Monday, February 25, 2008

Adult Supervision

Does a delegate go to a political convention to lead? To represent? To decide?

I had always thought their task was to represent and, based on that, to decide. After all, the very word “delegate” itself implies a transfer of power, a representation—and not duties of leadership. In today's New York Times, however, Geraldine Ferraro tells me that I'm wrong. At least, I'm wrong in relation to the so-called “superdelegates.” In her view, they are essentially different from mere delegates:

But the superdelegates were created to lead, not to follow. They were, and are, expected to determine what is best for our party and best for the country. I would hope that is why many superdelegates have already chosen a candidate to support.

Ferraro justifies this through a paternalist argument: We let you try it on your own, but you messed up so badly in 1980 that we had to step in a straighten things out. We are the adults, and know what is best for you and the party. Besides, we understand the big picture that you children just don't get:

Besides, the delegate totals from primaries and caucuses do not necessarily reflect the will of rank-and-file Democrats. Most Democrats have not been heard from at the polls. We have all been impressed by the turnout for this year’s primaries — clearly both candidates have excited and engaged the party’s membership — but, even so, turnout for primaries and caucuses is notoriously low. It would be shocking if 30 percent of registered Democrats have participated.

So, the superdelegates are going to make up for that lack of participation, representing those who didn't vote?

Yeah, right.

Besides, you can't have it both ways. In the first quote, Ferraro, you are saying that the superdelegates are supposed to be making the decisions. In the second, you imply that they are there to represent the unrepresented (circumventing, by the way, our system's use of voting, and not polling, for elections).

When people set themselves up as leaders, they have to either convince their constituency that they know better and will make the best decision—or convince them that they will carry out programs the people have already decided they want. In a convention situation, the “leaders” are specifically tasked with representing constituencies, not with developing new programs.

Even so, the superdelegates aren't about leadership at all. In fact, the convention isn't about leadership. Yes, we are deciding who our leaders are through the process, but the superdelegates and the convention are about that process, and about control of it. By a sleight-of-hand that wasn't noticed until this year (for its results had never been significant). The Democratic Party assured, with the creation of the superdelegate system, that what looks like a process where the voters decide isn't that at all. Now we see that, rather than making our own decision, we're still under “adult”supervision.

And I don't like that at all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mangling the Truth

[Cross-posted from Free Exchange on Campus.]

One of the greatest insults to the American system of governance, a system based on open discussion and debate, is the deliberate lie. Yet the lie has been with us since the beginning—the rise of the concept of “objectivity” in journalism, in fact, occurred as a rejection of pervasive bias and lie in political discourse. The lie has to be constantly fought. It may never go away but, if allowed to continue unchecked, it will grow and destroy us.

One of the peculiarities of the lie is that those who use it most are loudest to scream that they are lied about, taking advantage of the necessity of combating lies as a smokescreen for promulgating them. David Horowitz's Front Page Magazine, for example, provides a constant stream of accusations of lying (the most recent being this) while publishing articles so filled with outright distortions and lies that they would make Stephen Glass (the “reporter” who made up stories published in The New Republic and subject of the movie Shattered Glass) blush.

One recent example is “Standing Up for Academic Freedom,” an article over the byline of Phil Orenstein that appeared on January 22nd.

Rather than pointing out each and every lie and distortion in the article, I will focus today on only a few. First, though, I want to write a bit about the intent, the reason for the lies.

One of the drumbeats of the right against higher education these days is the canard that the professors are trying to indoctrinate their students. The idea is that the faculties are deliberately keeping conservative viewpoints out of the classroom. The reason for this campaign is that universities remain one important arena of American life yet to come under right-wing domination. If enough fear can be created about indoctrination, state legislatures can be convinced to pass laws bringing classroom behavior under their control.

As there is no evidence that indoctrination is happening, in order to keep up the campaign the right has had to invent it, taking the occasional anecdote about professorial behavior and blowing it up into everyday occurrence and, when the anecdote isn't really strong enough, embellishing it to the point where the professor's conduct appears outrageous.

One of the many who have come under such attack is John Gerassi, a professor at Queen's College, whom I wrote about in 2006. Another is the subject of that recent article, Anthony Gronowicz, an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Social Sciences department at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).

Among many other charges, Orenstein claims that:

Professor Gronowicz was summoned to appear before a peer review board. His classroom conduct was reviewed and as a result, he was demoted from a full time professor to adjunct status and given only one class assignment.

Gronowicz was brought up before no “board.” And Gronowicz was not “demoted.” He had received a short-term full-time appointment that was not renewed, returning him to his previous adjunct status. This is a common occurrence at CUNY (the system BMCC is part of), providing administrations needed flexibility in meeting coverage needs. Finally, Gronowicz was not “given” just a single class: the others he had been assigned did not carry—that is, enrollment was too small for the college to justify running them.

The core lie in the article, though, has to do with the experience of one student in Gronowicz's class in the fall of 2005—an experience that, for some reason, was not publicized until the end of 2007, two years later. According to Orenstein, the student (Aaron Haberer) saw:

his grades gradually plummet to an “F”.... When Aaron realized the poor grades he was receiving were a direct result of expressing his firm belief in the righteousness of American government and his religious principles, he reported Gronowicz to another professor. This professor advised him about his academic rights and helped him file a formal complaint. Some of his fellow classmates likewise filed complaints when Aaron urged them to do so. Aaron fought for almost an entire semester and finally his grade was raised to one that he felt he deserved.

According to Gronowicz, there was no formal complaint. For privacy reasons, he would not comment directly on the student's grade other than to say that Orenstein's depiction is completely erroneous.

Whatever grade Haberer did receive, Orenstein's statement at the beginning of the article, then, is a complete fabrication:

Aaron Haberer... received a failing grade for disputing his professor’s virulent anti-America, anti-religious demagoguery in the classroom. Aaron’s story is an example of the type of flagrant abuses of student academic rights that increasingly typifies much of the college experience today.

Where is the evidence Haberer received an F? Not having talked to the professor or other students in the class (who rated Gronowicz highly), Orenstein takes from thin air (or student pique) the accusation that Haberer's grade rested on his political attitude. He offers no defense for this statement and would be hard-pressed to do so, especially since Gronowicz has preserved the exams and grade sheets from the course—documentation that Orenstein's claim is preposterous. Also, Orenstein presents no evidence at all that Haberer's so-called “experience” “typifies” anything that happens in any classroom. He relies only on the unsupported word of one student. There is nothing in what he writes that remotely proves that what he imagines happened to Haberer ever really happens at all.

Looking up Gronowicz on, I found this:

Dr. Granowicz is a very intelligent teacher and a great guy. Though his views are stridently liberal, he's happy to debate you if you disagree and does not hold it against you. If you do the work and take notes, you will do well. He's very laid back and quite funny too.

At least one student disagrees with the Orenstein depiction completely. In fact, I saw no indication that any student felt Gronowicz lets politics get in the way of fairness in grading.

Towards the end of his article, Orenstein writes that:

Aaron feels that no student should have to go through the lengthy process he endured merely to get a fair grade based upon his course work, not upon political opinions or religious beliefs.

Nowhere in the article does Orenstein detail this “lengthy process” that Haberer “endured.” In fact, according to Gronowicz, there was no such process. The student took the course, received a grade, and that was it.

There's much more in this article that would fall under the category of “egregious attempts at deception,” but they hardly warrant response. The point here is that truth has fallen victim, once again, to desire for political gain.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Democrats: "Now Is the Time to Come to the Aid of the Party"

Let me start with this: I am no fan of Hillary Clinton. Her husband does look a little better in retrospect and by comparison to his successor, but I never really liked him all that much. His “triangulation” seemed to look more to personal than national success. And I see much the same in his wife.

On the other hand, Barack Obama exudes an aura of inclusion, that he's for all of us, not simply looking to his own advancement. But he's still a politician, however, and winning will always be his goal.

That said, I will be supporting whichever of them earns the Democratic Party's nomination—as long as they both keep in mind that it matters more that a Democrat get elected in November than which Democrat. As long as they don't participate in what Frank Rich today (echoing Roger Wilkins) says may be “a flashback to the Democratic civil war of 1968.”

We saw enough of that nonsense in South Carolina.

It's up to us grassroots members of the party to make sure this civil war doesn't happen. The politicians—even Obama—will fall into it, if they think it can bring them immediate victory. If, on the other hand, negative campaigning in the primaries backfires, as it has been doing, it will stop happening. There will be no point in continuing to drive stakes between constituencies if doing so reduces popularity, as it should. Rich writes:

Last month a Hispanic pollster employed by the Clinton campaign pitted the two groups [African-Americans and Hispanics] against each other by telling The New Yorker that Hispanic voters have “not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

It should be made clear to the Clinton campaign that such deliberate attempts to divide are unacceptable. If Obama's people do anything similar, they should hear the same message. On NPR this morning, Liane Hansen tried to push questions of a racial divide, trying to make this an issue. Obama demurred... and we Democrats should make sure he continues to, and should make interviewers like Hansen realize that we see this as a trumped-up issue and not what should be the core of questioning.

Today, we have two candidates most all Democrats are willing to accept. That puts us in the best position, as a party, we've been in for years. Most of us in the grassroots are, right now, more interested in victory than in which Democratic candidate is smiling on election day in November. To ensure that, we are going to have to lead our leaders, to push them away from their natural focus on their own focus to understanding that it is the victory of the party that needs to be foremost for all of us.

Yes, I am not the first to say this, but it is going to take a constant drumbeat from the grassroots to keep the candidates in line. Frank Rich, who seems to believe there will be a Democratic civil war (and all of the Republicans who gleefully anticipate it), do not have to be right. Not if we, the people, insist that no such war take place.

We have the power to direct this campaign, and the obligation to use it.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Authoritarian, Horowitz

[Cross-posted from Free Exchange on Campus]

One thing about accusations of lying: They are an excellent way of diverting attention from what had been the issue at hand. Add a little outrage at the 'insult,' and it's rare that focus ever returns to the issue at hand.

Addressing Jacob Heilbrunn (author of the new book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons), who had recently been interviewed (subscription required) in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Horowitz once again shows his skill at avoiding the issue, writing:

I am appalled and bewildered that you would so misrepresent what I have written and said, and falsely portray me as an "authoritarian" for trying to goad professors into presenting more than one side of issues that are controversial.

A competent propagandist, Horowitz knows how to slip things by. Start with high dudgeon and accusation of bad behavior, then add on an inaccurate and short portrayal of what you have done that led to criticism in the first place. Then the original question—your own action—gets forgotten.

Most often.

Horowitz's depiction of his campaign against public universities as simply an attempt to open up debate is laughable. It's a smokescreen for a pernicious agenda meant to help wrest control and give it to politicians. The proof for that is in the action: Horowitz focuses on legislatures, not classrooms. Were he really concerned about what goes on in the classroom, he would place his attention there. His goal is control within the political arena, so that's where his eyes turn.

In his letter to Heilbrunn, Horowitz writes:

it is outrageous of you to accuse me of "trying to establish an authoritarian system in which professors are sedulously monitored for their political beliefs." On what basis can you make this absurd claim? I have explicitly stated that professors have a right to their views and specifically to their "bias," even if it is a leftwing bias.

Here again, Horowitz is playing his little game, pretending there is a contradiction between a belief that professors can “have” views and the type of monitoring and control he advocates. More significantly, the monitoring of the classroom that Horowitz's campaign advocates presupposes an ability on the part of politicians to determine what issues are controversial, what constitutes a “side” on an issue, and when presentation of ideas slips over the line and becomes indoctrination. Due to the nature of the political creature, all such determinations are going to be made with an eye to things far beyond education, effectively strait-jacketing public institutions, turning them into just the sort of indoctrination mills Horowitz claims to want to avoid. Horowitz knows this, but doesn't want to face it, or argue it—he simply wants to institute it, though he knows full well that such control goes against the grain of the basic American vision of liberty and choice. So, he pretends outrage when someone points out exactly what he is trying to do.

The charge of indoctrination against our universities leveled by the likes of Horowitz is really a red herring, anyhow. Our universities are structured in such a way as to make indoctrination all but impossible. The real concept of academic freedom (and not Horowitz's perversion of it) insures independence of thought for professors and the structure of our institutions makes it highly unlikely that students will fall under the sway of any one professor or group of professors (each student, after all, takes classes from up to 40 professors for a BA or BS). There are plenty of problems with our universities, but the threat of indoctrination, for all the ballyhoo, is not one of them.

As always, protection of freedom of thought rests in the institutions, not in the individuals. In fact, the institutions, both political and educational, were created with this understanding in mind. In those cases where authoritarian structures have developed, it is always the case that the institutions gave ground to individuals and individual judgments. The type of oversight Horowitz wants to see promotes just that, for it is based on the assumption that the institutional structure isn't sufficient, that individual political judgment should trump it.

And that, no matter how angry Horowitz may get when it is pointed out to him, is an authoritarian approach.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

"It's Just Like Watching the Detectives"

A slow learner (to borrow from Thomas Pynchon), only recently have I begun to connect the understanding I have gained over the last decades about movies with my developing practices in teaching. Obtuse, I hadn’t recognized how directly the former was influencing the latter. In fact, it wasn’t until last fall, when I once again heard someone use the tired old saw, “I saw a lot of teaching going on, but very little learning,” that I began to grasp the obvious: Watching and learning are not necessarily different activities. And one can't always "see" learning.

On returning to teaching in 2001, I quickly found myself uncomfortable with the pattern of small activities in the classroom that had prevailed since I had first taught in the late 1970s. Three things bothered me: First, the tasks seemed (of necessity) pre-digested. That is, there was little to do, ensuring completion within the allotted time. Second, results were obvious and quantifiable, as though learning only happened when measured (shades of the No Child Left Behind morass that was to come). And, third, as a result, there was no room for grappling with the truly momentous concepts that students face for the first time in just about every course they take. I felt like I would if I were trying to teach film through use of That’s Entertainment only, clips from here and there that, to someone with some grounding in the Hollywood musical, could stimulate one to explore films not yet seen but that, to someone with no experience in the genre, would probably leave one with no motivation… and the sense that one has learned all one needs through the spoon-feeding, anyhow.

In an odd way, I sensed, the desire to make our students more active was actually leading them to be more passive, more accepting that the pap they were served for sampling constituted a full meal.

The idea that sitting and watching is necessarily passive came to the fore half a century ago. With the rise of television arose the idea of the viewer as a passive receptacle, an idea that continued on through the 1970s, though some, like Marshall McLuhan, had by then begun to reject it, coming to realize that the act of viewing, while physically passive, has active elements. Others, like Northrup Frye [transposition spotted by Rodger corrected], could not break out of the trap, and extended the passive-viewer conception from the screening room to the classroom:

The educational problem… resolves itself into one of turning the passive viewer into an active one, and this process should begin as early as possible in childhood…. The passive viewer has to be increasingly stimulated: he gets bored or desensitized quickly, and so there must be a continual escalation of ferocity…. The television set is a curiously ghostly medium: in our day, if we see ghosts or hear ghostly voices in the air, it means that somebody has left the television on. But the passive viewer’s whole world is equally spectral: he cannot distinguish fact from fiction either on the screen or off it. He may see the most terrible even take place on the street before his eyes, but he will not lift a finger even to call the police. Nothing is really happening. –Northrup Frey, “Violence and Television,” remarks at a symposium on television violence at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario in 1975 and reprinted in Northrup Frey on Modern Culture (162)

And, yes, there was a lot of soul searching after the death of Kitty Genovese in 1964—witness Phil Ochs’ song “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”—but to blame lack of response on viewing… well, that goes a little far. We’ve all seen people jump from their couches into furious activity, when the need arose.

Once, years ago, a student wrote on an evaluation: "He didn't do any teaching. He made us do all the work." I was proud of that. It proved that I had made the students active. Now I wonder if the student didn't have a point.

There are, of course, different types of learning. And students, sometimes, need to learn actively. But they can also learn through the viewing of "teaching"—and probably should. In fact, in terms of motivation and direction, students need to learn in both ways, and more. Otherwise, they never learn to think.

Probably the most influential film scholar of the past quarter century is David Bordwell. Certainly, he has colored my thinking on film, leading me to apply my interest in culture and context to the movies I watch and consider. Unbeknownst to me, he has also colored my attitude towards teaching. He writes:

Comprehension and interpretation… involve the construction of meaning out of textual cues. In this respect, meaning-making is a psychological and social activity fundamentally akin to other cognitive processes. The perceiver is not a passive receiver of data but an active mobilizer of structures and processes (either “hard-wired” or learned) which enable her to search of information relevant to the task and data at hand. In watching a film, the perceiver identifies certain cues which prompt her to execute many inferential activities—ranging from the mandatory and very fast activity of perceiving apparent motion, through the more “cognitively penetrable” process of constructing, say, links between scenes, to the still more open process of ascribing abstract meanings to the film. In most cases, the spectator applies knowledge structures to cues which she identifies within the film. –David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (3)

If the viewer is provided only small bits, then asked to work with them, that viewer will never be able to make the inferences necessary for an understanding of the whole.

Again, there is a place for the small, focused activity. But there is also a need for the sweeping view, the receiving of lots more information than one can consciously assimilate and deal with at the time, but that gives one a sense of a whole.

Yes, there is this need.

There's only one problem (and it applied to movies and television, too): We can't enthrall everyone. Even the best lecturer leaves some listeners cold… as does every movie and TV show. Someone in the back is always nodding off.

If nothing else, devising little tasks does stop that.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Helplessly Hoping

[The above is the marketplace in Dapaong, Togo--probably in 1990.]

One of the legacies of colonial rule in Africa is the modern nation-state. Before the European colonists imposed their preconceptions on Africa, there were no “countries,” as we in the West know them. Instead, there were areas of influence and prerogative, borders being gray areas of negotiation and understanding often without specific geographic delineation. With fairly light population, there was room for everyone.

That, of course, has changed. Kenya's population, for example, grew from around a million and a half to thirty million in the twentieth century. If the United States had grown at the same pace over the same period, it would now be home to a billion and a half people.

When the European colonists carved up Africa, they didn't give a fig for local ethnic divisions. They imposed rule based on their own needs and competitions with absolutely no consideration of the administrative structures (which they did not even recognize) that had been in place before their arrival. The only use made of ethnic differences was internal: One group in a particular colony was sometimes raised up above the others to serve the needs of colonial administration.

At independence, it was somehow believed that all the Africans in a particular locality would immediately become Kenyans, or Ugandans, or Senegalese, or Congolese. Somehow, the rulers in the West, who dominated world diplomatic discussions and formed its assumptions, believed that it was possible to don a national identity while making ethnic identity some sort of undergarment, known to the wearer but not often seen by others—and important, really, only to the wearer.

The new countries, though, had done very little to warrant allegiance. The ruling classes were generally from the groups that had been rewarded for doing the bidding of colonial overseers. Or grew from the group that came to dominate the military. The national governments rarely became vehicles for the promotion of the welfare of all the people; more often they were cash cows for the elite of whichever group had managed to grab power.

This might not have been so dangerous, were there room and resources for all. But that is not the case, and people from different groups have had to compete for a dwindling share of the pie even as their numbers have grown. As a result, we have seen ethnic strife in (off the top of my head) Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, Nigeria, Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, and now Kenya—all within the last twenty years. And there has been much more. Did I mention Mauritania? Angola? Niger? Chad? The list goes on.

The nation state, as a concept, has failed Africa. It was imposed from without for reasons that had nothing to do with African populations, so this shouldn't be surprising.

Question is, what do the Africans do now? Killing each other isn't going to solve their problems. But the leaders of the continent are exactly those with most to lose if the current system is changed, for they are the ones benefiting from it while the majority of the people suffer. And the outsiders who really caused the problem in the first place aren't going to be welcome as developers of a solution.

So what's going to happen?

I have no idea. I simply watch in horror as problems identified years ago grow worse each year, feeling helpless.

Still, I hope, for I have seen the abilities and flexibilities of Africans... and know they could pull together a solution, if anyone can.