Friday, January 17, 2014

The Media and the Problem of North Korea...

I have been a big fan of PBS's Frontline for a long time now. I fell in love with Frontline sometime in the early 1990s if memory serves after I saw Ofra Bikel's superb dissection of the mania surrounding the witch hunt against the McMartin's who were accused of sexually molesting children and of satanic ritualism at their child care centre in California. Ever since I have watched Frontline religiously. It is one of those rare beasts on contemporary American television, a piece of critical investigative journalism that deifies few golden idols and educates its viewers.

Over its thirty year plus history Frontline has not always been without sin, however. I found the 1995 Frontline report "Waco: The Inside Story" far too accepting of the FBI version of the events at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. Frontline's reporters in this episode seemed to have forgotten that it was the US government that set the events in motion that ended in the tragic and unnecessary deaths of 76 Davidian men, women, and children and, in a kind of perverse coda, the prosecution of several Branch Davidians who survived the deadly fire.

Recently I found another Frontline piece to be with sin as well, namely, 14 January 2014's "Secret State of North Korea". While I have no love for North Korea or its leader, Kim Jong-un I have long found a lot of the media coverage of North Korea, a nation former American president George Bush put in his "axis of evil" category, problematic. So much of this media coverage is grounded in an implicit manichean and melodramatic binary of us, the US, the West, Western democracies, good, North Korea, last of the nasty and brutish communist regimes that starves its citizens, bad.

Another problem with the Western coverage of North Korea, one that the "Secret State of North Korea" exhibits in spades is a lack of comparative perspective. So much of the Western media coverage of North Korea paints that nation-state as a kind of aloof and perverse dictatorship. A dictatorship, of course, North Korea is. The problem, however, is that dictatorships, particularly dictatorships like that in North Korea, are the modern day descendents and equivalents of divine monarchies, of arbitrary, brutish, and violent imperial houses justified and legitimised by the belief that the leader has the mandate of heaven in some way, shape, or form. This connection between monarchy and dictatorship, sadly, is one that Frontline seems unable to make for whatever reason.

Frontline over the years has provided American television with outstanding investigative reports. In my opinion Frontline is one of the finest shows that has ever appeared on American television. I only wish it would develop a sense of comparative history and comparative sociology. For if it did I might help its viewers understand the similarities between present human history and past human history.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Part of the Union...

I have long been a union man. Before I attended college I worked in an Overhead Door factory and was part of the union. When I was in graduate school I was part of the union. When I started teaching I became part of the union. Thanks to the union I had great health care, great dental care, and great vision care. What I didn't have, however, was a union that backed me in the face of arbitrary corporate (a category I put educational institutions in) malfeasance, manipulation, and bullying.

In the 1990s I was hired by CETL, The Centre for Education, Teaching, and Learning, to teach courses in a new programme they had developed, Project Renaissance, at good old SUNY Albany. Project Renaissance was established to provide students with an the Oxbridge living and learning interdisciplinary experience. The interdisciplinary subject at the heart of Project Renaissance the year I was hired was to be the exploration of questions relating to identity. When the posh toff faculty in the programme couldn't agree on how to approach the issue of identity, however, they split into two groups. Apparently university teachers are as sectarian as Christianity and Marxism. Unfortunately, the group I was placed in without any input from me wasn't my cuppa. My perception was that Project Renaissance should be small scale, almost tutorial, and innovative programme. The posh powers that be, however, envisioned large scale lectures of more than one hundred students supplemented by small scale discussion groups of twenty or so taught by me and other members of the lumpen faculty. My group, from my perspective, was hardly innovative in approach. What they wanted to do seemed to me to be essentially a rerun of World History courses that were already taught on campus. When I made my feelings about my Project Renaissance known to the dictatorship at CETL and when I drew up a syllabus that I felt took the interdisciplinary nature of the programme seriously and which included a section on gay and lesbian identity I was canned. I was then shuffled into menial computer work and eventually canned halfway through the school year. CETL's elite claimed they had no monies to keep me on. I soon discovered communications, however, that showed that CETL's toffs wanted to use the monies that funded me for other purposes that didn't involve me.

Angry at my arbitrary monarchical like treatment by CETL's powers I went to the graduate student union of which I was a member for justice. My union representative--he who shall remain unnamed--I don't recall his name anyway--didn't do much to obtain justice for me even after I showed him the incriminating communications written by CETL's empress. He talked to CETL's princess about taking me back but only halfheartedly. So much for union solidarity and the union quest for justice for the working class. So much for union power.

My experience with arbitrary bosses and limited union representation didn't end with the CETL affair. As an adjunct I have seen again and again the limited interest of the union when it comes to seeking justice for adjuncts. Yes the union has helped adjuncts in the SUNY system get health care. Yes it has included adjuncts in its negotiations with SUNY's corporate bosses. But the union, the UUP, the United University Professions, hasn't helped adjuncts get a fair wage--SUNY Oneonta, for instance, pays a paltry $2500 dollars a class to adjuncts, the same wage level before union and management negotiations last year, a wage even worse than that at Walmart when the time involved in teaching is taken into account. Can I get an amen for academic liberalism. Additionally, the union hasn't really established rules and regulations as to how adjuncts can be hired and fired. From my experience the hiring and firing of adjuncts revolves basically around that same old same old, networks of relationship.

So while I am part of the union, I am part of the union in which union leadership seems to have more in common with corporate toffs than with the lumpen adunctitariat, I am part of a union which seems to know that there are limits to union power or has grown cynical about union representation in the belly of the corporate beast. Perhaps a separate union that represents only adjuncts is the solution to the fact that full time faculty unions like the UUP only represent powerless adjunct cogs in the machine lumpen proletariat in the ivory tower up to a point. There is one thing I do know. The UUP is certainly not the solution to the low pay and overwork of the lumpen adjunctitariat in the academy.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Teacher's Pet: My Teaching Life in the Academy

I have taught off and on in academia since the 1990s. While I have not found that old joke with more than a hint of seriousness that teaching would be great if it wasn't for the students entirely true over my teaching life, I have, looking back, found it to be partially true.

Before I talk about my favourite and least favourite teaching experiences, I should point out that I am not an academic. I am an intellectual. I should also note that I hate bureaucracy. One of the joys of adjuncting at colleges and universities until recently has been that adjuncts have generally not had to do those petty bureaucratic tasks that take up so much of the time of full-time tenured or full-time tenured wanna be faculty at most American colleges and universities these days. That is changing, however. One last point, while I have a doctorate in History, I am not a historian. I use history to fill out my social theoretic intellectual interests. Given this I have usually been the odd man out in most history departments in which I have taught over the years. I can live with that, however. I am not sure they can though.

Now back to the putative subject of this blog post, my teaching experiences in academia. If I had to name the best place I ever taught, Brigham Young University would be at the top of my list. I ended up at BYU somewhat by accident. In the early 1990s I became interested in Mormonism. My interest in Mormonism wasn't an interest in Mormonism per se though. I was interested in Mormonism for what it told us about the processes of identity construction and community construction in new social movements. The Y seemed, at the time at least, to be the best place for me to explore my new interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since it was a Mormon university. So off I went to Provo. Little did I know then what I know now, that the Y takes its antiquated 1950ish style honour code with strictures on the length of men's hair and women's skirts and dresses seriously. While at the Y I taught a Social Stratification class in the new Joseph Smith Building of all places. In this class and in others I sat in on, I found BYU's students to be of two broad types, fundamentalists who thought that anything the prophet said was divine and more "liberal" Mormons who thought that the divine messages of the prophet were only those which were signed by the First Presidency. Regardless of whether BYU students were literalist or more circumscribed in their notions of prophetic revelation, I found the vast majority of BYU students I met, undergraduate and graduate, to be intellectually engaged and, respectful and appreciative of those who taught them. This should not have been a surprise to me in retrospect given the nature of Mormon culture and given that students don't go to BYU to party. They go their to get an education and to get married.

Another college at which I quite enjoyed teaching was SUNY IT. My enjoyment was due to the fact that I was fortunate enough to teach mature students, most of them mature nursing students who were taking classes to turn their associates degrees into bachelor's degree at SUNY IT. Like my students at the Y, the SUNY IT students I taught at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York were intellectually engaged, weren't in school to booze and wench, and were respectful and appreciative of those who taught them. Unfortunately, in this age of higher educational cost cutting these classes are now, or so I understand, done entirely online rather than in the classroom. While there is something to be said for online classes--one can do these at anytime and in anyplace--you inevitably lose the personal relationship between teacher and students when you are teaching solely by your fingertips.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute would be in the middle of my list of most favourite and least favourite places in which I taught over the years. RPI, a national science oriented institute, has some great and gifted students. Given the scientific emphasis of RPI, however, RPI's students tend to major in the hard and practical I want a job in the future sciences. As such RPI students, while very intellectually capable, tend to be very narrow in their academic focus and that academic focus was rarely is on the humanities and social sciences. Add to this the fact that the liberal arts at RPI are extremely anemic--there are no humanities and social science departments at RPI unlike at MIT, Cal Tech, and Worcester Polytechnic--and you have a college that has little place for the liberal arts in its curriculum. While RPI, thanks to a new Humanities dean who wants to make a mark for herself presumably in the name of furthering her academic bureaucratic advancement career, has tried to get around the anemia in its liberal arts and its anemic funding of the liberal arts by initiating interdisciplinary classes. These interdisciplinary classes, since they are not built on the solid sand of humanities and social sciences disciplines of which RPI has none, however, seem a losing proposition to me. First, since the only background in humanities and social sciences disciplines RPI students have comes from high school courses they have taken they really do not have a solid academic disciplinary base on which to enter interdisciplinary classes. Second, what RPI's new interdisciplinary classes will do and are doing is to make Humanities and Social Science classes at RPI substantially larger than they had previously been and need to be.

If I had to choose the place I enjoyed teaching least it would have to be SUNY Albany. SUNY Albany is a weird and ugly place. SUNYA is a product of the creation and expansion of the SUNY academic system under Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s and 1970s. SUNYA's new campus was built on the outskirts of a deindustrialising and decaying Albany, a fact that gives the SUNY Albany campus a palpable suburban and commuter feel. While SUNYA, along with SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Stony Brook, and SUNY Binghamton (all three of which were built in more suburban confines) were founded as the four research centres of the SUNY system, the state monies that funded state university and college expansion in New York during the economic high times of the 1960s and early 1970s dried up in the wake of the oil crisis leaving the SUNY system and its research centres, in particular, in precarious financial positions, precarious financial positions they have been saddled with ever since. With the latest bust in the American economy SUNY Albany has had to downsize yet again and has done so by eliminating several of its liberal arts programmes. SUNYA's loss of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering late last year, a college which brought substantial amounts of state monies into SUNYA's coffers and which effectively subsidised SUNYA's liberal arts programmes for the few years it was part of SUNY Albany, will likely exacerbate the further decline of SUNYA as a liberal arts research university. Speaking of research universities, it should be noted that SUNYA was never in the top tier of great research university research universities in the US in the first place. Only Buffalo and Stony Brook are members of the Association of American Universities, the elite club of and for America's elite major research universities. SUNY Albany has always seemed to me more akin to the Ball State's, Kent State's, and Bowling Green's of the American second or third tier research university universe than of the first tier of the Indiana's, Berkeley's, Madison's, and Ann Arbor's.

But back to teaching at SUNY. I found the SUNYA campus, given its architecture and its suburban and commuter feel, little conducive to the intellectual life. It felt and looked more like a state bureaucracy (complete with panopticon) than an academic institution. As such there was little in the way of intellectual life on the SUNY Albany campus even on the graduate level. Since SUNYA has the reputation as a party school, an impression SUNYA's administration has tried to counter with limited success, many students came to SUNYA to booze and wench and to take business degrees so they can get a well paying job, presumably on Wall Street, after they graduate, not to take advantage of its liberal arts. I found many SUNY students to be not only non-intellectual but also unprofessional. Many did not turn assignments in on time making me wonder if they could ever hold a professional job after they leave their sheltered lives behind the walls of the ivory tower. I found many SUNY students disrespectful. I routinely observed many of them trolling around the World Wide Web, playing computer games, looking at Facebook, trawling through their cell phone messages, talking not about the class but about their personal lives, and even reading magazines in class. I found some SUNY students rude. I have, for instance, had students yell at me because they did not read the syllabus. I had SUNY students who did not know how to write an academic paper. I had SUNY students who didn't really know how to find their way around a computer. I had SUNY students who couldn't calculate 20% of 100. I had SUNY students who didn't know how to write a scholarly paper. I had SUNY students who didn't know how to discern the point of view of a non-fiction book. I had SUNY students tell me they hated television programmes they had never seen and who hated the films of directors they had never watched and who all the while expected respect for such absurd and obscene opinions. I had SUNY students who thought that a historical background was unnecessary for understanding current events and who mistook tweeter writebites for in depth journalistic excellence. I had SUNY students plagiarise including one who lifted his entire response from an article on the TV show South Park because he apparently couldn't write about a show he regularly watched in his own words. I had SUNY students who apparently didn't realise that Web search engines make finding those who are plagiarising easy. I had SUNY students who wanted to know the questions that were going to be on the exam before they took the exam. I had SUNY students who wanted me to tell them what to write about in their blog journals. I had SUNY students who forgot the password to the blogs on which they were required to put their blog assignments. I found SUNY students to be filled to the brim with that sense of entitlement attitude that seems to be so common among college age youth these days. I had SUNY students who, in a classic I am shocked, shocked Casablanca moment, condemned me for not paying attention to students who showed me by their attitudes and actions that they were not interested in my classes for paying attention to students who were interested in my classes. Well duh! And some of you wonder why I am a grumpy old cynic. Add this all up and it seems to equal the high schoolisation with its teach for the test mentality of the liberal arts college general education class.

Now don't get me wrong, there were a handful of students at SUNY who really were intellectually engaged and who were very capable. In this respect SUNY is much like other American academic institutions these days. There are only a handful of students really interested, really energised by, and really dedicated to a liberal arts education. It is, of course, to these handful of students that we teachers we aim our teaching lessons. It is these handful of students who we hope to reach through our teaching.

Needless to say the fact that I have unfortunately spent most of my teaching life in universities and colleges that aren't BYU's has meant that my teaching experiences have not been among the most joyful and stimulating experiences of my life and I need stimulating environments in order to flower. There has been joy in having benefits including health care in a bah humbug nation where millions, including significant numbers of part-time faculty members at colleges and universities, have none. There has been joy in teaching those handful of students who really care about learning and a liberal arts education. Frankly speaking, however, I have gotten a hell of a lot more joy and a hell of a lot more intellectual stimulation working at Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, a job which thankfully isn't a 12/7 gig for a meagre pittance of pay as adjuncting is. My kingdom for a job in a college or university full of students like those I had at BYU...

Here is a question I got from one of my SUNY students in the past:
"Dr. Helfrich, I was looking at the syllabus again and I could not find the answer to how we are supposed to cite the information we received from each source. Since there is no format, page count, word count, I am quite confused. I am also confused on what you meant in the syllabus about writing in our blogs our comments about the discussion in class to receive participation points. Can you clarify? Thanks".
I post it here because I find questions like these so indicative of what today's student is like and how it has become a royal pain in the arse to teach. Note the need the student has for a word count. Apparently this student cannot even conceive of writing enough to answer specific questions posed to him/her without an indication of the number of words he or she must write. Note the question about format. This student appears to have forgotten the standard rules of formatting or needs to hear the standard answer about format, typed, double spaced. Note that though I said this in my syllabus, "As always in my class there is an option to speaking in class. You can put your responses on your blog in a blog post...this student doesn't seem to understand what to do" I don't know why this student needs more than this clear statement since it seems straightforward to me. It tells students that if they want to talk more about what was said in class, what they read, or what they heard they can post it on their blog. Note that the student needs guidance on how to cite properly. I assume that students are taught how to write a paper in high school, a paper with an introduction, a body, a conclusion, and proper citation, or apparently they have forgotten about how to do it. This is why I put a handy, dandy guide to writing a paper in my syllabus. By the way, I chalk all of this craziness up to the teaching for the test mentality that dominates junior high and high schools these days. This "educational strategy" does only one thing as far as I can tell. It creates a servile mentality in students in which they can't think for themselves. As such it undermines everything a liberal arts education should be about.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Cinderella, Cinderella Where For Art Thou?: The Academic Life as Suffering

It has long been a struggle for me in the academy. I have fancied myself an intellectual since I was in junior high school where I opposed the Vietnam War and, like Kevin in The Wonder Years, helped organize an attempted walk out against the Vietnam War. It didn't work, by the way. The administration found out about it and locked us into the school putting chains on all the doors.

Once upon a time, specifically when I matriculated at college in the 1970s, I initially dreamed of becoming a teacher of Biblical Studies in a college or university somewhere in the English speaking world or if not that of becoming a rabbi, a fairy tale I gave up quite quickly because I am a sherlock, I am hardly a "people person". Eventually I came to believe, under the influence of sociology, cultural anthropology, cultural studies, and film studies, that if I could marry social theory to an emphasis on the empirical facts I could liberate students from the prison house of ideology most students were mentally incarcerated in, whether by choice or as a result of the very effective workings of mass propaganda. I, in other words, and like so many other academics of my time, burned with optimism’s flame. So off I went to graduate school first in American Studies, then in Sociology, then in Cultural Anthropology, then again in Sociology, and finally in History. Teaching in the academy, however, has shown me that my fairy tale dreams really were fairy tale illusions.

One of the things I have learned while teaching over the last twenty years is that college teaching and the work with the disabled while I was an undergraduate at Indiana University were eerily similar. When I worked with the disabled at Stone Belt in Bloomington, Indiana I was involved in the writing of objectives to be accomplished for and by my disabled clients so that they could gain greater independence. Every year we house parents and a member of the administrative bureaucracy wrote objectives we wanted to accomplish for each client so they could become more independent and eventually move into semi-independent status in a semi-independent apartment complex. While we were drawing up these objectives, however, we knew but we didn’t talk about it that it was really impossible for our clients to achieve the objectives we wrote. Despite the fact that we knew our clients could never achieve independence, however, we continued to play the game that we could make them independent not because we burned with optimism’s fame but because we had to. The state required us to write objectives every year in order to get goal number for most of these institutions, funding from the state and other sources that kept us in “business”.

Working for a living in the academy is quite similar. The state bureaucracy and those in the academy caught up in the mania for academic Taylorism with its numbers, the academic equivalent of industrial production, and quantitative outcomes, require those of us who teach general education classes (classes full timers can't or won't teach because they generally result in poor evaluations) to specify objectives that we hope to accomplish in our classes. And while I have no problem writing objectives for my classes the fact is that we can’t accomplish these objectives because most of those who take general education classes, often under duress, have little if any interest in the subject matter of the class and most of them simply don’t have the intellectual capabilities to meet the critical dimension of the objectives we draw up.

The reason for this is clear. There are simply far too many people attending liberal arts colleges these days. Those who flock to college campuses have been convinced by the argument—one that is partly true if less so as every year goes by an as larger numbers of graduates with bachelor's degrees enter the job market—made by many politicians, academic bureaucrats, and academics that if they go to college they can make lots of money after they graduate. Many, of course, come to the ivy-covered halls not to learn but to partake of that rite of young adult passage, the right to party. Most of those who come to college come, in other words, to get a job that will earn them lots of money and to party rather than to learn how to tell what is rot from what is not rot. They come to college with their heads filled with ideological beliefs which are akin to religions beliefs and which are hard if not impossible to dislodge. No amount of education as liberation will succeed against it. Over my years of teaching I have heard students say or write things which are intellectually and academically problematic and even completely intellectually and empirically invalid. Ironically it is students like these who the bureaucracy has "rate" those of us with higher degrees and immense experience who teach. This is akin to Ford hiring me to "rate" everything about their motorcars, though I have no experience or knowledge of the operation of cars in general, but because I drive one.

I am noting all of this because I find it excruciatingly painful and ultimately sapping of one's humanity to try to teach under such conditions. I am more of an intellectual than an academic. I prefer discussion and debate to standard operating teaching practise. I no longer believe in that fairy tale that education can liberate. By and large education, including higher education, produces and reproduces cogs in the ideological machine. As a result higher education no longer has meaning for me.

Additionally, the fact that I am an intellectual who doesn’t respect academic territories (and who has limited respect for the academia itself) has made it difficult for me to function in the ivory tower. My entire academic life has been one of disappointment whether it was the disappointments associated with being a student--I was disappointed by anthropology’s wholism and fetishisation of non-Western culture, sociology’s fetishisation of quantitative research, history's naive wholism, its naive attachment to archival research, and its anti-theory phobias--or the multitude of disappointments associated with college teaching. But what is an intellectual to do? There are few options beyond the academy these days of an intellectual and even fewer options that offer, like some academic gigs, excellent benefits. As an asthmatic and someone approaching senior citizenship I need these excellent benefits. If only I had been born in Denmark.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Honest Weight Food Coop I Hardly Know Ye

I have long been a coop kind of guy. I grew up in a family in which we were members of a rural electric coop in Indiana. When I arrived in Bloomington, Indiana for undergraduate studies in the late 1970s I joined Bloomingfoods, Bloomington's Food Coop, when it was still an institution in which all members had to work. In the 1990s I became a member of the camping store coop REI. In the 2000s I joined the Honest Weight Food Coop. Over the years I developed a healthy respect for the massive Mondragon cooperative in the Basque region of Spain. I have long believed that cooperatives were a viable and necessary democratic, real democratic, alternative and antidote to the shark tank casino capitalism that dominates and governs most of the West these days, particularly the United States.

Recently I have grown concerned about what is happening at the Honest Weight Food Cooperative. According to members I have talked to what I am concerned about goes back about five years, four years before I became heavilly involved in the coop and four years before the coop moved from its location on Central Avenue in Albany to its brand spanking new location at 100 Watervliet Avenue in Albany. All I can talk about, however, are the things the Leadership Team, the LT, and other powers that be have done, presumably with the support of the board, in the last few months that I find troubling. First there was the decision to keep the store open until 10 pm rather than 9 pm. Then there was the decision to allow chicken broth on the shelves contrary to a membership vote. The LT apparently claimed it was alright to do this since a national coop advertisement that Honest Weight no longer used had the product advertised in its pages. Then there was the decision to open a satellite café in the Empire State Plaza. Finally, there was the decision to subscribe to Sirius Radio and pipe retro music into the store over a really bad sound system. All of these occurred, to my knowledge, without any consultation with the membership of the coop.

I have been able to discuss these issues with several members of the board and the LT. They assert that such actions are fully within their purview and note again and again that we need customers, we need loyal customers, and that we need profits in the face of a Whole Foods store that will be moving into the Colonie Centre mall in spring and with which we will have to compete with and the multi-million dollar deficit that we took out in order to build the new store. Additionally, some of the LT appear to think that the satellite café at the Plaza is not a satellite store since it is, at least potentially, a short-term gig and it involves only one department of the coop, the deli. Beyond the semantics--I don't buy the notion that this is not a satellite store and neither apparently do some other members of the LT. The Albany Business Review quotes Duke Bouchard, the Coop's chief financial officer, as saying that the café at the Plaza is the Coop's "first taste running a satellite location [which] could pave the way for more expansion."

I am concerned about all of this because the membership, to my knowledge, has not been involved in any of these decisions and because these LT decisions, particularly the LT decision to establish a satellite café at the Plaza, establish a kind of HWFC common law precedent that would allow the LT and the board to take further unilateral decisions of a similar nature should it meet the same criteria that they enunciated to justify the Empire State Plaza store. I am concerned about all of this because it seems like the Coop is apparently becoming less of the alternative democracy I believed and hoped it was. Moreover, the argument that the powers that be had to act quickly and not consult the membership when it came to the satellite store boils down to an argument that members can't act and thus must not be consulted in such circumstances. This in itself is an argument against coop democracy.

Ironically, I share the LT's and board's concern with the need to establish customer loyalty and to increase profits before Whole Food's enters the Albany natural food supermarket market and I would have supported all of the above decisions of the LT and board save that of pumping music into the store--the sound system is too awful--if all of these had been brought before the membership. I have no problem supporting keeping the store open until 10 pm, no problem allowing chicken broth to be put on the shelves if it meets the HWFC guidelines, and no problem supporting the establishment of a satellite store and more satellite stores in the future. Now I am not so sure I will be voting in favour of any of these proposals should they come up for membership approval. In fact, I will probably vote against them simply to make a point about the problematic nature of the process in which these decisions were made. All these things, in my opinion, and particularly the satellite store issue, should have been brought before the membership.

Speaking of membership meeting, I think there are three things that could and should be passed by membership that could improve the functioning of the Coop. First, I think that those in the back offices should work on the store floor at least three hours a month. Second, I think that those in the back should have a starting pay that is no more than 30% of the starting pay of those who work on the store floor. Finally, I think that those doing hiring in the back should recuse themselves when their friends or acquaintances are the ones being considered for an open position. Judges recuse themselves, or should recuse themselves, in such circumstances. Classical musicians are often hired after they perform anonymously so that their skills not who they are, are of central importance. Honest Weight can and should learn from both honourable judges and the hiring strategies of the great orchestras of the world.

Monday, January 6, 2014

My Great Disappointment...

Life is full of disappointments as the Buddha recognised long ago. One of the most disappointing things I have learned during my life is that is that there is little if any intellectual culture in most contemporary American academic institutions. In my youth I imagined that colleges and universities were places where anything and everything was open to critical investigation. And at first that seemed to be the case. At Indiana University in Bloomington I found an intellectual culture amongst some of its undergraduate and graduate students who weren't caught up in the culture of partying, the culture of sports, and the culture of moneygrubbing. But then IU was basically an overgrown liberal arts research university with a large graduate school. At Ohio University I found a small community of intellectuals amidst Athens's very expansive drinking culture. At Brigham Young University I found an intellectual community focused on Mormonism. Since I was interested in Mormonism for what it revealed about social movements and community identity construction BYU and its many educationally motivated students proved to be an oasis for me. Beyond this, however, I have found intellectual life and its heart, critical thinking, almost entirely lacking in the vast majority of universities I have attended or taught. In fact, I have been far more intellectually stimulated by the cinema, by television, by books, by music, and, more recently, by the stimulating atmosphere at the Honest Weight Food Coop than by "intellectual" life in the ivory tower.

At most American colleges and universities faculty members, by and large, treat teaching positions at colleges and universities as little more than a 9 to 5 job. The vast majority of students are either uninterested in the interrogated intellectual life or are incapable of thinking outside the ideological boxes that their minds have been placed in thanks to a constant diet of fetishisations or universalisations from a variety of sources including the media. Most students, for instance, continue to use terms like "weird", "not normal", and boring as if such categorisations were descriptive rather than normative ideological social and cultural constructs, as if the intellectual revolution in cultural anthropology and deviance studies had never occurred, and as if empirical evidence was entirely irrelevant (have you read any of the Amazon reviews of the younger generation?). Needless to say teaching in such an environment despite the presence of a handful of truly excellent students who care about a liberal arts education is excruciatingly painful and, to use an uninterrogated phrase favoured by recent generations, boring.

Over time I have come to realise that a non and even anti-intellectual atmosphere is more typical and more mainstream in at many American colleges and universities than is the ever present critical investigation of life. The reason for this is simple. It is not critical thinking that America's powers that be treasure. It is conformity. Perhaps if I could just stop thinking I might too might be happy and join the ideologically lobotomised ranks of the masses who aren't disappointed, of those who believe that the uninvestigated life is the only one worth living. But I can't...

There are very few places that allow an intellectual to survive and thrive in American life today. There are a few intellectuals in the academia but the academy with its moneygrubbing lowest common denominator undergraduate masses who intellectuals have to teach and its power seeking upper echelon bureaucrats makes for a stultifying and finally deadly environment for real intellectuals. There's sport radio and television but that too is limited as the only way you can stay on the airwaves is to get ratings, to, in other words, appease the lowest common denominator seeking masses. There's PBS but on a good day that network rarely garners more than 2 million viewers for its outstanding factual and fictional shows. There's New York City but the advent of the World Wide Web has dramatically changed, not for the better I might add, and undermined the old media that once supported and provided a living to America's intellectuals. Clearly being an intellectual in contemporary America is the loneliest number.