A Dedication to the Basket of Deplorables Riding on the Trump Train

Or any Trump voters, really:

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False Consciousness

This fall, for the first time, adjunct faculty where I teach are working under a Collective Bargaining Agreement. For the past couple weeks, and into next week, my local President and I have been attending adjunct faculty orientation sessions, introducing them to their new workplace rights and responsibilities, as well as to the benefits of union membership. I don’t do a “hard sell” but I do push union membership over fair share status.

In doing these sessions, there have been few overtly hostile responses. Mostly, it’s involved questions about the new evaluation procedures and processes. There are the occasional responses that leave me a bit nonplussed. For example, we’ve worked in what I believe to be strong intellectual property protections. Included among these are the notion that a faculty member’s class organization and individualized syllabus material (as opposed to the required information the College wants on syllabi), and the materials they produce for it, belong to the instructor and not the college. Although we may use the college’s learning management system as a “home base” in online courses, the way we choose to organize those courses and the materials we upload into the system belong to us. Anyway, I had someone angry they didn’t have access to a canned course and wouldn’t be compensated for preparing their own. This is not someone I expect to last long. Perhaps it’s someone who shouldn’t last long.

That’s not the point of the post, nor of its title, though. That’s captured in a conversation I had at the end of a session for nursing adjuncts:

Nurse: I was in a union when I worked at [Hospital]. I didn’t think it was worth it….I just want to be clear, you’ll be taking 1% of my pay?

Me: Or .8137% if you retain a fair share relationship and don’t join.

Nurse: I just hate to waste that money.

Me: I don’t think of it as wasting your money. After all, we negotiated a contract that has employment protections you’ve never had before.

Nurse: Oh, I don’t need those protections. I’m good at my job and I’m respected. It’s really sad that I’ll probably have to quite over this.

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“I’m going to kill you, faggot.”

It was a voice on the answering machine. Reported it to the campus police, and they could trace a phone number, but it was a semi-public line and no person could be connected to it. It was dropped.

That was the first personal death threat, while I was an undergraduate. Those have been, thankfully, few and far between. Street harassment, being driven out of a bar by calls of “we hate faggots,” having waitstaff at an LGBT conference don latex gloves to serve us, having customers complaint to management about the gay cashier (me), having fast food workers remove a full ketchup container after a couple of us homos used it, having relatives intentionally ignore  a long-term relationship…

…things come rushing back in moments like this.

It’s always lurking, and you know it’s there because you’ve experienced it before.

But, you’re alive. You feel lucky that it was only harassment or threats or those latex micro-aggressions. You’re alive and your body has not been ravaged. The fear may arise, the knowledge that you can’t pass. But, you’re alive to remember the hatred and the hurts, to witness the violence. To proclaim that not only are you alive, but that we matter.

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Kill the #NerdProm

I despise the White House Correspondents Dinner. Perhaps this is because I despise the DC political-entertainment complex.

Every year, media personalities who call themselves journalists hang out with media personalities from film and television, and media personalities who call themselves politicians. Let’s just start straight off: these motherfuckers don’t deserve a red carpet, and their embrace of celebrity is a disgrace to the profession they claim as their own. #NerdProm is a worthless pseudo-event, the creation of an entertainment complex using celebrity “journalists” as the focus of attention. It puts the lie to the idea that the political press are challenging power, and instead focuses attention on how they are licking power’s boots.

I was thinking about this in the context of Larry Wilmore’s performance this weekend. It was hilariously awkward. Like Steven Colbert several years ago, he took the piss out of the room. Both men brought unwelcome reality into a room that wanted desperately to absolve itself of the responsibility for failing to actually cover that reality. Both men uncovered the flaccid nakedness of the room.

These people deserve to be slapped down, especially when they are celebrating themselves. They have abandoned “speaking truth to power” and “afflicting the comfortable” in favor of stenography, disaster porn, and fluffing the rich and powerful.

One of the best jokes of the night was when the President said Jake Tapper left journalism for a gig at CNN. Wilmore was far too kind to Don Lemon. For fuck’s sake, Chris Matthews is still babbling about “Reagan Democrats,” not noticing that they’re all elderly Republicans or dead by now. These are very stupid, very shallow people.

The political-entertainment complex should be ashamed of itself, not celebrating itself. But, hey, Trump is good for the bottom line, if not the nation. So fluff away, Morning Joe, fluff away. Next year, though, try and make the #NerdProm correspond with the AVN Awards. Everyone will feel right at home.

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Happy International Workers’ Day!

On my way to a union contract ratification meeting this afternoon, which seems a particularly appropriate way to spend time with some of my union brothers and sisters today. Also thinking about this performance of a classic union song, Bread and Roses, from the movie Pride.:

Our lives shall not be sweetened
From birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies
Give us bread but give us roses

A key feature in some forms unionism hasn’t just a living wage to support a family, but also work that contributes to a meaningful life. That’s part of where a limitation to the employer’s control over life comes in. We are more than our jobs, and our humanity is not reducible to our employment. Art, music, criticism, entertainment, dining, communing with our fellows, these “roses” are a necessary part of life. They are due to workers, and our employment should provide us with the means to sustain not only our bodies, but our minds and souls. Mere survival is never enough.


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This thing called life

I spent this morning in tears. That was surprising to me. Prince died yesterday, and, while the news had stunned me, it had not left me distraught, as it had a colleague. I spent the afternoon and evening listening to The Current’s programming, as it was the closest Minnesota connection I had, and it was playing nothing but Prince. It was powerful, but it was more about the quality of the music. Even if a clunker appeared–and even geniuses produce clunkers–it would be followed by a song that reveled in its shear…well…Prince-ness. The man’s brilliance was on full display, and I savored every minute of it. While I wish I’d been in Minneapolis to join the throngs at First Avenue, it was a sad yet satisfying evening.

This morning, though, I lost my shit. Perhaps it was the initial shock wearing off. Maybe it was a bit more time for reflection. It could even have been a lingering sense of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Whatever it was, my emotions were raw and overwhelming. I felt a deep, painful sense of loss.

I’m not the music fan many other people are. I don’t memorize lyrics, collect albums, immerse myself in the technical and production qualities of various recordings, or the trajectories of careers. It’s not that I’m incapable, it’s that I’m too lazy to expend that much energy on it. I’m not motivated enough to be a “true fan.” All the same, I have training in music (and even a bachelor’s degree) and a wide appreciation for technical skill and innovation in a variety of genres. My knowledge tends to be broader than it is deep. I enjoy and appreciate without devotion or attention.

While I have a general appreciation, there are times in life when certain music, and musicians, have particular meaning and importance. We connect experience and music. I will always associate Alice Coltrane with living in Boston, and Turiya and Ramakrishna with driving on a lonely urban throughway in the rain. Hearing Closer will bring me back to a Minnesota dance floor, my teeth clenched to a friend’s neck. Prince brings me back to high school.

Many of us look back to our teenage years with a sense of nostalgia. This nostalgia may not be universally positive. Those years were painful for many of us. I never quite felt like I fit in in high school. It may have been my proto-(0r-pre)-queerness, but it may have been other things. I just wasn’t a match with the town, and I couldn’t wait to escape. However, despite the pain and awkwardness, there is nostalgia. Those years were also formative. We remember those things that shaped us.

Prince comes in here two ways. The first may seem superficial, but it is present nonetheless. I went to high school in Minnesota in the 1980s. Prince was from Minnesota. Prince was high school.  It seems a bit strange for someone whose work was so firmly rooted in various black musical traditions to have come from such a white state. But, even in the whitest regions of that state, he was one of ours. Shit, he showed the world we Minnesotans could be cool, even funky.

A caveat may be in order here: this was true for us teens. It probably wasn’t for our parents, who were more likely to be listening to Tipper Gore.

This brings me to the second, and probably more important point, and this is particularly related to feeling like an outsider in a small, rural Minnesota town. Prince was weird. And, Prince didn’t just make it OK to be weird, Prince made weird fantastic. Others can write about his blurring of gender and sexuality, his music’s powerful female eroticism and liberating raunch, the racial mixing his bands and audiences, his genre-fucking musical experimentation, or his instrumental virtuosity and technical production skills. Let them, and let us appreciate all of these things. Whatever. He was a freak. He was weird. And he was goddamned amazing.

Pop music has long been a space for the of expression for youth sexuality. He, like the recently lost Bowie, took those expressions and blended the fuck out of them, making them accessible to wider audiences.  Even outsider audiences. And, we in those audiences found meaning in the artists and their work. Prince rocked our world. He made it just a little bit easier to be weird in places that highly valued conformity.

Losing Prince didn’t just mean losing a musical genius, although the loss there is significant. Losing Prince meant losing someone who helped make living weird lives a fantastic experiment. He made being a freak a possibility. The loss really feels a bit like losing part of one’s self, a part that helped to make getting by a little more funky.

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A Problem with the Privatization of Public Higher Education

Last weekend, I attended the annual AFTPa Higher Education Conference. Of course, the Supreme Court’s recent Friedrichs decision was a primary focus, but there were a number of interesting conversations about local issues across the Commonwealth and the status of relevant legislation in Harrisburg. In a panel discussion about the future of community colleges in Pennsylvania, one fleeting comment caught my attention.

In a presentation about the changes she had seen in a particular community college, a retired faculty member talked about the increased recruitment of international students for the purpose of generating revenue. She fleetingly mentioned a private company that the college had contracted with to provide recruitment and “support” services, bringing international (primarily Chinese, it seems) students to the college and providing “coaching,” “advising” and “transfer” services oriented toward helping them transfer to four-year institutions.

I have encountered this company before, but they had a slightly different focus at that time. Then, they were looking to basically take over local community college honors programs. In doing so, they would charge the students enrolled in honors at the college a fee (generally just below their Pell grant eligibility) to participate in honors, and the students would receive coaching and transfer counseling services in exchange.

We refused their offer to come in to our school, and there were a variety of reasons for doing so. For one, they were offering services we were (or should have been) already providing. We saw no value added.

This is one of the larger problems I have with the privatization effort currently underway in higher education. These are services the institution should be providing. It’s a basic part of a contemporary institution of higher education. In the case of community colleges, in particular, these public institutions should be providing services to the public, and that includes providing the requisite coaching, advising, and counseling services at educational institutions. That is what it means to be a public institution.

In privatizing these services, we are transforming them into profit sources. In particular, this company’s model relied on using student financial aid money to enrich the founders and investors. This approach to “service provision” treats institutions of higher education as conduits through which taxpayer dollars can be moved into investor pockets. It’s replacing public service with private profit. It’s a grift.

There were other problems we had with this company, but now it has moved into other areas of “service provision.” In this case, they are colluding with educational managers, desperate for revenue in an era of declining enrollment and public support, to bring international students—with the resources to pay the significantly higher tuition they are charged, of course–to these institutions. They are often recruited to institutions lacking adequate resources to provide the necessary support, though.

That’s where the company comes back in! Now, they can use their “coaches” and “advisors” to provide the support colleges can’t. Win-win, right? The college gets more money without having to invest it in services for the students providing that money, and the company providing those services gets a nice little profit.

But what about the students, their families, and the community the college is supposed to serve? Students and their families are paying extra for services the institution should already be providing. Not only are they paying extra for the services, they’re paying extra in order to fill investors’ pockets. In the case of the honors takeover, taxpayers were also doing so. Privatization isn’t a “cost effective solution” it’s a mechanism of wealth transfer.

And, because of colleges’ new focus on providing space (and other resources, like housing) for international students who can pay for it, they are diverting resources from students living in their communities, particularly the neediest members of those communities.. Many of these community members may be international themselves, but refugees or immigrants without the financial means to pay a private recruiter/networker. A central feature of community colleges is supposed to be their embeddedness within communities. Shifting the focus to revenue-generating students outside the community means providing a lower level of service to the community. Hell, that’s not just true for community colleges, it’s even true for the University of California system!

The problem is the rejection of the public. Privatization will always favor those with the ability to pay. Public institutions, and particularly community colleges, exist to serve the public. By privatizing the services these institutions should be providing, we are limiting access to them. We are rejecting our own mission…and we’re helping corrupt people get rich as we do so.

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This clip finally makes sense

I finally saw The Departed today.

Been revisiting Whitey Bulger and organized crime a bit over the last couple months. The book version of Black Mass is way better than the movie.

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Book Review: Sylvie Tissot’s Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End

The South End of Boston was one of my first introductions to “the gayborhood.” When I initially moved to that city to pursue my Ph.D., it was in the South End that I first made gay friends and where I went home with folks I’d met at the bars. I took to the gayborhood, and, although I could not afford to live there, it drew me in. While it took me a bit longer to become familiar with the processes we call “gentrification,” I could tell it was a neighborhood deeply divided by inequality and undergoing transition.

The transformation of that section of Boston is the topic of Sylvie Tissot’s Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End (all citations after this refer to the ePub edition read in Apple iBooks). In it, she offers a nuanced approach to the operations of culture and power that upends, to a degree, the “gays and artists” narrative that so often predominates in discussions of gentrification. While lesbians and gay men may have played a significant role, it was much more highly circumscribed by upper-middle class propriety, to match the area’s crown mouldings, in ways that that were foreign to the sexual exploration in the queer theory I was reading and living in the gayborhood.

This book [studies] the way in which a space has been rehabilitated and appropriated by a group of inhabitants much wealthier than those who initially occupied it—without reducing gentrification to the contemporary logics of capitalism or to the repressive impulses of a privileged group. (p. 497)

To be sure, the logics of capitalism and repressive impulses are present. But the political contestations of space taking place here operate by a variety of different logics. Central to Tissot’s approach is an analysis of the ways that “diversity” is used in these contests. This is one area where the “gay-friendliness” of the region is highlighted. It is a “diverse neighborhood” because of the prominence of it’s gay population. But, again, it is a homosexuality that is linked to a heteronormative upper-middle class propriety. These class-based values are expressed in ways ranging from opposite-sex couples only being allowed at the annual South End Historical Society ball to historic “preservation” becoming a central value in promoting the architecture of the neighborhood. In Tissot’s telling “normal” upper-middle class gays who can keep up their homes with the prevailing architectural norms are welcomed; others, much less so.

Contra the traditional narrative of “gays and artists” moving in to downtrodden neighborhoods, Tissot traces the gentrification of the South End to an early influx of heterosexual members of the professional-managerial class in the 1970s. (The artists came in the 2000s, in a developer-driven effort to create a “SoHo-style” feel in one of the last parts of the South End to transition, Washington Street.) We might think of these folks as the progenitors of contemporary upper-middle class urban liberals, devoted to a consumer-based diversity and cultural omnivorousness, but also to a market-based set of economic values that eschew public ownership even as it engages with a privatized form of civic engagement.

Battles over space and its use varied over time, but this privatizing propriety remains constant. Early on, the presence of bars and boarding houses were issues of contention, but by the end of the study, the presence of a dog park becomes a hot item of debate. Central to all of them are the ways that these upper-middle class professionals are able to lay claim to and re-organize space for their own purposes. Being able to do so includes being able to control who has access to spaces and how they will be used. (The discussion of dogs and the cultural politics of dog parks was particularly engaging.)

The meaning and deployment of “diversity” are central to these politics. As I have noted, the presence of a sizable and public gay and lesbian population is a “selling point” for the neighborhood. However, the African American, Asian American and Latino residents of the South End are often erased, particularly if they are poor and working class. Historically, the privatizing impulses that have led people to purchase and refurbish the neighborhood’s architecture have also led them to be hostile to public housing or public assistance for housing. Tissot’s discussion of the relations between the upper-middle class professionals and residents of the Villa Victoria housing project is illustrative; the presence and activities of those residents are understood as things to be managed and controlled.

The neo-liberal logic of diversity is an economic one, and only those who can afford to belong are included under its rubric. Being able to afford this diversity includes being able to dine at the ever-expanding choice of restaurants in the neighborhood, and Tissot demonstrates how these privatizing impulses are also used to fundraise for “public” neighborhood projects within these spaces. Anyone who has worked on a college campus will recognize this “eat your way around the world” form of “diversity,” but here it is also related to “philanthropic” “community service.” It is, centrally, a consumptive form of diversity, especially suited to the post-modern omnivore. It also excludes the neighborhood’s largely Latino public housing residents, many of whom are likely working in these kitchens.

Good Neighbors is an engaging and interesting read. I particularly took to it because it returned me to a beloved neighborhood. It also changed the way I look at that neighborhood, and about processes of gentrification. I recognize myself and my friends in the culinary cultural omnivore. I also recognize the ways that middle-class propriety can exert subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) exclusionary pressures that aren’t necessarily linked to the ability to afford living in a certain neighborhood. This study brought these cultural politics to the fore in a highly engaging manner. Highly recommended.

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The Reification of the Student Evaluation Score

Something I’ve been thinking a fair amount about recently is the use of student evaluation scores as a tool in faculty evaluation. There are a variety of reasons for this, which I won’t go into at this point, but one thing I’ve come to find particularly interesting, and important, is the reification of them. I think it’s worth exploring that process in order to better understand the use of these tools and what they don’t actually tell us.

I started re-visiting the concept of “reification” when I read Adorno’s “Free Time” for a guest lecture I gave in a colleague’s class earlier this semester, and it re-surfaced, as I said, in thinking about student evaluation scores. While it has a deep history in the critical theoretical tradition represented by Adorno, it’s not a term folks are likely to hear much in everyday life, so it’s worthwhile to provide an idea of what I’m talking about before moving forward. I like to refer to “reification” as “thingification.” I suppose I get this from Adorno himself:

“For all reification is a forgetting: objects become purely thing-like the moment they are retained for us without the continued presence of their other aspects: when something of them has been forgotten.”

In this piece, I’m going to discuss the process of forgetting that turns student evaluation scores into “things” that have “objective meaning.” There are two specific issues I will focus on here. The first is the issue of innumeracy, or mathematical illiteracy. There is a certain irony that the fetishization of numerical scores would involve the inappropriate an illegitimate use of them, but the second issue, managerial expedience, goes some way toward explaining it.

In most of the schools I have worked at, student evaluations of teaching have a similar format. There are a series of Likert-scale questions asking about various aspects of the course, where students are given a statement and asked to respond with “Strongly Agree, Agree, No Opinion, Disagree, Strongly Disagree.” Each of those options has a corresponding numerical value. Scores for each question are obtained by taking the “mean” score for each question, and then by averaging all of these mean scores to arrive at a final score, which is supposedly a measure of teaching effectiveness. Generally, these evaluations also contain a section where students may write out longer comments, but it is the numerical scores generated from the Likert-scale questions that are given the most weight institutionally.

The production of these scores brings us to the issue of innumeracy, and to the reifying activity of forgetting. It is in this process that the technical limitations of Likert-scale questions are erased in order to produce “objective” measures of teaching effectiveness. Only forgetting allows us to do so, though.

To explain those technical limitations, I’ll turn it over to a Professor of Statistics to describe the issues involved with Likert-Scales and “levels of measurement.”

Effectiveness ratings are what statisticians call an “ordinal categorical” variable: The ratings fall in categories with a natural order (7 is better than 6 is better than … is better than 1), but the numbers 1, 2, …, 7 are really labels of categories, not quantities of anything. We could replace the numbers with descriptive words and no information would be lost: The ratings might as well be “not at all effective”, “slightly effective,” “somewhat effective,” “moderately effective,” “rather effective,” “very effective,” and “extremely effective.”

Does it make sense to take the average of “slightly effective” and “very effective” ratings given by two students? If so, is the result the same as two “moderately effective” scores? Relying on average evaluation scores does just that: It equates the effectiveness of an instructor who receives two ratings of 4 and the effectiveness of an instructor who receives a 2 and a 6, since both instructors have an average rating of 4. Are they really equivalent?

They are not, as this joke shows: Three statisticians go hunting. They spot a deer. The first statistician shoots; the shot passes a yard to the left of the deer. The second shoots; the shot passes a yard to the right of the deer. The third one yells, “we got it!”

Even though the average location of the two misses is a hit, the deer is quite unscathed: Two things can be equal on average, yet otherwise utterly dissimilar. Averages alone are not adequate summaries of evaluation scores.

I like to think of it this way, if we are using ordinal measures like this to measure the temperature, our scores would be, Hot, Warm, Moderate, Cool, and Cold. What is the “average” score of Hot (5), Warm (4), Warm (4), Moderate (3), and Cold (1)? Using the numbers usually assigned, we would arrive at a score of 3.4. However, the numbers we are using have no numerical value. Only by erasing this fact can we even try to create an average of them, and then treat that average as though it is numerically meaningful. This problem is compounded when we average several of these scores to create an overall effectiveness score, and then combine those scores to compare individuals to group averages. These scores are the product of multiplicative meaninglessness.

Despite their meaninglessness, we can see that these scores have been imbued with meaning. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, one of the basic assumptions of symbolic interactionist sociology is that, “people act toward objects based on the meaning they have for them.” However, in this case, that meaning comes from the process of erasing the history and technical limitations of ordinal-level data, a process aided by widespread, even insitutionalized, innumeracy.

In Paulos’s classic formulation, innumeracy is a form of mathematical illiteracy, and that is what’s working here. There is a basic technical incompetence involved in transforming these responses into scores by simply taking an average, and then averaging the averages. But no one seems to notice. They have either forgotten or never understood the limitations of these data and what these data are actually capable and incapable of measuring. Procedures and policies are established to produce and utilize these scores. Technical incompetence becomes institutional practice as we collectively agree to pretend these scores are valid.

And that’s where the issue of managerial expedience comes into play. The scores themselves become tools that managers can use in the performance of their duties. It is far easier to use simple numerical scores than to engage in an in-depth review of the various forms of assessment necessary to adequately evaluate faculty performance. Not only is it easier, it is far less time-consuming, which becomes important as the number of faculty increase. Note, I didn’t say the number of full-time faculty. The adjunctification of the academic labor force has resulted in a greater number of instructional faculty to be evaluated.

Even aside from evaluating individual faculty, these scores are used by administrators to study groups of faculty, to compare individuals to their departmental or college colleagues, to measure year-to-year “improvements,” and the like. These scores become objective things, independent of the history of their creation and its limitations. They take on a life of their own as tools used in the managerial enterprise. Managerial expedience leads to the institutionalization of innumeracy, but that is only possible due to the reification of these scores, to their thingification through the erasure of what they actually are.

This raises a more significant question: In the era of the managerial-corporate academy, how do we interrupt and resist these processes? Remembering is a necessary feature of de-thingifying these scores, and de-legitimizing their illegitimate use, but I’m not completely sure the management class cares about its own incompetence in such matters. That’s a problem for another, and every, day.

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