Republican Party, ol' Senator Santorum compared "serving your country" in a time of war with putting a Santorum for Senate bumper sticker on your car. No, he wasn't kidding. Here's the money quote:

"And yet we have brave men and women who are willing to step forward because they know what's at stake. They're willing to sacrifice their lives for this great country. What I'm asking all of you tonight is not to put on a uniform. Put on a bumper sticker. Is it that much to ask? Is it that much to ask to step up and serve your country?"

Video of this available here.

Monday, January 23, 2006

meet you in hell

I read, last week, a book of pop history that wasn't bad. Les Standiford's MEET YOU IN HELL: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America is an overview of the careers of Frick and Carnegie focusing on the men's personal and business relationship. The good about the book: it's vivid, it strives to give a fair portrait of each man (although I think Standiford comes down on a very wishy-washy "well, they did bad and good" standpoint), and it's pop history done well, that is, it keeps you reading. I tend to expect a little more rigor from history books--and it's not fair to judge this book by the standards of academic or scholarly writing--and I am suspicious of the Great Man theory of history, even of business history, that Standiford largely holds to. The problem with the book, if I were Standiford's editor, would have been that there is no shortage of biographies of Frick and Carnegie and that their personal relationship, while long and contentious, is essentially epitomized by Frick's handling of the Homestead Steel Strike. That historical event, of course, has been written about many times, by historians much more thorough than Standiford, and were I his editor I would have said "What are you going to say about this that hasn't already been said?" Standiford's book centers on Homestead; the first part is just a buildup to the narration of the strike, the middle an extended description of the strike (which is done well and vividly and uses first-person reports by both strikers and Pinkertons), and the last part of the book pretty much an extended "here's how Homestead affected these men's relationship." A good read, but a leisure read, certainly not (and nobody would mistake it for this) a primary source to consult on Homestead or on Frick or Carnegie.

I do now really need to take the tour of Clayton.

Friday, January 20, 2006

back in New Orleans

Check out this dispatch from a New Orleanian who has chosen to return home if you're wondering what life is like down there these days.

James Frey and Michel Foucault

I had my senior class read several articles (mostly from the New York TIMES but also the Smoking Gun's original exposé) about the James Frey controversy. The class largely felt that Frey was full of it--that he lied and that that makes his memoir invalid. Oprah's, and Frey's, defense that it told "emotional truths" and that only "5%" of the material was inaccurate/falsified didn't fly for them. I tend to fall into that camp, but maybe it's because I find Frey (and Elizabeth Wurtzel, for that matter) to be obnoxious publicity-seekers. (Plagiarism, as Wurtzel demonstrates, isn't an unforgivable sin--after she was caught plagiarizing in an article for the DALLAS MORNING NEWS, she landed jobs as NEW YORK magazine and even became a critic for the NEW YORKER.) But then I was rereading Foucault's "What Is An Author?" and Barthes' "From Work To Text" and "The Death of the Author", both of which I've always liked and kind of agreed with, and realized that it's impossible to both condemn Frey/Wurtzel for making things up and hold to Foucault's and Barthes' ideas. So I had the class read the essays to see what they thought.

After the preliminary explanation of the essays (which took a while--they're tough), I asked the students what they thought. Can we reconcile these apparently contradictory positions? Their responses were inconclusive--the French theorists made sense to them, but so did the commonsensical attitude they had toward Frey. For me, this really epitomizes one's initial response to "Theory" in general.

Monday, January 16, 2006

NYU grad student strike

It hasn't received much press above 14th St. or outside New York, but the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at New York University (the union representing graduate teaching assistants) has been on strike since last semester. In 2000, NYU officially recognized the GSOC as the representatives of the TAs and pledged to negotiate with them. But in 2004, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students are not employees and that universities are under no obligation to treat them as such. NYU responded by rescinding its recognition of the union and moving to cut salaries and health benefits. The GSOC went on strike on Nov. 9.

NYU's been playing hardball with the strikers, even as many faculty members have supported their TAs. (NYU also was the recipient of a petition, signed by over 6500 profs, urging Pres. John Sexton to negotiate.) Sexton said on Dec. 7 that striking TAs "will lose stipends and teaching assignments for the spring, though they will all retain their health benefits and tuition remission."

In his blog, the Penn State scholar Michael Bérubé has an open letter to Sexton appealing to the long-term reputation and health of the university's grad programs in his argument that Sexton should negotiate with the grad students. It's a cynical letter, and I have real problems with the way that Bérubé lauds NYU's wholescale adoption of the academic star system in its faculty hiring, but it's nice to see how many faculty members, most of whom were TAs themselves, support the TAs.

I understand very well that TAs are not employees in the most limited sense of the term--they are a kind of apprentice. However, as universities rely more and more on TAs and on part-time faculty to bear the burden of teaching first-year classes (in part because the academic star system has allowed so many new hires to get out of basic teaching, and in part because of cost-cutting at teaching-heavy institutions), they need to grant their TAs the recognition that they would grant other employees who perform similarly vital services.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Santorum changes mind again

Are the polls changing? Or did Cheney take the boy wonder to the woodshed? It's anyone's guess, but Senator Santorum yesterday strongly endorsed the Bush administration's view of the war in Iraq--and of the patriotism and responsibility of those who dare to question it. The media, of course, is at fault for any problems with the war--"I don't know of any other war in American history where every casualty -- every casualty -- was the headline," Santorum said. The war is crucial if we are to save "modern culture, Western democracy and the global economy." Is he referring to the $2 trillion the war is going to cost?

Other Santorum news: Conflict of interest?
"Sen. Rick Santorum, who has been tapped by fellow Senate Republican leaders to draft legislation tightening restrictions on lobbyists, has received more money from lobbyists than any other congressional candidate so far in the 2006 election cycle."

In the one good thing I could find about Santorum, he is going to deliver a $200,000 check to the Montour Trail Council to help in rebuilding the beautiful and well-used Montour Trail after the destruction of Ivan in 2004.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Justice Sunday III

And yes, Santorum shall provide... Sharing a stage with luminaries of the creepy right like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, Rick Santorum made an appearance at Justice Sunday III yesterday. Justice Sunday III, like its predecessor, was intended to rally support for the current Supreme Court nominee (this would've been Justice Sunday IV but they didn't throw Harriet Myers this particular party). It was held at a black church in Philadelphia. Santorum gave the red meat:

"[Our] freedom is at risk today because of the actions of liberal activists judges on the supreme court... Democrats on the judiciary committee seem poised to drag these hearings into the gutter so they can continue their far-left judicial activism on the supreme court."

Look, I know it's important to create an enemy for us to scream against. But seriously, "far-left" "liberal activist judges" on the Supreme Court? When was the last time one of THEM was seen? This is lamer than the War on Christmas.

The Post-Gazette ran an anti-Santorum editorial on Sunday--watered-down, but at least they're keeping track of his "flip-flopping."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Santorum and intelligent design

Backing away as fast as he can from his prior support of teaching "intelligent design" in schools (read those polls much, Rick?), Senator Santorum again weighed in on the Dover school board controversy. Notwithstanding the facts that in 2002 he specifically endorsed teaching intelligent design in school, that in a 2004 POST-GAZETTE editorial he "commended" Dover for adopting the policy, and that he sits on the board of the Thomas More Law Center, which defended Dover's school board in court, Santorum stated on Dec. 22 that he was "troubled" by the fact that school-board members were motivated by religion in their actions. Say what?

He got what he was probably looking for—the American Family Association now warns its members that they can't trust Santorum's conservative credentials. Come on. Look, he blamed Boston's liberals for the priests-abusing-children scandal:

''When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."

So I don't think he's going to lose the sympathies of the red-meat conservatives. But I suspect he's hoping that moderates HEAR that the American Family Association rejected him.

Monday, January 02, 2006

toy oven

toy oven
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
It was perhaps inevitable that, with two parents who love to cook and even to just read cookbooks, cooking would become a fascination for the boy. This toy oven--complete with frying and boiling sound effects--was just about his favorite toy.

uggs on Christmas morning

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
The boy's very hip aunt from L.A. (one of two answering to that description, actually) gave Uggs to grandma and grandpa. The boy had to try them out immediately.

spinach dip

spinach dip
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
at the day-care Christmas party.