Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Go Public ... If You Can!: Michael Socolow Was Scooped

I write a lot about academia and public writing, fueled by my accidental stumble into a very public life (it's all about the 13th century! The 13th Century is a hot media property!). But then once you've got some op-eds, some practice at a public voice, then what?

It turns out that writing a book, as an academic, for a non-academic press requires making it through a lot of gatekeepers who are not pre-disposed to let you pass.

Here's a story from Michael Socolow via Inside Higher Ed. Socolow found an amazing, publishable, story of Olympics history. The kind of thing, he judged, that could become a movie and/or best seller. So he did the work and tried to sell it. And tried. And tried. And failed.

Years passed, and eventually a famous author (using, it turned out, some of his interview notes that he somehow obtained), wrote the best seller, leaving Socolow to write:
A lot of ink has been spilled recently about the need for academics to write for wider audiences. Much of the criticism presumes that academics prefer to write and speak in impenetrable rhetoric designed to limit communication to only people initiated in the cloistered world of scholarly interchange. I don’t doubt that this problem exists. But many critics have no idea how many scholars -- like myself -- have attempted to write for wider audiences but found ourselves blocked by gatekeepers in the publishing industry. Although I’ve published numerous essays and newspaper columns for wide public readership, and I believe my book proposal proved my ability to deliver clear, serviceable -- and even engaging -- prose, no publisher took a gamble on this first-time author coming out of academe.
The gatekeepers are many. I have no real solutions other than to name them honestly, to tell these stories, and to build better pathways for academics to work in public spaces.

I'm pretty confident anyone who wants to can find ways to share their research and expertise with mass audiences.

But that's not the same as reaping just profits for one's work.

This is my side gig. I don't know how to change that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Higher Ed and Labor - 3 Ongoing Stories

Three stories.

1. #SupportTheStrike - Rosa Ines Rivera, a cook at Harvard School of Public Health, writes for the NYTimes that Harvard doesn't pay her enough to afford healthcare.
On my way to work each morning, I pass a building with the inscription: “The highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” If Harvard believes this, why is the administration asking dining hall workers to pay even more for our health care even though some of us pay as much as $4,000 a year in premiums alone?
I serve the people who created Obamacare, people who treat epidemics and devise ways to make the world healthier and more humane. But I can’t afford the health care plan Harvard wants us to accept.
That’s why I have been on strike with 750 co-workers for more than two weeks. That’s why the other day, co-workers and I were arrested after we sat down in Harvard Square, blocking traffic, in an act of civil disobedience. And that’s why the medical school students, in their white coats, have been walking the picket line with us in solidarity.
2. Harvard did reach an agreement with a new graduate student union organizers to allow a vote to go forward. Of course, votes don't always pass (I voted for a union at UMN twice, never won, thanks largely to a divide between the scientists and the humanities folks. The former wanted to keep getting paid a living wage, while the latter got paid stipends of around $12000 a year).

3. #ContingentAcademicLabor - When OSU moved to semesters from quarters, the university promised the English department 18 additional FT lecturers to handle writing instruction. Then a few years ago, the university stopped funding them, even though the contracts kept being signed. The plan was to cut those workers mid-contract, as Travis Neal detailed.
The short version of the problem goes like this: When the university converted from quarters to semesters a few years ago, the department needed to find a way to cover first year writing courses that had been spread out over three terms and were now compressed into two. Under the quarter system, graduate students teaching one class per term were teaching three courses every year, but under semesters teaching one class per term meant that graduate students were teaching only two classes each year. So what to do for the 1/3 of classes that now had no instructors? As it has recently been explained to the department, “The Provost (three provosts ago) said he would pay the cost–about half a million dollars–for the Lecturers needed to cover those courses. That Provost did cover the cost at first, but over the past three years the funding has ceased to come from OAA. We do not know why. Each year the English Chair would make a “cash request” of the Dean for the half million during the budget process in the Spring, and each year s/he would wait with baited breath to find out shortly before Fall semester started whether the money would come through. This year, we put off hiring the cohort of Associated Faculty whose salaries depend on that money until about 10 days before the first day of classes, and then three days later we learned that we had been given only a fraction of the money requested.”No one has given an explanation for the shortfall, and no one at the College or the Division level appears ready to come up with the money to pay instructors (who let’s not forget already HAVE CONTRACTS FOR THE YEAR).
Thanks to some good organizing, those layoffs have now been postponed. But what happens next? Writing is one of the things colleges are actually pretty good at teaching, but we keep underfunding it, and good writing instruction requires careful 1:1 work between professor and student. Writing instruction should be the center of a collegiate budget focused on bettering students; instead, it's a place to cut costs.

The American University was never just. Moreover, Harvard is not "the American University." But the pressures to turn universities into profit centers that intensify rather than reduce class divides are many and are cropping up nearly daily in higher education narratives around the country.

I'm not especially optimistic, except for those moments when I'm in a classroom and my students are blowing me away with their brilliance and drive. In those moments, I think, we have to build better systems.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Wellness Checks and Renee Davis

Renee Davis, a single mother who was 5 months pregnant, texted a friend that she was feeling depressed.
Renee Davis was five months pregnant when she was fatally shot by King County sheriff’s deputies checking on her welfare Friday night, according to her foster sister, Danielle Bargala.
The 23-year-old Davis had struggled with depression, and she texted someone earlier that night to say she was in a bad way, according to Bargala. That person had alerted law-enforcement officers, leading the deputies to arrive at Davis’ house on Muckleshoot tribal lands shortly after 6:30 p.m.
Bargala, a Seattle University law student, said Saturday that she and other family members have a lot of questions about what happened next. The sheriff’s office declined to comment Saturday beyond what it said Friday night — that the deputies, investigating a report of someone suicidal, found a young woman with a handgun and two small children in the house.
I don't know what happened in that house. People are allowed to own firearms. Someone in a crisis when armed and armored officers showing up at the front door might well reach for their gun. I don't know what happened in that house.

I do know that sending armed officers to check the wellness of someone in a mental health crisis has always seemed to create the conditions for this kind of tragedy. People need someone else to call.

Instead of pouring money into specialized mental health training for cops, I support discrete crisis teams led by mental health professionals, making better tactical training the baseline for all cops (de-escalation is a nice shorthand, but smarter people than I say that's not really accurate), and building robust community-based crisis PREVENTION systems. Did Davis have anywhere to go? Anyone to talk to?

And of course we can't ignore the racial aspect to this. Police violence against Native Americans remains extremely high. I start all my talks and my book draft with the death of John Williams, a hard-of-hearing woodcarver who was shot in the back in Seattle.

Crisis prevention. Not crisis intervention. My current mantra for where the resources should go.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Down Syndrome Awareness Month - Hey look, I wrote a piece!

Here's my "non-verbal" son dancing to Hamilton and singing, "Awesome! Wow!"

I am not a fan of "awareness." I find that awareness campaigns tend to lead to the most superficial kinds of responses on a passive level, at best. Kit Mead wrote a good essay on mental health "awareness" recently, concluding
I am tired of awareness. Why do we have more people talking about access to hospitalization instead of peer respite care? Where are our community-based supports? Where are our warmline projects to prevent crises? Where are our self-directed services? Where are they?
Awareness just isn't enough unless it's part of a process that leads from the short term feel-good to the long-term change, either structural change or real shifts, individually. So I wrote a feel-good story for the Washington Post about my son and music. It's about learning to listen. Ideally, it goes somewhere. You judge.
Nico’s life is rich with language in many forms. Along with his oral speech, he signs and uses a speech app on his tablet (it’s a communication program in which he selects words and icons, or types out words, and then taps them to have them said aloud). He reads, either silently or by touching each word with his finger and saying them out loud. He speaks all the time, and together we — and by this I mean Nico, his family, his teachers, his classmates, his community — all work very hard to develop mutually intelligible pathways of communication. The effort to find ways to communicate belongs to all of us, not just to a person whose communication methods might be atypical.

...His ability to tell jokes around music seems to be empowering, allowing his natural sense of humor to flourish in ways more sophisticated than a good tickle. He grabs at a moment in “Hamilton” when he knows he can get a laugh. When the men of the show all sing, in unison, “With the ladies!” Nico does, too, raising his hands in the air and urging us to join in. Before “Hamilton,” he found a moment in “Death Valley Queen,” a song by the Irish rock band Flogging Molly (I’m an Irish rock musician), when the music surged from quiet to scream to the lyrics, “I have always loved you.” Nico would sit, fist in front of his face, poised like Rodin’s Thinker, then surge to his feet and shout, “Rock and roll!” as the music crested.
October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. I’m not a big fan of disability awareness campaigns, generally, unless they lead us toward accepting people for who they are, for tearing down our own internal ableist narratives about normality or function. That’s my goal here, to take an anecdote about the surprising role played by streaming music technology that has allowed my son to reveal new depths of understanding. But those depths were always there, he just hadn’t shown them to me, or I just didn’t see.
Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mental Health and Policing: Deborah Danner

On Tuesday, the NYPD shot Deborah Danner, a black disabled woman. She was 66, naked, and armed with a baseball bat. Let's say her name. Let's read her essay about life with schizophrenia. Police cited self-defense, but both the Mayor and the Commissioner have criticized the officer.
Both the mayor and the commissioner said the officer had failed to follow the Police Department’s protocol for dealing with an emotionally disturbed person.
“What is clear in this one instance: We failed,” Mr. O’Neill said of the shooting. Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, called it “tragic and unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, a white man in a mental health crisis wielding a metal rake was shot and killed. Officers did retreat, it was 3:30 in the morning in the pouring rain, until their backs were against their car, then they fired. His name was Sean Smith Arlt.

Meanwhile, Portland police have been quietly documenting all encounters with people they deem mentally ill, but hasn't been telling anyone (including defense attorneys, which is probably illegal, as I understand it). I hope to get access to this data over the coming year, to the extent it's possible.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Duh!" - A love story (On Public Writing)

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published an essay arguing that Trump is the most ableist presidential candidate in modern U.S. History. Lots of people in the disability community shared it, for which I am grateful, but I also saw a lot of people reacting by saying, more or less, "Duh."

It's true, of course, that Trump's ableism is entirely visible to anyone looking for it. It's also true that many default spellcheckers don't recognize ableist or ableism as a word. I wrote:
Naming something an “-ism” won’t persuade the bigoted to surrender their bigotry and might even harden differences. But sometimes it’s important to identify ideas and acts that marginalize and discriminate, to group them together, and to name them as a system. Trump is empowering ableism. Let that be one of the many reasons he should never be president.
Trump is ableist. I named it. Maybe some people will be less likely to vote for him or will work harder for his opponent. But maybe some people will look up the word "Ableism" and think about where else that phenomenon shows up. But for people already attuned to ableism, the reaction is, "duh!"

It made me realize that this is part of the role of public writing - to take common wisdom from inside groups and project it to broader communities. Done well, it amplifies. Done poorly, it appropriates.

This is part of why I continue to argue that the best model for academics writing for large publics is not scholarship, but teaching. When we cover The Carolingian Empire in 50 minutes, we compress, we edit, we summarize, we take insider specialist knowledge and convey it to a population of at most loosely interested people.

I wonder how many great writers hesitate to produce work for bigger audiences because they worry about the "Duh!" reaction from their insider community.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Accommodation fails for Deaf Faculty from A to Z

From the blog Possibilities and Finger Snaps, stories of inclusion fail, mostly around interpreting.
a) Ask the deaf academic if she is willing to write a grant to cover the cost of her interpreters or CART captioning.
b) Return the deaf academic’s conference registration fees, telling her that she cannot come to your conference because her interpreters are too expensive.
c) Tell the deaf academic that she is welcome to attend and bring her own interpreters/CART captioning, and you won’t charge them registration fees (but she’ll have to pay for their services).
d) Tell the deaf academic that she is welcome to attend and bring her own interpreters/CART captioning, and you will only charge them half-cost registration fees (but she’ll have to pay for their services).
Two more:
o) Pay for the colloquium interpreting, but deny the request for the interpreters to interpret the group dinner afterwards. Disinvite the deaf academic from the dinner. Gaslight her by telling her that the dinner invitation was mistakenly made and only meant for members of the department. Look unembarrassed when you are all at a gathering the next day and the other non-department members attending the talk reference the dinner conversation, making it plain that this was not a department-only event, but a hearing people only event.
p) Restrict the deaf academic’s communication access to only the session of the conference that she is presenting, saying that this is all your budget will permit. Tell her she’s welcome to attend the whole conference, nonetheless.
As always, go read the whole post!

I wrote about disability and conferences here and on accommodations in academia generally here. From the latter, Stephanie Kerschbaum, a Deaf academic, told me something important about money and accommodation:
Stephanie Kerschbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Delaware, describes herself as “profoundly deaf.” She wrote me: “I wear behind-the-ear hearing aids and depend on speech reading to understand spoken discourse. While I can understand one-on-one speech fairly well, it is nearly impossible to speech-read individuals in a sea of faces, whether in a classroom or any professional context. For that reason, I work with sign language interpreters.” When she teaches, she speaks orally, but relies on her interpreter to convey student responses.
Of course, a professor’s duties extend beyond the classroom, so the university provides an interpreter — or an appropriate alternative, such as real-time captioning — at committee meetings, at panels and lectures on campus, and in other contexts. “One principle that has been important is that the accommodations be paid for from a central source,” she said. “That is, departments should not be individually responsible for faculty accommodation, because this provides an obvious disincentive for hiring.”
That last is the key thing when it comes to internal accommodations - costs have to be central, not department specific. And they need to cover all the things faculty do, including going to dinner after a talk.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Trump and Ableism - Resources

Donald Trump is the most ableist presidential candidate in modern U.S. history...

"Naming something an “-ism” won’t persuade the bigoted to surrender their bigotry and might even harden differences. But sometimes it’s important to identify ideas and acts that marginalize and discriminate, to group them together, and to name them as a system. Trump is empowering ableism. Let that be one of the many reasons he should never be president."
I talk about the insults, yes, but also the policy, the fat shaming, the "illness politics," and again the policy.

Some additional thoughts:

A systematic practice like Trump’s ableism pushes the politics of exclusion. Lisa Diedrich, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University, suggests that Trump is using illness politics to say that only healthy white men are fit to be president. Diedrich told me, “While it’s true that every four years the question of the health of the candidates becomes an issue in presidential politics, there is clearly something more going on this year.” Diedrich thinks that it might be too bigoted even for Donald Trump to say that non-white men are unfit, but that “Illness politics is perceived to be somehow more acceptable than more obviously racist and sexist arguments about fitness for the presidency.”

  • I did quote Gregg Beratan from Crip the Vote, but Andrew Pulrang, a co-founder, talked to me about being bullied, but also said:
My sense is that disability activists are a little less interested in Trump’s crude ableism than they are in his complete lack of any disability policy ideas at all. I know I worry that for all the progress we are making, we risk sending the message that the only important thing in disability politics is not hurting our feelings.

Me too, which is why I ended up quoting Beratan on policy issues. 

Ableism watch continues.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

1000 Blog Posts

In May 2013, I had a bunch of half-formed and un-sold essay drafts in a folder on my computer, and I decided to make a blog as a place to dump them, even if no one read it. I had only published 5 or 6 essays at that point and had no idea what I was doing as a public writer.

November 2016, this is my 1000th blog post. I've had some pieces find good readership, but mostly this is a space for me. The blog has always been about me warming up my writing brain through daily practice, about collecting information and testing arguments, and about having a home for ideas that aren't sellable due to being weird, off-cycle, or half-formed. It's worked great.

But also thanks for reading. The consistent 200-2000 people (that's the range, yes) who read each post, rarely comment here, but routinely chat with me on Twitter and Facebook, have become part of my process as a writer. I learn so much from you all and am genuinely grateful.

A few pieces I like:

On blogging:
My only advice for aspiring writers is this - if you blog, make sure the blogging itself sustains you even if no one is listening. Make sure that when you blog, you are writing things that you want to write, that you want to get better at writing, so that the iterative process of homing in on your core arguments makes you better at them. The blogging must satisfy you because surely, you will write brilliant essays that you love, and but 25 people will read it, or 10, or 5, or no one.
If the writing feeds you, sharpens you, gets you ready to say the things you want to say more effectively, then blog. If you find yourself writing only to get readers or make money of advertisements, well, I have no objection to commercializing your prose, I wish I were better at it, but you're doing something very different than I (I have a great day job; I have privilege) and I can't tell you whether blogging is a good idea. 
The two big post which actually made some news here and there.
  •  After someone at University of Houston tweeted a picture they took, I broke the story of the Faculty Senate advising faculty to not teach controversial subjects to avoid gun violence. I found the original slide show, posted them here, and tweeted it. Various journalists saw it, shared it, and then went back to the original source for their articles (correctly). But I know I broke that story, lifting it from a small niche of Twitter into the mainstream media.
  •  I woke up early one morning to find out about Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) making a racist joke at the National Book Awards. Irritated, but also interested in the way people use disclaimers to get away with demeaning humor (relevant to disability jokes), I called up C-Span and made a quick transcript. It was the first transcript, so people quickly shared it a lot.
Mostly, though, I just write my own ideas out, share them once or twice a day, and a few hundred or thousand people read them. It started mostly talking about history, then higher ed and parenting and history, then disability and higher ed and parenting and history, and now violence/abuse and ... etc. I've never had a robust comment section here, because Twitter and Facebook are my comment sections, and I love the dialogue. I'm so grateful to the people who read regularly. 

I can't promise that there will be another 1000 posts. I sort of hope that as I finish this book, I end up doing more formal writing for some site or sites (hey editors! I produce content pretty quickly that's pretty good! Give me a regular spot!), and less blogging.

But there's something wonderful about waking up, writing 100 or 1000 or 3000 words, and hitting publish.

I dunno about dancing like no one's watching, but I try to blog like no one's reading, just for myself. 

I do like it when you read, though. Thanks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Medievalism Watch - Trump and ISIS

Trump likes to compare ISIS to medieval times. Here's a transcript of the latest debate, and some video.
COOPER: You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?
TRUMP: No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was — this was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.
You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.
And they look and they see. Can you imagine the people that are, frankly, doing so well against us with ISIS? And they look at our country and they see what’s going on.
Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS."
So beyond Trump avoiding responsibility for his pro-sexual-assault comment by talking ISIS, his "this is like medieval times" comment is a pretty frequent remark for him. Here's another set of video.


Trump isn't alone. Obama has talked about ISIS as medieval, as has Fiorina. So have many journalists. Read John Terry on the ISIS issues.

But there's a broader pattern. As I've said many times, the use of "medieval" to impose chronological alterity between us and something we don't like, is a move intended to deny responsibility for that thing, to deny how neatly it fits in modernity.

And it always fits in modernity very neatly.