The Philadelphia Shuffle

[UPDATED: an mp3 of my remarks on the panel is now available at www.kittenboo.com.]

One of the interesting things about only having classes on Thursday and Friday this semester is that although the semester formally started on Monday, I have yet to actually appear in a classroom this Fall. That changes today.

However, it changes not at the scheduled time for my sci-fi class; it changes this evening at the scheduled time for my IR theory/philosophy class. Why, you ask? because today I am driving up to Philadelphia, meeting some colleagues, having lunch with an editor, presenting a paper on a panel about "methodological diversity," and then getting back into the car and driving back down here in time for my evening class. Call it "the Philadelphia Shuffle."

The occasion for this craziness is the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. This is the annual gathering of my professional tribe, ostensibly to present research and debate weighty issues, in reality to meet up with friends and colleagues and get the latest gossip on who got tenure, who didn't, what jobs are open at which institutions, and the like. Academic conferences are their own peculiar little worlds, and the first rule of conferencing is that the content of panels and roundtables is rarely the point; the point is to network, to see and be seen, to make a splash or an impact or to otherwise get oneself involved with the people who are having a particular set of conversations. Call it a socially embedded process of knowledge-production (not that there's such a thing as a process of knowledge-production that isn't socially embedded, but so designating it calls attention to what is most important about the event).

APSA is an enormous conference, full of relatively independent subgroups called "sections" that organize their own panels and basically do their own thing over the four days that the meeting takes place. I am going up to Philly because I was invited to participate on a panel on a subject close to my heart, "multiple methodologies" -- a notion that I think is largely nonsensical, and I intend to spend my 10-15 minutes of presentation time saying so. The panel is sponsored by the Qualitative Methods section of APSA, one of the few sections whose panels I generally like; much of APSA is dominated by various sub-sub-categories of the study of American Politics, and that's not what I do. APSA really isn't "my" conference, but I'm going this year because I was invited and because it's (barely) possible for me to make it there and back in one day, and thus not have to pay for a hotel.

This does mean that I miss the first meeting of the sci-fi class, but my assistant can handle that for me, and I'll be back for the other class tonight. Still, six hours of driving for four hours of conference is a somewhat tenuous exchange. I do not intend to make a habit of this.


Educational Purposes

A fair amount of my time over the past two days has been devoted to making sure that one of the activities in one of my courses this semester is in fact legal. The course in question is my Honors seminar "Envisioning the Future of World Politics," also known as the sci-fi course; the activity in question is the series of films that I show during the semester as a way of enhancing and extending the discussion. That this became such a complicated issue still baffles me, but in an uncertain legal environment, I can certainly see in retrospect why this might have happened.

The problem, as I understand it, is two-fold: copyright law changed with the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act a few years ago, and second, the Motion Picture Association of America, like its allies the Recording Industry Association of America, is a very litigious organization that is prone to go after just about any activity that it perceives as a violation of the rights of the owners of the work in question (which usually means the movie studio or the record label, not the artists) to receive a royalty from a performance of the work. Put these together and you have a situation in which no one is quite clear about what they are permitted to do and what they are not permitted to do -- and one does not want to be sued by the MPAA, which has very deep pockets and retains very good lawyers. So anything that might potentially be problematic has to be reviewed at multiple levels, which is how we ended up with the bizarre situation of my having to get legal opinions about a facet of my class. I don't fault the university; in an environment like this they were simply trying to make sure that they were on the right side of the law. But there is something absurd about the fact that it was even a question whether my use of films was legally permissible.

See, existing copyright law has an exception for educational purposes, known as the "face-to-face teaching" exception. What this says -- and this is not a legal opinion, but is in the actual text of the law itself -- is that if a faculty-member is using a piece of copyrighted material in the course of their "face-to-face teaching" activities, then they do not have to pay royalties in order to display/perform/show that work. I can show Star Trek VI in an international relations class and use that to spark a discussion about great power politics and the decline of empires, and I don't have to pay for doing so. (I have done this before.) And I can show important and interesting sci-fi films to my sci-fi course, and discuss them in class, and not have to pay for the showing of them.

It's good to know that I'm doing a legal thing. But it seems to me that the law itself is somewhat ambiguous, since "face-to-face teaching" is kind of vague. I mean, whenever I meet with a student I am engaged in "face-to-face teaching." Whenever I am around students, I like many other faculty-members are on the lookout for "teaching moments" where an important point can be made inductively, by drawing on the current activities or conversation. So logically, doesn't it follow that whenever faculty are around students, teaching is taking place, and so copyright law should permit the use of materials without cost? I wonder if there's a way to "perform" a book chapter or an article, and hence get around the necessity to pay publishers a fee for the use of that material. In a way this would fulfill the educational mission of the university much better, since no one could possibly mistake the publishing of academic writing for a commercial action!

In any event: I am gratified to know that I am legally permitted to continue to use films in my teaching. The sci-fi course wouldn't be the same without them.


Community (Re)Construction

Day Two of our DiscoverEncounterDC experience was a bit more neighborhood-focused. We spent some time in Anacostia, which unlike the RFK region is actually a place where people live and have lived for generations; where RFK was stark and empty, Anacostia was bustling and alive. But also very economic challenged and impoverished: buildings in disrepair, people sitting on street corners, more graffiti and broken windows than we're used to in our small wealthy corner of the city.

The centerpiece of our trip, as it is the centerpiece of life in the neighborhood, is the city's long-term development plan for the area. According to the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, which is where we began our day, there is a 20-30 year vision for the area that involves a massive amount of rebuilding -- and of necessity also involves a massive amount of demolition and resettling of residents. The immanent move of the Washington Nationals to a new ballpark along the Anacostia River (the ballpark is scheduled to open in March 2008, and if it doesn't, there are likely to be massive lawsuits for breach of contract) has accelerated part of the plan, with the city now striving to find or construct adequate parking along the streets near the site, and also finalizing agreements with various businesses whose presence will help to create and solidify a local commercial district. And developers are also building new apartments, condos, and townhouses, all of which promise to being wealthier residents to the area and thus create a new, more financially viable area.

In my quick glance over the city's plans, and in reflecting on them as we went through our day, it seemed to me that (leaving aside the issues of gentrification, the displacement of long-time residents, and the destruction of existing communities -- including the DC gay community, members of which might not have lived in the area designated for the stadium, but which frequented the bars and clubs that have now been forced to move because of the city's use of its eminent domain powers) the planners have done a good job with one particular aspect of their vision, and a not-so-good job with another. The not-so-good aspect involves schools, an important part of any decision by parents (such as myself!) to relocate a family; regardless of other amenities, without good schools for my kids I'm not going to move. DC public schools are a mess, and when we combine that with the high cost of living in the area (which further militates against families moving in, except for those families living in public housing) we get a situation in which the new apartments and condos are likely to be occupied by childless professionals -- people who aren't likely to push for improvement in the local schools either. So you get a vicious cycle: bad schools -> no children moving in -> no pressure for schools to improve -> even worse schools. [Of course, extremely wealthy people may move in with children, but then send their children to private school programs -- different causal pathway, same observed effect.]

What's the solution? I have heard of development contracts under which builders and businesses have to agree to fund the rebuilding and enhancement of local schools, so maybe that's an option.

The other issue, the one that the planners appear to have done well (whether deliberately or not deliberately I have no idea) involves time and transportation. The most important thing for developing and sustaining a community, in the end, is time: the time that its members spend interacting with one another and thus, through use, revitalizing the common resources that make up the community's public cultural life. Just as a language is sustained and renewed by people speaking it, so a community is sustained and renewed by people engaging in its rituals and practices. [Indeed, "community" isn't really a noun; it's a verb, an active doing rather than a passive and static object. Ditto "state," and "nation," but those are issues for another time.] And if people don't have time, then they can't participate in those rituals and practices -- and the community might simply vanish.

So how do you give the members of a community more time to be together as a community? The simplest way to do this, I think, is to locate the places where people work close to the places where they live. If everyone is spending inordinate amounts of time commuting from home to work and back again, this diminishes the time for community in two ways: first, it means that people are not physically present as much, and when they get home after work they are likely to be too tired to engage in the rituals sustaining the community; and second, by placing people in their work lives someplace other than the place where they live, people's attention is of necessity split up, and it becomes quite likely that they will either be an active member of neither community (presuming that there are practices of community at both ends of their commute), or possibly that they will choose one over the other and thus further diminish one community.

The Anacostia development folks have done a nice job here because the two metro stops serving the neighborhood around the stadium (one on either side of the river) are about 10-15 minutes away from downtown DC, and less during rush hour. From my experience, 10-15 minutes is about as far as one (well, me, at least) can travel without getting into "commuter mode" and thus detaching from a community. You're still close enough to home that you can remain connected to it while working, and it's not hard to get home so there is a grater possibility for community rituals when you do get home. I can see that region populated by (childless) professional couples in a few years, creating and sustaining a community of their own while working downtown for the Empire.

The moral of the story is that one needs to live close to where one works if one wants to have viable communities at both ends. Ideally, such living-in-proximity would produce one community, in which people lived and worked and then recreated and socialized and so forth. But stretch out that transportation length too much and you end up squeezing hapless commuters enough that there aren't viable communities at either end.

Unfortunately, housing in northwest DC around the university is so expensive that my family and I have to live outside of the city entirely. Yesterday morning I went in for a brief 45-minute orientation session with some new students; the session was good, but I had to travel for over an hour to and from it. Many other faculty-members are in the same boat. Is it any wonder that I often feel that the campus community lacks a certain something -- and that that something involves active faculty participation? If the university were to construct some housing units for faculty, and make them available at something other than the ridiculous market rates that prevail in that part of town (a practice that other urban universities follow), imagine the impact on the campus community. Which just goes to prove my point that time is the most important resource that a community has: time for it to persist in the practices and rituals of its members. With time there can be community; without it, we are likely left with a disconnected collection of individuals.


Encountering DC

In keeping with my new refrain -- teaching is about encounter, and in particular about three different kinds of encounters (student-material, student-faculty and student-student, and student-themselves) -- I'm going to rename the program that I participated in today. The real name of the program is "DiscoverDC," a name which almost makes it sound like we'd put the darn city down someplace and had to go find it again ("did you discover DC?" "yeah, it was about where we thought it would be."). But the idea of the program is that incoming first-year students should be introduced to some of the neighborhoods in the city, and should get outside of their accustomed comfort zones in order to start experiencing a new place. In other words, they should be encountering DC. So that's what we did.

Sort of.

See, my group of students is part of the University College program, and as such our schedule relates to the course that I am teaching in the College this semester. And since it's an introductory course in world politics, I decided to look at one specific avenue through which various dynamics of world politics -- especially the interaction between "local" and "global" factors -- maybe glimpsed. And the avenue that I chose was baseball, a decision which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my desire to spend time thinking about baseball for credit. It also had nothing whatsoever with my desire to have a behind-the-scenes tour of RFK stadium (which we had today) or to get a briefing from the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission about the construction of the new stadium (which we also did today) or to walk around the area where the new stadium is being constructed (which we will do tomorrow). Even if these things did somehow impinge on my decision, my feeling is that it's better to have a class oriented around things that the professor actually cares about then it is to have a class oriented around things that the professor feels that she or he has to cover.

Make no mistake -- these sessions in the city are, as far as I am concerned, class sessions. There's a faculty member (me) involved; there is a pedagogical purpose; our activities are linked to a course; and the point of the exercise is encounter. Sounds like a class session to me. Will it be on the test? Well, since I don't use tests, the point is kind of moot…

Anyway, the somewhat odd thing about our encounter with DC today is that we didn't really encounter DC per se. Because we went to RFK stadium, what we encountered was a 45-year-old edifice that is woefully inadequate for either of the two professional sports (baseball and what I think of as real football and other people think of as "soccer"), a number of people earnestly committed to trying to make baseball succeed in DC and also to use baseball to develop various regions of the city, and the great urban wasteland that surrounds the current stadium (we had to get back on the metro in order to find a place for lunch). Not much "DC" for us to encounter.

Still, I think the trip worthwhile. It sets up what we are doing tomorrow (visiting the new stadium site, and the neighborhood that is scheduled to be radically transformed by that construction and the associate redevelopment plan), it got us all thinking about the various social issues involved, and it provided an opportunity for everyone to et to know one another a bit while walking and eating lunch and riding the metro. These aren't ancillary or optional parts of the course; they are the course. So I think we're off to a good start constructing a learning community.

I'm sorry that more of my colleagues didn't have the chance to be involved in these activities; they are wonderful opportunities to get a class off the ground.


Faculty and staff

Understandably, I think, I have what might be termed a "faculty-centric" view of the university as an institution. After all, I am a professional academic, so when I think about the university I think first of the faculty who are engaged in teaching and research and other activities that contribute to the intellectual life and atmosphere of the place; then I think of the students whose participation differentiates a university from a think-tank. Faculty and students engaged in leaching and learning: that, to me, says "university." Or, from a slightly different angle, a university is where students and faculty encounter one another, and also encounter those others who are virtually present through their work and their writings over the ages -- work that gets assigned, forms the basis for discussion and reflection, and so on. My view of "the university" can even accommodate different kinds of student-faculty encounters, ranging from those which I am not all that keen on promoting (where faculty are encountered as expert purveyors of information, or as trainers seeking to pass on a variety of skills) to those that I think much more appropriate and fulfilling (where faculty are encountered as facilitators of interactive learning environments and spaces for self-discovery and self-crafting, or as virtuoso practitioners of their craft to whom students may apprentice themselves).

But I'll admit it: my view of the university is faculty-centric. The faculty are the university; the university then serves the students by educating them, and thus perhaps helps the society as a whole become a little more reflexive and reflective. To me, faculty and students are the indispensable parts of the university, the constitutive parts without which we would no longer be talking about a university at all. In the abstract, one could have a university with just faculty and students, and I don't know that you would be missing anything important.

Here's where things get weird, though. The payrolls of actual colleges and universities are full of a whole slew of people who are not faculty, and who don't educate students in the same way that faculty do -- they don't teach classes, facilitate discussions, probe identities, provide critical feedback on work, and the like. I've spent quite a bit of time with a lot of such people over the past few days (and will be spending a lot more, since I'm now part of the Residential Faculty), and have been trying to fit all of the wonderful things that they do into my view of the university. I think I have come up with something that works, but I'm not entirely sure, so I thought I'd toss it out there and see if anyone responds -- or if the process of setting it down formally in writing changes my sense of it. So here goes.

The first thing to keep in mind is the difference between an institution and an organization. I use the word "institution" in the sociological sense: a socially established practice or set of practices, widely shared within some given community, and often more or less intuitively comprehensible to members of that community (and correspondingly nonsensical or bizarre to members of other communities) because of their familiarity with it. Take "marriage," for example; as an institution, it's just the notion that people have committed to be together and form some kind of familial unit. There are obviously a number of sub-classes and sub-types (heterosexual marriage, same-sex marriage, open marriage, group marriage, traditional marriage, etc.), but the basic idea remains the same. Marriage affords a set of social capacities to married people that non-married people don't have, ranging from legal protections to tax breaks to the way that your great-aunt treats you when you and your partner go to visit her [don't believe me? Well, get married and see how people start to treat you differently!].

There is a lot that I could say about marriage as an institution, but for my purposes at the moment it's enough to differentiate marriage the institution (socially established, publicly available in the community) from the organization of a particular marriage. I'm married, but my marriage is not exactly like the marriage of anyone else I know; my wife and I have arranged things in a way that suits us, and we (in a sense) administer our marriage in an idiosyncratic, non-generalizable way. Indeed, every organization probably does this: it enacts and concretizes the institution (or institutions) of which it is an example or instantiation, and does so in a unique way -- but because it is still an enacting of a shared institution, it bears a family resemblance to other instances and examples. [There's an additional layer of complexity here, in that an organization can then incorporate lower-level institutions into itself and enact them in a locally distinctive way; think for a moment of the institution of "date night" that one finds to be a part of many actually-existing organized marriages. So organizations instantiate institutions, and sometimes do so by instantiating other institutions and organizing them in a kind of subordinate way, and so on, and so on…]

The point is that institutions have to be concretely instantiated, and that concrete instantiation is an organization. It's all fine and good for me to have a faculty-centric view of the university as an institution, but what happens when one actually tries to organize a concrete instantiation: a university, as opposed to "the university"? Well, if there really were only students and faculty, I don't think that things would last very long. Someone has to give the students a place to live, to maintain the classrooms and other instructional spaces where some teaching and some learning takes place, handle the logistics of registration and billing and paying salaries and the rest of it.

Enter the other piece of a university as an organization: the staff. Technically, "the administrative staff" -- "the administration" and "the staff" are continuous, united by their common role in keeping a university running: the staff organizes a university. They concretely instantiate it. They make possible the various kinds of encounters between students and faculty that are the university's reason for being; they are the enablers and the facilitators that allow a concrete, actually-existing university to flower and flourish.

So the staff are the infrastructure of a university. From the president all the way to the food service people and janitors, from the resident assistants on each floor of each residence hall all the way to the various vice-presidents for various things, all are part of the vast mechanism that keeps the university going. They play no distinctive role in the institution qua institution (one could imagine a university without any staff), but a vital role in the organization of that institution to produce particular concrete universities. And if they do their job well, then the whole operation runs more smoothly, and those student-faculty encounters can actually take place.

Of course, this simple picture gets complicated by two things: the proclivity of an administrative staff to develop its own separate agenda(s), and the fact that the residential side of the staff at many universities -- including mine -- is actually much more involved in programing and co-curricular education than the ideal-typical staff would be. The former complication speaks to the need for popular oversight of the administrative staff; the latter is a much more complex issue that I, as part of the Residential Faculty, am planning to explore as the year unfolds.

After all, if the university is the faculty, and if the university's service to the students who attend it involves letting them discover and craft themselves through a variety of encounters, then logically, shouldn't the faculty have a guiding hand in producing those encounters? And if the staff, in practice, is responsible for setting the stage that makes those encounters possible, then shouldn't the faculty and the staff be working more closely together to do just that?