The Square Circuit

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I worked for Kerry in 2004. I think the Bush/Cheney administration verges on being the worst in history, and is certainly the most dangerous for the long-term health of the nation's democracy. I think the Republicans are poisoning the political discourse of the country. Still, though, after the 2004 election I tended to dismiss the claims that the Bush/Cheney team "stole" the election, especially in Ohio, as half-baked conspiracy theorizing. Although I admired John Conyers for commissioning and distributing his "What Went Wrong in Ohio" report on election shenanigans (download it here), I thought it was overkill, a misrepresentative and out-of-context focus on the kinds of election problems that probably happen all the time.

No more. Last week I read Mark Crispin Miller's FOOLED AGAIN: HOW THE RIGHT STOLE THE 2004 ELECTION AND WHY THEY'LL STEAL THE NEXT ONE TOO (UNLESS WE STOP THEM), and I think I'm persuaded. Miller's book is well-documented and thorough, and although he does on occasion draw too-sweeping conclusions from some evidence, and isn't as careful as he should be to entertain and debunk alternate explanations for some incidents, this is a slight weakness in what is otherwise a very powerful argument that the Republicans have decided that cheating in elections must be done, and will be conducted at every level from precinct and county to the White House (as in the New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal). I'm afraid that the book, maybe just because of its vehement title, will get thrown in the Michael Moore/Al Franken/Sean Hannity/Anne Coulter bin, but it shares very little with those screeds. Miller is also not a great TV presence, unfortunately; he's got the angry unshaven rumpled professor thing down and I'm not sure that persona's going to change any minds.

He's also got a blog that's worth reading.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Well we didn't get to see the Wyeth exhibition, but we did manage to get in the Duchamp room, a bunch of the early modernist stuff I wanted to see, Grace Kelly's wedding dress, and the arms and armor rooms. All knights, in the boy's nomenclature system, fall under the category "bad guys." The mystical watercolor of William Blake, on the other hand, fell under the category "monsters." I suppose that's perceptive: the title of the illustration is "The Number of the Beast is 666."

Huge gratitude to the staff of the Rosenbach Museum. The museum itself is this amazing repository of such things as the first book published in what became the U.S. and the manuscript of Joyce's ULYSSES. I came in there with a soggy toddler who looks like he could do some serious damage to this well-preserved row house with period furnishings (oh, and Marianne Moore's living room, transported upstairs), and they were nothing but accommodating and sweet. They even lent the boy one of the stuffed Max dolls (from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE) from the gift shop. He chewed on Max's face through the docent tour, so we bought one. There is a Sendak room, as well. It's a strange yet appealing place, much like the Harry Ransom Center in the oddity of its collection and in its devotion to Joyce. The NEW YORK TIMES recently had an article about the place, which reminded me that I wanted to go there.

He was a real trooper today: three museums (the Rosenbach, the Phila Museum of Art, and the Franklin Institute, where he saw the bizarre and amazing "plastinated" flayed human bodies), and only an hour of dedicated running-around time. Of course, it rained hard all damn day, so he really only got to run around near the art museum and later, at the H&M at the Cherry Hill mall where his mother was shopping for stylish maternity clothing and where he discovered that hiding in the middle of circular display racks RULES.


My blogging compatriot Anne is now merchandising her blog, Creating Text(iles). Check it out.

philadelphia with a toddler

We're in Philly this weekend. Actually, we're in Cherry Hill, an important distinction for reasons detailed below.

This is our second driving trip to Philadelphia; the first was last February in a driving snowstorm. So the beautiful weather in Pennsylvania over the past few days was very promising. But that's over: a chilly wind blew in last night and we woke up to heavy rains (the forecast called for four inches in Reading!). So our plans to spend the day gallivanting around center city in a stroller are out.

Getting here was an adventure. For the second time, we got burned by Mapquest, whose directions for getting to central Philly were terrible. There's a split where the PA Turnpike (I-76 most of the way) becomes 276 and heads north of the city; Mapquest tells you to stay on 76 and exit at "exit 344." This is the second time I've done this drive, and there's just no Exit 344. So we ended up near Burlington, NJ, trying to find out way back to Philly. Then, once we got over the Ben Franklin Bridge and were on our way to Cherry Hill, the Mapquest fairy failed us again: the combination of confusing, poorly-signed NJ highways and inaccurate Mapquest directions caused us more lost time. Total: 90 minutes!

It was beautiful when we got here, though, so the wife went to her conference and the boy and I walked over to Cooper River Park and its stellar playground. There was also a crew meet going on and we actually ran into the crew team from my school and a former student of mine. Odd coincidence. In the evening we all went into the city to see the Franklin Institute's Bodyworlds exhibition, held over for a weekend and so popular that the museum is going to be open 24 hours all weekend so everyone can get in to see it. When we got there at 6pm, though, the line was for 9:30pm tickets: no way. So we're going today.

Trying to find a place to eat, we stumbled across Pico de Gallo on South Street. It's a BYOB place with excellent Mexican food (like a combination of a typical San Francisco burrito joint and a more ambitious Mexican restaurant), tiny little tables, and weak service. On a toddler-friendly scale I'd give it a 3 out of 10, but we're so desperate for good Mexican food that it was worth it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

two books on Neil Young

I read two books on Neil Young last week, in advance of the announcement that his new record will feature a song called "Impeach the President." First up was Kevin Chong's NEIL YOUNG NATION, which Chong calls "a quest, an obsession, and a true story." In it, Chong and his college slacker buddies (ten years after their heyday) drive Neil Young's "historic" route from Winnipeg to Toronto and down through the U.S. via Route 66 to L.A. Chong is a "Rustie," a member of the Internet-based Neil Young cult. It's an interesting project: he combines personal reflection, jokey asides on his travelling companions, reports on meetings with marginal figures from Young's past, and a good deal of biography.

It's that last that's problematic, because although Chong is likeable and funny I kept feeling that too much of his book was cribbed from other sources; that is, from Neil Young biographies. He doesn't pretend that he's doing any original research (except for meeting with those people from Young's past), but when I read Jimmy McDonough's SHAKEY: NEIL YOUNG'S BIOGRAPHY, I felt that a lot of the anecdotes that Chong retells come straight from McDonough, and often in very similar language and detail. If my students turned in work that was this close to its original sources I'd have them do it again and give them a stern lecture on academic integrity. (Chong has since gotten in touch with me to let me know that McDonough and he both took many of these episodes from John Einarson's book on Young's early years, DON'T BE DENIED.)

McDonough's book got a lot of publicity when it came out in 2002, including a NYT Books review by Rick Moody, and it deserves that attention--it's exhaustive, well-researched, and based on extensive contact with Young and his circle. McDonough does a great job of cataloguing the damage drugs did, and continue to do, to Young and his cohorts even when Young won't admit it. He's a perceptive reader of Young's lyrics and a fan of the Crazy Horse work above all. It's not a traditional biography, either; McDonough gets in on the act (fitting, because although Young commissioned this authorized biography he later tried to prevent McDonough from publishing it) and transcribes many of his interviews with Young directly. The prose is at best workmanlike and at times irritating: it feels like none of the hundreds of figures he talks about is introduced without a sentence beginning "Born in PLACE on DATE,..." (Chong also notes in his book that there are significant numbers of factual errors in McDonough.) But in the realm of rock biographies, in which workmanlike competence is still not something readers can take for granted, this is a pretty good one.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

pysanka at easter

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Our neighbors gave the boy some beautiful Polish pysanka eggs. He likes them but is still certain that there is a way to crack them open to get at the chocolate that's certainly inside.

in charge at easter

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Two younger kids came over to Easter egg hunt on Sunday. The boy took charge, "helping" them find eggs. After a bit of cajoling, he did turn a few of them over to his playmates.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

the PA senate race today

The WASHINGTON POST profiles the Pennsylvania Senate race today. Boiled down: Casey is cautious and will turn off the Dems' "base"; Santorum is going to have trouble because he's a right-wing kook, is identified strongly with Bush. But Santorum's a good campaigner.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Help me find a farmer!

After much thought, a very close and extended encounter with Eric Schlosser's FAST FOOD NATION, attention to Michael Pollan's new book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and a now-unavoidable concern about the industrialized production of food, I've decided that the wife and the boy and the soon-to-arrive boy and I are going to do our best to buy local, and organic if possible. No more 6.5 lb packages of frozen Tyson chicken breasts at Costco. No more Chilean grapes at Whole Foods. It's going to be more expensive (well, except for those Whole Foods grapes), but I just think we've got to do it.

So, I'd like some advice from Pittsburgh folks who know about community-based agriculture programs in the area. Our neighbors recommend The Kretschmann Farm, a friend advised Grow Pittsburgh, and I've often bought meats at the Kennedy Farms outlet at the East Liberty Farmers Market. We shop at the East End Food Co-Op on occasion, but the produce there isn't particularly local and damn, it's expensive.

But this is an agricultural area. There must be a ton of local outfits for produce and meats. Anyone else have any recommendations? Good experiences, bad? Should we have boxes of produce delivered weekly? Go out and pick it up?

Monday, April 10, 2006


I got sucked into Cormac McCarthy's latest novel, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, this weekend, and used it as an excuse to avoid grading papers. While living in Texas I fell for McCarthy, especially for his "Border Trilogy" of books about the Texas/New Mexico/Mexico badlands area, because just as I was reading them I was also starting to explore that vast and still remote area. McCarthy absolutely nails the landscape and the feel of it. I'm less confident swearing that he nails the people and the language as well, because I think that his portrayal of the men (always men) and the way they speak is appealing because I'd/we'd like to imagine our West Texans that way: laconic, folksy, witty, self-reliant, tough, accustomed to sudden violence. The plots of the books aren't much, but they just wash over you with their atmosphere and forward momentum.

His latest does the same thing, and although I was exhausted I stayed up an extra hour reading the first half of it. The novel takes place in 1980, a little later than most of his Texas books, but he's fixed upon a place where time doesn't signify exactly what it does in the rest of the country--well into the 1950s and 1960s it was assumed that most people in the area were quite familiar with horses, for instance, and with other implements that would have been typical for nineteenth-century folks, so the "Border Trilogy" exists in a kind of no-time. NO COUNTRY does a little bit of the same thing, but less of it. And that's the problem: it's just less of everything. It's a book largely about violence and its relentlessness, and in that sense it's much like his earlier book BLOOD MERIDIAN (the most violent book I've ever read, bar none), but unlike BLOOD MERIDIAN there's no grandeur to the story. NO COUNTRY is about a young man, a Vietnam vet, who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad while antelope hunting. He makes off with the cash but returns some time later and is spotted by survivors of the affair, who track him down and eventually (SPOILER) kill him. The book focuses on the hunter for the first part of the book, but then shifts its view to that of Sheriff Bell, the old lawman who is a relatively clichéd character (for McCarthy). And I just didn't care about him. The book trailed off for me; the interesting characters (Wells, the hunter, and Chigurh, the relentless killer) disappeared with about sixty pages to go.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

South Dakota and "academic freedom"

South Dakota's House Bill 1222, recently defeated, was one of now 14 successful efforts by the "academic bill of rights" people to get legislation through state houses. To ensure intellectual freedom, the "bill of rights" folks have enlisted the government to keep tabs on things. Pithily and with a concision I'd reward in my writing classes, here it is:

"The Board of Regents shall require each institution under its control to annually report to the Legislature detailing the steps the institution is taking to ensure intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas. For purposes of this chapter, intellectual diversity is defined as the foundation of a learning environment that exposes students to a variety of political, ideological,
and other perspectives."

I thought these folks were OPPOSED to government interference...

The American Association of University Professors has been great in terms of getting profs out to testify before legislatures and, in PA, at these phony "hearings" that Gib Armstrong's "Select Committee on Academic Freedom" has been holding. They've also got a very useful resource page for combating these campaigns and educating people about what really motivates them.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"academic freedom" nationally

Bring It On calls our attention to H.R. 609, the "College Access and Opportunity Act of 2005", which just passed Congress. It's a precursor bill, meant to prepare the way eventually for some version of Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights" that he's been peddling to various state legislatures. Claiming to just mandate "fairness" and to prohibit grading students according to their political beliefs (unobjectionable principles, those), the "Bill" is truly intended to establish a quota system for hiring academics because, in Horowitz's view, academia is too liberal. Stanford's Graham Larkin, writing for the American Association of University Professors, provides a compelling argument against this Trojan horse idea here.

Monday, April 03, 2006

PA Academic Freedom: the hearings continue

Moving on into conservative Lancaster Country from the Democratic bastions of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the traveling road show known as the Select Committee on Academic Freedom held hearings last week at Millersville University in Lancaster--home to Rep. Gib Armstrong, sponsor of the bill authorizing this committee.

In its first two sets of hearings (at the University of Pittsburgh and at Temple University), the committee heard from administrators, students, and faculty at each university. This testimony identified no instances of violations of what Armstrong's committee mistakenly calls "academic freedom." ("Academic freedom" is a term referring to academics' liberty to study and write and teach about any topic without interference from outside authorities, while this committee should be more accurately described as searching out biased teaching, ideological policing, and indoctrination.) In order to "balance" these hearings--that is, in order to make it seem like there is a problem when they can't find anyone on campus who'll attest to it--the Committee has brought in outside voices: Emory U.'s Mark Bauerlein at Millersville, and the indefatigable David Horowitz at Pitt.

Millersville U. President Francine G. McNairy denied that this bias is a problem at her campus. According to the Lancaster New Era,

"McNairy said students “do not have the right to remain free from encountering uncomfortable or inconvenient questions.” McNairy also said Millersville has had few student complaints about academic freedom. “I do not see that we have a problem with academic freedom,” McNairy said. “This has not been an issue raised by students, and, trust me, students are not shy.”"

The paper also talked to the members of the committee, who are wearying of a committee that was supposed to investigate whether a problem existed but whose mission took it for granted that the problem did exist.

"At the close of the 11 hours of testimony, most members of the committee said they found little evidence that such liberal bias exists. And whatever problems might exist would be tough to cure via legislation anyway, they said.

With three of four public hearings completed, Republican state Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong, who spearheaded House Bill 177, which paved the way for the hearings, still held strong that biases do exist and that they have been documented. However, even Armstrong's fellow committeemen seemed weary of looking for them.

"I've seen classes in colleges about Marxism, but I can't imagine there's a class at Temple (University) indoctrinating students on Marxist ideology," Democrat Rep. Dan B. Frankel of Allegheny County said Thursday. "I'd like to see evidence that classes are being taught in that manner. Anyway, it's been a long day."

Some educators who testified Thursday took exception to having to defend themselves in a forum that, by the committee members' own admission, assumed from the outset that professors use the classroom to indoctrinate students to left-wing politics under the guise of education."

Although he has continued to fail to uncover evidence of bias, much less of pervasive bias and of students being punished for their views, in any of his hearings, Armstrong continues to insist that students come to him "privately" to complain of it.

In the same article, a student identified the real problem here:

"Several students spoke Thursday about political views expressed by their professors but qualified their testimony by saying they expect debate in the classroom and they hadn't encountered discrimination because of their views. They also said free speech should not be curbed in classrooms. One student, who identified himself as a conservative Republican, said he has been in classes where it was conservative professors who "pushed" their political ideas, making students uncomfortable."

I've noticed, over ten years of teaching in colleges, that students are less concerned with being indoctrinated and are more worried about just plain "bias," feeling that there is somehow some absolutely neutral, objective way to present information. Of course, there are the egregious exceptions--the biology teacher showing FAHRENHEIT 9/11 in class, for example--but for the most part students of any political stripe start to get uncomfortable when they sense that a teacher is being overt with his/her opinions. What students perceive as "bias," I'm concerned, is just the unavoidable coloring of our speech and choices of examples by our points of view. And I've never met a teacher who isn't up-front about this, who doesn't provide a disclaimer about it. Nobody I've ever talked to or supervised hasn't agonized about this issue and bent over backwards to be completely "objective" and "unbiased" in the important things: choice of class materials, range of acceptable opinions and stances, and most importantly grading.

Coverage of these hearings from the Millersville University student paper is available here.